Earlier this year, we mourned the passing of X-Men as a decent movie franchise. After providing us intelligent boom-booms for the first two movies, the third offered much promise; the Dark Phoenix sequence is, I’m told, iconic. However, director Bryan Singer left X-Men for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to bring Superman back to the screen. And this, if nothing else, shows how good a director Bryan Singer is. Without him, X-Men III was a muddled affair that completely dashed the audience’s expectations. Superman Returns is a tightly plotted, intelligent movie, with great attention to detail.
Superman Returns could have been called Superman III; not that we have anything against the earlier movie of the same name. Superman Returns stands on its own, but it also resonates if you remember the classic original movie with Christopher Reeve. Remember, the sequel guest starred three master criminals from Krypton. Superman has always felt isolated from the human race he’s sworn to protect. With this reminder of his pastt, and the discovery by astronomers of where Krypton used to be, Superman decides that he has to go back and see his home, and he leaves Earth for six years. Returning, he finds that the human race in general, and Lois Lane in particular, have moved on. Does the human race still have any need for him?
Thematically, Superman Returns is an excellent continuation and resolution of the themes raised in the first two Christopher Reeve movies, so we’re tempted to just insert this film right after Superman II in the movie canon. Dan and I agree that Superman III, an okay film, can be renamed Superman IV, while Superman IV can be consigned to oblivion.
Superman Returns could not have worked if actor Brandon Routh was not up to the job. He had the hardest task of the movie: be Superman and Clark Kent, with most people in the audience viewing Christopher Reeve’s performance as near definitive. Fortunately, he rises to the occasion. He covers all of the touchstones of Reeve’s performance: the noble brow, Kent’s goofiness, the character’s touching innocence, but in some areas, Routh exceeds Reeve’s performance, giving Superman a sad edge. Superman’s pain in realizing that Lois Lane has moved on, has had a son and is in a committed relationship with Richard White (hot-shot but ultimately heroic nephew of Dailiy Planet editor Perry White), lends a tragic edge to his character. He is an alien among humans; he may have the power of (essentially) a god, but in spite of that (or, perhaps, because of that), he leads a very lonely existence. A great moment comes when he overhears Lois saying she never loved him, and he goes on a bit of a bender — whipping around the world at near the speed of light and intervening in every little disaster he finds. It’s a poignant moment: as much as Superman can do, there are still things that he can’t.
Fortunately, Lex Luthor is around to keep him from dwelling on this truth too long. Lex has a plot to create new real-estate by growing a continent in the middle of the Atlantic (and, incidentally, destroying most of North America and part of Europe), and here, Kevin Spacey walks away with the movie. He is just fascinating to watch, again picking up on the touchstones of the movie character as established by Gene Hackman, but improving on it. Kevin Spacey’s Luthor is unquestionably dangerous. There is less bluster here. The comedy of Luthor’s quiet contempt over the fools that surround him is still here, but there is a greater sense of danger — an tautness of anger inside him that feels always on the verge of snapping.
But the big star of Superman Returns is director Bryan Singer, who turns the movie into a visual feast. There is a lot of detail to take in on this film; so much so that my friend Dan is still catching new stuff even though he’s seen the movie six times. I myself noticed that on a Scrabble board in Martha Kent’s living room, the night that Superman returns, the world “ALIENATION” displays prominently. :Erin noticed that when Lois Lane boards Lex Luthor’s boat, not knowing he’s aboard, the song “My friend, Beware” is playing from the classic opera Carmen. Metropolis is a masterpiece; while unquestionably set in the modern world, it’s full of visuals and architecture which touch on the thirties (the era of the first Superman comic), the fifties (the era of the first Superman television show) and the seventies (the era of the Christopher Reeve movies). My favourite scene, however, is when Lex Luthor runs a test of his plan on the model railway set in his basement. The disaster that follows in HO scale is full of visuals that harken back to the disasters of the first two movies (including the remaking of Mount Rushmore).
The physics of this movie are worth noting. Although you just got to believe that a man can fly, airplane wings break off if Superman tries to grab on. My only complaint is that Lois Lane might as well be called the “Ribs of Steel”. She’s bounced around the inside of an airplane’s cabin like a ping pong ball, knocked unconscious several times by flying bric-a-brac, and she doesn’t show so much as a bruise.
But that’s nitpicking. I can’t think of any other flaws in this film. There are a couple of visuals that are needlessly Messianic, but Superman Returns walks a fine line; it raises interesting themes, and maintains the essential innocence of Superman’s character in the face of a cynical world, without becoming trite. The ending resolves all of the themes in a satisfying manner, providing a turning point for Superman’s character as well as plenty of exciting explosions. The ending also leaves open the possibility of new sequels, which I look forward to — assuming that Bryan Singer is at the helm.
My apologies for the slow posting here. I’ve been pretty busy with a few writing projects, and I spent most of yesterday collecting photographs for a major project that will appear on this blog in a couple of days. Look for it! But right now, laundry is calling me. Or, rather, I’d better do the laundry before it develops enough language skills to call me.