SUPERMAN RETURNS                                                        

Reeve, Routh and Rousing "Returns" Film Review: "Superman Returns"

By Omar P.L. Moore/June 27, 2006

Advisory: "Superman Returns" is two hours and 37 minutes long, although it goes by quickly.  It is rated PG-13 and has some intense action violence, as well as mild sensuality and several startling instances of violence.

It's not Bryan Singer's fault: as a director he has done a couple of bold things within the last three years; first, he left the "X-Men" film franchise after directing its first two successful films.  Second, Mr. Singer directed a sequel of sorts, or at least an addendum, to Richard Donner's "Superman: The Movie" (1978), all the while featuring a debut feature film actor playing the Man of Steel who had to (unfairly) live under the long, grand shadow cast by the late, great Christopher Reeve.  The good news is that Mr. Singer succeeds mightily with "Superman Returns," a good, solid film if not a great one.  Mr. Singer ("The Usual Suspects") tells stories well and has an eye for visuals and operatic moments and all of these elements, with the help of the superb, stirring John Williams original orchestral score theme music over the opening and closing credits and during parts of the movie, make "Returns" a worthwhile vehicle.  John Ottman, who also edits this film with Elliot Graham, does the soundtrack score, and does it very well.

One of several impressive things about "Superman Returns" is its amazing production design, courtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas.  The astounding sets, particularly of The Daily Planet and its exteriors; Lex Luthor's lair, and many other areas -- all of which were built in Australia, add a grand feeling of foundation to the locations.  Brandon Routh fills the bill reasonably well as a very charismatic Superman, but appears a little stilted and short of the same charisma as Clark Kent.  Mr. Routh also lacks the heft and physicality of Mr. Reeve, but his looks (which are almost right out of the DC Comics comic book strips for the popular superhero) are distinctly memorable for the role.

In this story by Mr. Singer, Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris (screenplay by Mr. Dougherty & Mr. Harris), Superman has been away from his Earth-saving duties for five years.  During that time Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been sprung from prison in the midst of a life sentence after among other things, Superman failure to show up in court as a character witness.  And in the real world time between this film and the last "Superman" movie (1987), many things have happened in the United States: the horror of September 11, 2001; the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003; the power outage that affected several East coast cities and Toronto in the summer of 2003; the ever-growing environmental climate problems and gradual submerging of the planet Earth by water, etc. -- and each of these events are represented or recalled in one way or another in Mr. Singer's film, sometimes in an unnerving way. 

The nefarious Lex Luthor has come to Superman's crystalline sanctuary with his band of villains to find out all about Superman's powers and weaknesses.  "Tell me everything," Mr. Spacey's Luthor intones to the reflective image of Jor-El (the late Marlon Brando in a frame superimposed from Mr. Donner's 1978 original film.)  Luthor wants to manufacture new continents (global warming and erosion of land masses, perhaps?) but most importantly announces early on, that above all else he wants his cut.  Meanwhile, Kal-El (Mr. Routh) has crash-landed to Earth in the mid-western United States from his planet Krypton, and is being nursed to health by Martha "Ma" Kent (played by the legendary Oscar-winner Eva Marie Saint of Alfred Hitchcock's film "North By Northwest"), who adopts him as Clark Kent.  Several amusing sketches feature Mr. Routh, including giving the family dog a workout with a game of fetch the baseball.  Ms. Saint has a few minutes here and she does what she has to as "Ma" Kent, in what are brief cameo scenes.  Luthor's villains are mute as they do the evil that must be done to make the world a worse place than it already is; it is probably good that they stay silent; the looks on their faces say it all.  The evil that men do must be done.  There is one rather humorous moment with one villain who wears a tattoo on the back of his head.  The only woman who is part of the train wreck of malevolence is Parker Posey as Kitty Kowalski, who has more than a little ambivalence to Mr. Luthor's plans.  Like Valerie Perrine's character in Mr. Donner's film, Kitty has a thing for Superman but any amorous admirations are muted to a greater effect in Mr. Singer's film.

While Luthor's henchmen are concocting a brew in a model railway train menagerie of sorts, a mysterious power outage just *happens* to occur, affecting all transportation and flight traffic worldwide, including a flight carrying the space shuttle, a flight which happens to have the intrepid Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) on it.  Fresh from writing a Pulitzer-winning story called "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman," Ms.Lane has now moved on from the love and starry-eyed crush for the Man of Steel and married Planet editor-in-chief Perry White's son Richard (James Marsden) and has given birth to a special child (played by Tristan Lake Leabu).  After a hair-raising, hell-ride of a flight which recalls the all-too-real frantic and frenzied final minutes of the disturbing "United 93" film of earlier this year, Lois Lane writes an article entitled, "Why the World Needs Superman."  In sheer amazement at the sight of the man she thought abandoned her and the world, she wears a face of disbelief. 

"Are you alright?" Superman queries with a knowing tone in his voice.

One of the things that Mr. Singer uses exceedingly well is Superman's powers to try and show his humanlike feelings.  As Marlon Brando says, "even though you've been raised like a human being you're not one of them."  Though Mr. Brando's fatherly words don't stop his son from trying to be one of them ("what if God was one of us...?")  The use of the fine visual effects has Superman using his powers not just for the good of the world, but also for the feelings toward the woman he cares about.  In one beautiful and adoring sequence, Superman uses x-ray vision to see through an elevator and watch Lois Lane inside it as she ascends.  It is a passionate moment, a scene that is wonderfully affectionate and romantic and without the benefit of any touching between the two characters.  Mr. Singer, with Mr. Ottman's orchestral and operatic music in the romantic times between Superman and Lois Lane, is at his strongest when directing these scenes.  Superman and Lois Lane's romantic scenes are directed with an elegance and a sensuality that is sincere and beautiful.

