Thursday, June 13, 2013
It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's... Superman Returns (2006)
Countdown to Man of Steel, Part 6, in which we cling desperately to a past that no longer exists…
THE SUPER-FILM: So, kind of a lot happened between the release of this film and Superman IV. The super-hero movie saw a surge in popularity thanks to Tim Burton’s Batman, fell off sharply about a decade later with Batman & Robin, only to rise again in the new millenium with the release of the uber-successful Spider-Man. Superheroes were in vogue once more, with character after character getting the summer blockbuster treatment. With franchise after franchise raking in the dough, it was only a matter of time before Warner Brothers realized, “Hey… Don’t we own a comic book company?” and set about to reintroduce those most popular of superheroes, Batman and Superman.
After many false starts (including an abortive attempt at a Superman/Batman film), Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was released to great acclaim - once again positioning one of the big two heroes firmly in the mind’s eye of the public. The following year saw the release of Superman Returns - a clear attempt to set up the Man of Steel much like Batman into prime superhero franchise material. But while Begins was a top-to-bottom reboot of the character, Warners made the rather risky decision to have Returns be a continuation of the Richard Donner film - essentially doing away with the other sequels and picking up where Donner left off nearly thirty years previous. It was a bold direction, but one that ultimately became the film’s own Kryptonite - hanging on desperately to an era that superhero films had long outgrown.
It all started out well enough: Warners made the inspired choice of Bryan Singer for the director’s chair, a decision the studio and comic fans alike could get excited over. With the firsrt X-Men movie, Singer unwittingly became one of the forefathers of the modern superhero movie - it hasn’t aged terribly well, but X-Men was essential in the way it (and by extension, most other millennial superhero films) approached the material, with a keen eye for keeping the world grounded and at least as much attention to the characters and story as to the elaborate special effects. The sequel X2 only continued and improved upon this general model, so the idea of Singer tackling the original superhero was something to look forward to. And while sections of the film work to often stunning and majestic effect, others sag with far too much bloat. The measured tone Singer aims for either results in spellbinding awe or crushing boredom, finishing up in a prolonged, unexciting climax that deflates the air right out of the movie.
Singer assembles an able cast, starting with his choice for Superman himself, Brandon Routh. It’s kind of hard not to feel bad for Routh, who only got one outing in the cape and tights, but the actor gives a fairly spectacular performance. A perfunctory glance at Routh in the role may seem like a Christopher Reeve imitation, but look closer and you’ll see an original creation of Routh’s own; a Superman who constantly feels the weight of the world on his shoulders, and how to balance that with his own personal life. The main thrust of the plot concerns Superman returning after a five-year absence in space, to find the rest of the world having moved on without him… Including Lois Lane, who now has a son and a serious boyfriend. The Clark/Lois relationship is central to every Superman story, so finding the right Lois is equally as important as finding the right Superman, and with Kate Bosworth, the filmmakers’ stumble ever so slightly. It’s not that she’s giving a bad performance, but Bosworth is far too young for the role. There’s a certain maturity that must come from being a working woman and a mother of a five-year-old son, and - try as she might - Bosworth just doesn’t sell it.
The biggest problem of the Reeve films was always coming up with a credible threat for Superman to face, and that’s a tradition that sadly continues with this installment. But unlike Gene Hackman’s hammy portrayal, Kevin Spacey gives the character of Lex Luthor an air of menace and sociopathy that Hackman seemed uninterested in. Unfortunately, Spacey’s Luthor has inherited his predecessor’s obsession with real estate: his scheme this outing involves taking those magic crystals that built the Fortress of Solitude, encasing them in Kryptonite and dropping them in the Atlantic to create a whole new continent, which will cause most of North America to disappear and create a new, prime piece of land for everyone to bid on (although I don’t see the dead, diseased-looking landmass creating much of an interest for home-owners). It’s thoroughly unexciting, but Spacey is good in just about everything he does, and sells Luthor’s hatred of Superman with aplomb. Plus, he’s actually bald for most of the movie.
