Review by Matt Neufeld
Director Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two X-Men films and The Usual Suspects, takes on the universe, and universal expectations, by directing Superman Returns with a newcomer in the title role as the heroic Man of Steel, Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, an all-star cast, including actors who played Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen in the 1950s—and 19 previous years of curiosity about whether another Superman film would fly, so to speak.
It is fortunate then, to report that not only does Superman Returns fly—it soars. This is a huge, wildly entertaining, suspenseful, funny and well-designed summer comic book blockbuster extravaganza for the senses. Singer’s Superman Returns is a film that expertly pays endearing homage to Richard Donner’s classic Superman of 1978 and Superman II of 1980 (Richard Lester and Richard Donner directed, actually), while maintaining its own identity, time and place. You could say that Superman Returns operates much like the humbly conflicted main character, Kal-El, or Superman, or Clark Kent: the film operates well in two identities. One identity is that homage, with the same classical attention to detail and story and acting and set and production design that marked Donner’s entertaining two films, and the other identity is a film of the 2000s, with state-of-the-art special effects, fluid camera movements, swift pacing that moves fast but doesn’t give you a headache in the process, updated technology and modern-day references, and even a type of tongue-in-cheek humor that was there in the first two films, but appears here again in a manner that seems updated and relevant.
Superman Returns is not a copycat of Donner’s films, and it is not unoriginal. The film uses the Donner films as a foundation, and an inspiration, and then takes off from that perspective. The film works well on its own, and those folks who haven’t seen Donner’s films don’t have to worry.
The decision to have Superman Returns produced in the style of Donner’s films was a conscious, smart tactic made by Singer and his writers, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, who worked with Singer on X-2, the second X-Men film, and producers Jon Peters and Gilbert Adler. The reason for this is that, for many people. the Donner films are a gold standard for the genre. They were comic book films that were produced at a very high A-level, with very positive results. So Singer and company approached Superman Returns at the same level, and with the same production design—the film has a comic book feel, but a classy one, with some sets resembling the 1940s, but also with modern touches, and that noted all-star cast. Movie newcomer Brandon Routh—a 26-year-old Midwesterner with an uncanny resemblance to Christopher Reeve—shines in the title role, stumbling and bumbling with nerdy awkwardness as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent while lighting up the screen with heroic machismo (but a humble machismo), athleticism and star presence as Kal-El, or Superman; Kevin Spacey is alternately funny and scary, as the character should be, as nemesis and criminal psycho Lex Luthor; Parker Posey is funny as Luthor’s ditz-with-a-heart-of-gold-and-a-conscious Kitty Kowalski; and there is Frank Langella as Daily Planet editor Perry White; the charming and beautiful—and confused—Kate Bosworth as Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane; veteran Eva Marie Saint as Martha Kent; and James Marsden, Cyclops from the X-Men films, as Richard White.
The noted special effects achieve what few blockbusters manage to achieve—their presence doesn’t distract from, or substitute for, the plot. The production design, especially the bustling, paper-filled Daily Planet newsroom, the Fortress of Solitude, the Kent family farm, and the yacht from which Luthor conducts much of his business, are artfully designed, and each depicts what they should depict—urban, big-city strife, otherworldly mysticism, Midwestern family values and a boatload of evil and greed, respectively. The sets don’t just fill up space, they add a sheen, glow and style that complement the story.
The narrative is as well-constructed as the rest of the film, and the story balances action, science fiction, basic comic book good-versus-evil structure, and a love story. Superman returns to Earth after five years of searching for his home planet, finds Lois with a child and engaged to Perry White’s nephew, an assistant editor at the paper, and a world that thinks that, maybe, perhaps, they can live without Superman. Lex Luthor is out of prison, wealthy and dangerous, and he’s still plotting to take over the world. Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman realizes that, of course, the world does still need him. That’s part of the overall allure, and that’s why Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s character has survived for 68 years and counting: the idea that the world needs Superman. That’s a good idea to work with, and it’s one that’s still relevant today. The famous tag line for Superman in 1978 was “you’ll believe a man can fly.” With the entertaining and fun Superman Returns, you’ll believe a movie can fly.
Notes: Look for Noel Neill who plays wealthy matron Gertrude Vanderworth in the new film but was Lois Lane in the Adventures of Superman television show from 1953 to 1958. Also keep an eye out for Jack Larson plays Bo the Bartender in the new film but was Jimmy Olsen in the Adventures of Superman in the 1950s.
Also recommended Spider-Man (2002), X-Men (2000), Superman I & II (1978-80).
It’s Another Superhero Blockbuster!
Superman Returns is directed by Bryan Singer and stars Brandon Routh, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Parker Posey and Kal Penn. It opens June 28th in both regular theaters and select IMAX theaters (with portions on the film in 3D). It is rated PG-13 for some intense action violence.
©2006 Thomas Huff and Matt Neufeld, BlownPotential.com