We’ve seen Superman Returns twice in four days now, and I can definitively say that it is not only a great Superman movie, but a fun, solid film. (I should note that I saw the film twice more out of circumstance than a strong desire to re-watch it, but I did go back for the second viewing by choice.) Bryan Singer is a very skillful director, and the talent he brought to the X-Men movies is present in full force but in a very different way. Singer gives us the old heart-warming, do-gooding, best-parts-of-all-of-us Superman in a darker, more aggressive fantasy world, which strives to keep close enough to our own so as not to ring hollow. He succeeds in not only bringing Superman forward, but also in not losing the newcomer and not betraying what makes the Superman mythos unique.
First off, let me reassure you that Singer clearly loved the original Superman movies as much as we did, because he hits us with the old school intro titles and music from the get-go, after a quick, delicious villain intro. Because the movie is so tautly constructed and delicately balanced, I hesitate to describe or show any of the scenarios in the film. However, I will say that this Superman is just as likely to stumble in front of Lois, blunder into kryptonite, give little safety tips, graciously smile at his admirers, and be affected by his emotions as the Christopher Reeve Superman. The villain, henchmen, villainess sidekick, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, they all hit the exact tones that they should, but the never feel played out or expected. Nostalgic and familiar, but not boring
Singer’s success in delivering exactly what we expect without boring us to tears comes from not only the actors’ excellent deliveries, but also the delivery of the scenes themselves. As is common with sci-fi and superhero movies and shows recently, the CGI allows for a great deal of grit and texture to be injected back into special effects scenes. Also, Singer introduces and re-emphasizes the jarring peril of those in need of Superman’s help. Keeping this tension in the scene heightens the involvement. It’s no longer a train with screaming people who we see once, then watch get out of the train after Superman catches it. When Superman is flying alongside a plan that’s spiraling out of control, the camera moves as though filming the action in context. Superman’s size and relationship as a human-sized being next to these mammoth catastrophes is also re-emphasized, and this is a brilliant move by Singer because it forces us to be continually re-amazed at Superman’s disproportional strength. Superman can be a bit of a trap, as he’s essentially unlimited and invulnerable, but Singer deftly maneuvers around this problem to the point that it never once disrupted my experience.
Overall, my favorite parts of this film were the faithfulness to the legacy, the engaging and entertaining execution of the Superman formula, the wry and even dark humor, and Kevin Spacey‘s Lex Luthor. And really, Luthor provides most of the dark humor. Spacey and Singer both clearly wanted us to love every moment of Luthor on screen. Even though we wanted to see him fall, we had to just love watching him succeed. Spacey’s Luthor is more acidic and elegantly egomaniacal than Gene Hackman‘s. Singer works an effective and constant rhythm into the film, wherein he brings a scene and the volume to a near complete stillness, then bursts through it with a thunderous bit of action and audio. From the opening to the end, he works us in this way. In that same way, Luthor’s piercing repose bursts forth with bombastic rancor, wonderfully demonstrating the long-boiling rage at Superman that Luthor carried in his five years in prison. Luthor also balances an elegant Deco formality and bearing against a survivalist militarism, clearly developed in prison. Luthor wears magnificent white suits, but tucks his pants into combat boots, and fashions himself a kryptonite shiv. His elegant and brilliant super-villain machinations become an extension of his will so that he can brutalize his enemies and victims, rather than destroy and incapacitate them long range. Luthor no longer minds getting his hands dirty when he chooses. His relationship with the world is also touched upon lightly, as he’s been out of the spotlight for five years, and is clearly unwilling to go unnoticed. This is a Lex Luthor to watch over and over.
Brandon Routh‘s Superman is purposefully mannered like Reeve’s, but he lacks a little bit of the light and sparkle. Reeve’s version delivered more funny lines and was less inwardly drawn. He seemed to show more of himself with more open delight. But this makes sense, as the new Superman has also returned from five years alone in space (What…a self-imposed sentence of isolation? Like…Lex…with the five years in…oooh…parallels!) and has had a lot of time to be introspective and silent, no doubt. His hopes were raised and crushed in finding that Krypton is, in fact, not there anymore. So the more reserved Superman is appropriate to the film, and will probably open up quite a bit in the “Untitled Superman Returns Sequel”. It’s also interesting to note that “The American Way” was removed from the “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, but I’m inclined to agree, since the American Way now apparently includes torture, and disregard for the Constitution and foreign sovereignty. This has sparked a silly bit of War-on-Christmas-style rancor from people who are too busy protecting a symbol of freedom and rights from the rampant flag-burning epidemic we are apparently suffering instead of protecting actual freedom and rights. But I digress.
In spite of Singer’s inclusion of all the Superman touchstones and the superb action sequences, the movie’s deeper thrust is the relationships that Superman has with others, even humanity itself. I won’t go into detail, as it will lessen the effects of the film, but the entire movie is woven on a framework of Jor-El’s* monologues from the original Superman, which I’ve stitched together here:
Your name is Kal-El. You are the only survivor of the planet Krypton. Even though you’ve been raised as a human, you are not one of them. You have great powers, only some of which you have as yet discovered. Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.
You will travel far, my little Kal-El. But we will never leave you… even in the face of our deaths… the richness of our lives shall be yours. All that I have, all that I’ve learned, everything I feel… all this, and more… I bequeath you, my son. You will carry me inside you all the days of your life. You will make my strength your own, and see my life through your own eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father, and the father the son. This is all I can send you, Kal-El.
The complexities of his relationship with Lois Lane and his role as Superman are also explored a great deal, which contributes to this film’s hefty 2 hours and 34 minutes running time. The slowed denouement occurs right around the time that my tolerance for the film appeared both times I watched it, so Singer pulled off a triply-difficult maneuver there, too. But, like so many newer hero stories, this examination of the hero’s role and relationship(s) is practically a necessity. Yet Singer never violates that basic Superman formula, working in all the little character touches required for a full Superman experience.
The above, along with all the other touches that bring the film closer to it predecessors, locks this movie firmly in with the rest as a solid continuation of the series. Many people have responded to the darkness of this new film, and commented that it is disturbing to go to what was so often a lighthearted moviegoing experience and get that hard edge in return, but I’m actually convinced that this may be a generational experience. I’m pretty sure that people around my age (twenties) will enjoy and appreciate this updating of Superman, as it would be easy for him to fall into irrelevance without it. I wholeheartedly recommend Superman Returns, as it will take you back to that warm, familiar place, or let you see it for the first time.
MPAA Review: Some intense action violence.
Ad Exec Reviews: “You have great power.”