Synopsis: He’s back. A hero for our millennium. And not a moment too soon, because during the five years (much longer in movie-fan years!) Superman sought his home planet, things changed on his adopted planet. Nations moved on without him. Lois Lane now has a son, a fiancé and a Pulitzer for “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” And Lex Luthor has a plan that will destroy millions – no, billions – of lives.
Filmmaker Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2) gives the world the Superman it needs, honoring the legend everyone loves while taking it in a powerful new direction. Brandon Routh proves a perfect choice to wear the hero’s cape, leading a top cast that includes Kate Bosworth as Lois and Kevin Spacey as Lex. And the thrills – from a sky-grapple with a tumbling jumbo jet to a continent-convulsing showdown – redefine Wow. “I’m always around,” Superman tells Lois. You’ll be glad he is.
Superman Returns 7.25
eyelights: Brandon Routh. Kevin Spacey. the first half’s perfect tone.
eyesores: its miscasts. its mean-spiritedness. its cold second half. its lack of excitement.
“I hear everything. You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one.”
In 2006, nearly twenty years after the last Superman outing (which, coincidentally, found Lex Luthor telling Superman “See you in twenty years”), Superman soared to the top of the box office once again. A hit with critics and a top ten grosser that year, it had left audiences pleased but with somewhat mixed feelings: they liked the new guy, but many felt that the picture lacked action.
Personally, when I heard of Superman’s return to the silver screen, I was intrigued. I had, after all, been a HUGE fan of Christopher Reeve’s take on the character. I couldn’t imagine who might possibly replace him, however. But when the first promotional picture of Brandon Routh as Superman came out, I wasn’t at all put off. I wasn’t sure about the new suit, but Routh seemed credible enough.
When I went to see it, I was also pleasantly surprised, but I certainly didn’t walk out elated. Something was missing. That impression solidified since and, the more I watch the picture the less enamoured with it I am. ‘Superman Returns’ starts off really well, though, and Bryan Singer’s film had me bursting out loud at the winks he inserted and silently cheering when he hit the right notes.
It felt like a classic Superman film: Designed as a loose follow-up to ‘Superman II‘, it explains that the big blue boy scout has been away for five years, to the former location of his home, Krypton. Upon his return, he finds worldwide chaos and disorder, discovers that his former flame, Lois Lane, has a son and is engaged, and that his arch nemesis, Lex Luthor, has been released from jail.
The first half is a warm, sometimes touching, picture that is filled with nostalgia, romance and humour.
Then comes the second half, which is dour and even mean-spirited: Lex Luthor kidnaps Lois Lane and her son, uses Kryptonian technology to create a dark new continent, inevitably killing billions in the process. And when Superman tries to stop him, he is brutally beaten and nearly killed in the process. It’s a joyless exercise that is often sluggish, and that ends with a lack of pomp.
Unlike its namesake, ‘Superman Returns’ hardly soars.
But it certainly has its moments:
Brandon Routh: He may not have the natural magnetism that Christopher Reeve had, but few do and Routh does a very credible job of replacing him: He exudes the required confidence, intelligence, and empathy. And he really looks the part. Where he stumbles a little bit is that he looks more like a young adult, whereas Reeve was a man. I can’t explain it any better, other than he lacked the authority and subtle gravitas that Reeve affected. But Routh’s Clark Kent is nearly equal to Reeve’s, and I love how much of a puppy dog he is around Lois. Routh is really good and would have become even better as he grew into the part.
Kevin Spacey: He affects his usual smarmy, self-controlled persona, but he also injects at times aspects of Bill Murray and Gene Hackman’s screen personas. His Lex Luthor is the definitive Luthor: he’s smart, cruel and efficient. Gone are the kitschy aspects of the Hackman iteration: This Luthor IS a force to be reckoned with; he’s not a buffoon. And Spacey owns the screen whenever he’s on. Sometimes it’s just a look. Sometimes in the way he delivers a line. Sometimes it’s when he goes balls out. But he never gives any ground or become complacent.
The return of Marlon Brando: Due to litigation, he was replaced in ‘Superman II’ with another character altogether, but footage that had been shot back in 1978 was used here to have him, as Jor-el, interact with Superman. As well, his line readings are re-used regularly to pepper Superman’s recollections. I despise Brando because he was such a douchebag, but he brings an unmistakable flavour to the part.
