Superman Returns

Though intermittently enjoyable, Bryan Singers Superman Returns, the most eagerly awaited popcorn comic strip movie this summer, is a decidedly mixed bag. While reenergizing the franchise that came to a halt with Superman IV and delivering the basic goods with some bravura special effects, the movie suffers from major shortcomings, chief among them are the disappointing villain, flatly played by Kevin Spacey, and a wooden performance from newcomer Brandon Routh in the lead.

Inevitable comparisons with Batman Begins and Spider-Man movies would be made, two popular franchises that were more successfully reinvented by their directors, Chris Nolan and Sam Raimi, respectively. For starters, the new Superman is stamped with the sensibility of a teenager, unlike the more mature tone that characterizes the aforementioned series, perhaps a function of its inflated budget, rumored to be north of $200, and aiming to offer something for everyone, in demographic and global terms. The blockbuster mentality marks Singer's film from its very impressive credits sequence all the way to the last frame.

As he showed in the first two segments of X-Men, Singer is an intelligent and skillful director in the technical department, but he is not as strong in narrative, characterization, and most important of all, endowing a big, necessarily episodic movie like Superman Returns with a unified and coherent vision. End result is an uneven movie that goes up and down and up again as often as a roller-coaster ride, in this movie literally, due to flying and aerial sequences.

On the plus side, Singer and his writers decided to ignore Superman III and IV, which were both artistic and commercial failures, and build their installment as a follow-up, or spiritual descendant, to Richard Donners Superman: The Movie and Superman I. Thus, for continuity purposes, Singer inserts segments of Marlon Brando, as the father Jor-El, and he has cast the graceful Eva Marie Saint as Ma Clark, bringing fond memories of both actors and their yesteryears work, singly and jointly. (It just happens that both Brando and Saint won Oscars for On the Waterfront, in which they played a couple).

The choice to do a kind of sequel to Donners film has given flexibility and confidence to move things forward. Feeling that, to varying degrees, everyone, whether they realize it or not, knows the origin story and who Superman is, the filmmakers have decided to simply continue that story.

However, Singers challenge, to honor the tradition of Superman as a quintessentially twentieth century mythic hero and simultaneously give the Man of Steel a place in the new millennium, is only half-met. Indeed, trying to combine an old-fashioned, nostalgic view of Superman as a hero with a more contemporary and hip one is semi-successful.

Moreover, the movie never overcomes a major narrative problem, that is, there are no significant differences between Supermans identities in looks or conduct. Inexperienced actor Brandon Routh looks right, but he lacks the humor and panache that Christopher Reeve brought to the series almost three decades ago. The obsessive eagerness to please by Superman/Clark Kentand the movie itselfrepresents another major flaw.

In Donners “Superman: The Movie,” Brandos Jor-El posthumously tells his son whom he has sent to live amongst humans on Earth that human beings are capable of greatness; they only lack the light to show the way. Since mysteriously disappearing from Earth five years before, Superman has traveled to the far reaches of space in search of his past and traces of his family, or others like himself. But, finding a radioactive ruin where Krypton once stood, the man who was born Kal-El returns home, crash-landing back at the Kent farm in Kansas.

Things have much changed when he returns, beginning with the fact that his mother is now a widow. Still ambitious, Clark Kent easily gets back his old job as a reporter from editor Perry White (Frank Langella) at the Metropolis Daily Plant, workplace for both star reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) and Whites nephew Jack (Richard Marsden of the X-Men series), who together raise a bright illegitimate boy named Jason.

The pros at the Daily Planet are not very bright or perceptive since they fail to notice that the remarkably similar Superman and Clark Kent both return to Earth and report to “work” on the same day, a narrative flaw disregarded by the writers.

We immediately notice the tensions that prevail in this domestic union, which get more intense as soon as Clark appears on the scene. It would be interesting to see how the moral majority and Religious Right react to this subplot and to the films ending (that can't be revealed here, but hints at a sequel).

The fact that the couple lives together but is not blessed with legal marriage open possibilities for a romantic liaison between Lois and Clark/Superman. Thematically speaking, the yarn is structured as a romantic triangle, or rather quartet and even quintet, if you count the various identities that some of the protagonists embody, shifting among them with the ease that is involved in wearing different costumes (literally and figuratively).

Conceived as a contemporary Superwoman, which should please the more feminist viewers, Lois is an attractive unmarried woman, a good mother, and an equally gifted reporter, having won the Pulitzer Prize!

As for Superman, Singer and his writers have conceived him as an outcast, an alien from another planet, endowed with magical powers, as well as an awe-inspiring role model, a fact thats made clear as soon as Clark bonds with Loiss son Jason. A more accomplished actor than Routh would have brought out more clearly the different facets of these roles, but Routh interprets his part as a kiddie comic book creature in tights who can fly and conquer the skies.

Singer has cast two of the surviving cast members of TVs Superman (see below). Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in the 1950s, is now a dying widow, exploited by the villain, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey). And Jack Larson, who was Jimmy Olson, is cast as an old bartender who serves Clark and Jimmy (Sam Huntington) drinks.

Famous lines, that over the years have entered into our collective movie lore, such as Its a bird! Its a plane! and Faster than a speeding bullet! can also be heard in Singers version as an homage to the old series.

