Superman is a legendary
character who has survived almost a century of variations and performance.
He has been a TV star several times, been in many movies, on stage,
animated, in commercials, on Seinfeld's refrigerator, the subject of several pop songs -- Superman may be the ultimate
American iconic figure.
However, Bryan Singer's new
movie Superman Returns obsesses only about one incarnation of the
caped crusader -- the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. (Well,
I and II at least -- like everyone else in the world Singer
prefers to pretend Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for
Peace never happened.)
Well, there are occasional
very brief nods to earlier versions. Former TV Lois Lane Noel Neill
has a cameo as a dying society matron being swindled by Lex Luthor.
(Neill also did an uncredited scene as a young Lois' mother on a train in
the 1978 version). There is a brief "it's a bird...," "it's a
But mostly we are slavishly
worshipping at the altar of the Reeve movies. Literally.
The score is the exact same
as the earlier films. The credit graphics are also a Xerox of the very
70s looking spacey opening titles. The new film also uses fetishistically accurate takes on the crystals of knowledge, the fortress of
solitude and Kryptonian star-shaped space ships. They make nods to
little plot points -- for example, the movie says that Kryptonite was originally found on earth in
Ababa in 1978, which happened right in the middle of the action of the earlier film.
Superman's father is played
by the late Marlon Brando -- we are actually watching scenes taken from his
performance in the first film. There are nods to earlier character
quirks like Lois Lane's being vitamin-obsessed and asking people how to
spell relatively simple words. New Superman Brandon Routh looks
disturbingly like Christopher Reeve.
There is another nighttime
flight where Superman picks up Lois on the roof and flies her all around
Metropolis -- again to the the tune of "Can You Read My Mind?"
They even steal a few of
the earlier movies' punch lines word-by-word, for example when Superman
saves a plane and tells the people "I hope this doesn't turn you off to
flying. Statistically speaking, it's still the safest way to travel."
Unfortunately, all these
comparisons to Superman: The Movie and Superman II do this
film no favors -- they just point out that the earlier films were more
effortlessly memorable and simply better. If we really wanted to see
these things over, why shouldn't we just rent the originals again?
However, as much as
Superman Returns worships at the altar of the earlier incarnations, it
completely misses (I'm assuming purposely) the comic vibe and quirky joy of
the Reeve Superman movies.
Not terribly surprising
since it is helmed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men I &
II), a fascinating stylist who is not known for his light touch.
In recent years, the comic in comic books have been downplayed for a more brooding brand of hero.
Singer seems to be toying
with the dark areas of the man of steel. I don't think that it is a
coincidence that the lighting here is so muddy that Superman's famously
bright red cape often appears to be black. The problem is, Superman
has never been known as a deep or brooding sort. His disguise in real
life is a goofy pair of glasses. He is a simple hero -- he champions
truth and justice (and the American way, though that part of the description
is conspicuously absent in this new version.) Superman is the
superhero as a do-good square. He isn't supposed to have dark nights
of the soul. His alter-ego Clark Kent even uses the term "swell" here without irony or condescension (which also comes from
Superman: The Movie, but I won't go there yet again.).
Perhaps the problem is the
actors here are not quite right for the roles. Routh has the look and
occasionally has fun with the character like Reeve did, but for the most part he
is just there; quiet, brooding, inscrutable. In fact, a series of long, sad
shots of Superman spying on Lois and her son verge on stalkerish.
Bosworth, on the other
hand, seems all wrong for Lois Lane. It is certainly her right to play
the role differently than Margot Kidder -- the problem is even almost thirty
years later, Kidder's read of
the role seems much more modern, interesting and realistic for a Pulitzer
Prize winning journalist. Bosworth plays her as a quiet, tortured and
somewhat stupid character. After all, this is a woman who is so
reckless or foolhardy that she brings her five year old son with her when
she breaks onto a strange yacht that may have to do with a mysterious,
dangerous power outage.
Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor
is much more grounded, vicious and small-time than Gene Hackman's read on
the role -- and again it feels like a less entertaining take for just this
subtlety. Lex Luthor is supposed to be Grand Guignol.
Superman Returns is
supposed to be a loose continuation of the story of Superman II.
However the movie, despite the desperate attempts to revive our collective
memory of the series -- really seems to have little idea why the older
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Posted: August 4, 2006.