Superman Returns

Superman Returns

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Superman Returns: Good, but not better than ever.

Jul 12, 2006 (Updated Jul 27, 2006)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

  • Bang For The Buck

Pros:Superman mystique portrayed well. References to previous films.

Cons:Discordant story arc. Character choices.

The Bottom Line: It's Superman. Go see it.


First a preface...

I apologize for the countless comparisons to the first two films, but they are virtually mandated. Superman is the best cinematic adaptation of a comic book yet, and Superman II is a solid sequel. That pedigree combined with the hype inherent in any movie that has spent over a decade in development hell, the overall success of recent movies like Batman Begins and the X-Men movies, the movie's tentpole status, and the intentional references to prior films mean that expectations are ridiculously high and correlations like these are inevitable.

On with the show...


For chronological reasons in- and outside of the movie itself, Superman Returns is a unique sequel. This is not Batman Begins, which ignored all previous incarnations and essentially started anew; nor is it X2, which follows on the heels of the original; nor is it one of the first three Batman sequels, all of which trailed the 1989 version by an undefined but irrelevant period of time. Director Bryan Singer's film occurs five years after Superman II, under the (wistful) pretenses that the third and fourth installments of the series never happened. Additionally the two predecessors that Returns does follow were released over a quarter century ago, so largely (and sadly) unknown to much of today's audience. Therefore the franchise is simultaneously continued and reinvented, a strange dichotomy upon which Returns finds both its strongest and weakest moments.

Often a movie succeeds in telling its story well but falls short in the little areas that can push it several levels higher. The first two Harry Potter movies, for example, tell the books' stories and portray the universe effectively, but lack the character and cinematic touches that Alfonso Cuaron so brilliantly infused into Prisoner of Azkaban. Superman Returns accomplishes the opposite, nailing the little things but sometimes missing the overall target. Writer/director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) and company clearly understand the Superman mythos established by previous incarnations of the hero. They wisely choose to borrow John Williams' original theme, imitate the original credits, and include plenty lines that refer to the first two films. Some lines are quoted directly (Superman's comment about the safety of flying), while other words reinforce previously established traits (like Lois' inability to spell). This attention to detail leaves fans of those movies with a sweet taste on their cinematic tongues, but one that may be indistinguishable to ignorant viewers.

Brandon Routh's performance as the Man of Steel does likewise. He enthralls with an eerie ability to channel Christopher Reeve's presence, physical and vocal mannerisms, and charming clumsiness. Whether this is a testament to Routh's mimicry skills or to how well Reeve defined the role is debatable, but either way Routh deserves praise for filling the part well, as does Singer for casting an unknown, a fact that may have helped Routh match Superman's alien status. These components supply the high points of the film, as Returns captures the all-important mystique of Superman that was present in I and II.

The same cannot be said of many of the movie's choices, which lack the cohesion of a great film. Kevin Spacey provides a microcosm of the problem. Gene Hackman played Lex Luthor with a perfect concoction of darkness and comedy. Evil tinged his humor and humor tinged his evil. Spacey's Luthor possesses both qualities, but at disparate times, creating a distracting bipolar antagonist out of a single-minded villain. I'm not a big fan of Kate Bosworth's turn either. She embodies the hard-nosed journalist side of Lois Lane well, but her human side appears too intentionally cynical and invulnerable. Admittedly though, Lois should have changed over the missing five years, so perhaps I merely long for Margot Kidder's fantastic work. Bosworth tries hard, but never looks quite right or finds the balance of Lois as investigator and love interest.

This thread of inconsistency snakes through the entire movie, even into the overall storyline, which is fairly standard superhero stuff: Superman...uh..returns to a retro-futuristic Metropolis, where he must confront his past with Lois while dealing with Luthor's nefarious schemes. That much is fine, but an anticipatory undercurrent flows beneath the waves. Singer was successful with the X-Men franchise in part because he told the story and did not over-emphasize the underlying built-in analogies of the mutants. Here he inserts a discordant arc that, as it surfaces, convolutes and stretches a simple story with twisted aspirations to a greater or more complex level of cinema. A noble effort, and one that may be more appreciated in the long run, but for now falls flat.

Despite these flaws, Superman Returns is still an excellent movie experience, a fact that speaks to the nonpareil power of the Superman mythos. The movie's overwhelming Superman-ness saves it much like Superman looks to save humanity. He exhibits relatable characteristics taken from every other recent silver screen star: the outsider nature of the X-Men, the awkward everyman side of Peter Parker, Batman's seeming infallible desire to eliminate crime. Superman is good and uncomplicated. He stands for truth, justice, and the American way; he awkwardly seeks acceptance; he scarcely harms anyone; he grew up on an idyllic farm in Kansas. He is Norman Rockwell's superhero. Singer seems to understand this, doling out the full iconic treatment through classic framing, sweeping camera movement, and the aforementioned cinematic touches. The only misstep is in the overly dramatic tone of this deification, which drifts to the serious side. The original has a twinkle-in-the-eye attitude, one that winks at the silliness of a man in tights, one that is more uplifting in many respects, such as the way it conveys the joy of flying. Returns utilizes slightly too heavy a hand, failing to fully communicate the exhilarating experience, but definitely succeeding in portraying the grandness of Superman. In the superhero universe, I have long been a Batman guy, and I still am, but this movie reiterates what many already know: Superman is the best. End of discussion.

Just as Superman Returns as a whole is a dynamic paradox of past, present, and future, many of its parts are a series of contradictions that do not completely find a proper middle ground. Although very entertaining, the end result does not strike as deep as it could have, leaving the viewer with a pleasant saccharine sensation that masks a lingering bitter aftertaste. Magnetically appealing, the movie is a welcome adventure back into the world of Superman, one that ought to be seen on the big screen. 7 of 10.


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