The film has its share of political references: Superman as the world's policeman (read: America as the policeman of the world, perhaps? And revealingly, as if a signal of criticism of the war in Iraq, Frank Langella's Perry White character, editor-in-chief of The Daily Planet, during a staff meeting says, "truth, justice, and all that," instead of "truth, justice and the American way," -- a line of past Superman films and television series -- midway through the film.)  Lois Lane asks Superman, "how could you leave us?"  This may bring to mind some of the questions in the minds of those who may have thought that America's president did not take charge in the initial minutes and hours following the horrific events of September 11, 2001.  Even if this comparative analysis is way off base, Mr. Singer's film and his own sensibilities seem to be pointing in that direction.  When the country (in this film however, the world) is in chaos, a leader is needed to step forward, and in "Superman Returns", the leader does his best to be present -- in more than one place at a time in every opportunity.

Other political references come in a line which might be interpreted by some as being spoken by a Superman that is gay.  Much ink has been spilled in the U.S. press in the run-up to this film's release as to whether the Man of Steel is a gay character.  While the "debate" about Superman's gay-ness or straight-ness seems ridiculous and trivial (does it really matter one way or another?  Would it matter to you if the person saving you and the world was one orientation or another, one race or another?), a line Superman speaks to his own son near the film's end may provide a hint as to what Mr. Singer, who is gay, intends: "you will feel like an outcast, but you'll never be alone."  Mr. Routh follows that by saying to his son that "you will see my life through your eyes."

Friendly skies: Brandon Routh as Superman soaring above the Earth's hemisphere; Jor-El reprised: the late Marlon Brando superimposed from Richard Donner's 1978 "Superman" film, as Lex Luthor listens, during Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns".  Director Bryan Singer, arm and hand outstretched, on the set of "Superman Returns."

There is excellent chemistry and interplay among several actors: Mr. Langella, Mr. Routh, Ms. Bosworth and Mr. Huntington in The Daily Planet news room in the city of Metropolis -- their banter is quick-witted, sharp and authentic.  At times the dialogue feels like that from the 1930's film "The Front Page."  Similarly, Kevin Spacey and Parker Posey bounce things off each other well -- as Lex Luthor and Kitty Kowalski respectively, they feel like an old married couple, with the wife growing ever tired of her husband's evil machinations.  As Luthor, Mr. Spacey starts off as if he is reading from a script rather than acting his character, but this disappears within a few minutes, as he slowly sinks his teeth into the role, and then hams it up as the film progresses.  Mr. Spacey gives Luthor a touch of flamboyance, a calm assurance and confidence.  His costumes (designer Louise Mingenbach) reveal a keen fashion sense, and his wigs connote a humor that is deadpan and self-deprecating.  He however, like "M:i:III"'s villain played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, has a ruthlessness and vicious streak that the audience will take seriously before all is said and done.  Mr. Spacey has several plum lines and he makes the utmost of them.  "Wait for it!" he sternly advises Kitty after she impatiently asks a question early on.  And later: "come on, tell me that thing I want to hear, you can say it," he jauntily taunts to Lois Lane, while sticking his hand by his ear as if to hear more clearly.

As for Lois Lane, she is a take-charge individual and becomes a heroine in her own right in this film as she is integral to the survival of Superman once he has been felled by the one thing he cannot handle: Kryptonite -- a word that Mr. Spacey gleefully and loudly exclaims near the film's conclusion.  Mr. Singer leaves open the possibility for a second film, as this film is not resolved with a neat and tidy little bow -- remember, the film is entitled "Superman Returns" -- it is far from the be-all and end-all.  It will be a delight to see the next film in the series that Mr. Singer directs.

The action scenes are balanced by the romance, the drama and the comedic moments.  While there is less action in "Superman Returns" than some will like, the "Superman" films were never action films above all else.  The previous films were character dramas, larger stories than just the action sequences of a man flying around in a red cape and blue tights.  Those films were about love, romance, belief in a guardian of freedom, and freedom from fear and evil, as well as an idolization of a representative of the ideals that make humanity great and keep it from spiraling out of control.  When seen in this light and context, Mr. Singer's film becomes infinitely more appreciated and enjoyable than if one looks at the perspective of all action, all the time.  Lest it go unnoticed, "Superman Returns" contains some Judeo-Christian iconography -- a brief shot of Superman falling to earth, or in suspended descent, positioned crucifix-like as Jesus high above the Earth.  The only thing missing is a beard and thorns on the crown of his head. 


When all is said and done, the bottom line is that Mr. Singer combines good direction, a good script that has crackling dialogue at times, with some decent acting, while crafting a film that has a yesteryear feeling though maintaining a contemporary feel.  In that spirit, Mr. Singer in the closing credits dedicates this picture "with love and respect to Christopher Reeve and Dana Reeve."  One cannot help but feel a chill down the spine when those words appear on the screen during John Williams's theme music score.  Either you shed a tear, well up with rousing emotion, or you cheer the tasteful, dignified gesture Mr. Singer makes to the super man and the super woman married couple who passed away within two years of each other.

"You will see my life through your eyes...for the son becomes the father and the father becomes a son.": The late Christopher Reeve (center) and the late Dana Reeve, with their son, at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, April 2004.  Mr. Reeve would pass away within six months of this photo; Ms. Reeve passed away earlier this year.  (Photo by: Omar P.L. Moore.)


Copyright 2006.  All Rights Reserved.


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