Saturday, July 13, 2013

Superman Returns

Directed by Bryan Singer.
2006. Rated PG-13, 154 minutes.
Kate Bosworth
Sam Huntington
Eva Marie Saint
Tristan Lake Leabu
Kal Penn

After all these years, scientists here on Earth aren't so sure that the planet Krypton actually exploded. In fact, they think they've found it. Of course, this is all Superman (Routh) needs to hear for him to immediately hop on a ship and try to go there. After being gone for five years, he returns to find we mere mortals appear to be getting along just fine without him. Even Lois Lane (Bosworth) seems to have moved on. She’s now engaged to rich guy Richard (Marsden), has a child and won a Pulitzer Prize for penning the article “Why the World Doesn't Need Superman.” Ouch. Don’t fret, the world does indeed need the Man of Steel. Someone has to deal with Lex Luthor’s latest real estate scam now that he’s made parole, largely due to the guy in the cape not making to any court dates or hearings on account of him being in deep space searching for a planet that isn't there.

Before moving on, there are a couple of important things to note about Superman Returns starting with its relation to the rest of the series. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was something much worse than dreadful and, thus, the franchise killer. Superman III is also widely loathed. Therefore, Returns posits itself as a direct sequel to Superman II, completely ignoring those other movies.

Returns made plenty of money, but in the time since its release, how it is regarded as a film is becoming increasingly negative.  Revisiting it for the first time in a few years myself, I maintain it does some things very well. First and foremost, for me, is Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Lex Luthor. In my opinion, his is the best live-action version of the character. The way Spacey plays Lex is the way I envision him when I recall my youthful and sporadic reading of the comics. Second is the special fx. Most of the time, it looks right. Granted, this is largely a by-product of it being made almost twenty years after the previous installment, but the technological advancements are put to good use. This is most noticeable during our hero’s rescue of a falling plane. It’s a spectacularly rendered sequence that puts the plane rescue in the 1978 movie to shame.

Yes, there are problems. The biggest seems to be that it is overly reverent of that ’78 flick. This movie is nothing, if not a two and a half hour love letter to Superman: The Movie. Many of the scenes in Returns are simply things ripped from the original and re-purposed to fit this narrative. Superman crash lands on Earth, in Smallville, that plane rescue, the romantic flight with Lois, etc. Even Lex’s scheme is basically the same. The difference being he’s using kryptonite instead of nuclear warheads.

Ah, kryptonite. Since it’s become woven into the fabric of our great country that anyone’s weakness is referred to as their kryptonite, I’ll not explain it, even for those of you who have somehow never watched anything Superman. Oh wait, I actually did explain it. Moving on. The point is, the way it’s handled here doesn't make any sense. Throughout the character’s history, whenever the substance is anywhere near our hero he becomes pretty helpless. Here, how it affects him is rather inconsistent. In short, the way he saves the day seems to be impossible. Even for Superman.

Finally, there’s the movie’s heavy-handedness. It’s long been know that the story of Superman parallels that of Jesus Christ. For viewers who weren't aware of this, Returns hammers the point home repeatedly. The movie is saturated with biblical and other mythological references. Often, this is in the form of dialogue with lots of talk about saviors, Jor-El sending us his only begotten son, and a direct reference to him as a god. Other times, it’s our hero listening to everyone’s thoughts and prayers. This, along with how this movie views its predecessors makes this film’s adoration of its protagonist transparent. It’s so much so, it practically begs us to worship at the altar of Superman. By itself, that’s a tough pill to swallow. It’s even tougher when all of this is juxtaposed with the baby-daddy/jilted lover subplot. Yeah, our savior is a bit creepy, this time around. He pines over Lois so much, he hangs outside her window spying on her and her family. It’s rather off-putting. That he still carries the torch for her is not the issue. It’s that he’s so whiny about it, and a little weird, too.

That said, I don’t have the problem with the actor that plays the role many seem to. I thought Brandon Routh was perfectly fine. He’s got a spooky resemblance to Christopher Reeve and his Clark Kent is spot-on with the way Supes’ alter-ego has been cinematically represented. I think the way Superman is written fails Routh horribly, though. The same is essentially true for Lois Lane. Bosworth’s performance in the role isn't necessarily bad. It actually isn't bad at all. Unfortunately, she’s hard to reconcile with what type of woman we think Lois is. I understand that as a mother and soon-to-be wife her motivations and ambitions may change, but drastically altering such an iconic figure is risky. In this case, the risk doesn't pay off.

What does all this mean? It means Superman Returns is an uneven watch. It’s not particularly good, nor particularly bad. Moments of greatness are too frequently followed by something that makes you roll your eyes. It romanticizes the main character to the nth degree, but the changes that are made grate against our own notions of who Superman is. All of this makes it occasionally frustrating and easy to bash. I feel some of the bashing is warranted, some is not.

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