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Is it a bird? Its it a plane? No, it's a blockbuster!
A film review of SUPERMAN RETURNS by Lord Summerisle

Despite my age and the fact that I was not around at the launch of the first couple of Superman films, there are few people better qualified to write about the man of steel. I say this with confidence as I grew up watching the aforementioned movies, and as a young teenager was a religious devotee of DC Comics. Since then I have kept my ear firmly to the ground for anything combining two of my greatest passions, film and the comic book.

Sadly since Tim Burtons fantastically dark and gothic Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) there has been little to get me excited. The recent Marvel movie boom has seen everything from a commendable attempt (Spiderman [2002] and The Hulk [2003]) to a downright waste of everybody's time (Hellboy [2004] and Elektra [2005], to name just a couple). The latest in the Batman franchise did less for me than most, watering down for the kids what could have been an infinitely more interesting premise.
So, one can imagine my excitement at the release of Superman Returns. I have been following the project avidly for some time and had my fingers well and truly crossed that this would not be another comic turkey.

As soon as John Williams' classic theme erupts to its crescendo during a thrilling flight through space with the titles swooping to fill the screen, I was transported back to my early youth. So far so good for director Brian Singer, the talent eventually secured to recreate the legendary superhero, but don't get too excited, it's only the title sequence.

The story takes place six years after Superman IV (1987), and deals with Superman's return to Earth after spending the interim period trying to find some part of an intact Krypton after astronauts report its discovery.

With measured storytelling, it is some time before the lead role appears onscreen, with Lex Luthor being the first of the main characters to be shown. Even this is with theatrical pace, only revealing the iconic villainous mastermind, a shaven headed Kevin Spacey, after a monologue of an old widow on her death bed, signing her will away to him. He erupts with a brooding charisma whenever onscreen, at least a match for his predecessor in the role, Gene Hackman. When Brandon Routh first appears it is as the man of steels chronologically first incarnation, that of the Kryptonian Kal-El. Martha Kent finds him in the debris of a fallen meteorite near to his Kansas home, mirroring Superman's first arrival on Earth as a baby. Then, as a recovered Clark Kent, Routh steps out onto the Kents' farmland and surveys his childhood home. He sparkles with a similar vivacity as the late Christopher Reeve - the latter's optimism and strength shines in Routh, as he throws a baseball far into the sky, the earliest demonstration of his powers in the movie.

As Luthor plots to create new land with crystals stolen from the icy Fortress of Solitude, Kent returns to Metropolis after a wonderful flashback of a young Clark having fun with his newly developing powers, a sequence that harks back to sequences in the original film. The glasses donned and back at the Daily Planet, Superman's awkward and hapless alter ego is pitch perfect, and it is here where Routh draws the closest comparisons to Reeve, as Clark Kent in the way the public view him. Naïve and clumsy, Clark finds Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington, another wonderfully cast newcomer) greeting him in the newsroom with unwelcome news: Lois Lane has not only found herself a new man, but has a child.

It was at this point I became dubious as to whether I could go along with this new twist in the Superman saga. Lane's new partner Richard (supposed father of the child, Jason), played averagely by James Marsden, is Perry White's square-jawed nephew. A pilot's license and journalistic capabilities are included in his CV, and our hero is not too pleased with his presence. I knew the feeling. Although as the quickly edited pace continued. this detail became a mere irritation.

It is almost time for the man of steel to make his entrance, but first Lois Lane is introduced. She is on a plane strapped to a space shuttle covering the story. Kate Bosworth plays a good Lois for the 21st Century, but understandably lacks the depth of character Teri Hatcher explored in the television series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993), although she is a vast improvement on Margot Kidder, who was never able to hold up to the status of the role. Bosworth is an untypically young Lane yet manages to retain the balance of steely reporter sharpness, loyal strength and sensitivity crucial to the character.

