RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 2: Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” (2006)


The Players…

Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Sam Huntington and Frank Langella.

The Story…

After spending years away from Metropolis, Superman returns to find a city that’s managed to survive without him. And much to his chagrin, Lois Lane has moved on to another man. Supes is now heartbroken and feels without purpose. Not to worry, though. His old archenemy Lex Luthor is developing a new plan to rule the world. Again.

Seems that no matter how far away you get, home waits for your return. For good or for ill.

The Rant…

Superman. The name alone brings images of heroism, magnetism and, naturally, what puts the super in super. The Man of Steel is one of the most iconic, most recognized images in pop culture (others being Mickey Mouse and—of all things—Coca-Cola). Supes recently celebrated his 75th birthday, and there is little doubt that his creators, the “two kids from Cleveland,” Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster would’ve been very surprised that their simple sci-fi premise would forever saturate the world’s consciousness.

It’s kind of funny that it took so many years for the big guy to reach the silver screen. In the late 70’s, unknown actor Christopher Reeve took to the cape and red-and-blue tights and brought the story of the Last Son of Krypton to life. His charming, earnest and humorous portrayal of the comic book icon won over hundreds of moviegoers and comic book heads alike. Despite all of Superman’s powers, his alter ego Clark Kent made the hero accessible and immediately likeable with his foibles and humility. Reeve’s performance was nothing short of wonderful, and with smart writing, good acting and (at the time) cutting-edge special effects, the first two Superman movies were big hits and are now regarded as classics. All thanks mostly to the late, great Reeve.

It was a simpler time. Now in our post-9/11 world, with heroes harder and harder to recognize in black-and-white terms, interpretations of the Superman mythos can get downright sticky. The notion of a single man (or rather, alien) with amazing powers could single-handedly right the world’s wrongs with a flick of the wrist (or the flap of a cape) is almost laughable and out of place with our jaded, cynical society. We’ve seen it all and done all of that. Does the world really need, or deserve a Superman anymore?

Maybe, maybe not. But as filmgoers we do deserve a Superman film rife with all the hallmarks that have made the character so epic over the years. We need a super tale to remind us of what made the franchise so enchanting in the first place. We could all use a bit of wonder.

As in a previous installment, I noted I was a comic book head. Superman is the A-number one comic book superhero in the world, heads and shoulders above, say, Green Lantern (you can blame Ryan Reynolds to a point). Like I had said, DC has had a harder time making it in the movie biz, despite being a property of Warner Brothers (competitor Marvel is owned by Disney, so maybe that says something). But unlike Green Lantern, Superman is far more accessible with a simpler backstory and an all-around average Joe air about him. I like that. Lots of other people do, too. It’s kind of a hard storyboard to f*ck up. Now, I’m still a Marvel acolyte—I’ll take Spider-Man over Superman any day—but I respect Superman. Any self-respecting comic book head would do the same, Superfan or no. Put plain and simple, Superman’s legacy is rooted in his honesty, humanity and humble background. It should make for great moviemaking, right?

So why has it been so damned hard to get and keep Superman in cinema? Is it because of the aforementioned world-weariness of modern audiences? It is because there have been so many (maybe too many) varied interpretations of the hero that have made him less accessible? Is it because Christopher Reeve died? Or is it simpler?

Maybe it’s the pacing.

Pacing, the flow of the movie’s narrative, has become either the high or low water mark for how I measure most of these misunderstood movies. If the pacing is slow, the film is boring. Too fast and the flick becomes rushed and spent like premature ejaculation. There is a Goldilocks zone I always try to find in any movie I watch, good or bad, and if either miss that mark I get testy. Acting can get twitchy, plotting can get messy, direction can get scattershot. But mess with the movie’s overall stream and you can sure as sh*t get a headache. You’re tampering with the audiences’ attention span, and minutes matter in a movie. You want to wisely invest your time and not feel cheated.

After watching Superman Returns, I felt cheated. Worse, I felt bored

So Supes has been on sabbatical. Earth astronomers detected the flotsam and jetsam of Kal-El’s home world Krypton, and the Man of Steel flew ever homewards to give it a look-see. The round trip took him a few years away from his adopted Earth, and a lot can happen in a few years.

Superman—and of course Clark Kent (Routh)—returns home to Metropolis only to find himself feeling more alien than ever. The world’s moved on without him and seems to be doing just ducky in the absence of the world’s greatest hero. In fact, very little has seemed to have gone on while Superman’s been on vay-cay.

There are a few exceptions. Well, one actually. Love of his life, dauntless reporter Lois Lane (Bosworth) got tired of waiting around for the Caped One and gone and settled down, got hitched and even had a kid. Poor Superman/Clark has his heart stepped on by Lois. Twice. She wrote a Pulitzer-winning article shortly (and doubtless spurned) after Superman went off-world decrying the need for him. After all, the world didn’t end after he left.

At least, not yet.

Also out of circulation for the past few years was none other than Superman’s egomaniacal and shorn enemy (ha!) Lex Luthor (Spacey). Seems that Superman’s impulsive urge to try and go home again let Luthor’s incarceration fall flaccid (it’s kind of stupid to be a key witness in a world-domination gotta-get-to-The Hague kind of thing and, oh I dunno, leave the planet). Naturally, you know ol’ Lex is jouncing for a little revenge and another world-domination ploy. You can’t keep a good villain down…

There’s really no need to spend more time on the plot. There isn’t much of one. And what there is is stale and derivative. You already know Superman will make a triumphant return (hence the title, I guess), woo Lois, save a few treed kitties and thwart Luthor’s latest hair-brained scheme to make the world his bitch. It kinda sounds like the first movie kinda.

