Reviewing “Superman Returns”

July 8th, 2006 | Posted in General

This review contains spoilers!

I finally found the time to see Superman Returns while visiting the St. Louis area. It’s always interesting seeing a film that I have already drawn a parody of for MAD, which as I mentioned earlier I had done. I also mentioned I would rather wait and see the film before drawing the parody. No exceptions here.

Overall I liked the movie. I’ve heard mixed reviews of the film from various sources, many complaining that it drags in many places and is boring. It’s not bang-bang action from moment one, but I hardly thought it dragged or was boring. I don’t mind a little quiet plot between super-scenes. Unfortunately plot was a something this film could have used more of, specifically a more original plot.

The big question for me was if Brandon Routh was going to be a believable Superman. I wasn’t thrilled with the look of him in the trailer’s flashes or the many promo stills circulating around. I thought he looked even younger than Tom Welling (TV’s Clark Kent on “Smallville”), and did not have the classic Superman physique. He is buff and lean, but lacks the shoulders, chest and arms of the prototypical Superman. Director Bryan Singer has been quoted as saying that since Superman gets his power from the sun and not his muscles, he doesn’t need to be hugely muscular. I see his logic, and while I agree he doesn’t HAVE to be an Adonis, I think he is missing something crucial that sets Superman apart from the Wolverines, Daredevils and even Batmans of the wold. Most other superheroes are open for interpretation in their looks and costume, but Superman is not most superheroes. He is iconic, archetypical, timeless and seared into the pop culture zeitgeist. His costume and look are what they are. He is a big, strong looking Herculean figure… that’s part of his mythos. Singer also has been quoted as saying “if you are going to do Superman, don’t be afraid of it, embrace it and do Superman.” I agree, but I don’t think he took his own advice fully. Chris Reeve looked the part best in the first film… he was a big and powerful looking guy, like a football player, but not a bodybuilder. Routh looks like a triathlete.

That all said, I thought Routh did a decent job as Superman and as Clark Kent. The effects were spectacular as you would expect, but he looked more the part in the somewhat disappointing costume (the costume has been discussed ad nauseam on the Internet, so I won’t bother here) than I expected him to. Beyond looking the part, I wish Routh could have brought more emotion and passion to the role. He played it all very stoic and low key, and never showed much of the range of emotions you would expect from what Clark/Superman was going through. It’s always hard to tell how much of that is from the actor and how much from the director. All in all I liked him more than I expected to in some respects, and hope he grows as an actor in the sequels.

As for the rest of the cast, Kevin Spacey made a good, if unspectacular, Luthor. I was hoping for less camp and more bite, but all his performance really needed was at least one scene where he got to show some real hatred of Superman or some true evil… the kind that makes you see how twisted he is behind the flippant attitude. The stabbing bit at the end had some of that, but there was no lead-up to it. Parker Posey was miscast as the mol, Kitty. She wasn’t effective comic relief, and wasn’t convincing as the betrayed woman either. I don’t know what she was other than taking up screen space, and the character was a waste no matter who played her. Sam Huntington was terrific as Jimmy Olsen, adding just the right gee whiz with some real life smarts, obviously knowing what is going on around him. Frank Langella played Perry White a little too demurely, I see Perry as more of a gruff and growling hard-nosed boss, and he was too detached. Kate Bosworth also needed to add some fire as Lois, but she played the heartbroken and emotionally confused Lois very well. The camp comedy was kept to a minimum and used just the right amount, to keep the film from being too heavy and take itself too seriously, but it did not degrade into a yuck-fest or inject the one-liners just because they are expected in these kinds of films. Kudos to Singer for avoiding that trap.

No, the cast for the most part did fine and the characters were handled pretty well. My main complaint with the film was the story itself, and Singer’s obvious infatuation with the original ’78 movie. The opening credits were a nice homage, but that was just the beginning. The plot itself was basically the first film retold (kudos to Dick Debartolo for his title of the Mad parody: “Stuporman Reruns”), right down to much of the dialogue. Singer very heavy handedly injected direct quotes of ’78 dialogue, gags and action into this film, to the point of being very distracting. Half of Routh’s lines as Superman were right from Christopher Reeve’s script, as were some of Luthor’s lines. Routh was trying a bit too hard to be Chris Reeve when delivering them as well. Scenes from the original were almost reshot for this film, gags recycled, plot devices reused, characters changed slightly but basically the same (Kitty is the 2006 Miss Teschmacher, complete with betraying Lex because she falls for Superman, etc. etc.). The parallels never end, and never let this film have it’s own identity or it’s own voice. By the time they duplicate the Chris Reeve flying-over-the-earth final scene, right down to the arm movements and the look into the camera, I was rolling my eyes. Singer brought down the few original ideas and promising new concepts in this film with the heavy handed nodding to the ’78 movie. As a friend of mine pointed out to me in a discussion of the film, this is more of a “love letter to the Richard Donner film” than it is a movie in it’s own right.

Sounds like I hated it, but as I said I actually did enjoy the film. I loved the ’78 film, so while I was disappointed and distracted by the 154 minute ‘homage’ I still got a kick out of seeing Superman on the big screen again, with 21st century effects. I hope the sequels do a little better in advancing the Superman saga rather than flying though skies we’ve all flown before.


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