Mark Walters

He is perhaps the most widely recognized and loved comic book character all over the world.  Superman first appeared in ACTION COMICS #1 in 1938, and quickly became a household favorite among comic readers.  He saw several incarnations, including a brilliant animated treatment by the Fleischer brothers Dave and Max, some big screen adventures, and even a few live action television series.  In 1978 he was brought to theaters in a big way, when Alexander and Ilya Salkind, along with director Richard Donner, introduced the world to actor Christopher Reeve, who would become the perfect embodiment of that character.  Many still consider Reeve to be the absolute best actor ever to wear the cape.  The film was a huge blockbuster, spawning three sequels, although not all of them were on par with the first movie's quality.  Then there was a 20 year gap, where the world had to settle for an okay Superboy series, and a somewhat pleasing series featuring a more primetime drama take of Lois Lane and Clark Kent.  In recent years things started looking up when the WB ran SMALLVILLE, which was clearly made to appeal to a younger audience, focusing on Clark Kent as a young man discovering and secretly using his powers... whenever he wasn't caught in some sort of teen romance.  But now the last son of Krypton is returning to the big screen in a big way, this time through the eyes of director Bryan Singer, who wowed audiences with his first two X-MEN films.  The hype has been incredible surrounding the new film, and once again they've cast an unknown actor to bring Clark Kent to life.  So can this fresh take serve as an appropriate next step for the classic character?

 This new movie pretty much ignores the third and fourth films, and serves as a follow-up to the events that took place in SUPERMAN II.  I'm going to assume most of you have seen the first two movies, so I shouldn't need to go into much detail about who many of these characters are.  The new film begins by telling us that Superman (Brandon Routh) left earth five years ago to see if he could find the remains of planet Krypton, which was thought to be lost in an explosion.  He finally returns to earth, crashing his craft near the farm where he was raised as a young boy.  Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint) still lives there, and finds her missing son nearby the wreckage. Meanwhile Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is out of prison, and bilking an old dying woman out of her impressive fortune, kind of like a reverse Anna Nicole Smith scenario.  Clark informs Ma Kent that Krypton was gone for good, and he must now return to Metropolis.  Upon coming back, his old Daily Planet boss Perry White (Frank Langella) re-hires him, if only because one of his other staff reporters apparently died.  Photographer Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) informs Clark that his fellow reporter and secret infatuation Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is now engaged and has a son.  Her fiancé is Perry White's nephew Richard (James Marsden), who also works for the paper.  While Clark gets caught up, Luthor assembles a group of thugs and journeys to Superman's fortress of solitude, where he discovers some interesting secrets behind the crystals that are housed there.  It isn't long before Clark must return to his role of Superman, saving the day all over the world.  While the public is pleased with his return, Lois remains angry that he left in the first place without saying goodbye.  But Lex has a scheme up his sleeve that even the Man of Steel might not be able to stop.

Jimmy Olsen, Richard White, and Clark Kent at the Daily Planet

It's pretty clear that Bryan Singer was a big fan of Richard Donner's SUPERMAN movie.  This film has more than a few nods to what Donner has done previously.  In many ways the story, at least Lex's part of it, is almost exactly the same.  But the emotions here are much more extreme.  Lois is more than a little upset with Supes, and has a really hard time accepting his return.  This creates some interesting tension between the two characters, and is definitely a change from the relationship we're used to seeing with them.  It's also pretty clear that the world needs Superman around, and his absence not only threatens the safety of the people, but allows bad things to happen that he very well could've prevented.  For instance, Lex Luthor gets out of prison because Superman was called to testify, and didn't show up at the trial.  So in essence it's his fault that the criminal mastermind went free.  While many of the film's aspects are similar to the first movie, it has definitely been modernized so that today's audiences can relate.  Singer did a great job though of keeping the integrity and familiarity of the character we've all grown to love.

