Figured I'd plunge into the deep end with a review of </i>Superman Returns</i>.
Cast: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Eve Marie-Saint, James Marsden.
So I think I believed a man could fly.
Superman Returns is a very good comic book movie, possibly even great. It’s gorgeously filmed, lushly scored, with outstanding visual effects, and a relatively comprehensive and accessible storyline. It doesn’t treat its audience like 5 year olds on a sugar high, and requires that you pay attention to what is happening on the screen. The action scenes are tense and tight, and there’s a feeling of reverence toward Superman film mythology that permeates every scene. It’s as if Singer is absolutely determined to respect every nuance of what came in the first two movies, and treats everything with a hushed respect. This isn’t deconstruction of a myth or archetype, it’s the solidifying of it into something accessible for today’s jaded and cynical audience. It’s an elegantly crafted piece, staunchly old-fashioned (Superman and Lois barely kiss), but fitting in smoothly in today’s world of cell phones and pagers. Again, it’s a simply beautiful piece of filmmaking.
The Messianic symbolism that Singer uses, while sledgehammer-like in its non-subtlety, reinforces this concept – Superman is our savior, regardless of race, ethnicity, political ideology or creed, and he treats everyone on Earth the same. Plus, it allows for some absolutely gorgeous and poignant visual moments that are goose-bump inducing. This movie isn’t camp, it’s church, for all sorts of myth and traditions.
This is not to say, however, that it was by any means perfect. There are a few serious flaws:
- Lex Luthor – I know it’s a trope that characters are only as good as their villains make them be, and I’m not sure if I totally disagree in this case. Lex Luthor is a continuation of the Lex from the first two movies, and that’s not a great thing. Lex is always the Smartest Guy in the Room. It doesn’t matter whether that room is filled with physicists or philosophers, he is the smartest guy there. To that end, there should be an arrogance and sense of superiority to him that makes him challenging to write, and even more challenging to embody. I felt that Kevin Spacey, one of our best actors today, was hampered by the Gene Hackman/Donner interpretation, and couldn’t imbue Lex with the sense of true deep villainy. His plot to both take out Superman and get rich has potential, but gets played for laughs too often to make it credible and truly menacing.
- Lois Lane – Kate Bosworth is too slight and sweet to give Lois the sense of spark and sass that she really needs. Margot Kidder, while not the most attractive film star, had a Hepburn-like quality in her gangliness and utter dismissal of convention that made her Lois truly and deeply credible. Bosworth, while pretty, and sharing a simple and almost pure chemistry with Superman, doesn’t show any of the backbone that made Superman/Clark fall in love with her in the first place. I wanted to be totally caught up in the romance, and there is one scene in particular that does sweep you up, but it felt slightly lacking for a relationship that drives one or two critical plot points.
- Brandon Routh – he’s a lightweight. I eventually grew to see him as Superman, but that simply shouldn’t happen. If Superman is a savior for today, then he should be a bit more imposing – your breath should catch, there should be a lump in your throat when you see him for the first time, that you are standing in the presence of a god. Routh doesn’t possess the presence to pull that off, despite his extreme handsomeness and cut physique. He eventually pulls it off, and it’s just amazing when he does, but it’s something that should hit you from the beginning. Routh’s resemblance to Christopher Reeve is unnerving, but he looks a bit young to have been through everything from the first two movies and have been in space for five years – there should be more gravitas written in his face. And I don’t want to compare Routh to Reeve, because Reeve so embodied the character for a generation and more, and the tragedy of his injury and death adds an aura of near-sanctity to it, but the comparisons are inevitable. Again, Routh seems to be a capable actor, and he deserves credit for a soft and tender performance.
- His Clark is seriously underwritten as well – Clark Kent is just as much of a crack ace reporter as Lois is, which is one of the things that defines their chemistry. In the comics, Clark has a Pulitzer all his own; it’s hard to see how this Clark would ever get one. The fact that he doesn’t follow up on a story that Perry assigns him is just bad and sloppy writing on the part of the scriptwriters.
- The multiple endings that somehow don’t resolve anything. To say more would spoil a neat plot twist, but there’s a thread that is absolutely fascinating in its repercussions for Superman continuity – past and future – and it kind of gets left there, the end floating in the breeze, to see if we’re going to tease it out for ourselves. I would have liked someone to actually, I don’t know, talk about it. Acknowledge that an explanation is needed. Otherwise, you really start heading into bizzarro-land territory.
I realize that in the face of the beauty of this movie, these last few flaws may sound like nitpicks, but they are the few small things that keep this from joining movies like Spider-man 2 and X-men 2 (and even the first two Donner movies) as one of the single greatest comic book movies ever made. I did love it because it’s a Superman movie, and it’s Kal-El, on the screen, being as heroic as anyone or anything could be, making sacrifices and choices that we lesser mortals could never make, and it’s lush and rich and beautiful and reverent and came so very very close to being shiningly perfect.