Superman Returns

dir: Bryan Singer
[img_assist|nid=885|title=Looking down on the rest of us... who does he think he is?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=666]
Superman Returns is a re-jigging of an ancient franchise with the express intention of making more money from something old in lieu of inventing anything exciting and new. And, just like an episode of the Love Boat, there is the need to preserve the familiar (Superman’s powers, origins, and squareness, Lois Lane, Metropolis, Lex Luthor, kryptonite) whilst including enough new stuff to not make the producers look like the lazy, intellectually bankrupt cretins that they are.

Perhaps I speak too harshly of people I’ve never met. Perhaps you believe I should give one of the producers, Jon Peters, the benefit of the doubt. He was, after all, Barbra Streisand’s hairdresser before he became a producer. Not only that, he is rumoured to be an illiterate and violent man too stupid to know how dumb his ideas are. As such, he was uniquely qualified to produce such masterpieces as the first re-jigged Batman, that awful infected haemorrhoid of a movie Wild Wild West, and Bonfire of the Vanities.

At least they had Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men films and The Usual Suspects at the helm of this flick, to try to redeem a project over a decade in the making and destined for mediocrity.

Superman Returns pretends Superman III and IV were never made, as do the rest of us, and also pretends only five years have elapsed since the 70s. In those five years, Superman (Brandon Routh, playing Christopher Reeve more than the Caped Crusader) has been searching the cosmos for the remnants of his home planet, to no avail. Upon his return to Earth, he finds Metropolis has not remained frozen in time, breathlessly awaiting his return.

The love of his life, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has squeezed out a child, and become engaged to her editor’s nephew, Richard White (James Marsden). Not only that, but in a fit of pique, angered by Superman’s abandonment, she has won the prestigious (only to journalists) Pulitzer for writing an article about how the world doesn’t need Superman. Talk about your passive-aggressive revenge. It reminds me of a character in Neal Stephenson’s novel Cryptonomicon, who, unhappy with her partner’s beard, writes a PhD thesis about how pathetic men with beards are.

Superman has returned at the same time as super genius super criminal Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is let out of jail. In some of the film’s first moments, we see an ancient old crone on her death bed, telling someone how wonderful he is as she is signing her last will and testament giving him her vast fortune. She specifically thanks the unseen man for giving her pleasure she could previously only dream of. Luthor really earned that money, I can tell you.

Luthor, being a mastermind super criminal, decides to do something criminal on a grand scale. Having come across some crystal technology from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, he plans to create a new continent in the Atlantic Ocean, which he will rule. Alas, such creation will necessitate the destruction of the United States, killing a few insignificant people. It’s up to someone, possibly Jesus or Ghandi, to save them all..

Much of the film is given over to Superman reprising his role as the world’s protector away from Luthor’s machinations, as well as trying to reconnect with Lois. As Clark Kent, where people magically can’t tell he’s the boy in blue just because he wears a pair of glasses, he gets his job back at the Daily Planet. No, not the brothel in Elsternwick, but instead the newspaper where Superman couldn’t possibly retain his job because he is constantly ducking out to save people’s cats from tall trees and to stop their soufflés from deflating. Honestly, anyone else at such a job would be suspected of being a drug addict and fired after a few days.

Lois, who thankfully doesn’t look anything like Margot Kidder, is still a fidgety, loud, star reporter who works the phones and the angles to pursue the scoops no-one cares about now that everyone wants the goss on Superman. Still smarting from Supes skipping town, she seeks the truth behind an electromagnetic disturbance that nearly takes out Metropolis, a space shuttle and, um, herself on an airliner.

There are two stories here: one is about Superman getting back into his world, and trying to get back with the woman he aches for, and the other is an idiotic side-plot featuring a buffoonish cartoon villain. One plot works, the other does not. Flip a coin and guess for yourself.