The opening credits: Inspired by the original, but souped up by CGI shots of various planets as we travel through the universe, it’s a terrific homage that opens the picture nicely.
The music: John Williams’ music was re-used (Bryan Singer is on record as saying that he wouldn’t have done the movie if he didn’t have access to Williams’ iconic themes) just right, with great timing. Yes, the rest of John Ottman’s score is more modern, but the arrangements of Williams’ themes are the best since the original film’s, and the filmmakers really understood how to use the music to elevate the picture this time.
The script: On paper, it’s a terrific script. While it lags towards the end, and has one major twist that I could have done without, it’s filled with superb elements, such as Kal-el longing for Lois, but being unable to have her, and the dynamic between he and her new beau, Richard; it felt realistic, and I loved that they were civil rivals. Luthor’s story is also well-developed; he’s shown in all his ruthlessness and mercenary attitude right from the onset, swindling a dying widow of all her family fortune. And it’s filled with excellent repartee and nods to the original.
The plot: It’s so consistent with the Lex Luthor that he would want property, and it’s so smart of him to find a way to make it Superman-proof – especially the way he goes about it, using kryptonite. Nice. Well-played!
The look of the film: Honestly, ‘Superman Returns’ is a beautiful film, outshining all its predecessors. I don’t know how much of it was enhanced for the picture, and how much just looked as is, but this is one sumptuous epic.
The set design: From The Daily Planet set to Lex’s amazing island, which is basically a black version of the Fortress of Solitude (fittingly so!), the set designers on this film not only had the budget but made the most of it.
The special effects: While the CGI is now mildly dated, they made us believe that a man can fly 100% of the way. And pretty much all of the effects are credible. For a ten-year-old film, it still holds its own rather well.
Superman’s return: While I felt that Superman would know better (due to his 12 years of training with Jor-el and through experience) that holding onto a plane’s wing would be a recipe for disaster, it was an exciting sequence nonetheless. And I loved how he stopped the plane from the nose in the middle of a stadium; in some ways it echoed 911, hinting that he would have been able to stop the attacks.
Those little moments: There are just these little touches that Singer threw in that are so good:
- When Superman prepares to release and launch the shuttle, but gives us a knowing look first (“He’s back, and he’s going to show us just what he can do!”)
- Lois fainting after seeing Superman for the first time in five years (But mostly because she’d been batted around the plane the whole time – by then we no longer expect her to collapse, but she does and it provokes a laugh of surprise.)
- That iconic moment when Superman flies above the earth and floats there, focusing on the world’s crises and picking his battles. It made him Godlike, made you wonder about the burden he must have on his shoulders, having to choose who lives and dies like that.
- When Superman gets in the way of a machine-gunman in slow-motion, preventing the criminal from mowing down a couple of security guards. It showed just how quick he is.
- When Lois and Richard start taking stock of Clark’s physical similarities to Superman, then take a look at the goofy, hapless guy and laugh it off because it’s such a ridiculous notion that a superbeing would reduce himself to that.
- When Superman takes Lois out for a spin, the shot is from over his shoulder at her and the only thing that changes is the background as they lift into the air. It’s such a subtle and clever way to do it. Movie magic.
- That moment when Lex is testing his theory about the Kryptonian crystals in the basement and, after a false start (that gets a few laughs), one moment he’s at the front with the others, in the next, he’s discreetly moved to the back of the room.
The pop culture nods:
- Putting down a car in a similar pose as Superman’s first appearance, on the cover of Action Comics.
- Carrying the Daily Planet’s large globe like the mythical Atlas did the world. Iconic, but also subtly referring to Superman’s burden of responsibility.
The character of Superman: Although he’s conflicted about Lois, and crosses the line slightly at one point, the filmmakers understood Superman: He is noble, well-intentioned and humble. He just wants to help and he does it with all his being. He’s not an angsty anti-hero and nothing is too small for Superman. He may have superpowers, but even without them he’d be a hero. And that’s an important aspect of the character: he’s a symbol of hope and a role-model. It’s what makes him super.
Of course, as mentioned earlier, the picture does have its share of misfires:
Kate Bosworth: Shit man, nothing against her but she is totally miscast as Lois Lane: she doesn’t look the part and lacks the fire that made Kidder’s version so memorable in the first film. The character is well-written, but Bosworth’s interpretation is spotty at best. Frankly, she is so bland and uninteresting that it makes you wonder why Supes has the hots for her. Or why anyone would. She’s just not captivating, or even remotely interesting.
