Superman Returns

2006, Warner Bros Pictures

Director, Bryan Singer

Cast: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Eva Marie Saint, Marlon Brando

As the world prepares for what is expected to be the release of the next feature to star my favorite superhero, Superman in 2013, Superman Man of Steele, I thought I’d take a look back at Bryan Singer’s 2006 film, Superman Returns. I re-watched it and feel no differently today than I did when I wrote the following commentary in 2006.

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Faster than a speeding bullet!
More powerful than a locomotive!
Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!

“Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!
It’s Superman!”
“Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another
planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities
far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can
change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in
his bare hands; and who, disguised as Clark Kent,
mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan
newspaper, fights a never ending battle for truth,
justice, and the American way.”

That’s good stuff – the opening of the classic TV Series, which featured our greatest superhero, Adventures of Superman. Sadly, Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s 2006 release never gets anywhere near that good.

There is a lot that goes wrong with Superman Returns so pinpointing the details becomes a difficult task. The first thing that comes to mind is that the writers and director, Bryan Singer, whose X-Men films I enjoyed, try for too much sentimentality. In this installment of the classic superhero story Superman has a son, he feels the weight of his long gone father but never quite stands up to the task of carrying the force between the generations. It occurs to me that had there not been a couple of really good predecessors to the Superman saga to compare this film to one might actually enjoy Superman Returns. But, those films do exist and we cannot help but compare and it is to the detriment of this newest Superman installment that we do so.

It is indeed unfortunate for all involved in this film that they make it a point to try to remind us of what came before. First, there’s the physical similarities between Brandon Routh, who plays Superman in this new installment, and Christopher Reeve, the beloved star of the 1978 Superman and its sequels. Not all the sequels were worthy of note. However, the first two films in the series were pretty damn good and Reeve was a great Superman. I am lucky to have the series on bluray and can’t wait to have the time to enjoy all of them in one sitting.

The bottom line of the comparison between Routh and Reeve is that none can be made. The only thing Routh has to his advantage is that he’s better looking than Reeve. Actually, he’s better looking than most other humans. In fact, he’s outright beautiful – and that fact is exploited here to the nth degree because Superman spends much more time looking like a supermodel than a superhero. I lost count of the numerous shots of Routh stopping in mid-flight to pose for the camera when he should (obviously) have been taking his role on Earth more seriously. After all, I can think of no other job that carries as heavy a burden, saving the world. Christ! Imagine if a country had a president who stopped and looked in the mirror every chance he got or who had no substance…oh…ummm…anyway! The point here is that Superman’s position in the world demands urgency. It is a very stressful job and should be taken seriously by filmmakers and filmgoers across the land. Unfortunately, these things are never given the proper respect and Superman Returns seems more a ploy to make a huge star of Brandon Routh than it is to find a new way to tell a Super story – it fails on both counts.

As if Routh’s beauty and the emphasis placed on it aren’t distracting enough, there’s also the annoying way the action sequences are shot. None of these are clear or get your blood going, not once did I sit at the edge of my seat. They are all confusing caused by unsteady camera movements and what look like unfocused shots coupled with that ever-annoying abrupt editing style I abhor. What good is an action/adventure story when the action and the adventure are not enjoyable?

As unsettling as all these things are, however, they are minor infractions – mere annoyances. For Superman fans the world over the biggest disappointment of Superman Returns is the writing – of the story and the characters. As audience members we often go to see remakes of TV shows or old films to reunite with people we’ve come to know. That familiarity, so important in films such as this whose story and characters have become a part of American pop culture, is not present in this film. Perry White, played here by Frank Langella, is nothing like the Perry White of old. Gone is that Curmudgeon quality that made fans love him and he possesses none of that stressed bitterness and edginess that his inferiors at The Daily Planet always complained about. Jimmy Olsen has no pep or mischievous quality to him, no wide-eyed awe we so expect to see. Lois Lane? To be blunt she’s downright dull and, unforgivably, there is absolutely no sexual tension between Lane and Superman (something so important to the success of the original Superman films. Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder had great chemistry). Then there’s Lex Luther. As the familiar villain Luther lacks luster and levity. Played by Kevin Spacey, Luther is boring, there is no other way to describe him. In short, so much of what made the Superman story enjoyable, in all its incarnations, is missing here.

As a fan I can believe there is a man somewhere that can do all the unbelievable things the “real” Superman can do – but a bad story is too much to overcome even for the man of steel. For instance, all too easily do I believe Superman can stop an airplane in mid-flight to save all those on it and then ever so gently set it down in the middle of a baseball field. I believe he can deflect bullets with every part of his body, and I believe that no one in the known universe can tell that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person even if the only difference between them is a pair of glasses. But, who can buy this – Superman returns after having been away on Krypton for the last five years trying to find himself. He returns to Earth to find Lois Lane has a five-year-old son (hmmmm?) and a significant other and Lex Luther is out of jail and planning a new menace (he plans on using crystals from Krypton to create a new continent (prime real estate) that Superman will not be able to go to because of the kryptonite base. Need I emphasize that this is completely unbelievable, even in a fantasy? Suffice it to say that none of it is worth leaving the house for.

I’d be remiss not to mention the few notables in Superman Returns. Parker Posey, who plays Kitty, Lex Luther’s dumb girlfriend who delivers the only real moments of comic relief in the film, is great but her screen time too limited. Marlon Brando, used in clips and voiceovers from the previous films, is always a welcomed sight and sound. Some of the sets, real or conceived via a computer, are beautiful – Luther’s ship and Krypton stood out for me. There is a shot of Lois Lane rising in an elevator that we get to see through Superman’s x-ray vision that’s really nice, and there’s a great shot of a bullet deflecting off his eye that’s great, done in slow-motion. Unfortunately, these things prove few and far between and manage not to save a movie that seems about a week long. Just like Superman never learns to avoid Kryptonite, we never learn to leave well enough alone. Superman did return here but he should have just sent a postcard.

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I feel very strongly that Hollywood should venture forth with some original material. As soon as possible. What a concept! Just last week a new installment of Spiderman was released after what seems like minutes after Tobey Maguire played the the troubled Peter Parker. It’s maddening. This installment of Superman was unnecessary as will be the 2013 release. But since I have no say in the matter and expect it will be hugely successful, I hope it gives this wonderful character a story the universe can be proud of.

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