Wavering From Such Great Heights
Superman Returns / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | July 6, 2006 | Comments ()
I will not here begin to try to encapsulate the thousands of different stories and titles and infinite earths through which Superman has walked in the comic books. Batman, Spider-Man, and the rest who’ve made the leap to film still feel inextricably tied to their comic book origins, but Superman exists on a grander scale than any one medium, free from the passage of time or changes in style, culture, or the way we tell stories. Batman may be infinitely cooler, but Superman’s constancy, his unending and unshakeable squareness, is what makes him unique in the first place. He fought for truth, justice, and the American Way long before anyone thought to use the phrase ironically. In the purest sense of the word, he just is. Fumbling for his origins leads to murky stories of copyrights and revamps and tweaked powers and more than one attempt to reboot the mythology, all of which distracts from the fact that Superman isn’t meant to be roped to one set of rules or books, but allowed to fly free in our collective pop consciousness, a holy blast of primary color coming out of the sun, a godlike hero who parts the waters and stops time at will and helps little old ladies cross the street. Superman is a dorky Boy Scout of almost limitless power, an angst-free muscleman in tights and a cape, and a square-jawed outsider capable of wreaking global change. In other words, he’s as American as you can get.
Director Bryan Singer’s love for Superman gushes from every beautiful frame of Superman Returns, a joyous ode to flight and love and power that eschews plot in favor of scenes and ideas; it’s as if the film is about nothing more than the film itself. It’s impossible to talk about Superman Returns without also discussing the original films in the Man of Steel franchise, most notably the first two films, helmed by Richard Donner and then, when he was removed because of budget issues, Richard Lester. Donner’s 1978 film was an often garish mockery of Superman, an utter destruction of the mythos and its subsequent reduction to camp that wouldn’t be equaled until Joel Schumacher arrived in the late 1990s to gleefully swing home what were thought to be the final nails in Batman’s big-screen coffin. The first film was dumb, cloying, and possessed of a villain who wouldn’t even cut cartoon standards; you have my respect if you can keep a straight face while Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane delivers a love poem in voice-over while soaring with Superman. Donner’s movie wasn’t without its moments — Christopher Reeve balanced Superman’s nobility with Clark Kent’s clumsiness better than anyone ever will — but it was hampered by Donner’s wildly inappropriate decision to play Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor for broad comedy. This is the criminal mastermind to match Superman in a battle of wits? A buffoon dwelling in an abandoned subway system with Ned Beatty? The most stunning aspect of the original Superman is how close it almost came to being good, and this is what makes Singer’s film all the more mysterious: Instead of giving the franchise a fresh start, as Christopher Nolan gave the Dark Knight in Batman Begins, Singer remains shackled to the original film. He’s not reinvigorating the series, but rather offering a lavishly done interpretation of what could have been Superman III.
From the first notes of John Williams’ fantastic theme, it’s clear that Singer is living quite happily in the past: The opening credits use the same blue text blasted onto the screen that was featured in the original film, as well as the requisite huge logo of the iconic red and gold S. It’s one thing to respect where the series has been, but Singer’s reverential deference to the original credit style is just one of the ways that Superman Returns proves to be an exercise in Singer channeling Donner’s old tricks instead of inventing his own. The plot, quickly established with title cards, is basically this: After astronomers discovered what looked like Krypton floating out in space, Superman (Brandon Routh) went to investigate, leaving Earth, with no word, for five years. But now he’s back and has new problems: Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is now the mother of a young boy, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu) and engaged to Richard White (James Marsden), the nephew of Perry White (Frank Langella), the editor of the Daily Planet. Perry gives Clark his old job back, but Clark still doesn’t have a place to stay, going so far as store his luggage in one of the newsroom’s broom closets because, well, if I have to explain the homelessness metaphor then we’re in a heap of trouble. Superman is in the world, but not of it.
