Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Superman Returns

Slick, dark and edgy takes on much-loved comic characters have become de-rigeur over the past decade or so. It began essentially with the Tim Burton Batman films, moved on to the Sam Raimi Spiderman films, continued with the Bryan Singer X-Men films, faltered a bit with Ang Lee’s Hulk* and reached a pinnacle with last year’s Batman Begins, directed by Christopher Nolan. In films like these, brightly-coloured spandex outfits were abandoned in favour of leather and rubber, and backstories were vital to fleshing out the superhero characters. You couldn’t just be a good guy - you had to have a tragic childhood/adolescence, intimacy issues, and sado/masochistic tendencies – and be good in spite of all that.

But that approach simply wouldn’t work with Superman. Superman is Superman. He’s the ultimate good guy. There are no shades of grey - he’s black and white all the way.
The aforementioned Bryan Singer (who ditched X-Men: The Last Stand to take up the directing reigns here) therefore opts to avoid altering the character of the most super of superheroes. It’s simultaneously the best and worst thing about Superman Returns.

Superman Returns is a superhero movie that retains a sense of innocence and childlike wonder – as if Singer was directing through the eyes of the wide-eyed comic-reading ten-year-old inside him. But the character of Superman is just not as engaging as his others in the DC universe – and for this reviewer, there isn’t enough of his more human alter-ego Clark Kent to make up for it.

Ostensibly taking place after events in 1980’s Superman II (starring Christopher Reeve), Superman Returns sees the eponymous character (played by newcomer Brandon Routh) return to Earth after five years in the wild space frontier, searching in vain for any remains of his home planet Krypton. He crash lands back in the Kansas farm he grew up in, with Ma Kent (a nice cameo from Eva Marie Saint) on hand to nurse him back to health. Back he goes to Metropolis, to his old life as Clark Kent, newspaper reporter for the Daily Planet. The gang’s all still there – sharp-tongued editor Perry White (Frank Langella); gawky photographer Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington); and of course, ace reporter extraordinaire Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) – but things aren’t exactly the same. With Superman gone, the world, it seems, has moved on – and so has Lois, writing a Pulitzer Prize winning article entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”, and more importantly, shacking up with White’s nephew Richard (James Marsden), and popping out a sprog (Tristan Lake Leabu as Jason). It seems winning the public over again will be easier than getting on Lois’ good side.

Also making a return from an exile - albeit of a different kind - is criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (a scene-stealing Kevin Spacey). Out of prison, and newly rich (thanks to a conveniently dead wife), Luthor tracks down Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (complete with projected images of Marlon Brando as Superman’s dad Jor-El), and learns the art of “crystal technology” – the method of building anything and everything on long-dead Krypton. Luthor hatches a plan to rearrange the world’s continental real estate, and has no intention of the letting the recently returned Superman stop him.

The film takes its time with the story – Singer is a master at pacing, and while it’s over two hours long, it always holds your attention. This skill comes especially in handy considering the plot holes the size of the yellow sun that Singer must contend with (nobody notices Superman arrives back at the same time as Clark, after being away for the same length of time?). It’s cinematic sleight-of-hand at its best.

I had no problem with Brandon Routh as Superman – he looks eerily like Christopher Reeve from certain angles, and his inexperience onscreen is well disguised by the fact that Superman’s all-round goodness makes him a bit wooden to begin with. I preferred his turn as the clumsy Clark Kent, all wide eyes, awkward smiles and sneaky runs to the elevator when a quick change is required. Kate Bosworth is a little more problematic – there’s no doubt she held her own, but she just looks too damn young to be a reporter as experienced as Lois Lane, with a top job and a Pulitzer under her belt – not to mention a relationship with Superman going back over five years and now a four-year-old son running about. Obviously she matches age-wise with Routh, but at certain points I wished the casting directors had hired leads 5 or 10 years older.

The supporting players at the Daily Planet are all competent (especially Huntington as Jimmy Olsen); but the real star of the show is Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Spacey plays on the fact that while we all wish we had the power and goodness of Superman, we’d settle for Luthor’s style and panache. Spacey’s timing and delivery are exemplary – while many comic die-hards will no doubt decry the continuing morphing of Luthor from insane scientist to Dr Evil-style megalomaniac (complete with white suit and bald noggin), most will enjoy such energetic opposition to the titular hero. Parker Posey also turns in a fun performance as Luthor’s moll, Kitty Kowalski.

The special effects reflect the movie’s big budget – although the site of a plummeting 747 didn’t turn me off flying as much as I thought it would. The new land built by Luthor using his stolen crystals is impressive, but it’s hard to believe the soulless rocky outcrops would attract a high bidding among land-hungry estate agents.

Superman Returns is an old-fashioned superhero movie, with a clear line between “good” and “bad”. The only complexities come from Lois’ relationship with Superman, and current partner Richard, and they’re interesting enough to watch, even a bit creepy at times (Superman hovering above Lois’ home, listening in to her and Richard’s kitchen talk). As mentioned above, the film suffers in my opinion because of a lack of Clark Kent, but then the movie is titled Superman Returns not Clark Kent Returns. But it’s got action and adventure for the kids, a bit of romance for the romantics, and in-jokes and comic references for the geeks. And surely that must be good enough.

*we don’t mention 2003’s Daredevil, or its 2005 spin-off Elektra.

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