review: superman returns

June 30, 2006

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Superman, the last son of Krypton, has indeed returned, and with a bang. After a 19 year absence, director Bryan Singer has resurrected the Man of Steel in a big screen adventure that delights with its lovely visuals and characterizations yet disappoints with its overly familiar plotting. A masterpiece it is not; the film is both more uneven and more ambitious than Mr. Singer’s last effort, 2003’s X2: X-Men United. It may, however, be his best work to date.

However monstrously large the visual effects budget was, it was probably worth it. The shots of Brandon Routh’s Superman floating in space, high above the earth he has sworn to protect, achieve a poetic beauty that is all to rare in modern blockbusters and provide the earliest indications that Singer and Co. are shooting for something grander than the average popcorn flick. In order to keep the adrenaline pumping, though, he includes scenes such the rescue of a plummeting jetliner, a visual tour de force of modern animation technique that (unsurprisingly) suffers from a lack of real tension. More technical wizardry is employed to resurrect Marlon Brando’s Jor-El for a brief, nostalgic–and, in the presence of Lex Luthor, ominous–monologue on the powerful secrets of the Kryptonian people.

On another visual note, there seems to be quite a bit of grain in the presentation which can only be construed as a deliberate design decision. The grittier, more realistic tone it evokes contrasts nicely with the muted color palette that seems a throwback to earlier decades of film-making. As a consequence, the film takes on a timeless quality and yet is somehow inextricably and simultaneously linked to the here and now; together, these elements set the stage for Singer’s stab at crafting a modern classic.

Indeed, Singer’s reverence for the source material is one of the film’s great strengths, one that it can fall back on in its less-than-stellar moments. Routh’s version of Clark Kent is slightly less bumbling and less goofy than Reeve’s, but the resemblance in both appearance and mannerisms is uncanny at times. Superman, of course, is as unimpeachably noble as ever, saving humanity from itself time and again while cementing his status as an aspirational figure both in his world and in ours.

Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor, an inspired bit of casting, plays things much more towards the sinister side of things than did Gene Hackman in the original films (though Spacey does deliver some truly hilarious lines). Putting then 22-year-old Kate Bosworth in the shoes of veteran–and now Pulitzer laureate–reporter Lois Lane, arguably the riskiest casting decision, pays off reasonably well, if not spectacularly; she certainly looks the part–age isn’t much of an issue–but the tenacity so often associated with her character is downplayed somewhat in favor of a more muted, resolute stance that reflects her emotional confusion resulting from Superman’s sudden return and its ensuing complications.

Superman’s status as a Christ figure is central to the film’s message, and while it lends the film–and particularly the final scenes–additional weight, a less overt approach might have been prudent, if only to demonstrate respect for the audience’s ability to recognize such themes without seeing images of our hero in crucifxion-like poses. That said, it is difficult to say that the explicit imagery actually detracts from the film since the allegory is so apt.

In fact, on a first viewing it is difficult to see just where the film really goes wrong. Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor has a diabolical scheme for world domination involving real estate, kryptonite, and some very special crystals. A clever villain, he goes to great lengths to prevent Superman’s interference, but of course, our hero is triumphant in the end. While a great many interesting things happen along the way to this conclusion, the constraints of the Superman mythos clearly limited Singer and crew in crafting a truly memorable plot.

Kryptonite is now so well established in the minds of moviegoers as to be cliche, yet its status as Superman’s single weakness requires its presence (if only as a plot device). Concordantly, since a happy ending is assured, suspense can never build to levels powerful enough to create any concern for Superman’s well being.

It is fortunate, then, that our enjoyment of the film does not rise and fall based on the level of danger our hero finds himself in but largely on the ebb and flow of the emotional undertones, which are rich and powerful. Much time is devoted to exploration of Superman and Lois’ feelings for one another, beautifully expressed in a late night flight high above the bustling city of Metropolis. As it turns out, Lois harbors hidden feelings for our hero even after his five-year absence, though their relationship is complicated by the presence of a fiance, James Marsden’s Richard White, and a young son (Tristan Lake Leabu) of uncertain paternity.

The relationship of fathers to sons is, incidentally, a major theme of the film; the film begins with super-father Jor-El expressing his love for Superman and his hope that his “only son” will “light the way” to a great future for humanity and ends with a reaffirmation of those sentiments (the circumstances of which I’ll keep secret to avoid spoiling one of the film’s surprises). It is these scenes that serve most notably to highlight the humanity of Superman; yes, despite his inescapable status as an outsider, in order for the film to succeed the audience must feel for our hero’s plight. And we do.

Superman may be the “perfect” superhero, but despite his enviable ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, the Man of Steel is, deep down, one of us. Superman Returns shows us his relational issues, his family conflict, and his uncertainty over his place in the world: all troubles that even ordinary, non-super men must grapple with. That they are explored within the space of a film that also gives us crowd-pleasing action sequences, clever humor, and a spectacular score goes a long way towards making the whole enterprise a success. Yet issues of plotting drag it down, diminishing the emotional connection that the film works so hard to establish. Some moments achieve such a poignant sublimity that the film can nearly transcend its faults; almost, but not quite. Still, such variation is far more interesting than a constant mediocrity, and the film’s triumphs are more than enough to warrant both praise and reflection on Bryan Singer’s ever-improving talents.

Author’s Note: The thoughts collected in this review were formulated over the course of two viewings of the film. I cannot remember any film that that has ever demanded from me so much pause for consideration. In fact, before I sat down to write it, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I really liked it at all. For a film of this magnitude–and of this length–a repeat viewing is perhaps necessary for full understanding. So, Pass judgment carefully, and I welcome any comments on the opinions expressed above.

–D. S. W.

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2 Responses to “review: superman returns”

  1. Jonathan Coveney said

    A well written review on all counts. This blog is becoming a pleasure to read.

  2. mr skin said

    Brandon did a pretty good job in Superman Returns! But I don’t like the movie. The original was much better.

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