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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Superman Returns: An IMAX 3D Experience (**1/2)

SUPERMAN RETURNS

"WRONG!"

Superman's back but he didn't bring the fun.  What's lacking from Superman Returns is joie de vivre. Superman Returns has lots of good intentions, a few beautiful and poetic visual moments, a bittersweet love story, and some (but not-quite-enough) awesome action and spectacle.  Yet the movie, burdened by angst, never lifts off.  Everyone is dour, somber, and grossly underwritten.  The characters lack sparkle and there's only a modicum of wit. Every character seems down in the dumps that they're in a Superman movie.

Superman never quite soars and takes our hearts and imaginations with him.  He's more human and vulnerable but not awe-inspiring; the movie not exhilarating.  At the end of seeing a Superman movie, you should feel like you're up there in the stars with him.  You shouldn't feel like buying Superman a beer and telling him, “Everything's gonna be okay, man.  You're still the godddamn Superman.” 

As Superman, Brandon Routh is good. Good enough.  I'm still not entirely sold on him but he's a fine rental with serious fixer-upper potential. Comparisons to Christopher Reeve are inevitable and not unfair considering he was hired in part because of his resemblance to Reeve, and he is taking over the character Reeve forged in a wobbly continuation of the movies starring Reeve. Routh was earnest and credible but he didn't quite have Christopher Reeve's authority, style or panache as Superman or as Clark Kent. Nor did he quite make the role entirely his own. Routh was also done a disservice by having relatively little dialogue, and none particularly memorable that weren't direct quotes from Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie.

I wish Routh's Superman said more and didn't internalize everything. Routh's Superman seems younger and is much more emotionally vulnerable, which is fine and works for this story, but this also remained at odds with the fact that Superman has been active for years and has fought Lex Luthor, three Kryptonian villains, and has turned back time once.  Though Routh was burdened by the shadow Reeve left, he had a moment early on in the Daily Planet where he smirked just like Reeve did that was really kind of wonderful. Superman's lack of joie de vivre was disappointing and it carried through to everyone else throughout the entire movie.

Superman Returns presents us with an unfortunate reality of being Superman: After Superman Superstalked Lois and her family at their house, it seems that one of the reasons he flies around saving people is that he doesn't have any friends or anyone to talk to. He has no hobbies, no other interests.  Saving people is how he spends his days. But a fundamental aspect of Superman that this movie didn't quite get across is that Superman loves saving people. It gives him great joy to help people in need, he has fun with it, he loves interacting with all kinds of people, even criminals he's busting, and he has a wry humor about it.

Watch Chris Reeve in his first night in Donner's film when he's saving people.  He's having a good time. Helping people is not a burden or his sacred duty (or a curse of being a messiah figure) as much as it is Superman loving using his powers to help people in need. Because he loves people. One of the most important lines of dialogue ever spoken about Superman is by Lois Lane in Superman: The Movie: “Superman cares about everybody.”  Joie de vivre again. Routh's Superman had some fun but it was all polite and restrained and a little distant. After five years being in space alone, you'd think Superman would have loved being with people again. Still, Superman's good deeds around the world, starting with the amazing space shuttle/airliner rescue sequence and including visits to Manila and Gotham (nice touches), were my favorite Superman moments in the movie.

Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane still can't spell, a lasting invention of the Donner movie. Bosworth's Lois worked best when she was on the space shuttle grilling Peta Wilson and doggedly tracking down the story behind the blackout. As a hard-news reporter, she was believable enough, one supposes. As a Pulitzer Prize winner, not so much. Unfortunately when she wasn't at work, Bosworth's Lois was a frowny face who pouted her way through the movie. Whether flying with Superman through the Metropolis skies, dealing with her fiancé or her son, or just trying to catch a smoke on the roof of the Daily Planet building, she wouldn't turn that frown upside down. (Also, what happened to her ass?  Where did Blue Crush Kate Bosworth's hot body go? There's a moment when Lois is in the kitchen cooking; she turns around to go to the sink and her ass was flat as an ironing board.  I think I speak for the male audience when I say I would like nothing more than if Lois Lane would put down the cigarettes and took up surfing again.)

