Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Zaki's Review: Superman Returns

There’s a moment in Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s lavish revival of the Man of Steel saga, that sums up the character’s evergreen appeal. After an in-flight mishap, a passenger plane hurtles helplessly towards the Earth, and certain doom. Then, as if in a dream, the plane's fuselage is steadied by the firm, godlike hands of a man from the sky, as he guides it to the ground and gently lays it to rest. The crowd erupts into applause, the caped rescuer smiles and takes to the clowds. And just like that, Superman is back. In real life, recent history has shown us a far, far different ending to far, far similar scenario, but in the fantasyland of our shared collective consciousness, Superman is there. Superman is always there.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe it’s been nearly two decades since the comic book icon last graced movie screens around the world (longer still if, like me, you choose simply to ignore 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). In that time, DC Comics stablemate Batman has seen a film series start, fizzle, end, and another begin, crosstown rival Spider-Man has emerged as the newest king of the Hollywood castle, and Superman himself has been forced to live out his days in the eternal adolescence of the WB’s Smallville just to remain relevant.

Thus it is that director Bryan Singer, late of Fox’s X-Men series, was posed with several challenges when mounting his opus, part remake, part homage, part sequel. He was faced not merely with living up to our communal memories of the character and his seventy-year history, but also the iconic stature accorded the previous films and their late star, Christopher Reeve. More than anything, he had to convince us that Superman still mattered. All this while still producing what is first and foremost a rousing summer entertainment. A job for Superman, indeed.

As the curtain comes up on Superman Returns, the Man of Tomorrow (Brandon Routh) has been missing for five years of movie time before making the much-anticipated homecoming promised by the title, crashing into the Kansas corn field of his human adoptive mother Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint). Where had he gone? What did he find? Why has he come back? While brief mention is made of a kind of vision quest to the remains of his long-dead home world Krypton, such questions are largely swept aside, and it isn’t long before Kal-El once again assumes his earthly guise of reporter Clark Kent and reclaims his job as a reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper (a job which, inexplicably, was still waiting for him five years on).

In short order, all the familiar elements of Superman lore fall into place to make their requisite appearance. Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth)? Check. Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington)? Check? Gruff-but-loveable Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella)? Check, and check. Add to the mix follicly-challenged baddie Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, doing his very best Gene Hackman), with another power mad scheme, and we’ve got ourselves a Superman movie.

To watch Singer’s reverent revisitation of the mythology Richard Donner first brought to the screen twenty-eight years ago, one must applaud the sheer joy and obvious skill with which he brings these iconic characters back to the cinema. From its first moments, with the late Marlon Brando speaking to us from beyond the grave as Jor-El, to the opening strains of John Williams’ immortal “Superman March” (conducted by longtime Singer collaborator John Ottman), to our first glimpse of Brandon Routh’s 21st century Man of Steel taking flight, there’s no question that this is a labor of love every step of the way for the once and former X-Men helmer, along with his screenwriting collaborators Dan Harris & Michael Dougherty.

Still, despite the awe and admiration with which Singer obviously views the Richard Donner film (and to a lesser degree, the first sequel), Superman Returns is at times a mixed bag. Epic at some moments, intimate at others, it lacks the original’s playful sense of fun, the kind of “wink at the audience” moments that let us know that, while it was all being played straight (Donner’s famous mantra to “think verisimilitude!” is in full effect here), it was still just a spot of fun.

The major failing in Singer’s mammoth effort is that he lavishes so much time and effort plumbing the morose depths of the Christ-metaphor iconography (which, to be honest, are readily available in the story of Krypton’s Last Son), driving home again and again the loneliness and isolation that must come with living life as Earth’s Savior, that we are left with a considerable “mild-mannered reporter” sized hole at the center of the proceedings to ground it and give the thing a pulse.

While most of the film’s characters are wondering what had happened to Superman during his five-year absence, I kept asking myself where Clark Kent had gone. And by the time the credits rolled, I was still wondering.