The first action set piece involves the said shuttle not detaching itself from the plane due to an unusual power cut, brought about by Luthors crystal experiment, and is fast set on a deadly course for destruction. Superman finally arrives, after the trademark music and Clark Kent's shirt ripping on the street of Metropolis to reveal the 'S'. Now this is the moment of truth. Superman movies are not about dark introspection like Batman or science gone awry like The Incredible Hulk (1977). Superman is about the biggest and the best. Superman movies are about the biggest and the best action, and Singer introduces his hero in a way that makes Richard Donner's original Supe's intro look archaic. As a colleague has put it, I admit I'm biased, but I am also part of the demographic that will be hardest to please. But I was blown away. This IS Superman. One is convinced as one was with Reeve; it is not some actor in a silly costume, it is Superman. He practically radiates from the screen. And the reunion between Superman and Lois after he sets the plane down in the middle of a baseball game is a truly emotive moment.

The way these characters are introduced shows a measured and well thought out platform to suck the audience into a fantasy world that has not been on the silver screen for some time, old fans and newcomers alike. This is a lovingly crafted piece of cinema and I feel Singer handled such a huge task extremely heroically (get it?!?). My fear of contemporizing the ethos with terrorist threat and similar guff was thankfully unfounded. I have great admiration for Brian Singer and think his early films such as Apt Pupil (1998) and The Usual Suspects (1995) are fantastic works that have seldom been mentioned in any reports in connection with Superman Returns. The X-Men films he directed, although acclaimed by fans of the comic, I found bland and frankly quite boring and the juggling between two dimensional characters made it neutral viewing. Superman Returns is a different animal. What was needed here was restraint from the temptation of overplaying your hand and a true respect for the enormity of the Superman phenomenon. Singer delivered this perfectly, with a mature approach. What he has created is a modern Superman film that retains all the elements that made the first so popular. If you are of an older generation and are not a fan of the old films (I and II are the classics) then you probably will not be a fan of this one. The cynical new generation of CGI lovers will favour this film over the old ones purely because of the superior effects. But a true fan of Superman should love it, or at the very least be satisfied that the hero still retains his status.

The storyline involving Lois and Clark feels as though it has never been away, and there is a chemistry between Bosworth and Routh that gives me a powerful sense of déjà vu. The Richard and Jason element, one could argue, brings a new dimension to the dynamic of the story and lends something new to an old tale, but personally I'm undecided. The twist of little Jason actually being Superman's son was not the best veiled.

The supporting cast are generally good, my favourite being Jimmy Olsen, although the great charisma of Perry White is quashed by the casting of Frank Langella in the role, and he is no match for the likes of Lane Smith, my favourite Perry, from Lois and Clark. Spacey is as great as ever, although his lines do let him down on the odd occasion.

If you have read any of my reviews before you may be surprised in my praise of such a mainstream piece of filmmaking, and it is only on rare occasions that I give a positive critique of such a film. I am generally not a fan of CGI, but this film lends itself perfectly to it, and it is used well. It is film as spectacle, and there is very little for one's brain to do during it, that is obvious, but it is visually stunning, the performances from the lead actors are concise and faultless and the direction has emotion hard to find in a summer blockbuster. The plot is obtuse and about as deep as a garden pond, but if one can see it as pure entertainment it is a lot of fun. Donner's original movie tagline was "You'll believe a man can fly." With Superman Returns you not only believe it, you are in true awe of it.

Superman Returns

USA 2006
154 mins
Bryan Singer
Gilbert Adler
Jon Peters
Bryan Singer
Michael Dougherty
Dan Harris
Bryan Singer
Michael Dougherty
Dan Harris
Newton Thomas Sigel
Elliot Graham
John Ottman
John Ottman
John Williams
production design
Guy Hendrix Dyas
Brandon Routh
Kate Bosworth
Kevin Spacey
James Marsden
Parker Posey
Frank Langella
Sam Huntington
review posted
24 July 2006

related review
Superman Returns (Camus review)