Superman Returns (Two-Disc Special Edition) Review

I must begin this review with a clear statement. I have never before seen a film from the Superman franchise, nor read any of the comic books upon which it is based. My only interaction with the Man of Steel was the fairly enjoyable romp that was the "new adventures" TV series that was shown during the '90s. So, I hope to bring an element of objectivity to a film series which has produced millions of hysterical, devoted followers and assorted fanboys – essentially rendering most reviews overwhelmingly subjective and devoid of any real cinematic criticism.

As a result, perhaps it is no surprise to some that I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I fail to see the merits of Superman Returns. It is a shallow, emotionally vacuous film which I am amazed cost so much money (if you believe some reports, this is the most expensive film made to date). In actual fact, this was a painful viewing experience for this reviewer after toiling through over two hours of non-existent plot and woeful dialogue, uncomfortably wrapped up in a ridiculous veneer of caricature and mindless melodrama. Even the likes of Kevin Spacey, and not to mention the usually dependable director Bryan Singer (whose debut film The Usual Suspects is one of my favourite films from the past fifteen years), are unable to elevate the return of Superman into anything remotely super.

Things start to go wrong right from the start as the bizarrely underwritten plot involves the return of Superman (played here for the first time by newcomer Brandon Routh) and his continuing fight against the all-round nasty piece of work that is Lex Luthor (Spacey). Along the way there is an alarming absence of action or energy, which is downright bizarre considering its bombastic origins, and the film tries in vain to make a poignant statement about the role of responsibility and power in today's terrorised world. It doesn't take a genius to realise that the script is trying to be a "clever" metaphor about the modern war on terror, and our need for a hero, but the handling of the material is just so damn tedious and overtly putrid that any intelligence is immediately destroyed.

Of course, the filmmakers must take the easy option and portray Luthor as a crazed megalomaniac who is Completely Evil without offering any justification or insight into the character. Similarly, Superman is clearly the all-American hero who is struggling to rekindle his relationship with Lois, who painfully goes through the motions as she is torn between her husband, her child, her Pulitzer Prize-winning career and her feelings for a grown man in a blue suit and red cape. I could understand the appeal of such a film if it was handled in a manner best described as tongue-in-cheek, but Superman Returns is executed with such a dour-faced seriousness that you can't help but wonder if Bryan Singer honestly believes such a scenario is realistic. Things aren’t helped by tired performances from good actors who are going through the motions for the paycheque and the related publicity; in particular, Spacey should be chided for phoning in a performance that could, at best, have elevated the film if he'd chewed up scenery after realising how ludicrous the whole film really was.

I find it hard to add anything more to this review because the film offers so little. There is no compelling story or controversial element to discuss, only melodrama to bore. Granted, the film looks gorgeous and the digital photography never cheapens the visuals – it does in fact add a fair bit of texture and colour to an otherwise turgid experience. Similarly, one of the film's only (and very brief) action set-pieces involving a flaming, and indeed flailing, jet is well staged and vaguely exciting.

I finished watching the film thinking how painful and empty it was. No element sticks in your mind apart from a handful of beautiful shots that might look good in the trailer but ultimately cannot add a single thing to a film so devoid of a central structure or anything vaguely resembling a pulse. It's a ridiculously-expensive screen test for Routh (who is no doubt a competent actor if given a half-decent script) and an impressive demonstration of the film's digital cameras. Perhaps the inevitable sequel will be the real deal, but this reviewer thinks it's incredibly unlikely given the creative choices made by the franchise's new producers.

The Disc
This Region 3 release, kindly provided for review by the good folks at CD-WOW, seems to be identical to the special editions released in other territories. Presented as a 2-disc DVD, this region's version has English, Chinese, Korean, Thai & Bahasa Indonesian subtitles (during the main feature only).

Audio-Visual Presentation
The video transfer is unsurprisingly excellent considering it has been transferred from a digital print. Colours are reproduced vividly and the visuals have a consistent appearance of being crisp and very well defined; interestingly, Superman Returns was shot on a different form of digital video to films such as United 93 and Miami Vice, and the differences are apparent. Most notably, the film has a pastel-esque look that is somewhere between 35mm and DV, whilst simultaneously perfectly suiting the comic book origins of the franchise. My only criticism of the image presentation would be a slight lack of clarity and sharpness in the darker scenes, but this is most likely dependent on your A/V setup. In terms of sound, the disc carries Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes in both English and Thai. The surrounds are given a constant and thorough workout, with the subwoofer rumbling to life during the (occasional) action set-piece, and dialogue is crisply presented.

The first disc is strangely devoid of any extra material, the most noticeable absentee being an audio commentary. Using recent big releases as an indicator, it would certainly seem that an "ultimate edition" may well be in the works, perhaps to tie in with Superman Returns (Again) in a couple of years' time. Moving onto the second disc, the most substantial extras are a collection of behind-the-scenes featurettes divided up into five parts, which are informative and fairly comprehensive. Most aspects of pre- and post-production are covered, with emphasis placed on art, costume design and set construction. There is footage of Spacey and Routh, and Singer, but one extra feature which is likely to generate a lot more interest is a dissection on the visual effects required to bring Marlon Brando back to life.

A collection of deleted scenes (twelve in total) are more of the same – essentially sequences which quietly pad out the plot – and a handful of trailers round off the package.

Fans of the franchise will no doubt appreciate the effort and apparent love that has gone into this $100+ million project, but fans of cinema will be left cold. There is nothing rewarding or exciting about Superman Returns, and it pales in comparison to a film like Batman Begins which "rebooted" another famous franchise in a similar fashion the summer before. This Region 3 DVD is remarkably good for a region which is usually neglected, so I suggest fans of the film snap this up for CD-WOW's discount price if they do indeed want to own a piece of turgid cinema.

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