The Theory of Chaos

Monday, July 03, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Superman Returns

Full review behind the jump

Superman Returns
: Bryan Singer
: Story by Bryan Singer and Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris, Screenplay by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris, based on characters appearing in comic books published by DC Comics and “Superman” created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
: Jon Peters, Bryan Singer, Gilbert Adler
: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Tristan Lake Leabu

Filmmaker Bryan Singer even duplicates the style of the opening credits in
Superman Returns, which accords Richard Donner’s 1978 feature the power of a generation-spanning franchise. Just as you know from frame one that you’re watching a Star Wars movie, so with this movie Singer wants you to keep its forbearers lovingly in mind. I admit to feeling a charge from seeing the old blue outline letters accompanied by John Williams’ stirring themes again.

And the movie is dedicated to the late Christopher Reeve and his wife Dana – it’s worth revisiting Reeve’s run in the blue tights to recall just how much of the movies’ success stemmed from his iconic, arrow-straight but somehow sly performance. He displayed confidence in the conceit of his character even as he invited the audience to share in its ridiculousness; he embodied Superman so well that audiences could never completely shake the image of him in the suit.

There’s such a thing as too much respect – one doesn’t solve the problem of having big shoes to fill by bronzing the shoes and displaying them for others to appreciate their bigness. If anyone could have taken the most famous name in caped hero-dom and managed to fuse a tribute with a reinvention, it would be Singer, whose two
X-Men features displayed a canny sense for both the geek appeal and pop pathos required. He delivers a big movie here, with bold colors (d.p. Newton Thomas Sigel makes eye-popping use of a new digital camera) and audacious imagination. But he wants to do so much with this opportunity that in the end the attempt to serve two masters is too big for him. He loses his grip and the movie tumbles into the crowd with ideas still half-shaped and emotional depths unplumbed.

You get your leaping of tall buildings and outracing of speeding bullets, and flying and titanic feats of strength. And you get the X-Ray vision, though used in the most chaste capacity. But that’s what has always set Superman (Brandon Routh) apart: he is pure, total goodness. He’s even sort of a big dork about it, which makes him a tricky hero in a time of cynics and gussied-up vigilantes. His power, more fundamental than his super-strength, is to remind us with his indefatigable decency that we can be better than we are.

This movie gets that, and it gets the playful humor of Superman’s camped-up nerd alter ego Clark Kent. But I couldn’t help but feel that if I were a couple of years younger, and didn’t have the experience of the previous movies, I wouldn’t understand what was being so effectively mimicked.

The story has us playing catch-up immediately – positing that after his heroic feats of the first two movies (Singer and co. ignore the ill-conceived Part III and the vapid Part IV), Superman left Earth for five years to visit the remains of his homeworld Krypton. And that the villainous Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, appropriately swapping eccentricity for megalomania on demand) took advantage of his absence to manipulate his way out of prison and hatch new schemes that, as always, combine global devastation with personal profit. And that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), well, Lois got herself a boyfriend (James Marsden) and a son (Tristan Lake Leabu).

Here is where trying to have it both ways creates cracks in the superstructure – Bosworth’s Lane is nothing like the quick-witted, chain-smoking, danger-courting woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown that Margot Kidder portrayed. She was an album of flawed humanity in all its messy glory, and you could understand Superman/Clark’s fascination with her, as well as the profound way his simple kindness drew her to him. It’s understandable that even the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lois Lane would be softened by motherhood, and that she might have mixed feelings about the Man of Steel swooping back into her life, but Bosworth (who is all of 23) just can’t fake the life experience required by her backstory, and what we see on screen seems merely petulant and out of her depth.

Routh, who does cut a dashing and muscular figure, also comes across as too young and callow for the story being told to us. Instead of the mature yearning of lives shattered by circumstance – and this movie sets aside a lot of time in its super-sized 160 minutes for yearning – it feels more like youthful angst, lacking the gravity to hold up the literally earth-shattering climax.

Tribute is due to Singer and writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris for a number of witty moments – I especially liked one involving a toothbrush and another involving a piano – and for concocting a big-screen scenario worthy of Superman’s prowess. Of course, it too is dependent on the details of the previous movies, and of Luthor’s familiarity with a certain hideaway in the frozen north. I can’t predict if the uninitiated will buy it, but the visual spectacle it leads to makes up for a lot. If you’ve ever felt like movies have stopped showing you things you haven’t seen before, Superman Returns fights to prove you wrong.

There’s a term bandied about Hollywood for a movie that tries to be too many things to too many people – a feathered fish. It won’t swim and it won’t fly. In trying to reinvent Superman for the 21st century, Singer is still too enamored of the superhero he grew up with to break from it and stand on his own. And in making what amounts to a replacement sequel for a movie over a quarter of a century old, he alters too much of its essential quality and invests too much faith in the memories of his audience. The resulting film is enjoyable, buoyed by the considerable talents involved and their clear affection for the legacy of their source material. But even when it’s doing its best to fly, I see gills.


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