"Superman Returns" - The CBR Review

Nearly seventy years ago an alien spaceship crashed on the surface of American culture, carrying with it an orphaned child who would become the whole world's foremost folk hero. A sensation even in utero, the child gestated on the pages of comics created by young Americans Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, inspiring the imaginations of any child able to turn the pages of a comic book anywhere. Superman, as he came to be known, and his heroic ideals quickly permeated all layers of popular culture. With the help of the brothers Fleischer, actors George Reeves and Phyllis Coates, a radio show thats importance cannot possibly be overstated, and countless comics writers and artists, there were few in the civilized twentieth century world unfamiliar with the hero's mythic story. Superman became a force of nature, shaping American life for decades. Finally, thirty years ago, posters and teaser trailers appeared throughout the world brandishing little more than Superman's famous S-shield against a blue sky and promising, "You'll believe a man can fly."

You know what happened next.

Directed by noted superhero controversialist Bryan Singer, "Superman Returns" is the direct sequel to "Superman: The Movie" and "Superman II." It is, despite the protestations of screenwriters Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty, effectively a replacement for the odious "Superman III," and it is astonishing. The musical themes, the Kryptonian architecture, the Daily Planet headlines, the Kent farm, even the Kent's dog are identical to the versions forever chiseled into the memories of so many in the world by Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve's film(s), providing Singer with the best possible foundation upon which to build the next and perhaps most ambitious chapter of Superman's incredible story.

Following a credits sequence that defies even the most jaded and joyless to feel knots in their throats, "Superman Returns" opens with Kal-El returning to Earth after a particularly long absence, reflecting-- among other, perhaps more obvious things-- the predicament in which we the audience and the Superman character all find ourselves. A novel and risky approach, to be sure, because in doing so the film plants a proverbial flag firmly in front its audience, declaring boldly, "Superman is relevant." That there is a poignant connection between Superman's return and our world is the argument Singer & Co. have chosen to make, and there is compelling reason to do so.

"Superman: The Movie" majestically breached the surface of the dirty, cynical planet Earth of the 1970s and made you believe a man could fly. The film was a virtually perfect summation of not only Superman, but American culture as it relates to Superman, especially in the areas of identity, heroism and religion. This and other reactions to Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve's film have long-since (although not really undeservingly) passed into the realm of Olympian-level hyperbole. What remains actual is that the story and, even more profoundly, the face of Earth's greatest protector became known to all, never to be forgotten.

And then... nothing.

At the height of his popularity, embraced by the entire world, Superman, the living embodiment of the purest American ideals, just disappeared. Or at least, the spirit of Superman disappeared. While comics and animated series continued to be produced, even the best of them served only to preach Superman's message to fewer and fewer true believers. All the while, numerous interlopers and pharisees succeeded in using the name of Superman in dubious comics stories, nauseating television series and despicable film sequels to promote themselves, or their contempt for Superman, or their contempt for fans of Superman, or their false church of (self-)loathsome pedantry, or their bizarre predilections for "big fucking spiders." (NOTE: Kevin Smith, who wrote a draft for an earlier, abandoned Superman project, famously claimed that eccentric producer Jon Peters had a list of bizarre rules he demanded Smith follow when writing his script.

  1. "I don't want to see him in 'that suit.'"
  2. "I don't want to see him fly."
  3. He's got to fight a giant spider in the third act.")

As Clark tells Martha Kent in "Superman Returns," Earth's savior travelled so far away and for so long only to discover "a graveyard." It wasn't worth the trip, not for Superman, and not for the rest of us.

Kal-El sits and examines the broken and bloody 21st century world, a place where a character in a fantasy movie can't even say "...and the American way" without sounding villainous. Earth's savior wonders if there's a place for him, just as it is so for new Superman vessel Brandon Routh. Every Routh scene leading up to his first appearance in costume is specifically tailored not only to reintroduce the trinity of Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman to our world, but also to function as a piece of the gauntlet the actor must run; a feat Routh accomplishes most impressively and with remarkable skill despite his youthful look, which is, quite unfortunately, a distractive force in the movie. Making Routh's performance more palatable is, of course, his undeniably deliberate invoking of Christopher Reeve. As Richard Donner says in the recently released documentary, "Look Up In The Sky," "Chris [Reeve] wasn't here just to be an actor. He is Superman." Bryan Singer and Brandon Routh know this, and Routh channels much of the late hero's energy and mannerisms in his performance, but never crosses the line into pure imitation. By the end of the film, Brandon Routh has imprinted himself onto the Man of Steel's legacy in a way most will find agreeable, but the newcomer certainly pulls enough from Reeve's bag of impeccable tricks to make his audience feel at home and that more than anything, he's serious about getting it right.

