Thursday, July 06, 2006

Film Review - Superman Returns

Does the world need a Superman? That is precisely the very question executives at Warner Brothers studios and X-Men director Bryan Singer are trying to answer this summer with the release of the highly-anticipated Superman Returns which they hope will be received with a resounding ‘Yes’ from the American public. Fans of the ‘Man of Steel’ have for years clamored for the world’s greatest superhero to make a triumphant return to the silver screen in light of the shameful Superman IV: The Quest for Peace which was both a critical as well as a public failure for Warner Brothers. And although producer Alexander Salkind diligently tried in vain to resurrect the film franchise with Superman: The New Movie, using the Superboy television series to get the proposal off the ground, nothing came to fruition. Warner Brothers spent fifty-million dollars in pre-production alone and went through as many as three directors including Batman director Tim Burton, Charlie’s Angels director McG and Rush Hour director Brett Ratner. Ironically enough it was Ratner who departed the Superman Returns project to take up X-Men: The Last Stand, a sequel to the successful X-Men film franchise Bryan Singer abandoned for Superman Returns. Among the nine writers tapped to pen the screenplay for the fifth installment in the Superman series, Clerks director Kevin Smith who used ‘The Death and Life of Superman’ storyline for his screenplay and Alias and Lost creator/producer J.J. Abrams who despite a preemptive drubbing of his screenplay by Ain’t Cool News’ a movie gossip website, is responsible for suggesting that critical elements of the Superman mythology be reintroduced to a new generation, not to mention whose screenplay cancelled out the disastrous Batman v. Superman project, are the better known ones. With an astronomical production budget of over two-hundred million dollars (this figure has since been greatly disputed by numerous sources and more likely the actual figure stands at an estimated one-hundred and fifty million dollars), a lot of pressure has been placed on the shoulders of Bryan Singer, more even then what was placed on him for the X-Men franchise, to make Superman Returns a success.

The story for Superman Returns is unequivocally the most intricate aspect of this movie to pinpoint and thoroughly analyze. First off, it is far from what some, namely aging movie critic Roger Ebert, would describe as being a complete and utter disaster. At the same time however the script does fail to invoke the sense of enthusiasm and grandeur seventeen years of bent up fan anticipation, not to mention the prodigious marketing force behind the project, would lead us to believe. It may be that it relies too heavily on the principal elements of the original Superman movie. This is not however necessarily a bad thing as it was writer/producer J.J. Abrams who intended to revisit these exact components in his draft of the Superman screenplay so that they might be reintroduced to a new generation unfamiliar with the entire Superman mythology. Warner Brothers’ marketing team did too good of a job promoting Superman Returns, creating exorbitant expectations that could never realistically be met, at least as far as the first film is concerned. Superman Returns, in the same vein as the original Spider-Man and X-Men films, is merely the stepping stone which sets the stage for its characters and future storylines they’ll follow. At the very least it can be described as disappointing.

It is unfair to compare Brandon Routh’s performance as the ‘Man of Steel’ to the late-actor Christopher Reeve. Even before his untimely death due to a heart attack his performance as Superman in the 1978 original was viewed as iconic in cinematic history, a far cry to be sure from the Batman franchise with the sole exception being Michael Keaton which would still be a matter of some debate. Routh succeeds in making the role his own and not relying too heavily on Reeve’s example to affect his performance onscreen. Routh has charm and charisma that’s for sure but it felt as though the audience was left a little short changed when it came to Superman himself.

Kate Bosworth is easily the greatest miscast of the film in the role of Superman’s love interest Lois Lane. The astringent lack of credentials in her relatively short filmmaking career work against her in this pivotal role. The sole exception of course being Beyond the Sea directed by co-star Kevin Spacey who recommended the young actress to director Bryan Singer when he was cast as Lex Luthor. It is difficult to put a finger on the problem precisely but there is just something about her that doesn’t quite feel right. In addition to her hair color, her whole performance comes off as artificial.

