Sunday, July 30, 2006

Superman Returns


Dir: Bryan Singer (X-Men 1 & 2, The Usual Suspects)

Really? I never knew he left. Then again, Superman III and IV were so forgettable, he might as well have left. Expectantly, most efforts to remake films or rekindle franchises result in failure, collapsing under the weight of (un?)reasonable expectations and (un?)fair comparisons. At worst, it is an exercise of directorial hubris hellbent on making loads of cash. At best, it is pointless. However, Bryan Singer, who jumped the X-Men ship to direct this film, realizes that if something is only partially broke, only fix that part. Superman Returns starts where Superman II ends, ignoring the wastes of silver nitrate that were Superman III and IV. Singer's reverence for the first two is evident from the opening credits to John Williams' original score to the casting of Brandon Routh (a Christopher Reeve clone). In fact, Singer's direction of Routh as both Kent and Superman generates some eerie, yet oddly welcome, parallels to Reeve's Superman.

The film starts with Supe returning from a five-year absence. He originally left his salvation occupation to return home on word that astronomers believed they found Krypton (I was hoping for greater exploration of the reasons Superman left for Krypton, but we have to leave stuff for the sequels). The general narrative follows an expected pattern for such a film: Superman returns in dramatic fashion and Lex Luthor has designs to make billions on artificially created land, all the while the man in tights pines for Lois Lane. But, Kent's effort to pursue Lane are frustrated by her commitment to her son and his father.

I always found Superman as a character the most plastic of all the major comic superheroes: he's perfect and indestructible, save kryptonite (never really understood why his home planet would be poison to him on Earth, but that is another issue). So many other comic book characters (Spiderman, Batman, etc.) are humans with serious emotional and fragilities. But, Singer's choice to focus on Superman's devotion to Lane, complicated by the other two men in her life, really opens up a space for emotional exploration of the man of steel. While Routh demonstrates a certain acumen for such complexity, Kate Bosworth as the distant Lois Lane falls flat. In my opinion, Lane must be a difficult part to play; she is the object of desire for the most powerful man in world. Millions of women, and men, would throw themselves at the charming Superman. So, the actress must communicate an intangible quality that makes it at least remotely believable that Superman would fall for her. And while Bosworth eclipses Kidder in the looks department, she does not embody the quirkiness and edginess of Kidder's Lane.

With the exception of Bosworth, I had little problem with the film (although Luthor's scheme seems a bit nonsensical, even for a Superman film). Routh and Spacey are enjoyable as the major characters. While Routh respectfully channels Reeves, Spacey adds even more cunning to Hackman's Luthor. It may have gone a bit long (over 2 1/2 hours), but these types of films are designed to be entertaining while setting up for sequel; and the extra twenty minutes allowed for deeper character development that presumably will benefit the next film(s).

In the past few years, we have enjoyed a slew of exceptional superhero films, and Superman Returns clearly belongs in such company. Although Superman Returns does not usurp the Spiderman films or Batman Begins at top superhero cinema totem pole, it is definitely no League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It is certainly worth a viewing, especially in the theater where one can relish the outstanding special effects.