Sunday, July 16, 2006

Review - Superman Returns


At the start of Superman Returns, the Man of Steel has been away from earth for some five years. When a group of astronomers discovered what may have been remnants of Krypton, Superman (newcomer Brandon Routh) disappeared in an attempt to find some trace of home, to find his place in the universe. It proves to be a futile quest, and when he finds nothing but empty space out there he returns to earth, to the farm where he was raised as Clark Kent. But while much has remained as it was before he left, some important things in his life have changed dramatically.

Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) - the Daily Planet reporter who has long been the unwitting object of Clark’s affections while she pines for his alter-ego - has moved on since her hero’s disappearance. When Clark turns up for his first day back at the paper, he’s stunned to discover that Lois is engaged and she has a five year-old child. If that wasn’t already bad enough, she has also received the Pulitzer Prize for an article entitled “Why the world doesn’t need Superman”. Ouch! Clearly Hell hath no fury like a jilted journalist.

Superman Returns has been a long time coming. Since his last cinematic outing, 1987’s unspeakable misfire Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, there have been countless aborted attempts to get the character back onto the big screen. Every actor and director in Hollywood seems to have been linked with the project at some stage, with various far-fetched scenarios considered and trashed. Now we finally have ourselves a movie. Bryan Singer, the filmmaker who helped revitalise the comic book movie with his brace of X-Men pictures, has taken on the gargantuan task of bringing this classic character to a new generation of filmgoers.

But should the all the failed attempts at a new
Superman movie over the past two decades have warned him that this is a poisoned chalice best left alone? In an age of brooding, complex comic book films; is there still room for such a straightforward character who nobly stands for “truth, justice and the American way”? After the hundreds of casting suggestions we’ve heard, can Singer find an actor capable of inhabiting the twin roles of Superman and Clark Kent, which Christopher Reeve so brilliantly made his own? In short, perhaps Lois Lane was on to something - does the world really need Superman Returns?

Whether we need him or not, he’s back; and he’s not the only one. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is back on the scene too, having escaped prison on a legal technicality and with his bank balance bursting thanks to his swindling of an elderly benefactor. Lex has a plan which, disappointingly, is a lazy rehash of the scheme Gene Hackman cooked up for the original
Superman film of 1978. This time he has managed to get his hands on a few magical crystals which he uses for all manner of nefarious acts, such as cutting out the power to the entire city, and when combined with Kryptonite these crystal will help Lex create a new continent from under the sea; a continent people will pay through the nose for as much of the United States will be underwater. As plots hooks go, property development is pretty unexciting stuff, and it’s the first of many missteps Superman Returns will take.

Singer has wisely decided to expunge any memory of the third and fourth entries in the
Superman franchise, and his film is something of a continuation of Superman II, but it never really manages to find its own identity. The central story is banal and Superman’s periods of mournful self-examination slow things down further. This is often an unfocused, poorly structured piece of filmmaking which can’t seem to settle into a comfortable rhythm, and which finds its thin script becoming increasingly stretched as the 157 minutes trundle by. The pacing of the film is absurdly poor, with the various high points quickly being followed by frequent longueurs in which dull exposition or clunky dialogue is the order of the day.

This is a shame, because when
Superman Returns works it really does fly. The action sequences are tremendous. Singer’s direction of them is confident and imaginative, and he has a skill for generating the kinetic rush of Superman in full flight. The film’s first big set-piece, Superman’s rescue of a plane in peril, is a real show-stopper, and all of the important moments thereafter manage to hit the right note. A night-time flight with Superman and Lois is a lovely interlude, the enormous shockwave which rattles Metropolis is smartly done, and a late sequence in which a weakened Superman takes a beating from Lex’s henchmen is powerfully depicted. Superman fans can also take pleasure in Singer’s nostalgic efforts to link the film to the earlier pictures; Marlon Brando’s performance as Jor-El is resurrected, and it’s hard to hear John Williams’ classic theme without having the hairs stand to attention on the back of your neck. Throughout the film Singer strikes a careful balance between creating a film which acts as a continuation of those early pictures, whilst also delivering a blockbuster which stands on its own two feet.

In this respect, the fact that Brandon Routh looks and sounds unerringly like the late Christopher Reeve works for the movie. Routh has some mighty big red boots to fill here. When I re-watched
Superman and Superman II recently, I was struck by the subtle brilliance of Christopher Reeve’s performance. It’s not easy to play both an invincible hero and a clumsy weakling in the same picture, but the nuance and depth Reeve brought to both sides of his display really is the driving force behind those pictures. Routh doesn’t stray too far from that template. He never quite seems as comfortable in Clark Kent’s skin as Reeve was, but he certainly looks the part as Superman.

But the earlier films didn’t just have Christopher Reeve, they also had Margot Kidder, who gave such a memorably feisty turn as Lois. Here, Kate Bosworth takes on the role and she instantly looks all wrong for it. She’s too young, too fresh-faced, too weak; Lois should be a streetwise, sassy woman, and Bosworth really struggles to get to grips with a character she couldn’t be more different to. She’s not a terrible actress, but she’s a pretty limited and uninteresting one, and she never strikes up the same sort of chemistry with Routh that Kidder had with Reeve. Having said all that, Bosworth gives a pretty decent performance under the circumstances, but when you’re miscast you’re miscast, and there’s not a lot you can do about it.

Lex Luthor, however, is well cast. Spacey takes on the villainous role with a camp relish, and the visible enjoyment he gets from playing the part is infectious. He shouts and sneers and flounces his way through the picture, but he also tones down the affectations to provide a genuine sense of malevolence when he gains the upper hand on Superman late in the day. Spacey seems to have been languishing in the post-Oscar doldrums for quite some time now, with a series of soggy, message-laden pictures which didn’t do his abilities justice; but here he’s witty and sly, and it’s just a pity his world-domination plan is such a damp squib.

There’s a terrific movie in here somewhere, but it’s buried under too many conflicting styles and overburdened by religious and mythical imagery. We get references to Prometheus, Icarus and Atlas among others; and the film’s religious symbolism is not hard to miss. These references are, of course, in line with the ambitions of Bryan Singer to make this more than a mere superhero movie - to make it a love story, an epic - but they confer a solemnity on the picture which tends to make it feel heavy-legged. The sloppy final 15 minutes is interminable, and almost scuppers the whole enterprise, ensuring the film fizzles out rather than having the rousing finale it needs.

But I came out of
Superman Returns liking the picture in spite of its myriad flaws. It’s a likeable film. It has been crafted with care and attention, it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at (credit Newton Thomas Sigel’s breathtaking cinematography), and the central trio of Routh, Spacey and, to a lesser extent, Bosworth give effective and charming performances. Ultimately, there’s simply no denying the thrill of seeing the man in the red cape zoom across the screen performing incredible feats, and Singer’s unwieldy film just about manages to overcome its deficiencies to make us believe a man can fly once again. It’s great to see Superman back on the big screen, even if it is only a slight return.