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Guilty Pleasures

Superman Returns

"Why do they always have to do it the hard way?"

Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written By: Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, and Bryan

Main Cast:
Brandon Routh – Superman/Clark Kent
Kate Bosworth – Lois Lane
Kevin Spacey – Lex Luthor
James Marsden – Richard White
Parker Posey – Kitty Kowalski
Frank Langella
Perry White
Sam Huntington
Jimmy Olsen
Eva Marie Saint
Martha Kent
Marlon Brando



To sum up:  Can you read my script? Can you picture the film that I'm thinking of? I don't know who you are. Just a actor trying to be a star. Superman is back after a long absence and just in time as Lex Luthor is again after some cheap real estate.

“Listen. What do you hear?”  
“I hear everything. You wrote that the world doesn't
     need a savior, but I hear them crying for one

     Superman. What can one say? It was an idea that, until a few months ago, I was dreading. In 1978 Richard Donner (yes, I'm giving him the vast majority of the credit) crafted what I believe to be the finest super hero movie to date (but I may now be up in the air with that thinking due to the recent "Spider-man II"). Even though with the subsequent sequels, I've watched the series slide downhill, "Superman: The Movie" holds a special place in my heart and has held up very well over the years.

     Then the rumors started. They're going to make another Superman. And I would think, "Why? The first film was too good. Christopher Reeve, the original Superman, was too good. The music was way too good." And the rumors weren't good. Tim Burton, creator of the passable but ultimately mediocre 1989 "Batman" film was going to direct. It would be called "Superman Lives" and star Nicholas Cage as Superman. Let me repeat. Nicholas Cage. That's encouraging. 'Cause at a glance, he's got the ideal looks and build of Superman. Did I mention Nicholas Cage? Over the years various names were attached to the project, none of them bringing warm feelings (with the tentative exception of Kevin Smith). And when I heard that McG, who's most famous for the "Charlie's Angels" films, was slated to direct, I just tuned out. Then, at the very last moment McG pulled out of the project and Bryan Singer, crafter of the X-Men films and more famously the modern classic "The Usual Suspects", a man who seemed to be in command of the particulars of the comic book universe, stepped in. Fans the world over breathed a sigh of relief. All but me. I was still dubious. Sure the X-Men films were good, but they certainly weren't brilliant. Knowing that he had some big shoes to fill, I waited to see what his take on Superman would be.

     Eventually some good news began to leak out. The film Singer wanted to do would not only be respectful of the original, but would actually continue the events that were chronicled in the first two films. Rather than break into a new direction, he was going to reenter the universe established in the Richard Donner film. In the end all it took was to see the teaser trailer and hear the words spoken by Superman's father, Jor-El (Marlon Brando), as well as the original music composed by John Williams. Actually, all it took was to hear the progressive low chords that introduce the Theme; six notes, composed of lower strings, all the same, "Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-baa". Like hearing the two notes from the opener to "Jaws", it instantly brought to the surface all of the sentimental emotions that the original film elicited. I couldn't help but get excited. I was hooked.

     After the exciting events of "Superman II", in which our hero, defeated General Zod, an evil, megalomaniacal Kryptonian out to conquer Earth in a wave of violent mayhem and orgiastic thespianism, Superman (Brandon Routh) has disappeared. Gone for five years, he's been in search of the remnants of his home planet, Krypton, which is in a different galaxy.

     Meanwhile, on the farmstead of Superman's adoptive mother, Martha Kent, things appear as normal. And when I say normal, I mean 1950's normal, right down to the radio. Seriously, my mother is the same age and has a more modern device, with stereo even. It's been a quiet evening. A friend has just said good night and drives off  in his sturdy ram tough truck, Martha is doing the dishes, the dog lazily dozes in the corner, music drones from the radio, and the kitchen table still has the Scrabble board with pieces on it from the recently finished game. It's the perfect kind of prop one would use if they were about to visibly represent intense seismic activity.

     Suddenly, the music fades out. Has this ancient radio finally given up the ghost? Not quite, for the dog's ears prick up, and the house is engulfed in huge tremors and all of those tiny little Scrabble letters begin to shake all over the place. As Martha gazes out of her kitchen window, the night sky grows crimson bright, a meteorite streaks over the house and impacts in the fields beyond, not only reducing the summer crops to ashes but also marking the return of Superman to our world. A world that has had to exist without him, a world that has moved on, a world where Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) of all people has written an article entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman", a world that apparently agrees with her because she's won her much coveted Pulitzer Prize for scribing the article.

