Source: Superman Returns (2006)
Type: FilmSo I watched Superman Returns again this weekend, intent on re-evaluating it. I'm afraid not much has changed in the past 5 years, except perhaps Brandon Routh's cred. Five years of living with the idea that he IS Superman (until the next movie supplants him), and enjoying his geek-friendly turns hanging out with Zack, Miri and Chuck. He's got the look for sure, and the costume works for him (even if it needed to be a little redder). He's got a pleasant on-screen personality that sells Superman's wholesomeness. The problems his Superman has are all down to the script and really aren't his fault. These boil down to two things really. First, playing up the Christ figure elements leads to pretentiousness at best, and complete nonsense at worse ("The son becomes the father and the father becomes the son"?? What the heck does this mean in the context of this film?)
Secondly, and more importantly, is the script's fetishization of Richard Donner's two films. I understand from the DVD extras that the movie probably wouldn't have been made if Bryan Singer hadn't secured Donner's blessing, but the fact that it takes place in the Donnerverse is what keeps this Superman movie from taking off. I enjoyed the Donner films as much as the next guy, but they are a bit cheesy. On purpose, of course, just like the Batman series was campy. It's how comic book properties were seen and part of why the franchises were enjoyable. Cut to 2006 and it's a different world where more naturalism is required. And the film IS naturalistic, but in an effort to pay homage to Superman I and II and place Returns in the same continuum, we've got Superman putting on a cheesy public persona ("The only safe way to travel", etc.). Routh isn't really given the chance to make the character his own, because the script insists on Christopher Reeve's version of both Superman as big blue boyscout and Clark Kent as clumsy doofus. And so it goes for the entire movie, Kryptonian crystals and all. The same theme tune, I could have accepted, but everything else? And what makes this slightly bizarre is that all the recast actors look younger than their 1970s counterparts even if it's meant to be five years later.
It's a very pretty movie, no doubt about it. Visually stunning. But it's incredibly indulgent as well. In that sense, I was reminded of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. At two and a half hours, it's too long and needed harsher editing. Nothing wrong with grand and sweeping, but there are longueurs here. And plenty of stuff that's not integral to the story. Did we need the flashback to Clark's youth, running through corn fields? Did we need the scene in which Martha Kent muses on the possibility of there being other Kryptonians out there, despite the fact that none arrive in those 2½ hours? Surely, the answer is no. And while we're on listing the film's flaws, I should mention the fact that Superman doesn't throw a single punch in this movie. Not a one. It's all lifting and pulling and slowly advancing on opponents. I think somebody owes us a Super punch-up movie. And then there's Lois Lane, who is put to shame by the 40s and 50s Loises I've recently discovered as far as being a strong and independent action heroine goes. It's terrible that our most recent Lois also seems the least "liberated".
I'll tell you who comes up smelling like roses though: James Marsden as Lois' boyfriend Richard White. If Lois' already announced new boyfriend is anything like Richard, I think I can find a way to accept it. Richard is a good guy, a selfless hero in his own right, and as deserving of Lois Lane as he is undeserving of her loving another man. And Marsden plays it with the right amount of ambiguity. Does he know Jason isn't his son? Yeah, I think he does, but he's too much of a gentleman to ever say anything. I hope that "Jonathan Carroll" is the same kind of guy, a guy I can feel sorry for knowing that Lois has a thing for Superman, a guy I can root for.
There are other good things here, of course. The film creates a number of memorable iconic images: The plane crash, the bullet in the eye, the corn field run ending with a near crash in a barn (it's memorable even if I don't think it makes the best use of the movie's time), Superman's Atlas moment. Kevin Spacey is a fun Lex Luthor whom I much prefer to Hackman's. Sam Huntington's Jimmy, Frank Langella's Perry and Parker Posey's Kitty are all good in their minor roles. The film also takes some chances with the mythos. Giving Superman and Lois a son is much more extreme than having the two of them get married, and something that was attempted in the comics by Donner himself (and in 2006, so I wonder why Chris Kent isn't called Jason), but only with the most comic booky of manipulations (with an easy, no-consequences, exit too). So I give it props for that.
What? I make no mention of the ludicrous finale in which Superman lifts a hundred billion tons of kryptonite? Do I need to? You know the score.
To bring the discussion back to Routh, I think he made a fine Superman and I wish he's been allowed to go in a more surprising direction. I'll always miss the follow-up movie in which he might actually have gotten to punch a giant Brainiac robot or something.