It is.

While I was watching the film I had to catch myself from trying too hard to look for/recapture the memories of the first movie of my youth. But the parallels were obvious. Director Bryan Singer tried very hard to follow the spirit of the earlier movies. Maybe too hard. Singer is no stranger to comic book movies. He directed the serviceable first X-Men movie and its terrific sequel. He passed up directing the third to helm Superman Returns (and after seeing the X3, I think he might have had the right idea). Instead of sticking with a winning format that had proven fruitful, Singer wanted to extend his reach and tackle the DC universe with his own unique stamp. But instead he aped Richard Donner (director of the first two Superman movies) in every way possible, right down to the music.

The title sequence sets the tone for the movie, recreating everything from the theme music to the graphics of the first movie. Perhaps this is homage, or maybe suggesting a continuation of the franchise that lay in limbo for almost 20 years. In any event from then on the movie is a non-stop echo of what the original films were. There’s a lot of hat tipping to the original movies, and a holy host of details lifted directly from the comics, like the audience needed hand-holding. A generation has gone by without a Superman film. Maybe Singer felt obligated to fill in the gaps for the uninformed. As I’ve warned before, it’s far better to show than tell. Let the audience figure it out, flex their collective imagination.

That’s the funny thing. For an action movie, there isn’t a helluva whole lot of visual storytelling. Yes, yes, There’s Superman flying, demonstrating his super-strength, heat beams, icy breath, perfect hair, etc. But it’s all so preciously staged. Even the beats of solid action lack dynamics, a lack of verve. The film is so rigidly structured it was like watching a wall being mortared. A wall that kept out a good storyline, or at least an interesting one. I felt cheated, bored. Everything feels stale here.

Well, not everything. But it also may be the cause of more single dimensioned aspects of the movie. Try as you or I might, you can’t fault lead Brandon Routh’s take on Superman and/or Clark Kent. He even looks like a young (and breathing) Chris Reeve. He nails all the mannerisms of Supes and Kent flawlessly. Flawlessly if you’re measuring it against (yes, again) Christopher Reeve. We’re gonna keep tugging on that cape, so to speak, because there was so much either lifted from or nodded to the original films it was like sparking a little originality into the mythos would smash the apple cart. In the comic book world, we call it defying the continuity cops.

And the hell of it is that Routh was really good in his acting. The nobility and dare I say tenderness and humility of Superman was on point, and klutzy Kent was no less than endearing or funny. He had some big shoes to fill, and fill him well he did. The rest of the cast, not so much. Bosworth’s Lois was wooden and didn’t show the particular drive that possesses a Pulitzer winning newswoman. Kevin Spacey was hardly menacing as Luthor; he was goofy but not as campy as Gene Hackman’s performance from years ago. Let’s face it, since Superman Returns tries to emulate the original films so badly, any breaths of fresh air got coughed into the vapor.

Superman Returns is pushing too hard to be epic rather than organic. Most damning of all, there’s no sense of urgency. There’s never any real tension. You know everything’s gonna work out. Everything falls into line and by the numbers, and is thick with sluggish directorial flourishes that are thrown in there like the frill in a club sandwich, as if to reassure you that a movie is going on. There is a palpable lack of fun and wonder.

Finally, the film’s running time is way too long. This movie should’ve been wrapped up in a nice efficient 100 minutes. Instead it crawls along for over two hours, halting several times like a stalled car to where the call for cut/print should’ve been called a few dozen scenes in. Like I said, slow pacing. I actually did something I have never done while reviewing these films: I stopped it midway through. Just hit pause, went to bed, saved it for a later day when I felt like finishing it. That was how bored and cheated I felt. I just shrugged it off for a week.

In sum, Superman Returns was a heartbreaking disappointment. A lot of wasted ideas and time were squandered on this movie. The question of heroics was raised a lot during the movie. What makes one a hero. What they are to others. Quite a bit of navel gazing. Too much philosophy and not enough of a proactive stance, cinematic or otherwise.  I feel bad in saying it: the whole thing was a slog. And I so wanted this movie to work.

Does the world need another Superman movie? Yes, but not like this one.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, I’m sorry to say. Commit the cardinal sin of boredom in any movie, no matter how epic it tries to be, and you’ll get no good graces from me.

Stray Observations…

  • “Even though you’re the last, you’re not alone.” That is a good line.
  • It seems with CGI and its superluminal rate of evolution, audiences’ suspension of disbelief must be ever quicker. One can tell faster and faster what is real, model or green screen with every would-be blockbuster.
  • Gotta love that spitcurl.
  • The piano montage was cool, but seemingly pointless. Another directorial indulgence from Singer.
  • People still use faxes?
  • The Jesus Christ pose towards the end of the movie was bit too on the nose. We’ve already been reminded how much of a savior Superman is over the course of two hours. He saved the planet. Gotcha. It’s what he’s expected to do after all.
  • “Gotta fly.”

Next Installment…

Adrien Brody cuts tracks for stacks of wax as the head of Cadillac Records.

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