The performances are pretty solid for the most part.  Brandon Routh is terrific as Superman.  He almost seems to channel Christopher Reeve, without coming across like a forced imitation.  When he's wearing the costume he's perfect, but unfortunately remains somewhat quiet as Clark Kent.  The story focuses so much on Superman's relationship with Lois, that Clark Kent becomes kind of an afterthought.  While we do see Clark quite a bit, he's almost always presented as walking around in the background, and shows most of his feelings and emotion with the faces he makes rather than words.  It's almost as if they wanted to downplay the nerdy aspects of that persona, but I was hoping there would be more of the good old Clark here.  We get to see some terrific showings of physical and emotional strength with Superman, and one particular scene of nearly heartbreaking distress with his character.  It's perhaps the most humanized depiction of the popular icon.  Now Lois Lane on the other hand was at times a bit frustrating.  Kate Bosworth plays the role with almost constant bitchiness.  The look on her face throughout a majority of the film matches that of an upset girlfriend.  I likened it to that look you'd get for coming home late after a wild night out with the guys, only that look lasts pretty much the entire film.  It takes quite a while before she softens, and I found that a tad distracting.  Kevin Spacey is great as Luthor.  While there are some funny lines, he's playing it hard and sinister, and wants some serious revenge for Superman's previous actions.  No longer does Lex want to simply test the Man of Steel, but rather hurt and destroy him.  It's much darker than Gene Hackman's performance ever tried to be, and it works.  Sam Huntington is also really good as Jimmy Olsen.  This character now feels more like part of the story, instead of just a plucky comic relief.  Frank Langella pretty much goes through the motions as Perry White.  He's not used much, but works well when he's there.  There were a few scenes where his voice practically channels Jackie Cooper, and like Routh it never feels forced.  He even gets to utter the words "Great Caesar's ghost" in one exciting scene.  James Marsden is very good in the role of Richard White, and Singer finally gives the actor a chance to shine.  This almost makes up for his underplayed Cyclops character in the X-MEN movies.  He's heroic and charming, and they thankfully never reduce him to simply being Lois' new beau that you want out of the picture.  James plays competition for Clark, yet we still like him and what he stands for.  Eva Marie Saint as Martha Kent is fantastic.  She's always been a great actress, and she's definitely still got it.  Her scenes with Clark at the beginning of the film are short but very effective.  Parker Posey is pretty hammy as Lex's annoying moll.  She almost plays it a little too annoying, but I guess that was the point.  It's also pretty cool seeing Marlon Brando as Jor-El, thanks to the magic of special effects, and it helps tie this into the first film rather nicely.

Lois Lane and her son face the maniacal Lex Luthor

Now let's talk about the strengths and weaknesses.  Visually this is an amazing film.  The special effects are phenomenal, and the flying scenes are about as impressive as one could hope for.  The production design and sets are creative and fitting for the story.  Metropolis is modern in some ways, and quite retro in others.  The architecture looks like something out of the 1930's, but incorporates modern technology, giving the film an almost timeless feel.  Many of the costumes are muted colors, which helps Superman's outfit really stand out.  There are a lot of great things going on here, and as a cinematic experience it's an amazing effort.  But SUPERMAN RETURNS isn't without it's problems.  The biggest fault comes in it's length.  Running almost two hours and forty-five minutes, you might find yourself wondering if everything in the story was completely necessary.  I think Bryan Singer was trying really hard to make an epic superhero film, rather than just make a Superman movie.  One prolonged scene at the end of the film is borderline too extreme.  It's the kind of thing you'd expect after this crew had made one or two films already, but a little too dramatic for their first outing.  I think Singer could've shaved a good thirty minutes out of this flick and not lost any of the quality.  In some ways it would make for a tighter and more pleasing story.  One thing is for sure, and that is that Bryan Singer understands comic book heroes.  His storytelling is thought out and interesting, and the scenarios he creates are exciting and often brilliant.  While this Superman story is more than a bit familiar, it still works overall.  I found myself very excited to see this character back on the big screen.  I actually got to attend two advance screenings, and despite the film's shortcomings I enjoyed the experience on both occasions.  Some of my friends who were at the second screening with me pointed out however that there are little to no non-white characters represented in the film.  Seriously, you won't even see many non-Caucasian folks in the crowd scenes, which is at the very least interesting.  Things like that make me wonder if it was a casting director's choice, or just the director's choice.  Either way, they noticed it, and after them pointing it out to me I couldn't help but think about it.  A few cameos to look for are Noel Neill (the original Lois Lane from 1948) as Lex's elderly financial target at the beginning of the film, Jack Larson (who played Jimmy Olsen back in the 1950's) as a bartender, Richard Branson as a space shuttle pilot, and Peta Wilson (from the TV series LA FEMME NIKITA) as the shuttle launch host  As a movie SUPERMAN RETURNS is pretty good, but not quite great.  There are select moments of greatness here, surrounded by moments that either could've been trimmed down or just done in a slightly different fashion.  There is one particular subplot that you're either going to love or absolutely hate.  I'm still not quite sure how I feel about it, even after seeing the movie twice.  Bryan Singer remains a solid director though, as this is one film that truly could've been a disaster in the wrong hands.  Since I'm sure this flick will make ton of money in the box office, I now look forward to seeing where he can take the character from here.  Long live Superman. score - On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best, I give SUPERMAN RETURNS an 8.

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Superman Returns
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