There is an essential problem with the character of Superman. Even amidst the pantheon of superheroes, he stands out. It’s not because of the gay outfit. It’s not just because he is so square. It’s because he is too powerful. He can fly anywhere at whatever speed is required, he can lift anything, burn stuff with his eyes, see through everything (except lead and presumably, your grandmother’s underpants). And ultimately, he is entirely invulnerable except when in the presence of the diabolical kryptonite. As such, we know no-one can really take him on, so there isn’t much of a contest when it comes to laying the smackdown on some naughty types. Unless kryptonite gets involved. Such a set up means they’re practically obligated to include kryptonite in the script just to make it a bit more interesting, or at least vaguely competitive.

But other than his mission to safeguard puppies and old people the world over, he’s really not that interesting a character. Which I think is why this flick’s script concentrates so much on his relationship with Lois. Without it, the film would be more hollow than a Prime Minister’s lies.

I guess it’s possible that he can still an inherently interesting character for today’s audiences. Sure, he’s been an enduring character for over 70 years, and the archetype of the perfect American version of Jesus: a supernatural being who fights for truth, justice and the American way, sent by his absent, powerful father to Earth to be our Saviour. And, unlike the original Jesus, this muscle-bound titan kicks ass and takes names, he’s no sandal-wearing, bearded hippy preaching brotherhood and turning one’s other cheeks heavenwards for another reaming.

I guess he’s probably as current or relevant as any of the other characters making the rounds. It’s just that the flick isn’t really as entertaining as the recent Spider-Man flicks, and lacks the (pretentious) psychological complexity of the recent Batman flick, meaning it ends up just being what it is: a flick about a guy who continually saves the world and the woman he loves but cannot have.

The action sequences are generally well handled and almost exclusively CGI. The sequence where Supes tries to save an airliner and space shuttle from sharing the same fate as Challenger and Columbia is pretty well done, but unfortunately is the action highlight of the film. Sequences later on suffer in comparison and in excitement level.

Grey oceans filling with giant crystals and Stuperman saving people from broken glass doesn’t really get the adrenalin pumping. Although one seemingly mundane scene where our Hero saves a woman in a car with no brakes, recreating the same image from the cover of the first Superman comic is pretty well done.

The film doesn’t really get its various elements to cohere in any decent way, but it didn’t really bother me that much. Spacey is good, and, as expected, over the top as Luthor, and is fun to watch as he chews his way through scenery as if it was a Pomeranian, but his nefarious plot is pretty dumb. His henchmen also have no dialogue, which makes them seem like zombies, or at least like shy people.

Luthor’s paramour, the ditzy Kitty Kowalski is played with great humour by Parker Posey, who’s been slogging around in arthouse quirkfests for decades, and even had to endure a role in an appalling Blade sequel before finally hitting the big time here. I’m betting she probably made more from Returns than she’s made in the rest of her career. Good luck to her.

There is a plot point introduced which is completely and utterly new in terms of its implications for the Superman character and movies, which is pretty unexpected. It would be a cliché for any other hero, but here it has really serious implications. It will be interesting to see how they follow up on it in the future.

All in all, I still enjoyed it. There is this thrill you can get from seeing Superman flying above the Earth protectively, smiling benevolently as he patrols the heavens. Sure, it’s not as good as the first two films, but both of them are cheesier than an old homeless drunk’s nether-regions.

Still, many people remember dearly departed Christopher Reeves’ performance as Superman with great fondness, and much love, and though I don’t see anyone really falling in love with Brandon Routh based on his work here, hopefully, he’ll grow into the part. And perhaps a decent sequel (scheduled for 2009) will cement his place in the heroic pantheon after all.

But I'll be damned (a fact my parish priest never fails to remind me of) if I can see why
this film cost US $260 million to make. Someone should really have asked for receipts and Cabcharge stubs on this one.

7 times a day I’d be using my x-ray vision for badness and not goodness if I were a superheroic type out of 10

“Winning a Pulitzer Prize is like winning an Academy Award: Nobody remembers what you won it for, they just know that you won it.” - Perry White, Superman Returns