Superman Returns (2006, Bryan Singer)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having been away for five years, Superman comes home to Earth – just as Lex Luthor is kick-starting a new diabolical plan…

Good guys: In the years since Superman IV, there’d been numerous sequel or reboot projects that had failed to take flight. Directors such as Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Tim Burton, Michael Bay, Martin Campbell, Brett Ratner, McG and Wolfgang Petersen were attached or asked; actors as varied as Ben Affleck, Nicolas Cage, Will Smith, Christian Bale, Josh Hartnett, Jude Law, Paul Walker, Brendan Fraser, David Boreanaz and Ashton Kutcher were considered, courted and in some cases actually cast in the lead role. But when Bryan Singer took over as director, he decided upon the unknown Brandon Routh to be the new cinematic Superman. He’s doing a Christopher Reeve impression for the most part, but if you’re going to steal then steal from the best. The character has been off in space for five years, searching for the wreckage of his home planet (guess what: it’s not there any more), but crashes like a meteorite near the Kent family farm. In his Clark Kent persona, he returns to his old job at the Daily Planet, but when he hears about a crisis aboard a 747 he turns into Superman and comes to the rescue. He then meets up with old flame Lois Lane as well as her new partner, Robert, and their son. The boy’s age means that maybe Robert’s not the father… Superman later spies on Lois, Robert and Jason (bit stalker-y, this), and is upset to hear Lois deny she once loved Superman. So he flies into space and floats above the planet like a god. He can hear the entire Earth at once, but his ears zero in on a bank robbery in Metropolis. (All those rapes will have to wait, I suppose.) When master criminal Lex Luthor creates a new landmass off the eastern coast of America, Superman flies there to sort him out – but the ground is tainted by Kryptonite, so he’s incapacitated and gets stabbed. Lois arrives to save him, then he dives into the ocean and lifts the entire continent up out of the water and flings it into space. Job done. Lois, meanwhile, is played by Kate Bosworth. It’s a dreary, dead-behind-the-eyes performance, empty of energy and charm. It’s difficult to fathom what either Clarke or Robert see in her. At the start of the story, she’s researching a story about a new space shuttle. When the plane she’s on falls out of the sky thanks to a power surge, Superman arrives to save her – knowing he’s back in town, she now feels guilty about writing a recent article called Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman. We get a gag about how she’s a poor speller – but she’s still about to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize (give it to the Daily Planet subs, I say). Mum-of-the-year Lois then takes her five-year-old son along when she investigates the source of the power surge, and they both end up being kidnapped by Lex Luthor.

Bad guys: Lex is played by Kevin Spacey, who’s having great fun with the role. After Superman failed to show up for a court date, Luthor was released from the prison sentence he was given earlier in the series. He’s since been conning an old woman (Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in 1948-1950) out of her fortune. Using a massive luxury yacht as his base, Lex now has a number of sidekicks and a plan to create a new continent so he can sell the real estate. Using crystals stolen from Superman’s abandoned Fortress of Solitude and some Kryptonite nicked from a museum, his creation is a jagged, desolate outcrop in the north Atlantic. Why anyone would want to live there is not addressed. Luthor’s chief lieutenant is the sarcastic Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey, who would have made a much better Lois Lane). Kal Penn – sometime Kumar, sometime politician – is one of the henchmen. For reasons not explored, another is constantly filming things with a video camera.

Other guys: James Marsden turned his back on the X-Men series in order to play Richard White, Lois’s boyfriend and the nephew of the Daily Planet’s editor. For third-act reasons, he has a seaplane docked outside his house. Young Jason is played by Tristan Lake Leabu. Frank Langella appears as Perry White; Sam Huntington doesn’t get much to do as a wide-eyed Jimmy Olsen. Eva Marie Saint, who won an Oscar for On The Waterfront and was in North by Northwest, plays Martha Kent. Coincidentally, her Waterfront co-star is also in Superman Returns – in a move that’s maybe a smidgen too pleased with itself, the film re-uses 1970s footage of Marlon Brando playing Jor-El.

Best bits:
* The creepy opening scene: Lex lying to the old woman he’s conned as she dies, then confronting her disgusted and disinherited family. Pulling off his wig, he hands it to a distraught little girl. “You can keep that. The rest is mine.”

