REVIEW: “Superman Returns” (***)

Posted by · 5:09 pm · June 27th, 2006

Warner Bros. Pictures\' Superman ReturnsWhen he was appointed to bring one of the most socially complex comic book series to the screen in the form of 2000’s “X-Men,” director Bryan Singer had in front of him the opportunity to usher realism and tangibility into the genre.

While that first installment in a franchise that has this year gone terribly awry was still rather over-blown and theatrical (studios must cover their bases), it still provided a sturdy base for Singer to create a near masterpiece with the film’s sequel. “X2” made some of the most un-relatable of characters inherently familiar and brought them off of the page and into the real world in what was one of the best films of 2003.

This year Singer takes to task an entirely different sort of superhero, the world’s most recognizable man of steel. And while the work he puts into “Superman Returns” doesn’t necessarily make for the perfect blending of thematic resilience and organic spectacle found in the “X-Men” series, he finds a way to define and illustrate fully the character of Kal-El like no other filmmaker before him, a character as cursed as he is gifted.

The story of “Superman Returns” is quite simple, really. Superman (Brandon Routh) has abandoned the world for the past five years, disappearing to the farthest reaches of the universe to see for himself the remnants of his long destroyed, but not long forgotten home world, the planet Krypton. In his stead, the world of the yellow sun has moved forward and has learned to live without the comfort of a savior.

The construct is fully symbolized in the love of Superman’s life, mild-mannered reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who has hardened her heart and pushed ahead, becoming engaged to Richard White (James Marsden), nephew of Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella), raising a child and winning a Pulitzer Prize for her work on a story entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” But, as irony would have it, Lois is herself in need of such a savior just twenty minutes into the film, as Superman “returns” during one of the most exciting action set pieces we’ve seen in a number of years.

Meanwhile, in perhaps one of the biggest “isn’t it obvious?!” moments you could imagine, Clark Kent reports back for duty at the Daily Planet amidst all this commotion. Clark is enthusiastically welcomed by his good friend Jimmy Olsen (gleefully portrayed by Sam Huntington) and, pretty much no one else, as Jimmy drops the news that “fearless reporter Lois Lane is a mommy.”

Also popping back onto the scene is the diabolical Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), who has finagled his way out of prison whilst wooing a rich and foolish dying woman, taking her for everything she has on her deathbed. Talk about despicable! The first five minutes of “Superman Returns” exhibits a Luthor more treacherous than Gene Hackman’s original incarnation could have ever dreamed. And that is, perhaps, quite the point.

Kevin Spacey in Superman ReturnsWasting away in prison, formulating a plot for revenge all along, Luthor has grown to despise the Man of Steel and everything he represents more than ever. And we believe it. Gone is the zaniness of Hackman’s comic relief (mostly, anyway) and in its place we are met with a true testament to the viciousness this character is and has been capable of.

Luthor has surrounded himself with the usual thugs, as well as the catty Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey), a character who is shamelessly the same creation as Valerie Perrine’s Eva Teschmacher from the original Richard Donner-directed film. She is, in fact, representative of a number of nostalgic references that come off as too frequent and indeed somewhat unforgivable given the amount of freshness on the periphery.

Once the table is set, the screenplay (by “X2” scribes Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris) comfortably settles into a character study, observing Kal-El’s feelings toward a woman and a world that has learned how to live without him. The Jesus parallels come and they come fast, in both subtle and obvious ways, but the point is made clearly regardless. While the world may have learned how to live without a savior, they still yearn for one every day. This film nails the idea of such a responsibility weighing heavily on Kal-El’s shoulders.

In the title role, Brandon Routh hits the performance out of the park. Much of what he offers is a Christopher Reeve impersonation, but that isn’t to say he doesn’t fully embody both the character and the subtext. He is as great a find as Reeve was in 1978, and in this, a demanding role (despite what nay-sayers might think), he seems as comfortable as can be. That has to be seen as a mark of professionalism first and foremost.

Bosworth, while appropriately stand-offish at first, seems much too emotionally fluffy on the outside to be fully believed as a living God’s heartbreaker. But then, Lois Lane is simply a role that has never been adequately cast. Margot Kidder got some things right, but mostly wrong. Same thing this time around. But Bosworth makes the best of it given her talents and what the script affords.

Spacey keeps his character relatively in check for much of the film, though he does spill over the top here and there. However, where arch villains are concerned, one couldn’t ask for much more. And when these two rivals finally confront one another, the venom that roars through Luthor’s veins pops out of the screen like licks of flame from a furnace.

Frank Langella in Superman ReturnsThe rest of the ensemble rounds itself out quite nicely. Frank Langella is a wonderfully hard-nosed Perry White, while James Marsden embodies a man with many of Kal-El’s characteristics –- we can see why Lois would have fallen for him. Sam Huntington puts forth a fun Jimmy Olsen and Eva Marie Saint (though lacking in screen time of consequence) is a warm spot in the film as Martha Kent to say the least.

Finally, Tristan Lake Leabu continues the broad tradition of inappropriately awkward kids on celluloid. Most of the time he works, but generally, something just seemed — off. And no, I don’t think that was the point…

(On a side note – please let me know if you are as distracted by Kal Penn as I was. All I could think of every time he was on screen was “where’s Harold?”)

On the whole, “Superman Returns” is at once a tale of redemption and a tale of beginnings. Though drastic plot contrivances in the second act keep it from being truly great, the same could have been said of the first installment of “X-Men.” Bryan Singer has, regardless, taken the Man of Steel and shown us a story of his growing up, organically situating the tale against the backdrop of an already successful series.

“Superman” was about Kal-El finding his abilities in the world and understanding what he can do. “Superman II” –- shop-lifted somewhat by the writers of “Spider-Man 2” –- was about Kal-El rejecting his abilities and trying in vain to adapt to the normalcy around him. “Superman Returns” –- in becoming a potent starting point for revamping the franchise –- is about Kal-El embracing both the joy and the horrors of his role in the world, leaving the past behind him and finding the conviction to face whatever might come his way. The words he offers in that final speech could just as easily have been redirected toward himself.

It will be very interesting to see where Singer takes us, and Superman, next.

1 Comment Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

1 response so far

  • 1 8-06-2009 at 10:14 am

    Derek W. Clem said...

    Beautifully written.

    Personally I like the fact that his understanding of the capacity for good that the Human Race has potential for gives him the ability to lift a Kryptonite Continent into outer space. (that and a Yellow Sun recharge)

    I turn that scene on any time I have to do something I’m nervous about.