|Submitted by Steve Shives |
(Jul 05, 2006)
Ever see a movie that is so unexpectedly, unbelievably, impossibly superb that it makes you happy to be alive? —a movie that doesn’t just vindicate your interest in its particular genre or your admiration for its stars or its director or its writer, but reminds you of why you love movies in the first place? Superman Returns is that movie, my friend. If you have not seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so as soon as possible. If you have seen it, you owe it to yourself to go see it again. How best to put this . . . It is better than Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2; it is better than Hulk; it is better than any of the X-Men movies. It is the best superhero film since Superman: The Movie and its sequel, and better still than that. A few years ago, I wrote an essay in which I declared that there would never be a better superhero film than Superman II. I was wrong; Superman Returns is the finest film of its kind ever made.
Why is it so good? Let me start with director Bryan Singer. He ties his film inextricably to the first two films of the original Superman franchise, going so far as to re-use the John Williams theme and the flying three-dimensional opening credits. Superman, we are informed by an introductory title card, has been away from earth for the past five years, off on a personal mission to find the remains of Krypton. We hear a voiceover of Marlon Brando as Jor-El, and witness a spiffed-up portrayal of Krypton’s destruction. From there it’s down to business. Lex Luthor, fresh out of prison, swindles a dying widow out of her fortune. Martha Kent sees a fireball crash-land into her cornfield and drives out to find her adopted son has returned from his long trip home. Notice the restraint Singer employs in the crash scene: we see the fireball not directly, as a bright, loud special effects set piece, but rather from a distance, and then only as the reflection in Martha’s kitchen window. More important to Singer than the spectacular crash is the reaction of Martha: the son she thought to never see again has returned.
It is this choice to emphasize character and story over spectacle that defines the visual style of the film, and sets the emotional tone. Time and time again, Singer holds back, avoids showing us the obvious. When Clark returns to Metropolis and is forced into action as Superman for the first time, there are no dramatic close-ups or bombastic fanfare to announce his return, merely the sight of him pulling open his shirt to reveal the “S” as he moves quickly past camera. This film would rather engage us than impress us. In a stunning sequence, he saves a plane from crashing by catching it by the nose and setting it down on a baseball field during a game. The plane buckles and shudders as he abruptly halts its descent, and he tips it back into a relatively controlled drop onto the outfield. This sense of physics is present throughout, making Superman’s feats of heroism seem incredible, but somehow believable. If Superman really existed, then his rescue of an out of control car, or catching of a plummeting giant globe, would have to look like they do in this film.
But the visual style and attention to physical detail are only parts of the film’s appeal. The story is told with honesty and without irony. Superman has been gone a long time, and Singer and his writers, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, use this situation to evoke real emotion; when he realizes that Lois has moved on with her life since his disappearance, Superman is genuinely hurt. The world at large welcomes him back with open arms, but to the people he cares about the most he is more of an outcast than ever.
The film is never content simply to follow formula. Lois’s new boyfriend is not a mannequin, placed here solely to provide an obstacle to Superman—he is a real character, with his own personality and point of view, and he is a nice guy. We understand why Lois would feel conflicted when her love for this good man suddenly clashes with her old feelings for Superman.
The performances deserve mentioning here, too. Brandon Routh is not merely adequate in the starring role—he excels. In the shadow of the incomparable Christopher Reeve, in his signature role, in a film that deliberately echoes Reeve’s great films, Routh makes Superman his own. Yes, his Superman shares the upstanding decency and all-around good-guy qualities of Reeve’s incarnation, and yes, his Clark is sheepish and bumbling, but Routh’s work here is by no means a cheap piece of mimicry. He performs with sincerity and surprising subtlety. Kevin Spacey earns his pay and then some, as well. His Lex Luthor is a buffoon, true, but he is a buffoon with the motive and the means to kill Superman, along with a big chunk of the world’s population. And because his evil scheme is so elegantly simple—tossing a crystal into the ocean, as opposed to, oh, I don’t know, contaminating an entire city’s water supply with a hallucinogenic agent, then stealing a futuristic microwave weapon and employing it on a hijacked elevated train in order to vaporize the contaminated water and drive the population insane for reasons which are vague at best, for instance—it seems perfectly plausible within the logic of the film.
Similarities between this and the original Superman abound, which some critics have taken as a lack of creativity on the part of the creators of Superman Returns. These critics miss two very important points: First, the repetition serves to advance one of the most important themes of the story—that you can’t go home again—or, as better expressed by Bob Dylan, “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” Superman returns to earth after five years. So much remains as it was; his mother still lives on the family farm, Lois and Jimmy and Perry still work at the Daily Planet, even Lex Luthor is still around and still seeking to make a buck in real estate at the cost of billions of lives. But when Superman tries to recapture the life he left behind, he finds it impossible. Just as in the original film, he takes Lois on an intimate nighttime flight around the city. This time there is a feeling of melancholy, not the romantic exhilaration of the first time, but the sad glimpsing of a lost opportunity.
The second point missed by critics is that, while the story of Superman Returns contains many parallels with the earlier films, there is also a wealth of new material. In some cases, as with Luthor’s discoveries about the crystals that built Superman’s fortress of solitude, the new material serves to enlarge ideas originated in the first two movies; but usually what we get here is entirely new. Lois Lane is engaged to be married, has a young son, and has left her rooftop city apartment for a suburban home along the river. She is about to claim her long coveted Pulitzer Prize for an editorial entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” What other superhero film in recent memory has dared to alter the status quo of its hero to such a degree, and done so with such astounding success? Hulk comes to mind, but even it leaves its characters in more or less the same places they occupy in the comics; and the characters in the Hulk mythos are not the universally recognized icons that are Superman and his supporting cast. Yes, Batman Begins deviated from its source material a great deal at several points, but these deviations were all arbitrary and uncreative, did not serve to enrich the story or the characters, and resulted in a movie that, under the Geneva Convention, may not be shown to prisoners of war. When the creators of Superman Returns depart from the comics-established status quo, especially when they turn to the question of who exactly is the father of Lois’s child, they do so for the sake of exploring their characters and deepening their story, and with a skill and sensitivity that would be impressive in a film where there wasn’t a cape to be found.
All of these elements, plus many others I haven’t described here, combine into a work of real substance. Late in the film, as Superman flies into the hellish, otherworldly landscape created by Luthor’s stolen crystals, there is real drama, a genuine sense of peril, not the feeling of obligatory action that characterizes the lesser films of this genre, or blockbuster-type movies in general. When these characters speak to one another, their exchanges are not stilted or corny, but heartfelt and sometimes painful. And the movie doesn’t cheat its way to a happy ending. Superman saves the day, sure enough, but finds no easy solutions in his relationships with Lois or her new family.
Superman Returns is both an apt tribute to its landmark predecessors, and a classic on its own merits. It recreates the sense of awe and wonder in its subject that permeated those earlier films, and goes beyond that to tell a story of real beauty, with characters that think and feel and yearn. Bryan Singer, his writers, and the exceptional cast, have produced a masterpiece.