Kevin Spacey is exquisitely sadistic yet still charming as Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor. He truly appears as though he had a lot of fun in this role. This works to both the benefit of Spacey’s overall performance and the audience’s viewing experience. For example, when Lois Lane argues with Lex Luthor that his plan to use the crystals from Superman’s lair to create an entirely new continent and in the process destroy all of North America will kill millions of people, Luthor callously interjects, “Billions! Once again, the press underestimates me”. This is one of the rare instances in which Superman Returns surpasses the expectations laid down by the original Superman movie. Spacey brings to the role of Lex Luthor a level of enthusiasm that vastly exceeds Gene Hackman’s performance thirty years ago.

Kal Penn, best remembered for his comedic performances in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, is highly underutilized in this film as Stanford, one of Lex Luthor’s goons. He’s easily recognizable among teenagers and young adults so his one-line performance which is said off-screen seems a tad off.

Overall, Superman Returns, while not the movie of the year, let alone of the summer season, as all the fan boy hype and studio marketing power made it out to be, marks a brilliant and long overdue reemergence for this once faltering franchise. That said however it does have its shortcomings. There are lapses in conventional logic as with any comic book movie but nothing to be finicky about. What is rather difficult for anyone, let alone a hardcore comic book ‘geek’, to swallow is the idea of Superman leaving Earth for five years, saying goodbye to Lois Lane or not, and all because some group of scientists claimed they found remnants of a planet called Krypton, the Man of Steel’s home planet. If Superman knows that his planet was destroyed, why investigate? And why did it take him five years? It has been seventeen years since the last Superman movie. Furthermore, considering Alias creator/producer J.J. Abrams original draft for the fifth Superman project was rejected by Bryan Singer on the basis that it was too controversial among fans of the comic book series, it is therefore a bit perplexing to say the least that there has been so little fan uproar over the concept of Superman and Lois Lane having a son. With Superman seen as a Christ-like figure it is essentially sacrilege (a page taken from The Da Vinci Code controversy) for him to have a child. Even if this is the extreme in describing the scenario it shouldn’t sit right with fans. And while the flashback of a young Clark Kent discovering his abnormal abilities (lightening fast speed, flying, etc.) is a joy to behold, it does nothing to advance the plot and would have been better spent left on the cutting room floor. One-hundred and fifty-four minutes is to say the least a tad excessive even when resurrecting a superhero franchise but according to sources (a current roommate who is friends with the Man of Steel Brandon Routh) a lot was cut from the film so it could have been a lot longer. Regardless, there is very little to complain about. The computer-generated special effects are simply astonishing, most of all the remarkable Boeing 747 sequence, with none of them feeling out of place or incomplete. While Metropolis may be a fictional place set within the confines of the DC comic book universe, director Bryan Singer successfully brings it to life, projecting a sense of realism onto the audience and yet still keeping it staunchly within the realm of romanticism and grandeur. But most importantly of all the sequences of dialogue, manipulated by computer-effects wizards behind the scenes, with the late-actor Marlon Brando, scenes that were shot originally for Superman II, are what make this movie great. As you are watching the movie you begin to ask yourself, with Superman as Earth’s disposal so to speak, why do we still have to worry about Osama Bin Laden, North Korea, or Iran? As Jor-El explains as we see Superman hovering above the Earth, floating in space, Kal-El (Superman) can be a savior for man kind but he can’t do everything. There are issues such as Islamic terrorism, international conflicts, geopolitical disasters etc. that humanity itself has to deal with on its own. While it would be easier for a Superman to resolve it for us, we as a collective would not gain anything from that. At the core of humanity there is the capacity to do good, we only lack the light now and then to show us the way. That is Superman’s true purpose. On the surface Superman Returns is an often long-winded, heavily character driven superhero drama, but given time beyond the first film, remember – Spider-Man and X-Men were the same when they first started out, it can be capable of great things.

My Rating: **** ½ out of 5 (Grade: A-)