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Superman Returns (2006) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 28 June 2006
Superman returns all right, once again the defender of the Earth and the subject of an outstanding Hollywood movie. Bryan Singer made a name for himself with “The Usual Suspects,” again triumphed with the first two “X-Men” movies. He was scheduled for the third when Warner Bros. offered him the long-in-gestation Superman project. Coincidentally, Brett Ratner moved from Superman to “X-Men 3” while Singer went the other direction—and again has re-energized the superhero movie.

Though Singer was never a major comic book fan in childhood, he was immensely fond of the first Christopher Reeve “Superman,” directed by Richard Donner. This new film, written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (who co-wrote “X2”) from a screen story they wrote with Singer, is both a tribute and something like a sequel to the first two Reeve Superman movies. (And it’s appropriately dedicated to Reeve and his late widow.) Brandon Routh (rhymes with “south”), the newcomer who plays Clark Kent/Superman, even resembles Reeve, and is as good in the role as Reeve was.

Singer doesn’t waste time with the familiar origin story of Superman; that tale has been retold again and again, in comic books, on the radio, in movie serials, in several TV series and in the Donner “Superman.” Singer wisely assumes the world is familiar enough with it all, and gets directly into the film.

It opens in a world without Superman; he’s been gone for five years on a mysterious mission. He returns to Earth in a spaceship (?), crash-landing on the Kent farm in Kansas and into the arms of Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint), his foster mother. When astronomers told him there was a possibility that Krypton, his home world, had not exploded millennia ago (it took a LONG time for baby Kal-El’s ship to make the voyage from Krypton to Earth), he headed for that distant point in space—maybe his homeworld still existed.

But, the recuperating hero tells Martha, Krypton was indeed destroyed; it was nothing more than a broken graveyard. Now he’s returned to Earth, and after his reunion with his mother (more about this was filmed, and may turn up on the eventual DVD), returns to Metropolis and his secret identity of Daily Planet reporter, the nebbishy Clark Kent.

Meanwhile, Superman’s arch-enemy Lex Luthor (a well-cast Kevin Spacey) attends the death bed of the immensely rich woman (Noel Neill, the original movie Lois Lane) who got him sprung from the prison where Superman had placed him. We eventually learn one reason he was released is that Superman was not around to testify at the bald Luthor’s parole hearing. Once again, Luthor is determined to own vast stretches of beachfront property—even if it requires the deaths of billions. (He seems rather pleased at that prospect.) His first step is to track down Superman’s Arctic Fortress of Solitude, a vast crystalline structure where Clark first learned of his real origin.
In Metropolis, Clark has no trouble getting his old job back—grumpy Perry White (Frank Langella) assumes Clark will land running. Clark re-encounters his youthful friend Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington), and learns that not only did Lois Lane win a Pulitzer for an essay, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” but she now has a five-year-old son—and a fiancé, Perry’s decent, attractive nephew Richard (James Marsden, X-Men’s Cyclops).

Almost immediately, Lois is sent to cover the launching of a new space shuttle from the back of a huge cargo jet. Elsewhere, Luthor is experimenting with a tiny chip from a crystal he retrieved from the Fortress of Solitude. He drops it into a pond, part of his vast model train layout in the cellar of a mansion he inherited from that nice old lady. As the crystal reacts, it sends out an electro-magnetic pulse—which causes temporary power outages all over the Eastern seaboard, including on that plane with the shuttle.

Things go very wrong. This looks like a job for Superman, of course, and he flies to the rescue in a stunning, exciting action sequence with a wonderful climax as the world welcomes him back. Unusually, composer John Ottman, a frequent Singer collaborated, both wrote the score—incorporating the best parts of John Williams’ score for the 1978 “Superman”—and co-edited the movie, scoring brilliantly in both areas. When “Superman Returns” plays in IMAX theaters, many will be showing this sequence, and perhaps others, in 3-D.

The Luthor plot is far from original, though details are interesting. “Whover controls technology,” he says, “controls the world.” As did Gene Hackman’s Luthor in the old movie, Spacey’s Luthor has already divided a map of his to-be-born island into states. This Luthor’s egomania takes an amusing turn: a henchman constantly videotapes all of Luthor’s showy activities. As in the Donner movie, Luthor has a dame for a moll, Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey), who isn’t so sure that Luthor’s activities are worthwhile—and after a rescue by Superman, she’s pretty sure the Man of Steel is a lot nicer than Luthor. She’s convinced when events lead to the loss of Superman’s powers—and Luthor brutally kicks his opponent while he’s down. Spacey’s Luthor is nastier than was Hackman’s, and of course that’s saying something.

