Review: Superman Returns

Posted by: Mark McLeod  //  June 28, 2006 @ 11:59am

Filed under: Movie Reviews 

The last time we saw Superman, he had saved Metropolis and the world by thwarting criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) and sending him to prison. It's been five years since that occurred and the world is a much different place. Metropolis is now Superman-free and ace reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has given up on her crush, settling down with her boss' son Richard White (James Marsden) and even has a little boy. Lex has been toiling behind bars and Superman is nowhere to be seen. However, all isn't peaceful for long, as Lex is freed on a technicality and before long has come up with a new plan for world domination, which involves stealing crystals from Superman's Fortress of Solitude, which he plans to use to create his own continent causing North America to become entirely flooded. Superman, on the other hand, has returned from a five year stint in outer space trying to find the remnants of his home planet of Krypton that he was forced to leave at a moment's notice. This time things won't be easy for Superman as he not only has to contend with a more powerful and ready-for-anything Lex but also Lois and society in general, who've been used to a life without Superman. Can Superman once again save the world or will he fall at the hands of Lex Luthor? Find out as Superman makes his return.

Superman Returns marks the return of the infamous All-American Hero after some 19 years of being absent from the big screen. It also signals the end of one of the longest-in-production periods for a comic book film in recent memory. Over the past ten years, this property has been in the hands of many high profile writers and directors in what must seem like a seemingly endless array of pre-production nightmares. Kevin Smith was attached as a writer, JJ Abrams of Lost fame also contributed a screenplay, McG of the modern Charlie's Angels was attached to direct, as was Tim Burton, Brett (X3) Ratner. Michael Bay's name was even considered. As long as the behind-the-scenes talent list was, the on-screen cast list seemed to have gone on for even longer. Regardless of all that, what we're left with is Bryan Singer, the man who brought the X-Men to the screen for 20th Century Fox and Marvel Comics, being the one to herald one of the most beloved comic book characters of all time's return to the big screen. Working off a screenplay by his regular screenwriters, Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty, Singer's version of the Superman tale brings the character forth into a post 9/11 world where America and Metropolis are rebounding after having felt that they lost their hero for good. Admittedly, I haven't been the biggest fan of Bryan Singer's work to date and while his X-Men films made for passable entertainment, I certainly don't find them all that memorable. Given that Superman was my favorite comic book during my younger years and that most of my past experience with the character came from Lois and Clark, I was a bit skeptical as to if Singer was the right man for the job and after two hours and 45 minutes of motion picture film, I'm still unsure of the answer. Perhaps I went into the movie with overly high expectations, but the movie, while visually strong and undeniably entertaining, just failed to click on the same level as the vastly superior and quintessential comic book film, last summer's Batman Begins.

The first aspect of Superman Returns that came as a disappointment was the seemingly basic storyline. There was never really much explanation on why Lex was planning on taking over the world and why Superman felt that now was the right time to return. It sort of feels that he just decides to return one day and that happens to be the same time as Lex plans to create havoc. I didn't feel as though his return was well-motivated. Screenwriters Dan Harris and Michael Daugherty obviously had a lot to choose from and at one point the storyline for the film was to be about Superman's return after his fall at the hands of the Doomsday villain, a storyline made popular around the time I started reading the comics. Instead, they've opted for a more generic story that, while obviously updated to set the film in more modern times including a post-9/11 big city with fears of terrorism and destruction running rampant, just comes across as a bit unexciting " especially considering the enthralling circumstances that DC's other comic book mainstay Batman returned to after his absence from Gotham (though yes, technically that was a prequel or reimagining). However, that being said, while the film lacks a strong story, the visuals are downright stunning. Metropolis has been transformed onto the screen through the use of massive studio space in Sydney, Australia as well as a series of well-constructed exterior locations around Sydney and, in the case of the Kent family farm, Tamworth. Captured on the latest generation of high definition camera by cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel, every frame of Superman Returns is something to see. Breathtaking and jaw-dropping are only two ways to describe just how beautiful the film looks.

Another stunning aspect of Superman Returns are the special effects used to make the man of steel fly. Although it has been a while since I've seen the Christopher Reeve/Richard Donner sequences, there is no debating how much the technology has changed in the past 20 years. In Superman Returns, you really believe that Brandon Routh's Superman is thousands of miles above the earth flying through the clouds, over the ocean, and through a cityscape. Action scenes are big budget and spectacles as one would expect with this sort of summer blockbuster. A near plane crash, the saving of a space shuttle, and of course the climatic moments are just three of many suspenseful and exciting sequences which stand out a day or so after seeing the film.

I could go on for paragraphs about all the various casting ideas that have been bounced around in the long history of the production, but it's at the end of the day and the end of the page we are left with a fairly decently-cast motion picture, though not as pitch perfect as Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, which with the exception of Katie (or is that Kate) Holmes was about as perfect a cast as possible. In the lead role we have newcomer Brandon Routh, who looks a lot like Christopher Reeve. Routh does a great job playing the dual roles of Clark Kent and Superman. He's very believable as an everyday citizen who transforms himself into a hero at the right times. In a way, it was smart of Singer and his team to use an unknown because expectations would be lower than using someone we've seen before, a problem which plagued him in the casting and execution of two of the other major roles. Kevin Spacey channels Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor, but for one reason or another is unable to come across as diabolical enough to be believed. I wish that Spacey had played things straighter and gone for a more deadpan and sinister Lex. I really think that would have worked much better for the character and the film. Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane is a mixed bag. In some scenes she handles herself quite well but in others, she just doesn't seem to have the acting chops required to carry the more emotional moments. Anne Hathaway, who was last seen in Brokeback Mountain and who was at one point considered for the role, probably would have made for a better choice as she proved in that film that there's more to her than the bumbling girl from The Princess Diaries. The supporting cast, including Parker Posey as Lex's go-to henchwoman and Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen, were fairly good, though it would have been nice to see Dr. House, Hugh Laurie, as Perry White, but sadly due to scheduling conflicts the role was given to the more generic Frank Langella. X-Man James Marsden plays a non-superhero role as he reunites with his mutant director Singer.

I've spent a lot of the past thousand or so words comparing Superman Returns to Batman Begins as well as to many versions of Superman that will never materialize, but how it is as a finished film compared to other finished films, and will the diehard Superman fan-base like it? I think they will. There are many nods to the Richard Donner films of the 70s, from John Ottoman's score to the style of the opening titles (even the recasting of a now-deceased Marlon Brando in the role of Jor-El, Superman's father). It's clear that Bryan Singer was a big fan of the earlier films, even if Superman wasn't his favorite comic book character. His finished film, though a bit long at nearly 2 hours and 45 mins (mind you 15 minutes of that seemed to be the end titles), is an entertaining piece of summer fun. It's not without its flaws (casting, storyline) but the time does pass by rather quickly, and without causing much of the dreaded "watch checking". As a comic book movie, it's certainly better written than X3, which was basically non-stop action with even less of a story, and doesn't feature as appallingly bad dialogue as Spiderman 2, which some critics (myself excluded) champion as the best of the comic book movies. Really, Superman Returns is just an entertaining piece of movie-making and a way to get out of the heat for a number of hours. Is it the best Superman film yet? Technically and visually speaking, yes, but it's lacking the heart of the earlier Donner work. Will there be a sequel? Undoubtly yes, and maybe then with the right screenplay and story scenario, we'll finally have the ultimate Superman flick.

Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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