Superman Returns

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/28/06 21:42:39

"Look! Up in the sky!"
5 stars (Awesome)

You know how when you watch Christopher Reeve all done up in the red and blue outfit, standing there in confidence, you pause in awe as you think to yourself, “Without a single doubt in the world, that’s Superman?” Other guys may have dressed up in the suit, but only Reeve was one hundred percent convincing. Looking at Brandon Routh in “Superman Returns,” that feeling comes back. Without a single doubt in the world, one hundred percent convincing, this guy is Superman.

That’s a pretty hefty statement to make, but “Superman Returns” deserves nothing but hefty statements - it’s an absolute marvel of a film, a comic book blockbuster that gets everything right. And that everything starts with the casting of Routh, who looked so miscast in those early publicity shots yet proves to us all that, like Reeve before him, he’s the only one for the role. He even cribs a little from his predecessor: his Clark Kent mannerisms show a glimmer of Reeve’s bumbling nerd, while his Superman is as gosh-darn honest as Reeve ever was. (Consider the scene in which Superman, after he’s just stopped an airplane from crashing into downtown Metropolis, steps aboard and reassures the rescued passengers about the general safety of air travel. With this one corny speech, Routh tells the world, “I am Superman.”)

Despite using Reeve’s performance as a launching point, Routh makes the character all his own. He brings a desperate loneliness to the role, a tender sadness that highlights this film’s most surprising (and most refreshing) aspect: its emotional depth. This is a Superman movie about just how alone Superman is in our world. He’s an alien, the last of his kind. There is no one on Earth like him, no one with whom to chat about shared experiences. (There are no other superheroes in this universe. Superman gets no help in saving the day, and the next day, and the next.) And yet he is never alone - he hears everything, all those cries for help, a fact which only makes his isolation all the worse.

Screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (who was joined in the story development stage by director Bryan Singer) up the ante by giving us a story in which Superman has left Earth in search of remnants of Krypton. He found none, and the movie begins with his return to his adopted home. His five-year absence left the world wondering, and it tore apart a few vital relationships, most notably the one with Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who has since moved on, landed a fiancé (Jason Marsden), penned an editorial titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” and become a mother. This is a pretty risky move for what might have otherwise been a safe summer movie bet - why not just retell the origin story, or whip up some generic adventure? Dougherty and Harris, who brought a strikingly human angle to Singer’s “X2,” are not content with telling just another popcorn spectacle. They want to get to the more intimate side of the Superman myth.

And boy, do they ever. This is a comic book tale where the characters get to be three-dimensional. Not only our hero, but Lois, too. There’s a wonderful moment that parallels the balcony interview scene from the 1978 “Superman” - the one that plays out like a first date for DC Comics’ most famous couple, ending with that romantic flight over the city - only here, it’s a matter of heartbreak for our heroine. Superman never said goodbye, and Lois was left wondering. And now, he returns to her on the roof of the Daily Planet, another late night visit. In this scene, “Superman” as a movie franchise grows up, having to now deal with the pain and confusion of such complicated adult circumstances. Bosworth has never really impressed me before, but here, she shines, revealing a woman torn.

Making things all the more thorny: Richard, the fiancé, is no schlep of a Baxter, but a genuine hero himself, an ace pilot who soars into action, much like the Man of Steel, when danger calls. History tells us to root for Lois and Clark, but there is much hope in Lois and Richard. More so, even, if you consider that Richard does his derring-do without the benefit of alien superpowers. Heck, he even gets to rescue Superman in one scene. In this respect, “Superman Returns” becomes a story about the heroic potential in us all, a theme highlighted by the use of a critical quote from the Reeve-era “Superman” films, in which Superman’s father, Jor-El, left behind this message:

“They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.”

Forget for a moment the Biblical (both Old and New Testament) undertones of the Superman mythology and how it’s played up in that snippet of dialogue. Focus instead on the heart of such a phrase. “Superman Returns” is, underneath all its heartache and lonesomeness, a most optimistic movie.