There’s a famous scene in Quentin Tarentino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 2, where David Carradine’s Bill reflects on the appeal of the superheroic archetype. “Clark Kent is how Superman views us,” says Carradine. “And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He's weak, he's unsure of himself...he's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race.” After watching Superman Returns, one realizes that Tarentino only got it half right. Clark Kent isn’t just how Superman relates to us; it’s how we relate to him.

Thus when the hero returns to Earth after his extended hiatus and finds himself competing with the dashing Richard White (James Marsden) for the affections of new mother Lois (who is played by a far-too-young Kate Bosworth), it’s a little jarring that what was until now a love triangle built for two has suddenly become an actual love triangle, leaving our poor Mr. Kent squeezed largely to the sidelines.

Probably my single biggest complaint is the lack of boldness – in plot, if not execution. It seems like the film’s creatives were so concerned with charting the movie’s emotional through line that they forgot to invest the action “A” story with the necessary heft. This in turn leaves us with a depressingly undernourished third act. Luthor’s master plan is, put simply, preposterous, and fails to stand up to any sustained examination, despite a game effort from Spacey (who can play characters like this in his sleep by now). Granted, Lex’s plots were preposterous in the other films as well, but here especially it lacks a kind of internal logic, not to mention a human connection that should make us care about what will happen should he succeed.

And then there’s Lois’ kid. While the history of Superman is rife with new additions to the mythology being introduced in other media (for example, the addition of flight to Superman’s roster of powers via the 1940s radio shows), I think it’s safe to say that this is probably the biggest. And, to be honest, while I don’t necessarily have a problem with its inclusion in the context of the story, it inevitably leads to questions of how and when, which in turn leads me to ask why. Assuming for a moment that Warner Bros. does intend to make more installments in the series, it seems like a heck of a plot line to just leave hanging out there, neither satisfactorily addressed, nor adequately resolved.

Of course, the question on everyone’s mind is the titular star himself, and it was with a certain degree of relief that I watched Brandon Routh assume the dual-roles of Superman and Kent with a poise and ease that belies his relative inexperience. While there are times where he appears merely to be channeling Reeve’s interpretation of the role, he does more than enough to distinguish himself, even if he isn’t given as much to do as one would like. Routh is the real deal, and I have no doubt that he’ll grow even further into the role if given the chance in an eventual sequel. 

Like Singer’s first X-Men adventure, the pieces are all here for something terrific, even if they don’t all fit together as well as you’d like. Now that this first film has paid the requisite homage to what has come before, I look forward to the next entry breaking free to chart a truly bold course. If it sounds like I hated Superman Returns, I didn’t. It’s impossible to hate a movie that so unabashedly tells us that the Man of Steel isn’t now, nor will he ever be corny or obsolete. Like the movie that inspired it, it treats the character with love and respect, and if it never reaches the heights of movie magic scaled by its esteemed forebear, it still manages to make us believe once again that a man can fly. B


Paul said...

I'm sueing you for copyright infringement...just kidding. Sounds like we are on the same page with this one.

There are so many possibilities for the future of this franchise...I really hope they take the ball and run all out with it...It's all about taking the opportunity at this point.

Nicely written, as always.

Oh, and fuck Kal Penn.

ahmed said...

Nice post Zak ...

I'm looking forward to seeing the movie this weekend. I'm surprised to see Lois has a kid. Will discuss my movie thoughts with you this weekend.

Parvez said...

I am in Cairo for the summer and desperately trying to find a theater that is showing the movie! Thank you Zaki for the review.

Zaki said...

Let me know what you think!

saralee said...

Being a Superman fan, I went in with a biased opinion from the beginning.

I was a bit dissappointed with the portrayal of Lex Luthor. In the comic books he's more evil and diabolical than they have showed him on screen--he seems like a joke in the movies, when in actuality he's more of a threat.

The kid was something I wasn't expecting and I wonder if they will work him in to the actual comic book if they haven't already (I haven't picked up a comic book in a long time.)

Anyway, I just came across your blog, and I liked your review!

saralee said...

Oh and Kal Penn was not a good choice for that role. We know him too well for making us laugh.

Zaki said...

Thanks for stopping by! Come back any time.