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Superman Returns

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, as comic book movies have once again become big business, reverence has been the order of the day. The major flops of the late 1990s demonstrated that audiences were no longer content to see a hollow facsimile of their favourite comic book characters, and indeed that some of these characters were far more entrenched in the collective consciousness than many studios and producers had realised. Consequently, films of lasting quality with equal mixes of action, brains and heart, such as Batman Begins, Spider-Man and X2, have become the standard rather than the exception for this increasingly successful genre. And one shared attribute of all the successful superhero films - and one that many of the unsuccessful ones, like Fantastic Four, do not share - is the respect, faith and reverence they show to their source material.

Such dedication to the source is as blatantly on show in Superman Returns as has ever been seen - but the curiosity here is that the inspiration that Bryan Singer has turned to is not, as one might expect, seventy-odd years worth of published Superman comics, but instead Richard Donner's 1978 Superman : The Movie, still for many (this reviewer included) the true benchmark against which all comic book movies should be judged. Singer's affection for the original movie is plastered up onscreen for all to see, from the widely-reported confirmation that the film is indeed a narrative - rather than thematic - sequel to Superman II, to the reuse of certain gags and dialogue (one particularly notable instance, at the end of the film's first big set piece, can't fail to raise a smile). And then, of course, there's those opening titles.

It may sound strange to be devoting a specific portion of a review - or indeed of a discussion in general - of a film to its opening title sequence, but that's testament to how absolutely stunning the ones in Superman Returns are. Inherently, they're quite simple - a direct retread of the ones from the original film, same font and all, showcasing a trip through galaxies from Krypton to Earth. Yet somehow, they're actually quite breathtaking. It's due in part, of course, to that magnificent John Williams theme, arguably the greatest (certainly the most inspiring) movie theme ever created; and the pouring-in of a 2006-era budget and quality of CGI makes for some truly beautiful planets and starscapes. Mission accomplished in terms of putting the audience in a good mood for the rest of the film, anyway.

But the adherence to everything that made the original film what it was is both Returns' strongest attribute and its Achilles heel. So much time is spent establishing the little shared details, homaging moments and dropping in plot connections that there's actually very little new that's established. Some have called Returns little more than a remake of the original, which I think is unfair - it is a new story, it's just not much of one. I've no objection, of course, to the idea of a two-and-a-half hour superhero film, nor one that takes plenty of time establishing an emotional heart and character depth - but not one in which said time is punctuated by the action, rather than vice versa. The plot, from start to finish, could be neatly summarised in about a paragraph - there are no real twists and turns to speak of, and nothing that's particularly unpredictable.

Which is a shame, because when stuff does happen, it's absolutely gobsmacking. The plane rescue sequence, while it could perhaps be said to come a little early in the film, is an utter triumph. It's massive, it's tense, it's spectacular - and it's the sort of thing you could only do in a Superman film, and only with today's technology. But it's one of only a couple of really major setpieces that top and tail the film, and all it really does, therefore, is make you wish there were more bits like it. Similarly, there's a great scene involving Superman stopping a bank robbery - although you'll have already seen its best moment in the trailer, it involves eyes - that's strongly reminiscent of the wonderful "first night on the job" sequence from the original film. Yet it exists on its own rather than being part of a sequence of such scenes, and as such feels a little out of place, randomly dropped in for the sake of it.

Still, though, the film does succeed in capturing the feeling of awe and wonder that should surround Superman every time he appears onscreen - and a nicely graceful and majestic nature is brought to him both by the excellent direction of the flight scenes, and the performance of Routh himself. As can be seen from stills and photos, Routh looks perfect in both guises, and when he opens his mouth - particularly as Clark - it really is scary how reminiscent he is of Christopher Reeve. The problem, though, is that he's not Reeve - and, worse, Singer seems aware of the fact. So, while he is given plenty of screentime in the suit, he barely seems to spend any of it actually talking, and his performance therefore doesn't quite carry the weight that Reeve managed. Of course, it's hard to say who would ever be able to emulate that classic tour de force, and so one can at least be content that Routh inhabits the role, as it's given to him, as well as he can.

Making a less favourable impression, however, is Kate Bosworth as Lois. It's not that she's a bad actress at all - she just isn't Lois Lane, not any version that has ever appeared on page or screen. There are only fleeting attempts to even portray her as the same character that Margot Kidder played, and by and large they feel desperately forced - particularly when she asks "How many Fs in 'catastrophe'?", a running gag from the first two movies but a stilted one-off here. There's absolutely nothing exciting about the character whatsoever - nor any explanation as to why Clark might have fallen in love with her in the first place (apparently relying, instead, on implied knowledge of the Donner film, which is a dangerous game to play with a fresh audience nearly thirty years on). And it bears repeating, even though it's been done to death, that she's far too young to be playing this role - she's got a five-year-old kid, she must have been (from what we know of her) a successful investigative reporter for some years before that, yet she looks barely any older than her twenty-three years (heck, she's actually younger than Sam "Jimmy Olsen" Huntington!). Indeed, the miscasting is made yet further galling by the presence of a potentially brilliant Lois, in Parker Posey, elsewhere in the film.

