Superman Returns

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After nearly 20 years away from the big screen, Warner Brothers – no doubt inspired by the glowing warmth of the warming glow given to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins – decided to dust of the big red and yellow “S” and beat the moths out of Superman’s Cape in order to get the Man Of Steel to take flight once again. Successfully managing to poach Bryan Singer away from the X-Men franchise to helm this return, it seemed that in that current wave of comic book movies, an appearance of the godfather of super powered beings was long overdue and the world was primed.
Oh well…
Thankfully ignoring the events of films III & IV, Superman Return picks up years after the events of Superman II and the world has had to get used to a world without it’s blue clad hero. You see Kal-El left to search the lifeless husk of his destroyed home planet only to find precisely nada and finally returns to earth a lot different that the one he left.
For one thing, his great love Lois Lane has remarried and had a child, for another arch criminal Lex Luthor has escaped jail on a technicality and has raided Kal’s Fortress Of Solitude in order to snatch some Kryptonian terraforming tech in order to create a new landmass in his continuing quest to own valuable real estate. If successful, the ensuing chaos will force Metropolis to tumble into the sea so Superman has to get his affairs in order if he’s going to halt the carnage. However Lex has some nasty, green tinted surprises for his nemesis, not to mention their’s the mystery of the true parentage of Lois’ little, big eyed moppet…
If I had to describe Superman Returns in just one word then the word I would most likely choose is “beige”, not just because Singer chooses to drench every scene with a greyish tan hue but because the tone of this movie is so middle-of-the-road, beige is the only colour blandly neutral enough to describe it’s impressive lack of impact. Plus certain aspects of the plot simply doesn’t resonate quite the way the filmmakers obviously hoped they would and scenes that should’ve endeared this new cinematic Superman only leave him feeling the most alien of his career. And yet, there is high craftsmanship here in spades, the film looks GORGEOUS, the effects work is polished and crisp and the super-suit is utterly ravishing, all of which makes it incredibly tough to simply write the film off wholesale and therefore makes it frustratingly awkward to review. It’s certainly no peerless classic like the orginal or even the near miss at greatness that is the sequel – but it’s no cheesy pseudo-comedy like III or a sloppy cash in like the hideous part IV either and doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with such company.
So in an attempt to crack Bryan Singer’s fatally uncynical take on the last son of Krypton, let start with the positive for a change, because when Superman Returns actually hits it’s stride it’s got some sweet aces up it’s sleeve, not least of all a stunning mid-air rescue where Supes makes his dramatic (and literal) return to the world’s playing field by catching a plummeting jet and placing it gently in the middle of a baseball game (how many home run is THAT worth?). The artistry of the CGI shows that this was no rush job and that much care and attention was put into effects that still hold up favourably despite debuting way back in 2006.

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The film also carries a fair amount of the director’s thoughful touches and Kubrickan levels of detail; like the use of a table top model to show the sheer level of damage Luthor’s plan will to to the city of Metropolis or a unbearably unsettling scene where a tattooed thug playfully plays on a piano with Lois’ son while she desperately tries to send out a call for help. Singer really does have an eye for the little things (he even manages to squeezing in a stirring visual reference to Action Comics #1) but under that big old “S” lies some irritating flaws that simply can’t be wallpapers over by John Ottman repurposing John Williams’ towering theme.
The real problem here is the movie’s overly romantic tone which seems as utterly besotted with it’s main character as a love sick 12 year old which in turn makes the film feel like its crawling instead of moving faster than speeding bullet. It’s uncynical outlook also feels very much at odds with the “illegitimate son” aspect of the plot which has our hero yearn a lot for his lost love and utilizes his powers to hold his forlorn gaze long after she’s left the room (far less sweet as it sounds when your character has X-ray vision). The whole “Superman has a kid” plot isn’t even wrapped up completely, banking on a sequel that never came to tie up it’s eternally dangling loose ends.Surely Brandon Routh is the George Lazenby of Supermen, barely getting a chance to get comfortable in the suit before a lackluster response forced him out of it, but due to Singer’s approach basically requiring him to heavily mimic Christopher Reeve (his Clark Kent is eerily bang on) it’s less a performance and more of a heavily skilled impression. It also doesn’t help that the Superman he’s playing is completely passive, never once in the whole film raising a fist in attack or striking first. In fact he barely even lay hands on ANY villain, not even to pick them up by the scruff of the neck to fly them bodily to jail and only uses his powers to fly faster and lift heavier in order to save the day. I’m not suggesting he should be fatally putting people through walls (cough*Zack Snyder*cough) but a similarly powered threat maybe would have made the film more diverting instead of the land mass riddled with Kryptonite that Superman has to bench press into space. You could argue that this “lack of punching” line of approach lead directly to the “Superman punching everything” thread of Man Of Steel…
The rest of the cast ably fit their roles, Kate Bosworth (whatever happened to her?) is an okay Lois Lane and the much debated Kevin Spacey portrays a much slimier Lex Luthor than Gene Hackman – who isn’t above sliding a Kryptonite shiv in the ribs when he isn’t sliding passive aggressive put downs into a conversation – but the presence of James Marsden only really means that Cyclops had yet another shitty character arc in X-Men: The Last Stand.
To round up, Superman Returns greatest flaw is that oddly the filmmakers seem to love their source material too much (the Richard Donner film, not the comic) and, in a similar vein to Peter Jackson’s King Kong, ends up being so much of an overbearing love letter that it often struggles to escape out from the shadow of the 1978 original and find it’s own identity. A sequel maybe would have added some much needed grit to it’s rose tinted view of comic’s greatest uber-mench, but we’ll never know as Supers went into cinematic hibernation again until 2013.

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Hardly the cowering failure it’s made out to be now, but neither the triumphant return the character deserved, Superman Ruturns is a well made oddity, uneven in tone yet confident in it’s execution – weirdly much like it’s portrayal of it’s cape wearing hero, but it’s concept to make the Man Of Steel the man of feels doesn’t quite leave the ground…
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One comment

  1. My second-favourite Superman movie! I wish it had gotten a sequel, having the opportunity to fix this films undeniable issues, the result might have been quite spectacular. In any case, I adored the nods to the 1978 Donner classic, and to me it feels like a sincere and worthy reboot. Sadly I’m in the minority!

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