Monday, July 03, 2006

Movie Review: Superman Returns?

I'm lucky enough to be based in New Zealand at the moment where 'Superman Returns' has been released so I offer you my review of a movie I have been looking forward to for a long time now. The review contains no spoilers as to plot points but does refer to specific elements.

‘Superman Returns’ sees the return in every sense of the word of Superman to the big screen. Since 1938 his symbol has perhaps become one of the most instantly recognisable in the world and despite numerous incarnations in popular culture the 1978 ‘Superman: The Movie’ has attained classic status, acting as a template for not alone every subsequent comic book adaptation but adventure movies. Following a long gestation period (a follow up was first cited in 1990) Brian Singer took over his dream project of bringing Superman to modern audiences. Following an extensive search, he cast a nobody, Brandon Routh as the Man of Steel, reunited with Kevin Spacey having seen him win an Oscar after directing him in ‘The Usual Suspects’ to play villain Lex Luthor and based on Spacey’s recommendation cast Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane.

The movie is a tribute to the original Richard Donner film, character traits such as Lois’ inability to spell, a retreading of an original joke about Luthor’s father telling him to ’get out’ and Clark tumbling through revolving doors are each plucked directly from ‘Superman’. The movie also enshrines its retro feel with cameos from Jack Larson (a bartender in an early scene, who played Jimmy Olsen in the original ‘50s serial) and Noel Neill (appearing as an elderly lady in the first scene who played Lois Lane in the same series). My favourite is a replication of the cover of Action Comics No. 1 in which Superman first appears, holding a car over his head having stopped it from going awry in downtown Metropolis.

The look of the movie is astounding. Metropolis is created anew, no longer New York renamed as in the original. It is both modern and characterful with the Daily Planet building presiding over its skyline, its globe serves as a striking backdrop to the movies most romantic and conflicted scene. The effects are excellent. The trailers at first lead me to believe this would be a very stylised movie so much so that I was concerned if I felt the basic surroundings were not real, I would certainly not believe the effects were real. Fortunately they were striking and breath taking- the much hyped plane rescue and the execution of Luthor’s plan are both seamless and gel perfectly with the epic world saving tone which a Superman movie demands.

Importantly even on his return to earth and return to duty so many of his rescues are viewed on TV screens in the Daily Planet. The story remains an intimate one, focusing on the characters we know so well. The immediately obvious characters are Superman and Clark, both defined and invested with Christopher Reeve-like nobility by Routh. Routh’s Clark is not as goofy as Reeve’s, though in fairness he does not get enough screen time to be more fumbling, he largely spends his time trying to re-establish himself with a distracted Lois. His Superman channels Reeve to a much greater extent, but this is in no way an impersonation, the character of Superman is just that- a character, created by Clark that must be restrained and reliable and an actor knowing this cannot be seen to invest the hero with some great variance in character. I realise he may be seen as a monotone character, all clean living and moralistic but the great challenge for this movie was to describe the context to this hero. The time given to the truest version of this man, Clark at home on the Kent farm is far too limited and left me feeling short-changed.

From the gallery of recognisable characters, Lois is the only character other than Superman to have appeared since the very first Superman comic book. The decisions of Lois Lane leading up to the events of and during the movie have a significant impact on not just the movie but the entire Superman mythology. Kate Bosworth portrays a much deeper Lois than Margot Kidder of the original, she is bitter and confused, now has a family to care for and hasn’t forgotten her intrepid reporter roots. She spends a lot of time reacting to the consequences of her choices, involved much more in events surrounding Superman which left me longing for more of the humour and charm of Lois and Clark scenes from the original. As for Lex, I was surprised at the similarities with the Gene Hackman character, he still works underground and interacts with a limited number of characters rather than the esteemed business man of the comics (where he has become President of the US!). Also just as with Hackman, there is thankfully no verbose monologue of the archetypal villain, he is a man of action, every scene is a progression of his plan and upon encountering Superman he strikes instantly where we get to see Spacey deliver his unique viciousness. The man thinks big but this is slightly undermined by some sequences where he seems like little more than a petty criminal.

There is so much going on in the movie, a convoluted romance, a crisis of identity, a villains masterminding and a resolution to these issues that at times the respective elements feel neglected. You can’t help but feel disengaged from the intensity of some scenes when there is needless chopping back and forth between different settings to show people reacting to events unfolding. Additionally, Singer casts a net of broad ideas over the story. This is respectful of the characters and Singer is a true fan to lend such substance to the story. In dealing with issues such as Superman’s relevance in a world that has survived without him for 5 years and Superman’s isolation the movies final spectacle merely serves as a precursor to their resolution. The effect is that the movie works too hard to be a resolution of ideas that could have been dealt with in the confines of a more tightly structured story. The ending is heartfelt but dissatisfying. Revelations and realisations could have been littered throughout the body of the movie, adding intensity to the building crisis.

I could write twice as much again on this movie, those who know me know my fascination with Superman. I have to skim over but want to mention the final shot of his mother in a crowd towards the end of the movie, a shot of pens rearranging themselves in a holder and the framing of Lois in a hospital towards the end- attention to detail in such a big picture always impresses me. For me Superman is the hero, he is the good guy. Too often he is disregarded for being a linear, boring character and indeed in life as in art people are drawn to darker edgier characters whom we feel reflect our own complexities or we love to hate. This movie goes someway toward correcting this misinterpretation. This man has chosen to use his immense powers for good, never the easier option and in seeking to protect some semblance of a normal life borders on scizophrenia. Superman has had to reassert himself by impressing us all over again in a world full of limitless movie innovation and satisfying a more intelligent movie going audience. This movie has done this masterfully, it is not without its flaws but it commands our respect and entertains.


Anonymous said...

So it's a thumbs up for Bryan Singer?
I'm really looking forward to this, am going to see it on Wednesday.

CK said...

Yes it is a big thumbs up? I am a fervent Superman fan so I would be very interested in what you think of it, I am sure you will enjoy it though.

Godwhacker said...

Great review ck. I just saw the movie and give it a thumbs up as well. It took me until about halfway through the movie to warm up to the new actors in these old familiar roles. Once I did, I was thoroughly entertained. I can't wait for Superman II (or is that VI?)

Eamonn said...

I agree, the movie is good, ok as a set up movie for the inevitable sequel, but in itself it is flawed.

Luthor's plan is stupid, undermining his position as 'the greatest criminal mind of our time'. The character is also under used, the ending is poor. On top of that there are several minor failings eg. nobody links Supermans 5 year absence and sudden reappearance with Clarks, physics goes out the window during the action sequences etc.

Compared to the recent superhero movies, indeed Singers own work on X-Men, it falls short.

That said, it is enjoyable and i am looking forward to what should be a more robust sequel.