The ultimate failure of the film is frustrating, considering how much of it actually works. Singer creates a series of set-pieces that are phenomenal in their construction; scenes where the tension and the peril is amped and primed for Superman to swoop in and save the day, like the incredible sequence of Superman saving the test shuttle, or when he zips around Metropolis to control the chaos unleashed by Luthor’s landmass. But the standout scene for me is where Lois and her family are trapped in the yacht - it’s such a desperate scene, where all hope seems lost. And then Superman arrives just when the moment is at its bleakest, turning the scene from unrelentingly grim to a glorious moment of triumph as he lifts the sinking yacht from the ocean. It’s a wonderful scene, and shows precisely what Superman’s all about.
But as great as some of the pieces are, it ultimately winds up being a few key decisions at the end which derail the whole affair. The first is the actual climax of the film, which involves Superman lifting the entire landmass into orbit - a mighty feat, no doubt, but not nearly as exciting an ending as a film like this should have. It feels like the kind of scene that might have been done for an older era of superhero films - one which advances in special effects have made irrelevant. Couple that with the prolonged sequences of Superman in the hospital, and the film is dragged screechingly to a halt. But the worst offender is Lois Lane’s son, who we find out rather awkwardly is Superman’s son…
I can respect the brashness of such a decision, but it’s one of those no-win situations. By making Superman an abandoned father (even unknowingly), you paint the character into a corner from which there is no escape. Superman is supposed to represent the absolute best in humanity, and while it is necessary to put him in quandaries where his morality is tested, having him in this particular situation really doesn’t work - and winds up being a big enough fault to derail the rest of the movie as a result.
SUPER-THOUGHTS: This film has one of the longest development periods in history, even though what eventually became known as Superman Returns had a rather normal production schedule. For over a decade, names as varied as Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, Nicolas Cage, JJ Abrams, McG, and Bret Ratner were involved, just to name a few.
Superman has always been something of a Christ symbol, but this movie goes a little overboard. Superman is savagely beaten by Luthor on the Kryptonite landmass, receives a wound in his side, sacrifices himself for the sake of humanity, and then the stone is rolled away on the tomb/hospital room to reveal he’s no longer there, having been resurrected. It’s all beautifully conceived and shot on Singer’s part, but no less heavy-handed.
Noel Neill and Jack Larson, the Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen of the old TV show, make welcome appearances here, as Luthor’s dying wife and a bartender.
They may have done away with most of the silliness, but Luthor still has an entourage of quirky henchmen. There’s Parker Posey as the ditzy Kitty Kowalski, an English footballer, a strange piano-playing dude with a bulldog tattoo on his bald head, the one guy who is constantly taping everything with a camcorder, and Kal Penn, who doesn’t do a whole lot of anything.
There was a deleted scene where Superman travels to the remains of Krypton that reportedly cost $15 million to make. Only released a few years ago, the scene highlights most of what's wrong with the movie - namely, it's slow and tedious. It was clearly intended to evoke 2001: A Space Odyssey, as are several other little moments throughout the film, but - as much as I love Kubrick's masterpiece - that probably shouldn't be a reference point for your Superman movie.
A scene where Superman lifts a car comes close to nailing it as an homage to Action Comics #1, but doesn’t quite stick the landing. Much like the rest of the film.
Bad as I feel for Routh, I feel even worse for the various Jimmy Olsens throughout the years, here played by Sam Huntington. Sadly, none of the films have really figured out quite what to do with Superman's Pal.
There was a lot of ballyhoo about Marlon Brando being brought back to life to play Jor-El through unused footage from the original film and digital wizardry, but he winds up not being much of a factor in the finished product.
BEST USE OF POWERS: The moment where Superman enters Earth’s orbit, and uses his super-hearing to detect emergency signals and alarms, is quite awe-inspiring - like an Alex Ross painting brought to life.
THE LAST WORD: Not quite deserving of the negative reputation it gets, Superman Returns still falls quite short of the mark - devoting so much time and energy to being a love letter to the Donner film that it never develops an identity of its own.