Despite this misstep, the rest of the cast is almost uniformly strong. Spacey is Spacey, playing Luthor exactly as you'd expect him to, with hints of the Gene Hackman version interspersed with his own mix of camp and menace. It's a risky line, but one that he pulls off - and the disappointment at the series again failing to explore any of the rest of Superman's rogues gallery is at least tempered by such an entertaining performance. Frank Langella's Perry White is straight from the page - and indeed, you wonder how different the character might have been had Hugh Laurie remained onboard - while Huntington threatens to steal the show in just about every scene that Jimmy pops up in. Credit, too, to James Marsden for taking on the difficult role - being the "other guy" but still having to be likeable - and succeeding in grabbing that minute yet necessary shred of the audience's sympathy. It's a shame, though, that Luthor's goons are so generic, although the aforementioned Posey is good for a bit of comedy value.

It's certainly possible to find fault with Superman Returns, particularly with regard to its bloated and lengthy nature, culminating in a particularly lethargic and unnecessary final quarter of an hour or so. And it's baffling that a film of this length, with apparently so much to say, really does little more than retread the path set out by the original. This would perhaps be more acceptable if it were laying the groundwork for a new series of films - but in terms of plot, the intention appears to be to belatedly wrap up the "trilogy". There's a quite major, and completely new, addition to the Superman mythos in place by the end, and it's one that makes it difficult to see where Singer and co might go from here. As such - as a capstone rather than a foundation - it ultimately feels a little unsatisfying. Yet despite all this, it's hard to deny that when it does hit its stride, and when that reputed $200million budget is clearly being thrown right at the screen, it's an absolutely spectacular ride, arguably unmatched in modern superhero films. Following in the footsteps laid by Donner and Reeve, with the man who single-handedly resurrected comic book films at the helm and a strong cast behind him, and in the midst of the purple patch the Superman comic books are in at the moment, we might have expected perfection. We haven't got that, and its ponderous nature won't appeal to everyone, but it's certainly a more than worthy addition to the canon.

4 Stars

About this entry


I thought this was fantastic, but I'm a massive fan of the 1978 movie so I was always gonna get a huge kick out of any sort of reference to it. It's true that Returns acts more like Superman 3 than the start to a new trilogy, but I'm still glad this is the route Bryan Singer has taken. Because of the greatness of the first Superman, there was no need to tell the origin story again (all the scripts before Singer got involved were based on new origin stories, some that were totally fucked up, like Lex being a Kryptonian, Krypton not exploding, Superman in a black suit with no 'S' shield etc.).

At first I thought Routh and Bosworth were WRONG for Supes and Lois, but they work so well in the movie. I can forgive the youth of Lois because Kate Bosworth is so fucking gorgeous, and she'll still be in her twenties when they're doing the third movie. The new suit is perfect - at first I thought WTF have they done??? Luthor's scheme was a little dull, but the idea of him stealing Kryptonian tech was cool, and you can't not get a kick out of Jor-El's voice.

The best thing EVER is when Supes speaks Jor-El's words at the end. Classic, and justifies the inclusion of the kid. Now they need to bring on Zod (you just know Singer will, despite Superman 2).

By performingmonkey
July 17, 2006 @ 4:30 pm

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As Seb said, Bosworth probably is a bit too young if you sit and consider the character, but I thought she worked well in the part - regardless of her age, and thought it was very convincing.

I should point out - I've never seen a Superman movie before - I think I might have done when I was very young - but not that I remember. So the plot to me didn't seem to be retreading, because I wasn't aware of the backstory anyway.

I do still feel the story was reasonably engaging - the ending is far too slow and dull - but there was still a story there.

By Kirk
July 17, 2006 @ 4:56 pm

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When was the last time you went to the cinema and thought "I didn't get my money's worth, that could have done with another 30 minutes" ? I think the silly length of films is seriously affecting quality. Films that should be 90 minutes have to be 2 hr + another 10-20 minutes and films that could entertain for 120-130 minutes are stretched to arse-numbing lengths - is there really any excuse for all these 2 and a half hour++ comic book films ? It all goes back to the night Titanic beat L.A.Confidential at the Oscars a.k.a "the night cinema died". Then again, I always say everything goes back to that night. Once I blamed something on that night which turned out to have happened 6 months before it, that was quite embarrassing. But one day I will write a critical tour de force about that night, then you'll see.