Though his very existence is a lightning rod of criticism and discontentment, I actually liked Jason, Lois's son and also the son of a mysterious person the movie keeps as a big surprise. (It's Superman.) It was pretty obvious from the start who the kid's father is just from doing the math.  (Gee, Superman left Earth five years ago, right after having sex with Lois. Jason is roughly five. Unless heartbroken Lois Lane immediately jumped Richard White's bones in the rebound, or she was whoring around on the side, there really isn't any other candidate for the father.)  But young Tristan Lake Leabu was a sweet, sincere, likeable kid.  It was a nice touch that he has asthma.  I especially loved when he took one look at Superman and then at Clark and figured it out right away.  Sadly, Jason was as underwritten as everyone else, so we didn't get to know him better, but there's a Superboy idea here that may have potential. 

Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor is stunningly a bust considering the casting of Spacey seemed like the slam dunk. The evil billionaire Luthor is the most popular version of the character but of all the Luthors, I'm in the minority in that I've always loved Gene Hackman's egotistical, homicidal land baron the best. I did like how Spacey's Lex is still obsessed with real estate, with a side hobby of killing people that he really enjoys. Spacey was playing that character but a darker, bitter version of him. One can understand his bitterness: Five years in prison. A throwaway line about how even a man of his intelligence is worthless locked up with lunatics indicates he was forced to drop the soap in the shower more than once. And then pimping himself to a withered old crone to get her dough.  This Lex Luthor had some hard times and it took the twinkle out of his eye that Hackman's Luthor had. I miss Hackman's self-amused wit and wordplay but what I missed most were Hackman's self-aggrandizing monologues. “Lex Luthor!  The greatest criminal mind of our time!”

Spacey's Lex was grossly underwritten and he didn't seem to start having much fun playing the role until the third act when Lois and Jason stumbled onto his yacht. His diabolical master plan had the sole virtue of being novel: creating the crystal Krypton continent, wiping out 3/4th of the United States, and killing billions of people. A neat idea even though it makes zero sense. (He still wasn't going to name a town on his new continent Otisburg.) But again, he was subdued when he could have gone all out. He didn't seem to enjoy and relish getting to physically beat the shit out of Superman and stab him with the Kryptonite shiv like you'd think he would. Nor did he seem particularly crushed when Superman lifted the ice continent into space (which was awesome).  Spacey's Lex was kind of a buzzkill and couldn't appreciate when he was supposed to be having a good time.

Lex's henchmen were dull as dishwater. In the Miss Teschmacher-substitute role, Parker Posey was mostly shrill and irritating. She had one good moment when she screamed at Lex for actually cutting the brakes to her car (one of Lex's finest moments in this movie). Other than that, she did everything else Valerie Perrine did as Miss Teschmacher, such as flirt with and then feel bad for Superman when Lex was about to kill him, but nowhere near as well. Still, she fared better than Kal Penn and the other two nameless, humorless henchmen. They made me really miss Otis. None of Luthor's sour faced, no-charisma goons in this movie were worth a pair of Ned Beatty's soiled underpants. 

James Marsden came off pretty well as Richard White, considering. He had a lot to do. He was understanding of his fiancée's confusion towards Superman, he loved his adopted son, and he was damn heroic when he took his sea plane to save them from Lex Luthor. Sometimes, nice guys do get the girl too. Lois staying with Richard and kept the family together in the end was for the best. Still, Superman's gonna disrupt his happy family and wreck that home eventually. Richard White ought to start a support group with John Jameson of Spider-Man 2. And also, Cyclops, but that would be weird.

After years of being spoiled by Annette O'Toole as Smallville's hot redhead Martha Kent in her early 40's, it was a little disappointing to have old lady Martha Kent back, Eva Marie Saint notwithstanding. When Superman's rocket ship or whatever that was crashed on the farm and she pulled Superman out, the burning debris and heat didn't seem to bother the old lady a bit. One of the most compelling moments in the movie was when Superman was dying in the hospital and Martha couldn't get into see him without exposing his secret identity. Too bad the movie couldn't have done more with that idea. Martha could have tried what Howard Stern did when Christopher Reeve was paralyzed and called the hospital as Jor-El demanding to see his son, but thankfully, she didn't.

