Director : Bryan Singer
Screenplay : Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris (story by Bryan Singer & Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris; based on characters created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Brandon Routh (Clark Kent / Superman), Kate Bosworth (Lois Lane), Kevin Spacey (Lex Luthor), James Marsden (Richard White), Parker Posey (Kitty Kowalski), Frank Langella (Perry White), Sam Huntington (Jimmy Olsen), Eva Marie Saint (Martha Kent), Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Kal Penn (Stanford), Tristan Lake Leabu (Jason White)
In the first chapter of his book The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium, critic/film theorist Gilberto Perez offers a passing criticism of the great American film critic James Agee, who he describes as “a film critic who mainly yearned for past glories.” This critique of Agee is hardly ill-placed, and Perez admits to his own tendency to look back at the films he saw during the formative years of his teens and 20s as a pinnacle that simply cannot be topped. Perez wonders, “Is such a posture--uncommon neither in Agee’s time nor in mine--merely subjective, merely a matter of our being most impressed when at our most impressionable?”
It’s a great, thought-provoking question for anyone who loves movies and has spent a considerable amount of time with them, and I found myself mulling it over quite a bit after seeing Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Being an admirer of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), which was one of the crucial films that bridged the gap between the gritty, violent, genre-bending ’70s and the more conservative, consumer-minded ’80s, Singer has self-consciously made his film in Donner’s mold, going so far as to borrow John Williams’ signature theme music, numerous lines of dialogue, and even exacting shots (including the movie’s final image). Singer’s willful evocation of Donner’s great achievement--namely, the elevation of a well-known comic book hero to the towering heights of pop myth--wears well on his own movie, but it also made me yearn for Donner’s.
As much as I admired Singer’s work, especially the way it incorporates eye-popping digital special effects without completely overselling them, I couldn’t help but think how it ultimately pales in comparison to the 1978 movie, which caused me to wonder: Is Donner’s movie really that much better, or am I just blinded by my fond memories of it? Superman was, after all, one of the very first movies I ever saw at home on videocassette when we first got a top-loading VCR the size of a small Buick around 1980. Yet, I also saw the 1976 version of King Kong in the same manner, and while I continue to enjoy that movie’s fitfully amusing camp sensibility and raw sexuality, it is hardly as close to my heart as Superman. So, maybe there is something to the movie itself.
In reimagining the Superman franchise, which has lain dormant since 1987, Singer has done us the service of backtracking and acting as if 1983’s Superman III (you know--the lame one with Richard Pryor) and 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (you know--the even lamer one with Jon Cryer) never happened. Instead, the narrative picks up after the events of 1980’s Superman II (which was shot concurrently with Superman and is its equal in almost every way).
At the beginning of Superman Returns, the Man of Steel has been absent for five years in search of his destroyed home planet of Krypton. In the meantime, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has given birth to a son and become engaged to the boy’s father, Richard White (James Marsden), who also works at The Daily Planet and is the nephew of its curmudgeonly editor-in-chief, Perry White (Frank Langella). Another important development has been the release from prison of Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), Superman’s primary nemesis. In one of the movie’s first scenes, Luthor gets a dying, elderly widow to sign away her fortune to him, thus finally answering the question of where he gets all the money to put together his nefarious schemes (the dying woman is played in a wink-wink cameo by Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in the Superman serials of the 1940s).
The plot involves a world-crushing real-estate scheme that involves Luther and his minions (including Parker Posey as the perpetually pouty Kitty Kowalski) stealing crystals from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and using them to literally create new land in the open ocean, which has dire consequences for the rest of North America that not even Al Gore could have predicted. This aspect of the story is well balanced by an emotional, surprisingly sensitive plot line involving Superman re-entering Lois Lane’s life, even though she has won a Pulitzer Prize for writing an editorial entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”
The moment when Lois and Superman lay eyes on each other for the first time in half a decade, the screen is literally alive with sparks--not easy, sentimental romance, but rather a confused explosion of conflicting emotions that will define their relationship for the rest of the movie. Lois is bitter at Superman for having left without so much as a good-bye, but she is also still deeply in love with him. Superman is just trying to find his place in the world again, a world that has purported to no longer need him (although briefly glimpsed violent news footage on a television screen ensures that the world is even more volatile since he left).
As Richard Donner did in casting Christopher Reeve, a virtual unknown at the time, as Superman, Singer has made the bold decision to cast unknown Brandon Routh, whose resume includes a stint on a soap opera and not much more. One can immediately see why Routh was cast: not only does his boyish good looks bear a strong resemblance to Reeve’s, but he even sounds a bit like him in his delivery.
Routh also conveys the same sense of deep-seated decency without the alienating self-righteousness, which is what makes Superman such an appealing character. In a world of dark, troubled superheroes like Batman and the X-Men (the franchise Singer left in order to make this movie), Superman’s Boy Scout image runs the risk of looking old-fashioned and hopelessly passé. Yet, Routh makes him seem just human enough to transcend boredom, and Singer makes sure that Superman’s status as the great “Other” is frequently underlined (it is not without significance that Superman was created by two Jewish immigrants during the Great Depression). In a sense, Superman has a great deal in common with the Western hero: he is the only one capable of saving the day, which makes him heroic, but he can never fully be a part of that which he saves, which makes him tragic. No wonder his legacy has endured so long.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Warner Bros.