     Now Clark is faced with a new problem. What to do next. Like many an adoptive son, he went in search of his roots and has learned that he no longer has any. They are gone and he feels truly alone. Martha Kent tells him he's not alone. But he's the last of his kind and it is the search for identity, where he fits in, who he is, that propels the film and the psychological needs of our hero. And so, starting over, he returns to Metropolis, regains his old job at The Daily Planet, and attempts to find some normalcy. What he finds is that Lois Lane has indeed moved on and is now engaged to Richard White (James Marsden) nephew to The Daily Planet publisher Perry White (Frank Langella). She also coincidentally has a son, supposedly by Richard, but who just happens to have an age that matches the amount of time that Superman was away on his journey.  

     In the bad guy department, Superman's arch nemesis, the evil Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from jail, pulled an Anna Nichole, and swindled an elderly matron out of her millions. With his lady of the moment, Kitty Kowalski (an always amusing Parker Posey), Lex heads to the north pole, location of Superman's secret base, the Fortress of Solitude, a Kryptonian creation comprised of crystals. In one of the most egregious examples of home security I've ever seen, Lex and company not only just walk in but also get mistaken for our hero. I know Superman's been gone but he couldn't even afford Brinks? With crystals absconded from the fortress, Lex plans to harness the alien technology of Superman's home planet and engage in yet another nefarious plot involving his obsession with real estate. The only thing that stands in his way is our hero. But filled with a bitter, jealous hatred, Lex has a plans to deal with him.

     And so begins the new adventures of our hero. Never the less, with the intention of picking up where Superman II left off, a number of questions are raised. In that film, Superman's identity is revealed to Lois. They proclaim their love for each other. He whisks her off to his place, the afore mentioned Fortress of Solitude. They sing, they dance, and declare an intention to romance. And while Lois slips into "something more comfortable" (a painful use of that clichéd line if there ever was one), Superman, like a good Scientologist, consults the crystals, which happen to be programmed to project a likeness of his mother as well as her personality. She tells him that if he intends to live with a mortal, he must become one, relinquishing his super-powers forever. Now, if this were a review for Superman II, I would now be spending oodles of space trying to comprehend the necessity of that move, because the first thing that leaped to my mind was the big, fat question of "WHY?!?"

      But this review is for Superman Returns, so back to the back-story. Because he loves Lois, he happily strolls into a small plastic chamber, is bombarded with red rays, and we get the closest the Superman saga ever comes to the ol' changing in a phone booth gag. Only this time he's changing from Supe to plain old Clark Kent. After this transformation Lois and Clark romantically remove themselves to the Fortress of Fornication, a large chamber with a bed that looks like a spider's web with a big reflective silver sheet on it. Eventually, he learns that General Zod has taken control of the world and he must regain his powers and stop him. This move effectively kills any romantic  possibilities between himself and Lois. So to ease her pain, he gives her a Super-smooch (the first official kiss between them onscreen) that removes from her memory the knowledge that he is Superman.

     Now the questions are these. How much does Lois remember? If she doesn't know who Superman really is and has forgotten the romance they engaged in, why would she be so bitter and pen the Pulitzer Prize winning article entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman"? If Lois's son is possibly the offspring of that coupling, would it matter, super-powers-wise, since Clark was stripped of his powers and human at the time? If Superman cannot love without being mortal will he, and why would he spend all of his time pining for Lois? Will these questions even be raised or if they are, addressed?