The combination of his virtue, indestructibility, and ability to fly is what makes Superman so appealing universally, his desire to do the right thing, to be able to take on any problem that comes, to be able to soar up into the sky. As a mythic hero, Superman is endowed with super-strength, ability to see through anything, and sense of goodness. His inherent trait to use his special abilities to lead by example and to do good for the world has remained constant. That lack of ambiguity, which has prevailed throughout the 70 years of Supermans history, is appealing, but it also renders the film old-fashioned as far as storytelling goes.

Casting an unknown actor to embody all the qualities of Kal-El, Clark Kent, and Superman, was a shrewd idea. Singer has said that, however daunting that task may have been to fill the boots of Christopher Reeve, the actor to play Superman couldnt have the baggage of being a movie star, and that he needed someone who represented and looked like the collective memory we all have of Superman. However, as interpreted by Routh, he looks like he walked off a page in the comic book, and disappointingly, he handles all of his roles similarly, which is not particularly exciting to behold.

As noted, the films most disappointing characters are those of Lex luthor, the villain, and his foil Kitty (parker Posey). The diabolically brilliant villain was written with Kevin Spacey (who had has previously won a 1995 Supporting Oscar for Singers The Usual Suspects) in mind.

In times of rapid change, whether cultural, industrial or technological, Superman has steadfastly stood for truth, justice and all that is good. The world in 1941 was much different than the world of 1978, which is much different than the world today, says director Bryan Singer.

American societythe whole world–has changed so drastically in the last thirty years, since Richard Donners first Superman picture. But have the new films characters changed to reflect the zeitgeist The answer is yes and no. Almost yes in regards to the hero, and no in regards to the villains, which are cardboard and stereotypical even by standards of comic strip movies.

You may recall that the best things about the Batman film franchise were its villains, particularly in the first two films that were directed by Tim Burton. Who can forget Jack Nicholsons Joker in the first Batman slashing great art works. In Batman Returns, there were three idiosyncratic villains, who were far more intriguing than the hero: Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), a greedy businessman, the Penguin (Danny DeVitto), a pathetic creature that never got over the fact that his parents had abandoned him, and the Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer at her kinkiest and sexiest)..

Spacey must have been aware of the limitations of his charactrer, which he describes as “the ultimate capitalist. Hes got wide-ranging, hugely complicated evil plans. But at the end of the day, it's really basic. He just wants his cut. Precisely: Luthor is “really a basic” villain, too basic.

Villains usually add color, but in Superman Retunrs, Spaceys villain is so one-dimensional that it doesnt generate any feeling but outright contempt and eagerness to destroy him.
Though displaying his customary blend of humor and cynicism, Spacey gives a flat, one-dimensional performance.

Ditto for his companion Kitty, who has nothing to do but cling to her dog, and as good an actress as Parker Posey is, all shes given are a couple of semi-campy one-liners and reaction shots to Spaceys evil-doing.

Since the 1970s, when Donner made “Superman,” technology has advanced to revolutionary levels, and Singers movie reflects the great advances in camera, visual effects, and stunt work. The flying sequences are strikingly exciting. Singer and his team have figured out how much strain it takes to catch a plane in flight, or when specifically Superman should leap or float, what kind of hand motions Superman uses to navigate himself during flight. (I have to admit that Superman's leaping is far less thrilling than his landings).

The state-of-the-art technology used in this picture, which makes Brandon Routh fly like no other Superman ever could, didnt even exist two years ago. The progress made in the visual effects is just astounding. As opposed to Spider-man, Supermans hair and face are exposed even in flight. To capture the reality of a man who can fly at will, the filmmakers have paid meticulous attention to the physical shooting of Routh as well as the computer rendering, scanning and animation of the character.

The most cutting edge piece of equipment used is the digital Genesis camera, a joint invention by Sony and Panavision. “Superman Returns” is the first feature to be shot entirely with the Genesis camera system. Singers longtime cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel is credited with the idea. A couple of months into shooting, mostly in Australia, the filmmakers had ten cameras at their disposal.

Early on, there's one remarkable sequence that may justify the price of admission, when Superman rescues a doomed airplane whose passengers include his estranged lover, Lois Lane. At this moment, you not only marvel the mircales of technology but engage in wishful thinking, what if such magical intervention had taken place on that disastrous day, 9/11.

Supermans Legacy

Since making his comic book debut in 1938, “Superman” has remained an indelible figure in world culture and a universal symbol of humankinds ideal. Superman was the first to come from another planet and embody our fantasies about being able to do extraordinary things, primary among them the ability to fly.

The character went on to be featured in a newspaper strip which ran for more than three decades and today continues to entertain millions of fans each month in DC Comics comic books, distributed worldwide through 25 languages in over 40 countries.

On the big screen, the Man of Steel first appeared in 1941 in 17 groundbreaking animated shorts produced by the famous Fleischer Studios, along with two live action serials. Since then, the character has starred in five feature films, numerous successful series for television, and 35 titles on video and DVD.

The first feature film was 1951s “Superman and the Mole-Men,” starring George Reeves, which kicked off the subsequent television series.

The first contemporary feature film, Richard Donners “Superman: The Movie,” starring the late actor Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel and film legend Marlon Brando as his father, Jor-El, was released in 1978.

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