Friday, January 5, 2007

Superman Returns


And He Does so in Grandiose Fashion

I still believe that Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) is the best superhero movie ever made. It had scope, power, and a great Superman/Lois Lane dynamic that forged an emotional core you cared about. Then came Superman II, which was also good, but leaned more toward campy fun (the third and fourth films don’t even merit a sentence). When I heard Bryan Singer was not only making another sequel, but inserting it in the timeline after the second film, I was skeptical. Could he really duplicate the majesty and power that Donner (and Richard Lester) created in the first two outings?

After learning that Krypton may still exist, Superman (Brandon Routh) disappears for five years. Upon his return, he finds that the world has moved on without him. This includes his beloved Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who not only has a significant other and a child, but has penned a Pulitzer Prize winning article entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”. More trouble arises when Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) pilfers powerful crystals from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude with a plan to grow his own continent where the United States now stands.

Director Singer (X2: X-Men United) apparently ruffled quite a few feathers when he left 20th-Century Fox and X-Men: The Last Stand. I can’t say it was a bad move, however. That film was very good, and this one is just as good, if not better. Superman Returns is simply a great movie, and I couldn’t help but feel sucked in to its thrilling story and wonderfully drawn characters.

Singer wisely takes many steps to link his movie to the originals. Right out of the gate we have a familiar credit sequence (complete with titles that “whoosh” out at you), using John Williams’ famous score. Even though Williams’ hasn’t scored this movie (John Ottman gets the job), that familiar theme does pop up now and then. That opening sequence really sets the stage for something really good, and gratefully, Singer doesn’t disappoint us.

Another link is the casting of virtual unknown Brandon Routh as the Man of Steel. He doesn’t do an impression of Christopher Reeve, but he is Reevian enough that he could pass as his brother. This isn’t a criticism, but a compliment. He is a good casting choice, and is very convincing here. This is a huge relief, because if you don’t believe this guy in the cape is the real deal, the whole movie will implode.

Then there’s Lois. I had wondered if Kate Bosworth (Bee Season) was really a good choice for this role, but she quickly put my fears to rest. Kate’s Lois is strong-willed, opinionated, feisty, and magnetic. The chemistry between her and Supes is very strong and feels completely real. The scene where they want to kiss so badly is awesome in its restrained passion and intensity.

Another good casting choice is Kevin Spacey (Beyond the Sea) as Lex Luthor. He is a real creep, seen at the very beginning bilking a dying widow out of her riches. He is much meaner and vicious than the Gene Hackman version, and has no problem killing billions of people to create his own island. Spacey has a lot of fun here, and interjects some good laughs in the midst of his despicableness. Movies like this need a great adversary (especially when the hero is practically indestructible), and Spacey and his bald head deliver the goods.

One huge advantage a remake like this has over a 28 year-old predecessor is special effects. While the effects in the original are still serviceable, and don’t take away from that film’s power (it’s never about effects, anyway), Superman Returns literally blows the lid off the effects can. It’s as if CGI was invented for this movie, as Superman does everything you’ve ever seen him do in the comic medium. He flies with grace and power (and breathtaking speed!), saving plummeting planes and sinking ships. It all looks wonderful and clean, and works spectacularly well.

I also liked the themes running through this film. “We don’t need a savior” Lois tells Superman. Jor-El is quoted as sending his “only son” to earth. Superman is seen in a crucifixion pose, and the list goes on and on. It becomes clear that a savior is needed, as Lois (and many others) would easily be dead without intervention from the Big Guy in the Sky.

This is a very good movie, and probably only suffers from what feels like a protracted third act. Other than that, Superman Returns is a captivating, thrilling and emotionally satisfying yarn, that is a worthy sequel to one of the best ever.

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