* The interior of Lex’s yacht – a huge studio set that tilts from side from side.

* Clark’s dog drops a tennis ball at his feet, so he throws it and it flies miles into the distance. The dog starts to run after it, then stops, turns and whines a whine that clearly says, “You bastard.”

* The Daily Planet newsroom. It’s hectic and feels old-school – men in suits, ties and braces, women in tank tops – but also has computers and plasma-screens.

* Lex and his gang return to the empty mansion. A dog is eating a bone. Kitty wonders what happened to the other pooch…

* The room filled with an enormous and enormously detailed model train set. WANT!

* “Wow, that’s really something, Lex,” deadpans an unimpressed Kitty when his demonstration fails to happen. “Wait for it,” he says. She does, for a second, then repeats, “Wow, that’s really something, Lex.”

* When the model train set is trashed by the power surge, we get gags referring to older Superman movies: the earthquake from film one, the destruction of Mount Rushmore from film two and the plant fire from film three are all recreated in beautiful miniature.

* The first appearance of Superman, climaxing in a moment when he holds up an airliner vertically by its nose to prevent it crashing into a baseball stadium.

* The emergency editorial meeting called now that Superman in back. Perry White rattles off assignments: “Okay, everybody, listen up. I want to know it all, everything. Olsen: I want to see photos of him everywhere; no, I want *the* photo. Sport: how they going to get that plane out of the stadium? Travel: where did he go? Was he on vacation? If so, where? Gossip: has he met somebody? Fashion: is that a new suit? Health: has he lost weight? What’s he been eating? Business: how is this going to affect the stock market? Long term, short term? Politics: does he still stand for truth, justice… all that stuff?”

* Lois and Clarke in a lift, which is filled with other people reading the Daily Planet (headline: ‘The Man of Steel is back!’) There’s muzak and the pair trade nervous glances.

* Superman standing before a machine gun, the bullets bouncing off his chest. The bad guy then takes out a handgun and unloads into Superman’s face (steady…), but the bullet harmlessly impacts on his eyeball and slides off.

* Kitty driving manically through the city, endangering lives left, right and centre, as a diversion while Lex breaks into the museum. (She later slaps Lex and says, “I was going to *pretend* the brakes were out!”)

* A quick reference to Gotham City.

* Lex finding Lois on his boat while he’s cleaning his teeth.

* Lex: “Kitty, what did my father used to say to me?” Kitty: “You’re losing your hair?” “Before that.” “Get out?”

* While being held hostage with his mum, Jason plays the piano aboard Lex’s yacht. In a pleasingly whimsical moment, the henchman guarding them sits next to him and joins in.

* A shock wave hits Metropolis.

* Every time the Superman theme tune swells up.

* Superman picks up a continent.

* Lex and Kitty get stranded on a tiny atoll in the middle of nowhere. They have a helicopter… but no petrol.

* The final shot: a deliberate copy of Superman: The Movie’s final image.

Review: It feels a bit mean to criticise Superman Returns. Its heart is clearly in the right place and I don’t doubt the love put into it. But it largely doesn’t work. Slightly strangely, the film is a sequel to Superman II. It ignores the events of Superman III and Superman IV, and asks you not to worry that 25 years have passed yet no one’s aged. After a caption card that sums up the backstory, we hear Marlon Brando’s voice and John Williams’s theme music before a credit sequence modelled on the 1978 movie. That’s just the start of references to those earlier films – and, while plainly well intentioned, it’s a big problem. The film is just too deferential, too afraid to be bold. It doesn’t have a voice of its own, and as a result lacks zip and drive. It’s also too long and falls into that action-movie trap of having a really boring final third. (In comparison, the previous year’s Batman Begins gets more interesting the longer it goes on.) Visually, the cinematography is going for a romantic, classical look. It’s very soft, perhaps because the movie was shot digitally rather than on film; has lots of muted colours such as turquoise, sea-green and yellow; and often looks like an old painting – something to be admired from a distance rather than something to get wrapped up in. The film’s not a disaster, by any means. Routh and Spacey are great and I’d have loved to have seen them again. But it’s nothing special.

Six Pulitzer Prize-winning articles out of 10.

Next time: Superman II redux’d.

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