Title: Superman Returns
Director: Bryan Singer
Writers: Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris (Based on Superman by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster)
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures, DC Comics
Starring: Brandon Routh, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, James Marsden, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Parker Posey, Eva Marie Saint, Tristan Lake Leabu
Release Date: June 28, 2006
MPAA: Rated PG-13
Welcome back to the next installment of Movie Mondays’ look at SUPERMAN! This year is the 75th anniversary of the character. This year also saw the successful reboot of the Superman franchise, with Man of Steel, but this wasn’t the first attempt to bring new life to the superhero’s big screen adventures. Nope, that honor falls to Superman Returns. The question is, was his return to the silver screen good or bad? Let’s find out!
To better understand Superman Returns overall, one should look briefly at its conception, because the film is one part sequel, one part remake, and one part reboot. This odd mishmash of notions is the major weakness of the film, as it’s set up as a sequel to Superman II, borrows a little too heavily from Superman: The Movie, while still trying to be the foundation for a separate franchise. Because of this, the film is never really allowed to grow beyond itself, weighed down by frequent homage (too much of a good thing… anybody?). Spread too thin, the film isn’t enough like the movies it’s borrowing from and not unique enough on its own, falling somewhere in the middle, and being “middle of the road” isn’t really good.
In regards to the aforementioned homage, Brandon Routh is excellent as Christopher Ree… I mean Clark Kent/Superman. Seriously folks, Routh does the best Reeve impression any actor could hope to perform. Looking a lot like Reeve helps a lot as well, and it wouldn’t surprise this critic if it were revealed that Brandon was Christopher’s long-lost son. Fortunately it’s not all “copy & paste”, and Brandon really brings new life to what could have been a truly stagnant role, and does a terrific job with his turn as Superman, really making it his own. Another actor giving 100% here is Kevin Spacey as the villainous, vain, and psychotic Lex Luthor. He captures the charismatic eccentricity of Gene Hackman’s portrayal, while layering the character with bitterness and jealousy that make the character more real as well as more like his comic book counterpart.
The same can be said for Sam Huntington’s portrayal of the quirky yet loveable Jimmy Olsen, insofar as just nailing the role, for what limited screen-time he has. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for the rest of the cast who all just fall flat. Perry White is played as a somber, pensive man, instead of being charismatic and occasionally full of bluster. Supporting actors like James Marsden and Parker Posey do well enough, making sure their characters are somewhat memorable, but lack of presence in the script really keeps their hands tied. The worst offender is Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. Whether the script or director decided to take all of the fire out of the character, or whether it was Bosworth herself, Lois isn’t so much a character as she is a walking plot device who only serves to get exposition from the characters around her or move us to the next scene. She’s just… sort of… there.
One major point of praise from this film goes to John Ottman for his rousing, emotionally moving music, featuring his arrangement of John Williams’ music from the previous films as well as his own new pieces. A lot of Williams’ previous score is featured in this film, yet Ottman also brings a lot of original music to the film all of which bring a great amount of emotional weight and grandeur to each scene.
Continuing a trend that seems to have started with Superman: The Movie, ol’ Big Blue is presented once again as a Jesus-figure, though even more than previous films as the audience sees Superman seemingly sacrifice himself to save everyone, even falling in the shape of a crucifix. He also “dies” and resurrects during the course of the film, not uncommon as it’s happened in the comics before, but a first for the Superman of the big screen. It wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for the rather heavy-handed and melodramatic way in which it’s presented.
Another major point of contention with this film is that of the use of a CGI Superman. The rest of the visual effects, from falling debris, Superman’s heat vision, to crashing airplanes all look amazing. But several scenes feature a badly animated, badly textured, noticeably puppet-like Superman that just ruins the moment whenever it pops up. It would be less noticeable if it weren’t for the fact that several other scenes feature a perfectly fine live-action Superman flying around and just like the Reeve films of the past, you really do believe that a man can fly. Look, CGI is unavoidable for a lot of the scenes of this film, but keep the camera at a distance, and if your CGI stunt double looks this unconvincing, don’t give him close-ups.
Other complaints should be addressed in regard to the costume design. Lex and his henchwoman Kitty are all over the place trying to recreate some 1920s-1940s period wardrobes, while everyone else is constantly dressed in drab grey and brown. This movie is decidedly devoid of color. But the BIGGEST offense comes by way of Superman himself, in the dreariest excuse for “red” this critic has ever seen. The “reds” of his costume are a brownish rust color, looking even darker in the films copious night-time scenes. It wouldn’t be as noticeable if not for the fact that inner lining of his cape is a bright red that looks great, but you only ever catch glimpses of it. Another complaint about the cape is the fabric. It’s been reported to be wool, but it looks plastic. Overall, it’s just a very bad design.
The final, and biggest negative aspect of this film is the plot. Remember, this movie serves as a sequel to Superman I & II… where Lex tries to destroy the entire West Coast, and then later teams up with three evil Kryptonians who perpetrate a coup on the White House, blow up part of The Daily Planet building, nearly murder Perry White, and assault the National Guard as well as the President. The opening premise for this film is that since Superman went off exploring space for five-ish years looking for remnants of Krypton, he wasn’t around to testify at Luthor’s parole hearing. Parole hearing?! Furthermore, why couldn’t the entire staff of The Daily Planet testify, or why not… oh I don’t know… the former President?! Just because Superman is missing, Lex Luthor is scot free? Okay, sure.
The main plot of the film revolves around Luthor’s plan to destroy about 75% of both North America and Europe, killing billions of people, to make his own continent made out of rock and Kryptonite. A completely uninhabitable continent, as it has no grass, no soil, no flora of any kind. And he thinks he can get away with it, considering the entire planet will know who’s responsible. When Lex has crafted an evil scheme in the comics or any other incarnation, he covers his bases and maintains a modicum of secrecy, but not in this movie.
Also, this movie establishes that Lex intends to carry out his plan by using the crystals from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. In the films that this movie serves as a sequel to, Superman has a bunch of crystals that essentially act like USB flash drives, as they contain data. That’s all they are. There is one special crystal, which basically does whatever needs doing, whether it’s mentally calling for Superman and vaguely sending him on his quest, creating the Fortress of Solitude, powering the devices contained within, etc. This special green crystal is what creates, while the others are basically data storage. All of that information is tossed right out of the window for this movie.
All in all, the film has its good points, namely its male leads, but it’s also just so full of other bad qualities that it just brings down the whole experience. Not horrible, but not very good either, sitting somewhere around mediocre, this critic would have to give this film a score of 6 out of 10.