But the movie isn’t really about the problems Superman has with Luthor’s schemes—among other events, they result in an earthquake that threatens to topple Metropolis—but about Superman himself, and how he learns what place he has in the world. To Luthor, he may be akin to a god, but Luthor has damned little use for gods. When he’s told that Earth doesn’t really need a savior, a troubled but dedicated Superman says, “I hear everything…. I hear people every day crying out for [a savior].”

But he’s human, too. He secretly hovers near Lois’ bayside condo and uses his X-ray vision to watch what she’s doing. It’s almost crass, but Routh’s performance keeps the scene basically sweet in nature.

That wonderful poster you see all over town is right out of the movie. Superman hovers high above the world at the edge of space—and he listens. He listens to the cries for help that he can deal with. There’s a quick montage, after the airplane rescue, of Superman whizzing all around the world, saving people in many countries. No, Superman isn’t a god, but he’s the closest thing the world (in these stories) comes to having one on duty.

The biggest task facing Singer, or anyone taking on a big-scale Superman movie, was how to make a character whose primary goal is assistance to the world into more than a Boy Scout in blue tights and red cape. By focusing on Superman’s longing for a way to connect more directly to Earth than by being an eternal visitor, and by his deep-seated need to be of use to the world (rather than on a romance with Lois Lane), and integrating this with his connection with his late father, Singer has brought Superman into three-dimensional relief even without the help of IMAX. The movie daringly ends not with a gigantic, splashy, effects-laden climax, but with a few words softly spoken in a boy’s bedroom—and by Superman’s promise to Lois (and the world) that he’ll always be at hand. He flies upward into a sky bright with the promise of dawn, again the protector of Earth.

The movie is, of course, laden with special effects and action sequences. There’s that awesome plane rescue—which, again daringly, comes in a half hour after the movie begins—plus Superman’s actions leading up to the rescue of Kitty. Some of this is in one of the trailer: Superman walking calmly but inexorably toward a bad guy who’s blasting him with a high-velocity Gatling gun. (There’s even a slo-mo closeup of one of the bullets bouncing off Superman’s eye. This guy is super all over.) Oddly, the immensely-scaled sequence of Luthor Land being formed out in the Atlantic doesn’t involve Superman.

For long-time Superman fans, there are a few small treats scattered throughout the movie. Not only does Noel Neill appear (briefly), but so does Jack Larson, the Jimmy Olsen from the George Reeves TV series. (And he has a scene with this movie’s Jimmy, both of them in bow ties.) If you look carefully at the piano in Ma Kent’s living room, you’ll glimpse a photo of Glenn Ford, the Pa Kent of the Richard Donner movie. There’s a great, short scene of Clark remembering himself as a boy leaping through the Kent farm cornfields, climaxing with his amazed discovery that he can actually fly. The phrase, “it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman” is cleverly worked into the dialogue, and Perry White does exclaim “Great Caesar’s ghost!” (However, he never tells Olsen “don’t call me chief.”) In the televised reports of Superman’s return, there’s a reference to “Gotham.” (Peculiarly, not Gotham City.)

During Superman’s rescue of Kitty, he strikes the same pose as on the cover of the first issue of Action comics—Superman’s debut. Science fiction readers may blink when Luthor quotes Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum about how any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but it fits Luthor’s character. (As does his quietly stepping back a few feet after that crystal chip begins having an effect in the model train layout.)

Aboard Luthor’s gigantic yacht—sneeringly named for the rich woman—there’s a grand piano. We’ve already seen Lois’ son Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu) noodle away at “Heart and Soul” on an electronic piano at the apartment she shares with Richard White. And the boy does it again aboard the ship, but the sequence is topped in such a surprising way that I shouldn’t reveal it here. (It has nothing to do with the story; it’s just a stunning little lagniappe.)