It's great that Marlon Brando's Jor-El was resurrected for the movie, but it seemed like his flashback voice overs came out of nowhere half the time. Lex was also pretty non-plussed about returning to the Fortress of Solitude for the crystals and seeing the Jor-El hologram. In the theatrical version of Superman II Superman Returns is sequeling, Lex had already met Superman's mother's hologram but he seemed less impressed by the father. And then there was the terribly composed, ambiguous dialogue: “You act like you've been here before, Lex.” No response. Lex ought to have said: “Why yes, once with Miss Teshmacher, whom you can't hold a candle to, and then again with Lois Lane and three Kryptonian arch villains who were going to let me be ruler of Australia. I think their corpses are around here somewhere…”

Surprisingly, I hated every bit of dialogue lifted from Donner's movie. Might as well have Superman actually wink at the audience then hand out Superman: The Movie DVDs.

“Statistically speaking, flying is still the safest way to travel.” 
“What was it my father said?” “Get out!” 
And especially: “Good evening, Miss Lane.  I didn't mean to startle you.” 

That last one pissed me off the most. The first time Lois encounters Superman in five years, he gives the “statistically speaking” quote and blows her off.  The very next time they speak, he surprises her with the same line he opened with in their first interview. “Good evening, Miss Lane”?!  Is he trying to be funny? They slept together, they have a relationship. Dump your wife or girlfriend, leave for a week, and then sneak up on her and call her “Miss Whatever her last name is.” You'll sound like an asshole. What's more, the Donner movie's dialogue written by Tom Mankewicz is so zingy and iconic, it served to show how lacking the rest of the dialogue tended to be.

Having said that, there were enjoyable subtle visual references to the Donner movie, especially Lex's wall of books (no Wikipedia for him), the chunk of Kryptonite from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Lex's maps of the world. The opening credits brought back the nostalgia, with the use of the streaking credits used in the prior Superman films and the welcome return of John Williams' score by John Ottman. Fun seeing the ice crystal world of Krypton again, complete with the dome where General Zod was tried and sentenced to the Phantom Zone.
 
After five years "away" where no one compared his reappearance to Superman's return, Clark Kent's returned to the Daily Planet and he noticed how different everything was. I'll say. The last time Clark showed up for work, they didn't have the Internet or Samsung plasma screen HDTVs.  Everyone smoked at their desks and used typewriters . Notice how Clark never actually did any work. All he seemed to do was hang around the office and wait for Lois to show up so he could fumble a conversation. Perry White assigned Clark the blackout story, but Lois juggled that and the Superman Returns story on her own while Clark dicked around the office eavesdropping on everyone with Super Hearing.

The glum lack of emoting trickled down to the supporting cast. It seemed to skip Jimmy Olsen but Perry White was practically comatose. He whispered his command to his news staff to get on the Superman story and then barely got the words “Great Caesar's Ghost!” out when Superman saved him from the falling Daily Planet globe. This Frank Langella Perry White seemed pretty exhausted.  Maybe he should have been sucking some hot intern's blood on the side. Speaking of the falling Daily Planet globe, Superman did a real asshole move after catching it when he rolled it on top of some guy's car.  Why would he do that?  How's that guy gonna get home?  Who's gonna pay for the damage?  Man, Superman is a dick sometimes.

The Superman rescue of the airplane sequence was, again, awesome. And so was the climax of that with Superman landing the airliner in the baseball field and getting the standing ovation from the capacity crowd.  The kicker of Lois fainting and sliding down the inflatable ramp was also a great comedic touch. However, the flashback about young Clark leaping across the cornfields and discovering he could levitate didn't seem necessary.  It doesn't lead to anything in the story and seemed to contradict Superman: The Movie, where Clark couldn't fly and walked to the North Pole to build the Fortress of Solitude.

When Superman was in the coma in the hospital towards the end, he was totally faking it, like Buster on Arrested Development. The doctors and nurses at the hospital couldn't inject anything into him, but they managed to get the suit off of him. Begs the question:  Does Superman wear underwear inside his suit too?  Which nurse got to put the hospital gown on him?  Will there be pictures of Superman's ass or balls on ebay?

The penultimate scene where Superman spoke to his sleeping son was something we've never seen in a Superman movie before. (I think Jason was also faking sleep. Like father like son.) Routh nailed the emotion of Superman saying to his son all the promises Jor-El told him.“One day, I'll explain to you why I wear glasses and goof around my office not doing any work.  One day, my son, you'll wear glasses too.  Or a red cape and booties.  Preferably both.”

And that's just about all I've got to say about Superman Returns. I hope the next one will be better.

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