superman returns (2006)

The Man of Steel stands on a rooftop, high above the city of Metropolis, with his one true love, Lois Lane. "Will you come with me?", he says with a hopeful gleam in his eyes. "Why?", she asks skeptically. "So we can show the audience all the cool stuff the effects guys can do with CGI". And so it is, that the original American superhero returns to the big screen, faster than a speeding "yawn" and more powerful than a "meh". True, he's still able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and he can catch stuff that falls, he's great at that, but in order to make me amazed that he can do it, he first has to make me believe that he can't do it. That is to say, there's absolutely no drama in a sure thing, drama comes from doubt. Drama comes from superheroes whom we doubt will be able to make it, but still somehow do in the end. And above all, drama comes from caring wether or not the thing that the drama centers around comes out okay. In the hero's latest adventure, and fifth feature length film, Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer takes a crack at making all of these things happen. However, the outcome is decidedly dull. For the last few years, Hollywood seemed to have these comic book films down, and a superhero movie was almost always a sure thing for enjoying yourself. It's the lack of that, enjoyment, that really ends up bringing Superman Returns down.

Before we get to specifics, I'll get a few things out of the way. This, like most of the recent smash blockbusters, was made with one thing in mind: name recognition. Superman Returns counts too much on the fact that we'll all be walking into the theater as huge fans of the Man of Steel, and gives barely a thought about the uninitiated in the audience. I, for one, do not know much about this particular hero. I know of him, I've been on the roller coaster many times, but I wouldn't consider myself anywhere near a fan. Bad news for a film that counts so much on that fact. It's no coincidence that my three favorite comicbook film franchises, X-Men, Spider-Man, and Batman, are also the three cartoons I watched as a kid. Nostalgia goes a long way, and without its aid to movie enjoyment, this film falls flatter than Lex Luthor's jokes. Before the film's release, I thought it would be a good idea to at least have some background info, because I had been told that this film was going to be a sequel picking up where the original two films left off. So I rented 1978's Superman: The Movie and 1980's Superman II. Bad idea. I didn't like them as much as I'd hoped to, though I found them enjoyable for their comedy and cool retro-style effects. Both had alot of problems, but if this film was going to be in the same spirit, I figured it would turn out to be a fun film in a "Saturday morning cartoon" sense, as the originals had been. Again, totally wrong way to approach this film. So I've seen the originals, I know a bit about Superman, and I sit down in my seat ready for some high-flying fun with Superman Returns. Well, misconception #1 kicked in pretty early on that the "sequel" thing I'd heard was pretty far off. The film follows what happened in the previous two films, but only as far it is convenient for this one's plot. Example: In Superman II, there were two major occurrences: Lex Luthor find Superman's secret hideout, and Lois Lane finds out Superman's identity. In this film, they keep the hideout thing, but drop the identity discovery. Why? does Lois have amnesia? Did Superman erase her memory? Meh, they never say. So is this film a sequel? Well, kind of, but not really. Ah, you might be saying to yourself "So it's a re-make"? Well, again, they never quite clear that up. I guess it could be. The film never finds a niche for itself, it never draws the line between what makes a sequel, a re-make, an homage, a "re-imagining"; it's all of those things, and it's none of them. A few nods to the old film are nice, I'm all for homages, but the way its used here is borderline lazy, with entire chunks of dialogue and specific lines lifted directly from the original film. If I had to hear Marlon Brando's speech from the original Superman stuck in there one more time, I was gonna flip. Okay, so the film is on shaky ground, but it could at least get the execution right, ... right? Well, again, not really. Misconception #2: Bryan Singer is going to direct this film to be like the old ones. Wrong once again, but apparently he forgot to tell anyone. The script is written like the old films, the actors act it like the old films, but Singer inexplicably shoots it like an X-Men film. His mise en scene is dark, drab, foreboding, but his actors are trying to behave like cartoon characters, at least for most of the film. Jokes and silliness abound for the first hour or so, and then suddenly everyone gets very sullen. Lois Lane is almost constantly frowning, Superman looks like he wants to cry for most of the film, and Kumar just looks like he wonders if we wandered on to the wrong set (Oh yeah, I didn't mention that part. Kal Penn is in this movie .... for some reason). So is it Supposed to be funny? It is supposed to be serious? Is it supposed to be depressing? Is it supposed to be uplifting? I don't know, but you're probably starting to get the idea of why this film doesn't work. 