     Brandon Routh makes a fine Man of Steel. Like every successor to Sean Connery's James Bond, the poor guy will be scrutinized in relation to Christopher Reeve's definitive and iconic performance. Is he as good as Reeve was? No. He lacks the warmth and humor that Reeve was able to bring as Superman. Nor is he as chameleon-like in his approach to Clark Kent. Reeve's performance as Clark, strangely enough, reminded me of the 1920 silent classic of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" where lead actor John Barrymore was able to achieve the transformation from the mild mannered doctor to the evil Hyde most notably on camera and without the use of make-up; only his skills as an actor affecting the transformation as he twisted his face and body to become almost literally a different person. It was called acting. Now let's face it, a pair of glasses is not much of a disguise and I'm not saying that Reeve contorts himself into a greasy monster (that'll wait until "Superman III"), but using his voice, body language and posture, oversized glasses and slicked back hair, Reeve was able to transform himself almost literally into another persona. One had to look much harder to see the Superman in Reeve's Kent. With Routh's Kent, one doesn't have to look that hard. He affects a few amusing moments, but the mild mannered nerd of Kent is not nearly as starkly apparent. As Superman, however Routh shines. He carries the role with authority. From the moment he flies into the picture it was a visceral thrill watching him go into action. I mentioned that the twinkle in the eye, the warmth, and humor. It's almost there. It's just that Routh, Singer, and the movie as a whole are so darn earnest that Routh is only briefly able to let out a bit of that warmth. But as a character exploring his place in the world, Routh capably brings a whole new depth to the character of Superman.

     Kevin Spacey is probably the best choice there is for the character of Lex Luthor. As an actor, even though he's been guided to take a more seriously sinister approach to the character, he's seems aware of the comic book universe that he's entered. Spacey allows himself have to an arrogant, self-reveling pleasure in the amount of death and chaos that he perpetrates. He wisely injects a bit of Gene Hackman's Lex into his performance. Spacey is evil, cold, charming, two-faced, dopey, narcissistic, brutal, and megalomaniacal, and not once do these traits overshadow or undermine his performance. He's a master actor and mastered Lex Luthor. If he's undermined at all, it's because the film is at times unsure where the boundaries for these traits should be. Sometimes there's a bit a silliness when I think a more serious tack would have been called for. Sometimes it's the other way around. These moments and others are very few and far between but they sometimes call attention to themselves.

      The weakest casting, as far as the major characters go, is easily Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. She approaches the role with honesty. Though there's a few personality traits that are carried over from the original films, I get the feeling that she's trying to be her own person and avoid Margot Kidder's Lane.  But...something is missing. I think that something is maturity. We're already dealing with a Superman who looks younger than the last actor to play him even though he's supposed to be over thirty years old, and it doesn't help that Lois Lane looks even younger. Bosworth just comes across as too young, too inexperienced to land a major job at a major newspaper, writing a major award winning article, and undertake the major task of raising a five year old son. Maybe I'm comparing her too much to Margot Kidder, but I think Kidder did capture certain traits of the Lois Lane character that was in the comics. Kidder presented us with a gutsy, New Yorker (even though it's "Metropolis"), at times naive, at times aggressive go getter, who, in spite of herself, was swept away body and soul by this stranger from the stars. She even mentally serenaded him with a sexy Seventies romantic refrain for Pete's sake! Bosworth just seems to lack the ability or interest to inject that much personality into a character that requires it.

     As with the rest of the cast, Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen comes across well enough. He's barely there and doesn't seem as much of a geek as he has in other incarnations. But Frank Langella's Perry White just got under my skin. It rests with one sentence, and is more reflective of Singer and the writers. Perry, in a meeting with his reporters, is assigning them with the various  angles that he wants covered about the return of Superman. During this he says, "Find out if he still stands for truth, justice, all that stuff." "All that stuff!?" What the heck is that supposed to mean? I looked it up. The only other "stuff" that I can find is "THE AMERICAN WAY!" Are we so ashamed of our culture that a classic American icon can't stand for the "American way"? Mom, apple pie, Mickey Mouse, baseball, and the American way. Shhh.

     But enough of all this plot stuff. One goes to see a Superman film for adventure. Is it exciting? After years of ever improving special effects, can the sight of yet another flying hero produce the thrills it once did? I think, yes. Superman not only flies, he floats, lighter than air, unencumbered with the pesky gravity with which we clumsy mortals have to deal. We see something new. At times when Superman flies over the heads of crowds in Metropolis his passing is not marked by a noisy whoosh but by an almost overlooked serenity. The action is exciting and visceral. When he takes to the air to save a crashing plane, flying so fast that he is literally a blur at times, I felt that Superman did indeed return; soaring above the clouds and above many super-hero films. And if the ending super-feat strains credulity, it is at least offset by the authoritative performance of the film's star as well as the confident direction of Bryan Singer.

Return to this Superman.


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