That quotation, by the way, brings up a vital issue. In crafting this film, Singer envisioned a companion movie to the early Reeve films. It’s not exactly a sequel to “Superman” and “Superman II,” but instead it can be viewed as a sequel to the spirit of those films. We get character profiles more in line with what audiences saw in 1978 instead of what’s been changed since (archvillain Lex Luthor - here deliciously played with a genius combination of humor and menace, by a perfectly cast Kevin Spacey - is back to being a crook instead of a powerful billionaire; Lois still can’t spell worth spit; etc.), we get John Williams’ epic themes (my vote for the most perfect piece of movie music ever crafted) returning in grand style, and yes, we even get Marlon Brando himself digitally returning from the grave to reprise his role as Jor-El.

All of this sounds on the surface like a cheat, as if Singer and company are too unsure of themselves to craft a new series, so they instead jump on the cape of the well-loved Reeve films. I, for one, was positive during all the pre-release hype that this was a colossally awful idea. Then I saw the movie, and discovered that Singer is most certainly not piggybacking on previous successes, nor is he merely softballing his way through his job. He has, instead, made a movie that is reverent of the Superman mythos - all of it, not just the Reeve era, as evident by countless other references and a few key cameos - all the while never being afraid to push the characters forward. It’s moving ahead while keeping one eye on the past.

Plus, it’s just so much fun to see the classic “flying text” opening credits over Williams’ theme one more time on the big screen. Which brings me to my next point, lest you think I was about to overlook the main reason most of you are wanting to see “Superman Returns:” this is one heck of a good time. Don’t let all my talk about emotions and character development and personal what-not fool you. Singer’s a master at staging breathtaking action, and “Superman Returns” delivers the thrills in spades. The action set pieces are flawlessly constructed to provide maximum visceral experience, so much that I felt myself so wound up by the airplane rescue sequence that I was aching to cheer when it finished - and I found myself in tears after being exhausted by a barrage of heroic rescues, relief only coming when one character gets saved from certain death, and in doing so, muttering a line that’s a valentine to any lifelong Superman fan. (A great moment in a movie loaded with great moments.)

The action is, in a word, big. The whole movie is big, a two-and-a-half hour epic combining drama and comedy and romance and action, action, action. Scenes here recall the larger-than-life spectacle of the 1978 film, updated with utterly believable CGI effects. Reeve convinced me a man can fly, but Routh, aided by the technology of the 21st Century, convinces me a man can not only fly, but fly through massive fireballs at speeds beyond human comprehension.

You may have noticed I have not discussed something important: the plot. Sure, I mentioned the general idea of Superman returning and causing issues with Lois, but I have intentionally left out everything else. This is not because I want to keep secrets from you. It is because what “Superman Returns” is about is not really what “Superman Returns” is about, if you follow me. There’s so much more to this movie than the story outline. Granted, the story is as exciting as can be (side note: some might complain that Lex Luthor’s master plan is preposterous, but hey, all of Lex Luthor’s plans are inherently preposterous; it’s not what he does, but how he does it, and here, he does it wonderfully), but this is a movie that ultimately depends on the internal, not the external. The plot exists to bring us closer to the characters, not just to give the effects crew something to do. This is that rare summer blockbuster that breathes.

It is, if we want to return once more to hefty statements, exactly what we all want our popcorn movies to be. Not the dumbed-down adventures that aspire only to a big opening weekend and some DVD sales, but something more, something that respects intelligence, something that aims to move us with well-crafted characters and precise storytelling. Last year’s “Batman Begins” set the bar so very high for comic book movies, and that after a series of impressive, well-received character-driven efforts that include “X-Men” and “Spider-Man 2.” Now comes “Superman Returns,” which shatters that bar. This is a truly spectacular experience, unquestionably worthy of the 1978 “Superman.” “Superman Returns” joins that predecessor on the short list of all-time great superhero films, but it is more than just a great superhero movie. It is a great movie of any kind. Singer officially becomes one of the very best filmmakers working today; Dougherty and Harris announce themselves as storytellers of the highest order; and Routh?

Why, he’s Superman. Not a single doubt in the world.

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