This acknowledgment of Donner and Reeve's film as indisputably classic is, extrapolated, essentially the master plan behind the entire "Superman Returns" operation. Not that "Superman Returns" is ego-free. Obviously, much has been made of the cosmetic crimes committed against Superman's costume -- and they are indeed bizarre and almost certainly rooted in some sort of misguided self-indulgence on Singer's part. However, before one condemns Singer outright, one needs only to recall the grotesque spectacle Joel Schumacher and Akiva Goldsman made of the Batman with their perverse little circle-jerk. The humility of a filmmaker like Bryan Singer --a man so repeatedly praised for his vision and ingenuity-- all but completely deferring to the vision of a mentor director is simply unprecedented, especially in a film like this, where source material and fans' expectations are so routinely cast aside in favor of some asinine "fresh take" on the subject matter, often resulting in nothing less than rubber-nippled catastrophe (other examples include "Fantastic Four," "Masters Of The Universe," "Judge Dredd," and Bryan Singer's own "X-Men.")

Unfortunately, comics fans are a fickle and super-capricious lot, and the momentousness of a major Hollywood production of a superhero film shrugging its shoulders and saying, "you know what? They already got it right before, it would just be hubris to screw with it, so let's just run with what they did" can be ignored easily in the face of even the pettiest of minutiae or the most infantile of rumors. It is indeed a bitter and prejudicial world to which Superman's returned when baseless cries of insidious gay agendas and talk of homosexually-charged publicity stunts dirty the internet and paint us all like such provincial trash. For those of you so cowardly and bigoted, you may unclench, for the dashing, caped adonis you cherish so dearly remains firmly in the heterosexual sphere in "Superman Returns" despite the fact that the film's director is indeed gay. I suppose you can count that as another of the film's miraculous qualities, if you like, that a gay person has made a movie that does not actually contain any gay characters.

In fact, a good deal of the film is dedicated to portraying just how plainly in love Superman is with Lois Lane, a fact which has led the same sort of plebeian Super-fans to decry the film as a chick flick. Unfortunately, there is something to that characterization, and it is the one major problem the film has, at least as far as story is concerned.

Upon returning to work at the Daily Planet, Clark is alarmed to discover that Lois Lane is not only engaged to another man --Richard White, an editor at the Planet and nephew to editor-in-chief Perry White-- but is also the mother of that man's child. The revelation is naturally distressing to Clark, who as Superman had been romantically involved with Lois for some time. But so heavily does Superman pine for Lois, he actually flies to her house and uses his super-hearing and x-ray vision to spy on her and her family, and then actually tries to kiss her!

Dude! No! She's engaged! She has a kid! It's all very embarrassing, occupies too much time, and stalking is categorically un-super. The filmmakers' intent is sound enough, that even Superman must endure the consequences of choices he makes (in this case, to screw off into space for a few years), but the manner in which they chose to make the character react to those consequences is, well, alien, and certainly does nothing to help Singer & Co. defend themselves against the various detractors who will inevitably appear over the coming days and weeks. Compounding the problems with this area of the film is Lois herself, played by Kate Bosworth.

Kate Bosworth does not look like Lois Lane, and that is a little distracting. Bosworth does however make you believe she's a tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners Lois Lane type -- quite impressive, really, when you consider the fact that she's only 23 years old -- and more than sells the conflicting emotions of frustration, relief, awe and rage an embittered Lois Lane would feel following the return of a Superman who left years ago without saying goodbye. That Superman did so is perhaps another fair criticism of Singer's story. Certainly, it would not seem all that super of Earth's savior to abandon the planet for some kind of fruitless space adventure... unless, of course, you take into account all the times he's done it (feel free to Google your heart out, n00bz). However, Superman did leave without saying goodbye to Lois, which is totally and unrepentantly rude, and thusly out of character for Superman entirely.

Still, the circumstances of Superman's exit and return are easy conceits to make for the sake of such a profound metaphor. In just the first of "Superman Returns'" spectacular action sequences (at this point, I think it goes without saying that the special effects are gorgeous), Superman rescues a falling plane out of the sky and sets it down in the middle of a baseball diamond. The feat is nothing less than stunning and the crowd, gazing upon their savior for the first time in years, is thunderous. So joyous is the moment, a theater full of soulless entertainment journalists were themselves moved to applause. Right away, the film proves its worth: the audience experiences a feeling they didn't even know they had: they've actually missed Superman.

As the film progresses, many of those same awful whores are moved to tears. Every frame of "Superman Returns" is saturated with an unflinching love for Superman, his ideals, the spirit of the original film, the memory of Christopher Reeve, and above all else, a fierce conviction to Get It Right -- even when they get it wrong, which isn't often.

In this movie you will see Superman. You will see him do the things you've always wanted to see Superman do. You will see Kevin Spacey, whom under Singer's direction won an Academy Award for the neo-classic "The Usual Suspects," slip beneath the skin of a witty, relentless Lex Luthor, clutch pure Kyrptonite in his hands, hold it high over his head and break the world in half so he can rule it like a king. You will see things that, if I were to just explain them to you in this crude text form, you simply wouldn't believe.

Want to know more about "Superman Returns?" Well, we've got you fully covered. Find below links to our coverage of the recent "Superman Returns" Press Junket in Los Angeles, as well as CBR's visit to the set of the film in Sydney, Australia.

"Superman Returns" Press Junket

CBR Visits the Set of "Superman Retuns" in Sydney, Australia

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