Superman Returns Review
Superman Returns continues the Man of Steel's adventures five years after the events of Superman II, in which Superman defeated General Zod and his cronies and sacrificed his relationship with his mortal lover, Lois Lane. He's been missing for most of that time, having travelled across the galaxy to visit the remains of his native planet, Krypton. Returning to Earth, to his adopted home city of Metropolis, he slips back into his old alter ego, the mild mannered-reporter Clark Kent (Brandon Routh), and he discovers things have changed.
Lois (Kate Bosworth) has changed the most. She felt betrayed by Superman's abrupt departure but she's gotten over her feelings for him, she's found a new man, Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella)'s nephew, Richard (James Marsden) and they have a young son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). Lois has also won a Pulitzer prize for writing a column declaring that humanity doesn't need any assistance from aliens in capes. Which makes it all the more awkward when Superman's first act after re-donning his red and blue uniform is saving her life.
As Superman tries to re-establish a relationship with Lois (as himself and as Clark), his arch-enemy, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is putting his latest nefarious scheme into action. He's out of jail, having weaseled out of a double life sentence on a technicality and he's managed to locate Superman's Fortress of Solitude, build out of crystals from Krypton. With these crystals, Luthor realises he could market a whole new technology and he doesn't care too much if his plan to do so involves the deaths of a few billion people.
The current wave of superhero films, which kicked off with Bryan Singer's X-Men, was meant to reclaim the genre for the fans after the previous wave had bottomed out with dumbed-down junk like Batman And Robin. However, some of the recent superhero movies have demonstrated the dangers of going too far the other way: of treating comic books with too much reverence and giving them depth and weight they can't withstand.
Batman just about got away with its straight-faced re-invention last summer, thanks to the Caped Crusader's dark origins - a vigilante avenging his murdered parents - but other superheroes like Superman and the Hulk just can't support it. An invincible, flying man in a red cape and a giant, green monster smashing stuff: to all but the fanboys, this is pure silliness and you can only make it work by embracing that silliness. That's what Richard Donner and Richard Lester did when they made the first two Superman films. They didn't mock the material or camp it up like Joel Schumacher did Batman but nor did they try and sell it as anything other than “gee whiz” adventure movies with their tongues just the right distance inside their cheeks.
Superman Returns, directed like the first two X-Men by Bryan Singer has precious little gee whiz and less humour than you'd expect. Subdued, morose, self-serious: these are the words that popped into my head while watching it. Last week I was berating the Pirates Of The Caribbean sequel for being silly, chaotic and half-arsed and here's a film that's none of those things but which makes the exact opposite mistakes. Pirates turns pulp material into pantomime; Superman tries to turn it into Shakespearian drama. The film's weighted down by its own self-importance. It should be fun and too much of the time, it's not. In fact it's surprisingly depressing, which is the last thing you expect a Superman film to be.
The relationship between Superman and Lois and her new family is the movie's biggest ball and chain. Yes, this pays off with a fairly clever twist in the final act but for the first ninety minutes, it's a downer. We're watching a man pining over a love he can't have and a woman torn between her heart and her family. This sort of thing is par for the course on misery shows like Eastenders but it doesn't fit easily into a superhero movie.
Then there's the Jesus thing. Bryan Singer and his screenwriters, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, try to add depth by playing up the Christ subtext that's always lurked beneath the Superman legend - he's a "saviour" after all, sent to help mankind by his father in the heavens. This is probably best kept as subtext but Singer drags it into the foreground. The last half hour of this film is virtually The Passion Of The Superman and it's difficult to take it seriously.
At one point, Superman even gets the kind of beating Mel Gibson gave Jim Caviezel. The violence in this scene, and in another in which Lois Lane is viciously smacked around, is the reason Superman Returns has a 12A rating. I'll happily defend the bloodshed in an adult action movie like District 13 but brutality doesn't belong in a Superman film and these scenes make uncomfortable viewing.
Technically, the movie is at least as impressive as Pirates Of The Caribbean. You'll certainly believe a man can fly. If only he flew more: there's surprisingly little action here - three major scenes by my count plus a few smaller vignettes in two and a half hours. The high point comes early, when Superman comes to the aid of a stricken jumbo jet. This is an absolute show-stopper but the film never tops it. Only the earthquake scene comes anywhere close.
The film's big question mark, unknown star Brandon Routh turns out to be one of its assets - he isn't bad at all, at least in the drama and action scenes. You'll miss Christopher Reeve's gift for comedy but then Routh isn't given an awful lot of opportunities to be funny. He's too busy mooning over Lois Lane.
Kate Bosworth was miscast from the word go and she can't do much to change your mind. The 23-year-old actress is absurdly young to be playing a seasoned, Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist who's aged five years and had a child since she was played by Margot Kidder (who was a mature-looking 29). This seems to be a current trend: casting young actresses in roles that call for older women. Julia Stiles stood out just as painfully in The Omen. The script is as much to blame as the casting department. This character just doesn't seem like Lois Lane. Her spunk has been removed. Bosworth is a talented star who had a feisty charm in Blue Crush but, like Routh, she's forced to play it glum and tearful.
The biggest disappointment is Kevin Spacey, who should be having a ball as Lex Luthor but isn't. He's as subdued as everyone else, a pale shadow of Gene Hackman's scenery-chewing megalomaniac. Are we actually supposed to take Luthor seriously? Spacey seems to be doing so. The only moment where he really cuts loose is the one you've seen in the trailers - the "come on, say it" bit. A few more moments like that would have helped immeasurably.
The rest of the cast don't make a big impression. Frank Langella and Sam Huntington are completely forgettable as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen respectively, while James Marsden is a stiff as the third side of Lois and Clark's love triangle and Parker Posey makes a disappointing substitute for Valerie Perrine as Lex's new tootsie.
One thing the film gets absolutely right is the use of John Williams' unforgettable Superman theme. His music, employed judiciously, picks the movie up no end. God knows what it would be like without it. I wonder why they didn't get Williams to write the whole score. Was he asked? Did he turn them down? John Ottman fills in the rest and his music is as dour and low-key as the scenes it's scoring. It keeps bringing the film back down to earth. And that's exactly what this film does to Superman.