Sunday, November 29, 2009

“Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don't share their power with mankind.”

You thought I was done with Superman?

The Superman franchise whimpered to a halt with the fourth installment. Development Hell ensued for nearly twenty years before Superman returned to the big screen. 2006’s Superman Returns from director Bryan Singer quietly ignored the events of Superman III and IV and brought a big budget, sweeping approach to the character. So why does nobody talk about it much?

Superman returns (wow, couldn’t go one sentence without a title drop) to Earth after a five year wild goose chase to find the exploded planet Krypton. He finds a world that’s gotten along pretty fine without Superman, including Lois Lane, who’s got a fiancée and a five year old. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor and his surprisingly competent henchmen hatch a land grab scheme involving Kryptonian technology that could kill billions.

Superman/Clark Kent: Brandon Routh takes over in the big blue tights, and he does a pretty good job. He looks the part, he’s got the voice, and he’s got that idealistic charm that worked well for Reeve. His readjustment to life on Earth is very well done, especially in finding out Lois has moved on from him (then again, after all he’s done to her in the original movies, I can’t blame her). He plays Superman as a more sympathetic, less dickish hero than the Reeve Superman was written as, and there lies the conundrum of the movie. He’s trying to emulate and make up for the shortcomings of Reeve’s Superman while not really making the character his own.

Lois Lane: Kate Bosworth is Superman’s ex-girlfriend, and the character has gone through a rather bitter period of not liking Superman for just up and leaving Earth for five years without even saying goodbye, which…is actually a really good reason to be pissed at him. Of course, Superman’s return (there it is again) shakes up her whole world, just as she was settling down to raise a family. Its interesting stuff what they do with her, but Lois just doesn’t seem to work right in this movie. She seems pretty oblivious to danger, especially when she picks up her kid from school on her way to receive her Pulitzer, so what does she do? She goes to a mysterious address that has some connection to a massive EMP blast that temporarily knocked out the Eastern Seaboard and takes her kid onto a suspicious boat to investigate (forgetting her cell phone in the car) so that they can both be captured. This is more than parental negligence, this is a textbook example of Plot Induced Stupidity. There’s also that little bit of “spitfire” missing from Bosworth’s Lois that Margot Kidder brought to the role too.

Perry White: Frank Langella (Who’s been all sorts of screen villains, from a 1970s Dracula to live-action Skeletor to, uh, Richard Nixon) is the Editor in Chief of the Daily Planet. He’s a constant presence in the film, and gets some great lines and newsman jokes. Hell, he even pulls off White’s iconic “Great Caesar’s ghost!” without the faintest hint of irony or self-awareness, and that’s awesome.

Jimmy Olsen: Sam Huntington is actually really good as Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. He’s even got the bowtie and red hair this time around, but it works. He’s given more to do, and definitely gets to work as a kind of sidekick/“welcome back here’s what’s happened while you were gone” character.

Richard White: James Marsden (from the X-Men movies) is Perry’s nephew and Lois’ fiancée. He’s a likable, competent, good man who’s been there for Lois when Superman was not. This is a bit of an issue for the movie, since Richard is actually a much more admirable character than Supes. He has no super powers, but he still flies off into a storm to find Lois and her kid after they’ve been captured, risking his life for a woman that he loves but knows he can’t really compete against Superman for her affections. The man’s got stones, and he’s also likely a better father figure for little Jason. These are unfortunate implications for Clark Kent, and no doubt would’ve lead to trouble if they had made a direct sequel to Returns.

Jason White: Tristan Lake Leabu is okay, I suppose, as Lois’ son. The kid has a lot of screen time but pretty much only one expression on his face the whole movie. A weak link, though the idea of the character is not a bad one.

Lex Luthor: You know, I loved Gene Hackman’s gleefully evil portrayal of Lex Luthor in the original movies, but Kevin Spacey just takes the character and transcends him into A Class villainy. While there are definite nods to the prior films, this Luthor is an amoral, incredibly capable, incredibly arrogant, witty, evil genius. Everything he does is either deliberately planned out, or a magnificent adaptation to the situation. Not only that, but he’s also got competent henchmen (unlike Otis) and a fairly competent sidekick in Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) that’s a good verbal foil for him. Not only does this Luthor get shit done, but he also makes the character something the prior movies didn’t have: a credible, legitimately serious threat to Superman. He is this film’s magnificent bastard badass.

Bryan Singer is a very, very good director. This film goes for a very epic, sweeping feel to it over a frenetic “action-packed” vibe. There is a lot of action in it, but the whole look and feel is more of deliberate craftsmanship than of an action movie feel. In many ways, its aping Richard Donner’s style in the first one, and that’s not a bad thing. A lot of interior scenes are warmly lit, but action scenes are more stark and colorless. The overall effect is of a bright and optimistic tone that works fantastically for the character. Superman is all about hope and optimism triumphing over darkness, so a grimdark feel just wouldn’t fit the character. The only real complaint I can think of is that the pacing does grind down in places more often than I’d like, particularly by the end.

CGI is used a lot in the film, but its always in service to the story. Action sequences, like Superman’s rescue of the jet airliner fairly early in the film are fantastic, and the effects are all very solid.

Michael Dougherty (writer/director of Trick 'R Treat) and Dan Harris (who both worked with Singer on X2) brought a lot of interesting ideas to the table for this movie in examining the fallout of Superman being AWOL for five years. Characterizations are pretty good, but the movie never really seems to decide if it wants to be a direct sequel to the original movies or more of a reboot. This hurts the overall effect a little bit, though it was nice seeing archived footage of Marlon Brandon as Jor-El in a scene. Also of interesting note is that while nothing from the third or fourth movies is ever mentioned, the events of those films can still plausibly have taken place.

The score by John Ottman is very good and completely suited for the film, but once again, its all built on John Williams’ original score for the first movie.

You know, I honestly don’t understand nobody really talks about Superman Returns. The movie didn’t really do well at the box office and the studio pretty much washed its hands of it by not making a follow up after it. It’s a very well crafted and enjoyable movie, and easily the second best out of the five (which, if you’re interested in keeping score are ranked here: Superman the Movie, Superman Returns, Superman II, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (full title obligatory) and the vacuum devoid of any entertainment that is Superman III in my arrogant opinion. Its not a perfect film but it’s a really good, non-ironic or campy treatment of Superman. And if that’s not enough for you to see the movie; Kevin Spacey’s Luthor is a revelation of the character’s potential as a great villain.

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