While Clark shares a drink with Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) in an effort to cope with a world that’s moved on, Lois is off covering a space shuttle launch from a jet, a situation that, predictably, soon turns life-threatening. Clark slips away and leaps into action just like we knew he would: He even pulls aside his shirt as he’s running to reveal the costume (with the red wisely toned down now to a more maroon flavor). Superman bounds to the sky to save the doomed airplane, and it’s here that Singer finally begins to provide the film with the energy lacking from the originals. Watching Superman fly is truly something to behold; I never doubted for a second that this man was actually blasting through the clouds to save the day, accompanied by a burst of trumpets. Singer has the budget to do here what he could never do with the first two X-Men films, and it shows. The jet spirals to earth, wingless and sprouting flames, and Superman manages to catch it and lay it down before it collides with a baseball stadium. He enters the cabin to check on the passengers, and I waited eagerly for what he would say, to see how this moment that would redefine the film series would unfold. And at that point, Superman addressed the crowd: “I hope this incident hasn’t put any of you off flying. Statistically speaking, it’s still the safest way to travel.”
Cute? Marginally. But the line would be a lot better if Singer weren’t just recycling Superman’s speech from the first time he saved Lois Lane in Donner’s film. Symmetry is often just a cheap disguise for laziness. Superman Returns has all the posturing of an attempt to breathe new life into the story, but all too often it plays like a fanboy’s love letter to the original. Believe me, it pains me to say that. I wanted this film to be everything the originals could never be, and for the most part, it is. However, Singer’s adulation for Donner’s film, warts and all, and his inexplicable desire to conform to it keep Superman Returns from being the great piece of pop art that it could have been.
The rest of the one-note plot unfolds gradually: Fresh out of prison, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) visits Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and discovers the powers behind the Kryptonian crystals housed there. His diabolical scheme involves using the crystals to grow a new continent in place of the United States and charge survivors of the global deluge a fortune to live on the island. Sure, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and yes, Donner’s film was also about Lex Luthor wanting to sell land to Americans after blowing up the San Andreas Fault and sinking most of the western seaboard; but really, after all that’s happened, who expected Singer to come up with his own plot? He’s got the hero, the villain, the girl, the music, and the story. Who needs originality?
Still, though, the film’s successes manage to outweigh its failures, especially in regards to Spacey’s portrayal of Lex Luthor. Spacey invests the villain with an edgy psychosis to match his mental prowess, as well as a vicious desire to crush the Man of Steel in his tracks. For the first time, Lex is a believable film nemesis for Superman. TV actor Routh does well enough as Superman, though his presence in uniform is wooden. He seems better suited to the role of Clark Kent than of the nearly invulnerable warrior/savior of the planet. Bosworth, who has a beautiful face but appears dangerously undernourished, lands somewhere between the two, neither as compelling a screen energy as Spacey or as unintentionally bland as Routh.
The computer-aided effects are, naturally, the star of the show, and Singer doesn’t disappoint. Superman’s powers, including heat vision and freezing breath, are proudly on display here; watching him walk into a hail of bullets from an enormous Gatling gun, the rounds bouncing off his chest like fireworks, feels like something out of the old Max Fleischer cartoons. And seeing Superman come splitting through the clouds to Williams’ triumphant music, with assistance here from composer John Ottman, is thrilling every time. Superman and Lois again have a nighttime flight over Metropolis set to their lush, romantic theme, but this one works. It doesn’t quite feel real, but it wants to be real more than any of the previous films, so that’s progress of a sort.
The overriding trait of Superman Returns is its refusal to settle on any one style, or time period, or anything. Singer’s film exists in the world of email, plasma screens, and camera phones, and the reference to the “American way” is omitted in a post-9/11 glimpse of foreign relations, but the film is also willfully anachronistic: Jimmy Olsen still wears those bowties, Lois’ and Clark’s hair and dress are in no way modern, and cars and architecture take a direct cue from the styles of the 1940s, back when the character of Superman started getting big. The mash-up is indicative of the problem that ultimately keeps the film from greatness. By trying to choose all times, the film feels grounded in none, and by trying to bring the original film into the 21st century, Singer instead pulls us back in time. The film winds up feeling like a dozen kinds of dejà vu: Yes, we’ll believe a man can fly, but haven’t we been here before?
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.