The production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas is imaginative, even shrewd. It does take place today—the Daily Planet offices are full of computers with large, flat-screen monitors, and cell phones are in use—but there are elements suggesting the past, too. The design of the Daily Planet building is especially handsome in a retro fashion: the elevator doors look like those in the Empire State Building, the words “Daily Planet” stretch down the height of the building, and that wonderful globe is back at the building’s pinnacle.

Ottman’s score (including a nod to “2001”) is one of the glories of a movie full of glorious stuff, as is the use of sound. This is one that will really fill out a good home theater system. As Clark’s spaceship, as yet unseen, approaches the Kent farm, there’s a nearly inaudible yet still powerful base rumble, growing in volume, that should shake well-equipped theaters, commercial and at home. Similar effects are heard elsewhere, as in the Kansas wheat field scenes and the growth of Luthor’s crystal-born island. The whispers from the Earth below that Superman monitors are an especially imaginative, evocative touch.

The movie is not without its flaws. There’s never any explanation of why Superman would need a spaceship to travel to Krypton—though it’s easy to understand why he’d need one there; all that Kryptonite, you know. (And yes, Kryptonite is an important element, ha ha, in “Superman Returns.”) Near the end, as that island grows out there in Atlantic, Superman follows something traveling under the sea at great speed, targeting Metropolis. But just what IS he following? If that giant island is mostly Kryptonite, how can Superman even get near it, much less do what he does at the end? But these aren’t weaknesses, just little unexplained puzzles.

The cast is fine. After many another well-known actor, including the wildly inappropriate Nicolas Cage, was considered for the role of Superman, Singer and his team wisely chose to go with an unknown. The story goes that when Richard Donner was casting his Superman movie, someone approached Robert Redford for the role. Redford allegedly said he’d like to do it, but he was the wrong choice. The minute he flew out a window, the audience would think, “There goes Robert Redford, flying out a window.” A known actor would get in the way, would run the risk of the movie seeming absurd. So Donner chose the nearly unknown Christopher Reeve, and Singer the even less-known Brandon Routh. As did Reeve, he makes an impressively believable Superman, and also an acceptable Clark Kent (that role is probably harder to play than Superman).

Kevin Spacey isn’t the Luthor from the comic books (or the serial, or any of the TV series), but basically the Luthor from the 1978 movie, where he was played by Gene Hackman. (Who turned up in two of the three sequels, too.) This Luthor is sarcastic, a little bitter and deeply in love with himself. But Spacey’s Luthor isn’t as hair-conscious as Hackman’s, who was bald only in a brief shot. (However, here young Jason stumbles across an impressive array of Luthor wigs.) Spacey’s Luthor has a much nastier edge than did Hackman’s—and yet at the end, he almost goes back to try to help a couple of fallen henchmen. Hackman’s Luthor wouldn’t even have glanced back. There’s a bit more to Spacey’s Luthor, and he’s fine in the role.

Kate Bosworth isn’t as much fun as Lois Lane as was Margot Kidder in the Christopher Reeve films. There’s something unnecessarily reined-in about Bosworth’s Lois, but she’s very game and overall acceptable, if not actually impressive. Bryan Singer helped create the “House” TV series and initially Hugh Laurie, House himself, was penciled in as Perry White. But, ironically, Singer and team had created “House” too well, and production demands kept Laurie in the U.S. (instead of Australia, where for budgetary reasons, “Superman Returns” was filmed). But Frank Langella is a fine replacement, even though this Perry White never seems as cranky as have those of the past.

Instead of a big, effects-filled sequence, the movie has a quiet, understated climax, of Superman, evidently now without powers, maybe even dead, falling, falling, falling the long distance down to Earth. It’s unusually dismaying to see this particular character in such circumstances, and gives the film an unusual poignancy.

But by that time, anyone who’s ever loved Superman will probably have choked up a couple of times already. In a time in which virtually all movies are soured by cynicism, by the need to make almost every damned scene ironic in some manner, Bryan Singer and his team have given us a movie totally devoid of cynicism, of any traces of irony (other than regarding Luthor). It’s an honest, courageous reinvention of one of the most famous of all fictional characters.

I’ve been a fan of Superman as long as I can remember, and that’s a long time. When I sold my comic book collection some years ago, I couldn’t bear to part with any of the Superman titles. They’re still here, wedged into a closet. I was hoping “Superman Returns” would live up to my expectations. It has. It deserves to make a fortune.

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