By Andy M
July 17, 2006 @ 5:23 pm

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Yes, it's difficult to know where the arse numbing thig comes from. I mean surely the studios don't want a long film, as it means multiplexes can't turnround and put on the film as many times in a day. (eg. Superman Returns - 3 shows/screen/day if you're lucky.)

By Kirk
July 17, 2006 @ 5:48 pm

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When was the last time you went to the cinema and thought "I didn't get my money's worth, that could have done with another 30 minutes"

The ridiculously short X-Men 3. Especially because it cost me about seven quid. To be honest, another 30 minutes probably wouldn't have made me feel like I'd got my money's worth, but it would at least have stopped me feeling like somebody left thirty pages of the script in the local tandoori.

(now let's see who gets that reference)

By Seb
July 17, 2006 @ 5:48 pm

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I thought it was good and liked that Singer gave it a heart and respected Donners work.

Agreed you felt something was missing but it was still good. Maybe a few more spectacular scenes I can't quite put my finger on it. I'm not overjoyed I'm not disappointed I seem to be in a state of 'i loved it... did I? I think so... I think, yes it was good.... or was it? Yes... I think' :D

By Matt
July 17, 2006 @ 6:24 pm

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The ridiculously short X-Men 3.

Seconded. But, since we're discussing Superman:

I'm one of the few people who wasn't very impressed with Lex Luthor, either casting or plotwise. While it follows on from the previous films that he'd surround himself with bumbling lackies and overlook the airheaded bimbo in his entourage as someone capable of foiling his plans, I'm not sure that excuses it.

Luthor's failing is supposed to be his ego and jealousy, in this film his plan didn't fail because of that, he would've easily killed Superman had Superman not saved Lois earlier - the failure of Luthor wasn't about his mistakes at all, ultimately. Another concern of mine is that Superman and Luthor had just one scene together, and he never really got his come-uppance. Sure, he got stuck on a desert island (a cartoonish ending to an incredibly cartoonish version of Luthor - right down to giving his plans a trial-run on a model city) but he didn't get brought to justice or exposed, and nor did Superman have anything to do with his eventual fate. The real question is how did he manage to fly to a desert island in the middle of nowhere when they weren't, by all appearances, that far away from the shore as it was?

I'm certain though, that Singer doesn't have any intention of making a 4th film. As Seb mentioned above, this feels distinctly like the end to the "trilogy" rather than a new beginning.

By James H
July 17, 2006 @ 7:03 pm

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Actually, one point I didn't mention in the review was that the sequence where a powerless Superman was beaten up and stabbed was, for me, needlessly brutal. That's just not the sort of thing you should see in a Superman film. People who bang on about how he's overpowerful and need to be taken down a peg or two miss the point entirely, and there were better ways that could have been done than the unnecessarily harsh way that it was (although the bit with him attempting to stand up and finally falling was excellent, showing the never-say-die spirit of his character). I was really hoping the goons would get some proper comeuppance for that, and their being crushed by a big rock didn't really achieve that.

By Seb Patrick
July 17, 2006 @ 7:15 pm

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(now let's see who gets that reference)

Cruise of the Gods!

By Cappsy
July 17, 2006 @ 8:15 pm

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> I'm certain though, that Singer doesn't have any intention of making a 4th film. As Seb mentioned above, this feels distinctly like the end to the "trilogy" rather than a new beginning.

No, there's definitely going to be a second movie with him at the helm and all the cast back. This is why there was no proper resolution with Luthor and why there was a lot of retread. I expect we'll see it in 2008. Singer said he has a LOT of ideas he wants to put onscreen.

> (a cartoonish ending to an incredibly cartoonish version of Luthor - right down to giving his plans a trial-run on a model city)

I liked all of that. The Metropolis model must have taken a lifetime to setup! I liked the real screams and sounds over the destruction of the model. And I like the 'cartoony' Luthor because that's exactly how he should be IMO. It makes it more powerful when he does something sadistic like beating up Supes. I can't think of anyone else who could play this kind of Luthor better than Spacey.

By performingmonkey
July 18, 2006 @ 12:19 am

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>It all goes back to the night Titanic beat L.A.Confidential at the Oscars a.k.a "the night cinema died".

*shrugs* So would The Godfather I and II have been better at 90 minutes each? :-)

The only times it felt too long were in getting started (after the nostalgic titles, natch) and in finishing up. (It's a coda, not a fourth act!) Enjoyed the rest a lot...

...although it WAS filled with plot holes (land-mass renders him mortal-like...but later he can carry it?), and mistaken casting. (Bosworth looks great on-screen, but she has zero fire and too few signs of age.)

