Saturday, July 1, 2006

MOVIES: "Superman Returns"

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting...It may be a bit silly, but I admit, there's nothing quite like hearing John Williams' awesome "Superman" theme music blasting into a movie theater for the first time in 19 (!) years, ever since I saw the god-awful "Superman IV: The Quest For Peace" in a theater with about six other people back in 1987.

Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" is the Man of Steel's first celluloid outing since then, of course, and if it isn't quite a total home run, it's solid entertainment and a pretty great spectacle. I'm not sure how well it'll do at the box office - it could catch on, or it could be seen as too cerebral and slow – but it more or less works. Some thoughts (Spoiler Warning, of course):

The good:

Like I said, that John Williams music is wonderful to hear again, and might just be my favorite movie theme ever. The whole movie is a deep thematic sequel to "Superman: The Movie" and "Superman II," and it's nice to see Singer paying respect to the godfather of the current superhero movie genre.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingFirst off, some of the action in "Superman Returns" is absolutely spectacular – a dazzling plane rescue sequence in the beginning that had me holding my breath with tension; a series of incredible can-you-top-this feats of catastrophe prevention; any scenes with Superman flying, executed with stunning grace and majesty by Singer. Naturally, it's all a quantum leap above the effects in the 1978 film. You get your summer movie big-bang money's worth from this one, I think.

And overall, I'm down with Singer's approach to the material. Just like in his "X-Men" movies, he's respectful and utterly serious to the characters and story. There's a depth to "Superman Returns," with its lingering themes of alienation, fatherhood, truly adult love and hero worship. They aren't all developed perfectly, but this movie tries, and that elevates it to the higher echelon of comics flicks like the "Spider-Man" and first two "X-Men" movies or "Batman Begins."

Brandon Routh,
I wasn't sure about before I saw this – he looks too formless and bland in still photos, I think – but he's a very solid Man of Steel here. He plays Kal-El darker, more stoic and restrained than the late Christopher Reeve, who always had a nice kind of twinkle in his eye, but it serves for the story this movie is trying to tell. I don't think Routh's Clark Kent is quite as successful, but the Kent side of his personality really got the short shrift in screen time anyway.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingKevin Spacey has been on most people's short list for Lex Luthor, and I think he's a fantastic choice here. He chews the scenery mercilessly, homaging Gene Hackman's performance but also turning this older, embittered Lex into more of a cruel, amoral thug. The dead steely glare in Spacey's eyes nicely fits this version of Lex, a madman whose plot in this tale is really quite insane and apocalyptic. At first I thought that was a gaping plot hole (not to spoil too much, but how is Lex's new land going to be valuable to anybody if it looks like Mordor-meets-South Dakota?), but now I can almost see that's the point. Lex is stone cold crazy here, and the rest of the world doesn't even quite get that.

A marvelous overall look to the film, dark but not "Batman" dark, with an art-deco Metropolis and a snazzy Daily Planet newsroom I'd love to work in.

The kid. I know many fanboy types are turned off any time a kid is featured in one of "their" movies, but I actually thought Lois Lane's son was a smart addition to the story and played by a refreshingly genuine child actor.

The final confrontation between Luthor and Superman is jaw-droppingly brutal and intense, and delivers a powerful punch. (I admit though I feel like Luthor doesn't get the comeuppance I feel he truly deserves at the film's end though.)

The just OK:
Photobucket - Video and Image HostingSorry, Singer, but Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane is a huge misstep. She's adequate, but rarely more, and lacks the husky lived-in sexiness of Margot Kidder's Lane. Obviously this isn't a straight sequel to the old movies, but still, how are we supposed to believe this doll-faced cherub is a hard-charging reporter? Bosworth just looks too young, and lacks the spark a Rachel McAdams or Rachel Weisz might've brought to the role. She does have a nice chemistry with Routh, though.

I like the notion of Superman leaving Earth for five years and dealing with the ramifications of coming back, yet the movie sometimes left me wanting more. Why exactly did it take five years? What did he see? There's almost another movie or something to be had from that story point alone. And the way Clark Kent kind of just slipped back into his old life after five years' away seemed a bit too simplistic.

The bad:
Singer is a fine director, but his ambition nearly derails the movie a couple times. It sometimes feels like a director's cut. It's too long by about 15 minutes, and takes a little while to get going. He lays on the Superman-as-Jesus metaphors far too thickly, to the point where it begins to feel artless and forced. (Although the movie's final scenes, featuring a badly wounded hero, were terrific.)

And while I love the old "Superman" movies, there's part of me that feels "Returns" errs a little too much toward being a remake rather than a total reinvention. Beside recycling the theme music, resurrecting Marlon Brando, the carved beauty of the Fortress of Solitude and even several dialogue lines from the original, the overall plot bears an awful strong resemblance to the first "Superman" movie (Superman vs. Luthor over some world-shattering real estate scheme). It's a good movie, but if there's a sequel I'd like to see them strike out in an entirely new direction.

Jimmy Olsen. Sorry, but this kid has only worked for me in the goofy 1950s and 1960s comics.

If Krypton crystals grow in water, why doesn't the Fortress of Solitude surrounded by ice take over the planet?

Despite the movie's flaws (and really, I can't think of a comics movie that's been flawless), I do find that I keep thinking about "Superman Returns." It sticks in your head, and Singer's visual imagery feels timeless and powerful. The first superhero has a movie that nearly lives up to its potential.

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