July 05, 2006
The Good The Bad The Ugly
The contrast between this year's Superman Returns and last year's Batman Begins casts into high relief the differences between the two superheroes. Batman, at the very least, proves to be the more complicated character. Motivated by revenge and funded by inherited millions, Bruce Wayne is a mere man who reinvents himself as a dominatrix vigilante. If he were poor and carried a club, he'd be Joe Don Baker in Walking Tall.
Superman, on the other hand, is apple-pie wholesome. Sent from Krypton on a vaguely divine mission, endowed with X-ray vision, über-strength, and a genial disposition, he's a genuine do-gooder endeavoring to save mankind from itself. He flies into space and listens to all the troubles on Earth, but Superman is a savior for a world threatened mainly by car accidents, falling debris and cat burglars. There's no relativism here: How does he discern right from wrong in areas where there isn't a clear answer?
The boldest gambit of Superman Returns is that it tries to address Superman's otherworldly sense of entitlement. Although Clark Kent has to pine for Lois Lane in secret, Superman really does get the girl — and there's always been something inherently unfair about his relationship with Lois Lane. When Christopher Reeve ingeniously played the role(s), his Clark Kent was genuinely wounded by Lois's failure to see through his disguise. But in any version, Lois is finally impressed with his powers, not his persona; if he were a jock rather than a superhero, Superman's advantage might seem clearer.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the article "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman," Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) was jilted five years earlier by the Man of Steel, who flew off in search of fragments of his former home planet. When he (and oddly, Clark) return five years later, Lois is engaged to Daily Planet editor Richard White (James Marsden), and a tad nonplussed to see her former lover/nemesis flying the skies again.
The love triangle is handled with a bittersweet touch. He's no Superman, but Richard is, by Lois's own admission, a good man; it's not his fault that he can't swoop around Metropolis in spandex and a cape. Still, Superman/Clark (Brandon Routh, less bumbling and thus less interesting in the latter role) copes with his romantic rival more readily than expected. He never puts up a fight with Richard, never throws him against a wall. Superman can't tell a lie, and evidently, he can do no wrong.
The romance story line is where Superman Returns generally glides. The action sequences, however, are another story — a textbook case of how too many special effects can, paradoxically, make a movie less exciting. The Superman films are really only suspenseful to the extent that one believes that a real man is flying in the sky. But director Bryan Singer, whose X2 was one of the better recent comic book films, here allows CGI to run amok. While rescuing a plummeting plane, Superman looks like an animated splotch.
This "real actors, fake backgrounds" effect — reminiscent of that in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow — is just a different kind of rear projection, no more persuasive than the matte shots in Richard Donner's 1978 cheese puff. (Richard Lester's Superman II was a marginal improvement in both story and visuals.) Superman Returns is supposedly a sequel to the first two films — although details have been dropped at will. Notably, Lois, who discovered Clark's true identity in Superman II, seems no longer able to remember that secret. Large chunks of dialogue are recycled, though. The new movie even swipes the text-against-stars opening credits of the earlier films, even though that design was little more than a blatant attempt to capitalize on Star Wars.
There is one bit of inspired reinvention in Superman Returns. Although playing opposite Bosworth provides a reminder of his unfathomable Bobby Darin movie Beyond the Sea, Kevin Spacey, as Lex Luthor, manages his first non-self-parodic performance since L.A. Confidential. Singer may have tried to resurrect Superman, but his only unqualified achievement is in saving Spacey's career.