Friday, May 14, 2010

"Superman Returns" (2006)

"Superman Returns" (2006)
Starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey
Written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris
Directed by Bryan Singer

(Thankfully) ignoring the events of "Superman III" and "Superman IV: The Quest For Peace," "Superman Returns" presents a hybrid sequel/update/reboot of the Christopher Reeve / Richard Donner films from the late 70s and 1980s.

It has been five years since the world has seen or heard from Superman.  He disappeared without warning, and the world began to move on without him.  Lois Lane, bitter over the disappearance, pens a story titled "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman" and has won a Pulitzer Prize for it.  Lex Luthor manages to make it out of jail on appeal after Superman doesn't appear to testify in court, spending the next five years swindling a kindly old widow out of her millions in an attempt to rebuild his lost criminal empire.  He also goes north, returning to Superman's Fortress of Solitude and stealing the Kryptonian data crystals he finds there.

Lois is assigned to cover an experimental space flight, and boards a jet.  When the launch goes awry, the spacecraft bolted to the top of the jet threatens to destroy both... Superman reappears to the world.  He saves the jet and everyone on it, of course, and goes back to his usual business of fighting crime and disasters and saving lives all over the globe.

But Lex Luthor's plan is unfolding all the while.  What he'll do with those crystals will reshape the world, killing countless millions (even billions, perhaps) and only Superman can stop him. 

"Superman Returns" is a messy picture.  This is not to say that it's riddled with plot holes or that the direction is sloppy or any of the usual reasons a film might have to be called "messy."  It's finely crafted in a number of areas, a slick production with excellent special effects and great action sequences. 

The problems with "Superman Returns" are twofold: It borrows too many lines and story beats from the 1978 original, and makes a couple of disastrous casting mistakes that keep it from being excellent. 

The first problem is Kate Bosworth, who simply doesn't work as Lois Lane.  She just doesn't have it, with her delivery often flat.  Miscasting one of the key characters of the Superman mythos already puts your film at a huge disadvantage, since Superman's feelings for Lois are key to the emotional throughline of any story you're going to tell. 

Brandon Routh does a great job picking up where Christopher Reeve left off with Clark Kent... unfortunately his scenes as Superman aren't quite as good.  He doesn't have the sparkle in his eye that Reeve had, especially in his scenes with Lois.  There are a couple of moments where it works, but for the most part, Routh seems uncomfortable as the Man of Steel.  But again, his work as Clark is excellent, so it's strange to see such a disparity. 

The third casting issue is Parker Posey, who I think is just a spectacularly bad actress.  Bosworth might be flat and uninteresting, but Posey is downright grating.  Her voice is annoying and her delivery is outrageous.  Nothing about her character works here, not even as an homage to Valerie Perrine's ditzy Miss Tessmacher from the original two films. 

As for the unoriginality issue, well, it's true.  Lex Luthor is once again going on and on about land, Superman tells some folks that flying is still the safest way to travel, "statistically speaking," that Lois shouldn't smoke and so on and so forth.  He even feigns not knowing who Clark Kent is once again.  Luthor's new plan is rather reminiscent of his old one, and his girlfriend once again has a change of heart late in the game.  There are a number of opportunities in "Superman Returns" that the film doesn't take, though it does take a few.

Bryan Singer's direction is mostly solid, but wavers in a few places.  The film can feel overly long at times, and snippy at others.  The action sequences are directed well, and the whole thing looks very nice.  But a scene late in the film where a weakened Superman is beaten and stabbed by Luthor's goons and left for dead is oddly limp.  Minutes later, the near silent scene of Superman falling back to Earth, possibly dead, is haunting and moving.  John Ottman's score incorporates and expands upon the main themes of John Williams' classic original music, and is a lot of fun to listen to outside of the film.  

So what works in "Superman Returns"?  Treating Superman and Lois like exes is a great way to turn that relationship on its head and explore new ground, especially with the addition of Lois' son, Jason and her fiance Richard.  James Marsden does well with Richard, who slowly realizes over the course of the movie that despite her protestations, Lois was (and likely still is) in love with Superman, and that's something he can't quite compete with. 

Superman's search for his "home" is an intriguing theme as well - he leaves Earth to find Krypton, and ends up alienating the people he cares for.  Ultimately, at the end, it's Krypton and its technology that threatens Earth, and he must protect his adopted home from it - nearly sacrificing himself in the process.  It seems that even though he was born of Krypton, Earth is his true home. 

One of the defining themes of this series is that of a man growing up, being given the tools to become a man by his father, and then moving away to do his own thing.  This is no more apparent anywhere else than in "Superman Returns," which resurrects some of that old Marlon Brando footage from the original films to continue guiding Superman's development as a character and now, as a father himself. 

Then, of course, there's the continuing biblical analogies of Jor-El as god and Superman as Jesus.  Superman bears his cross in this film (almost literally), sacrificing himself for humanity.  Singer even stages a shot with Superman posed as though crucified to hammer home this concept. 

It's unfortunate then, with these intriguing ideas, that the certain failings of "Superman Returns" make it an okay movie, but not a great one.  I certainly enjoy it, and I have and will defend it to others.  But it's hard not to notice the avoidable problems that keep it from being a great superhero film.