But perhaps there is one aspect of this film that could make me forgive it its faults: the action. I'm going to give the film thumbs up on its CGI because it's pretty darn convincing. Superman soars, huge spikes pop out of the ocean, a plane drops from the sky. Visually, this film gets the action right. However, the problems cannot be overlooked. If I were in trouble, there's nobody I would want saving me more than Superman. If the world's about to be destroyed, and Superman shows up, we can all breathe a sigh of relief, everything's good, show's over folks, the world is going to be just fine. But that's just it: the show is literally over once he arrives. All Superman really has to do is show up at the scene of danger and everything's cool. Two years ago, when Dr. Octopus sent a runaway train hurtling through Manhattan, my eyes grew wide, how would Spider-Man ever stop that train? What was he going to do?? Here, in 2006, when a malfunctioning airplane is hurtling toward the ground, all I could think was "hmmm, I wonder how long it's gonna take Superman to stop that plane". There's no danger, there's no doubt, he's freaking Superman for god's sake, of course he'll stop the plane. The same goes for the rest of the film. Superman never gets to fight anyone in an exciting way, because he's invincible. All of the action consists of stuff falling and Superman catching it. Wow ... pretty exciting. There are pretty much only two options with Superman: 1 - He's invincible and kicks everyone's ass, or 2 - He's helpless from Kryptonite and everyone kicks his ass. Neither of those makes for anything approaching a good action scene, in fact the latter just becomes mean-spirited and really drains alot of the potential fun from the finale. Also, as a note to Superman: Lex Luthor ALWAYS has Kryptonite. Stop walking up to him, assuming that he does not, he will ALWAYS have it. Fly above him and shoot him with your eye lasers, pick up a boulder and drop it on him, do pretty much anything besides walking right up to him. Anyway, the rest of the film is pretty mediocre. The dialogue is standard comic book stuff, nothing to complain about, but nothing to applaud either. Superman doesn't do much talking, but looks very serious while he does everything. Again, it's what you bring with you that fills in those silences as either being dull or poignant. The film greatly overstays its welcome by about a half hour. Even when the fighting is over, we still have to sit through waaay too much wrap-up moments that the film failed to cause me to care about. I had found the film disappointing, but still semi-enjoyable up until all of this stuff. The acting pretty much gives us every range of good and bad. I found James Marsden as Lois Lane's fiancee to be pretty good and one of the more convincing performances. Brandon Routh is the best in the film, his performance as Superman is just what the doctor ordered. Had he not been so good, this film would have really been in trouble. The trouble is that he lacks a certain amount of chemistry with Kate Bosworth who, even though she's not bad by herself, really hurts the "romantic" scenes. Kevin Spacey, as good an idea as the casting may have been, did nothing for me. I really thought that his take on Lex Luthor wasn't as good as it should have been, and we wasn't funny at all, unlike Gene Hackman. Overall, the film just never really took off for me. There were a few glimmers of excitement when John Williams' original Superman theme began to play in the background, but the rest of the music isn't nearly as good because they got some other guy to write all of it, not Williams.

So, skip this one. Seriously, you're much better off waiting for something else. However, if you have to, and you haven't seen the old films, don't bother watching them because they won't help your experience one bit. As I said, I didn't like them that much, but this film made me appreciate and miss them. I would have much rather seen Hackman's wise-cracking and charismatic Lex Luthor, with the help of the bumbling Otis and Ms. Tessmacher, taking on an exuberant Superman while he upheld truth, justice and the American way in a vibrant and colorful comic-like world. Instead I got Spacey and his gang of thugs wreaking havoc in a dark and uninspiring Metropolis, while Superman sullenly sulks in the shadows trying to make himself feel wanted. I wanted to have some fun, but this film is more of a downer than anything else.

4