I liked the stabbing, though. Actually, I liked that whole Supes/Luthor scene. Two more of those, this film would have been a zinger for me. But they just kept him mooning around, like Lex is some vague thing to get to later. Collider said it best here, though - he's been turned into a stalker, listening in and watching Lois in her home with x-ray vision. At this point, Superman really IS a dick.

Routh, though, worked great for me; but he never got the chance to act. Watching it back in my head, Spacey got trusted with wide shots, playing out scenes with other people. Routh and Bosworth and everyone at the Planet were all super-close-ups (no pun), over-overs.

So I genuinely don't know if they can act, or have chemistry outside the construction. They were cut too tight to tell.

(As a silly example, watch Routh entering the Planet versus Reeve doing it. Donner played the Planet all in wides, like a frantic Syndney Lumet kinda thing, and Reeve was postively Keaton-esque with his physical comedy timing - not that I think the first films are flawless, or even represent my favourites of the genre. But Singer does it all with tight shots of swinging suitcases and things being knocked over. It's...less elegant.)

Still, it's a shame it cost so much. Doesn't look like they'll make it back, given the B.O. Which means no sequel, and I WOULD like to see one.

Hey - unless they go the Superman IV route and film Metropolis in Milton Keynes again...!

By Andrew
July 18, 2006 @ 12:21 am

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> But Singer does it all with tight shots of swinging suitcases and things being knocked over. It's...less elegant

Well he doesn't want to just COPY Donner, does he? And close-ups like that are part of modern filmmaking. Wides like the one you mentioned are typical of older movies.

By performingmonkey
July 18, 2006 @ 1:36 am

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> Well he doesn't want to just COPY Donner, does he?

Comedy still plays best in simple set-ups - which is to say, I think Donner knows better how to capture physical awkwardness. (For the record he, too, is still directing modern movies, and still using the technique.)

As I say, watch the difference between the rhythms of the Spacey/Posey stuff vs the Lois/Clark stuff. They do seem distinct and different to me. And not just in a 'directing for character' way. As if he doesn't trust the leads' performances to get the message across.

> And close-ups like that are part of modern filmmaking. Wides like the one you mentioned are typical of older movies.

It's not exactly that clear-cut, but I take you basic point.

Still, Singer plays out GREAT group shots and extended wides in Usual Suspects (not exactly an 'older film'). It's still a pretty comfortable technique in modern cinema - especially, but not exclusively, in comedy, because of what it does to performance. It's not about copying, it's that Singer seems to alter his OWN style. I find that curious.

By Andrew
July 18, 2006 @ 2:05 am

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Well he doesn't want to just COPY Donner, does he?

Well, you could have fooled me.

By Seb
July 18, 2006 @ 10:05 am

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> It's not exactly that clear-cut, but I take you basic point.

I know. And I don't just mean modern movies I mean big-budget blockbusters like this. Many smaller movies will still use the wide approach. The Usual Suspects was the perfect movie for that. And it IS ten years old now. Since, I would say, Gladiator directors in general have had more of an affinity for this close-up 'technique'.

> Well, you could have fooled me.

Well...yeah, it does seem he regularly masterbates over the '78 movie!

By performingmonkey
July 18, 2006 @ 8:08 pm

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I hasten to add that I see nothing wrong with excessive amounts of reverence for the original film - it is fucking brilliant, and it is still the best superhero movie ever made by quite some considerable margin (ignoring the old Alan Moore gripes about the turning back of the Earth).

However, the point still stands that Returns didn't have a particularly great story, irrespective of how much it was inspired by the original. It was an excellent film, but it wasn't perfect, and the main thing lacking was a layered and intriguing plot.

By Seb Patrick
July 18, 2006 @ 11:40 pm

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Yeah, I think the problem is that, as with the '78 movie, Luthor's plot is pretty weak and not strong enought to carry the film, but this time around we don't get the great origin story that makes up the first half, so you only have Supe's return to rely on. The sequel will no doubt be better in this respect.

By performingmonkey
July 19, 2006 @ 2:42 am

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while routhe is a lovey piece of man to watch, his performance seems stiff and bosworth was far far to young to play the role of lois lane that part should of goen to parker posey a fantastic actress with the grit and experience to pull the role of lois off.
i was not happy about the movie portraying superman as a creepy stalker it's out of place for supes to be spying for the sack of sexual gratifcation.
besides routhe not being able to match reeves performance and bosworth being barely out of high school playing the role of a 30 something sucessful inderpendant mother of one, i liked the movie,it was a good piece of fluff to pass what would have been a slow sunday afternoon.

By cara
February 12, 2007 @ 7:04 pm

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