Tristan Lake Leabu: As Jason White, Lois Lane’s son, the kid is vacant-looking, mostly inexpressive. One might say he’s therefore perfect as Bosworth’s son. But, man, you’d expect Superman and Lois’s kid to have some spark, some magnetism. Nope. Nada.
Jason White: This is one of my biggest peeves in the whole film. The filmmakers obviously wanted to give audiences a twist, and I think it was a poor judgement call: Superman and Lois couldn’t possibly have a child together.
Jesus, can you imagine surviving pregnancy, with that little tyke kicking in her womb? It’s bad enough that sex with a Superman would have killed her, but let’s not even think about this.
So, yeah, I don’t think giving Superman an illegitimate son is an added-value twist. What would that mean for future stories? Would he become disgruntled from watching his dad on the news but never spending time with him – or even being acknowledged as his son? It’s a problematic idea on so many fronts…
The plane incident: I can buy the power outage, and to some degree can buy into the mechanical malfunctions resulting from it, but I simply can’t buy that Lois would be thrown around the jetliner back and forth for the whole sequence and sustain literally NO injuries. The first time I watched this all the suspense died immediately due to my heightened incredulity.
The second half: Let me just reiterate this: it’s grey, grim and no fun. Plus which there are lengthy waits between the few bits of action where nothing of any consequence happens. And, when there’s action, it’s either insignificant, brutal or pathetic.
Lois, Richard and Jason’s near-death: Firstly, you have to care about characters to be on edge when their lives are in jeopardy. Since nothing allowed me to care about any of them (okay… I cared about Richard a little bit), this left me unmoved. Add to this the fact that YOU KNOW that Superman will save the day, and there’s no way you’re at the edge of your seat during this scene.
Lex Luthor’s trap: It’s a great idea that Luthor’s island is laced with Kryptonite, but it wasn’t properly established that Kryptonite doesn’t just kill Superman instantly, it weakens him dramatically and makes him ill. THAT’s why he’s crawling about instead of getting back on his feet, even though he has barely taken a blow. Without making this clear, it just looks pathetic and you can’t feel for the guy. It’s like, just get up! Get on your feet, you wuss! Heck, even I felt that way – and I know better!
Lex Luthor’s Island: While Lex’s dark island looks great and he does explain that its growth will kill billions, we actually don’t feel its impact. Sure, there are tremors in Metropolis, but the risks aren’t really well established. For something that was supposed to kill billions, it sure took its sweet time to kill even one person. So what’s the big deal, then? Well, that’s a problem, because you don’t feel the urgency for Superman to save the day.
Superman’s death: !@#$ Who thought that brutalizing a good-natured hero would be a good idea? It was agonizing to watch him get beaten to a pulp and drowned – and then murdered by Lex, using a jagged piece of Kryptonite. And it’s not nearly as violent as Tarantino’s stuff, it’s just that it was too realistic, felt too real, what with Superman laying there helpless and the way they go at him. It was just plain mean, cruel. It’s not what I want to feel when I watch a Superman film.
Superman’s rescue: I don’t know, I guess that, by having Richard and Lois save Superman, they wanted to show that human beings can be heroes too – but, by then, he seemed so incapable of doing anything for himself that it made him look weak. If only he’d found a way to work it out himself it would have been much better.
Superman’s resuscitation: It makes sense that people would gather around the hospital Superman is in as a sort of vigil for him. But when Superman comes back to life, he just disappears: a nurse goes to his room and he’s no longer there. What? That’s it? And then he reappears at Lois’ home. No heroics, nothing stunning: he just goes to watch his son sleep. And, meanwhile, the rest of the world doesn’t even bat an eye at the fact that he’s disappeared (Is he alive? Has he been swifted away? No one seems to care…). Given how much attention his near-death had drawn, and all the waiting, this silence is deafening.
The end: Seriously? No final heroics after all that misery? Superman just flies out into the stratosphere and that’s it…?
Having said this, ‘Superman Returns’ was off to a good start and it did get a number of things right. Granted, it lost its mojo in the second half, but it had the makings of good revival. Sadly the numbers weren’t in favour of Superman’s return, and the proposed 2009 follow-up never came to fruition. Instead, the studio decided to shelve the character for a while with the idea of rebooting him later.
Alas. That’s exactly what they did.
Date of viewing: May 16, 2016