Try not to watch this with your X-ray vision.
Imagine yourself in a large city, walking down a busy street on a nice, sunny day. A new high rise is under construction, and you see workers on girders high above you. Suddenly, with an unexpected gust of wind, a piece of safety equipment fails, and one construction worker falls from atop the structure. It’s a freak accident, a needless tragedy. You watch, helpless, as this man is about to die. But then, the impossible happens. A man dressed in blue and red somehow flies from out of the clouds, catches the worker in midair and gently returns him to the ground, safe and unharmed. A crowd gathers, with onlookers amazed by they’ve just seen. The man from the sky has kind words for everyone, and even shows some gentle humor. This only lasts for a few minutes before he takes to the air again, soaring off into the distance. Imagine living in a world with wonders like this. Imagine living in a world that has Superman.
Superman (Brandon Routh) is the last survivor of the planet Krypton, sent to Earth by his parents with a mission to use his amazing powers—flight, strength, x-ray vision, heat vision, super hearing, ice breath, and more—to make his new home planet a better place. But that was then. Five years ago, Superman mysteriously vanished, and the world eventually went on without him. But now he’s back, after an expedition to find the remnants of Krypton. In his absence, his romantic interest Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth, Blue Crush) has a new beau, a pilot named Richard (James Marsden, X-Men) and a son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). Our hero starts to settle back into his daily life as mild mannered reporter Clark Kent, but it’s not long before a crisis breaks out and Superman flies in to save the day, revealing his return to both Lois and to the world. Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, L.A. Confidential) is out of jail with a new plan, one that will not only make him the wealthiest man in history, but will also rid him of Superman once and for all.
What director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) attempts in Superman Returns is a film that not only captures the spirit of what makes Superman a classic hero, but also spins the character in a new direction. Part of that is in the look of the film. Although it takes place in the modern day and everyone uses modern technology, the clothes and sets give off a nostalgic late ’40/early ’50s feel. Singer’s “new meets old” philosophy also extends to the story, which introduces some radical changes to Superman and those close to him, while also keeping Superman true to his roots and offering up plenty of eye-popping action scenes along the way.
The changes to Superman’s world are what will likely raise the eyebrows of longtime fans. By having Superman leave the Earth for several years and returning to discover Lois in a relationship with someone else, with a child no less, the filmmakers are taking an enormous risk with these classic characters. As far as the new Lois goes, the risk works. Her famed feistiness and aggressive reporting is still present, and it merges well with her newfound nurturing side, as it’s apparent how much she cares for her son. One risk that didn’t work for me was the circumstances of Superman leaving the Earth. It’s often been pointed out that although Superman is the last son of Krypton, Earth is his home now and he cares for it greatly, mostly thanks to the relationships he’s formed with others as Clark Kent. Therefore, it puzzles me that he would leave for what is basically a self-centered reason. If he had left to help others in some way, or to benefit the greater good somehow, I might have believed it more. No, instead, Superman’s leaving acts only as an excuse, a quick shortcut to get the plot and characters to where the writers want them to be later on in the film. It’s the one element of the film that doesn’t work for me, and it casts a slight shadow over everything else that happens.
It’s fortunate then, that there’s also a lot to praise about Superman Returns. Those looking for big action set pieces won’t be disappointed. Most critics have praised Superman’s attempts to stop a space shuttle crash as their favorite, and although it is impressive, I personally liked the scene that follows a little later, in which Superman takes on a group of very heavily-armed bank robbers. As the movie builds toward its climax, we see our hero flying all over Metropolis, performing a variety of rescues and amazing feats during a catastrophe. He must then deal with Luthor’s plot in a way that might be too much even for his seemingly limitless strength. It’s all exciting, rousing action that will really get fans’ adrenaline pumping.
Routh, a relative unknown before this, fills the red boots much better than I expected. This is mostly thanks to the honesty he brings to the role. He plays the character as good natured and sincere, without any hints of post modern sarcasm. There are no “chicks dig the car” kinds of lines in this movie, for which we should all be grateful. If Superman had made some self-depreciating joke about wearing tights and a cape, it might have made for a nice easy laugh to include on trailers, but it also would have cheapened the character. Routh and the screenwriters instead stick to the basics of who Superman is, and their not straying from that is the main reason the film works as well as it does.
As noted above, Bosworth adequately combines the go-getter half of Lois’s personality with her newfound motherly half. The exact nature of her relationship with Superman remains ill defined, though. Are we to view this film as a continuation of the events in Superman II, or is there an unforeseen history between them in this version that will be revealed in future installments? The “continuation” theory makes a lot of sense, but still, I wonder. The movie isn’t a cliff hanger exactly, but it leaves a huge question mark hanging in the air as to what’s next for Lois and Superman. The filmmakers have taken a confident first step with their relationship in this movie, so here’s hoping they screw it up in the next one.
Another key to the success of Superman Returns is Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Just like Superman is played in a straightforward, non-jokey way, the same can be said for Lex. Spacey sticks to the basics, making Lex smart and manipulative, while also vengeful and cold-hearted. We get the sense that he enjoys seeing his various plots come together as part of his master plan, despite the mass destruction on loss of human life he’s about to cause. But also, we get a clear sense of how deep his hatred for Superman goes.
Now, Lex has a band of quirky henchmen working with him, but his main sidekick is Kitty (Parker Posey, Laws of Attraction), who never quite understands what Lex is up to, but follows him to the end, mostly for his bank account, it seems. Kitty is the movie’s comic relief, and at first brings to mind the overblown slapstick of Otis and Miss Teschmacher from the first Superman film. In that movie, and its sequels, these two and Lex became something of a comedic team, all tossing barbs at each other and acting generally buffoonish at times. Spacey, on the other hand, keeps his menace in check. Every wisecrack or dim-bulb comment Kitty makes just bounces right off him, as he never loses sight of the bigger picture. This provides a sense of balance to their scenes—she gets to have the laugh, without him coming across as any less scary.
• I didn’t mind most of the little tweaks made to Superman’s iconic costume, but it did bug me that his cape looks more brown than red throughout the movie.
• What the heck are they paying journalists at the Daily Planet? Richard and Lois both work there, and yet not only do they live in this gorgeous waterfront mansion, but they own their own airplane as well?
• During the space shuttle crash, Lois gets thrown around and slammed against walls and ceilings, and yet her hair still looks perfect.
The picture quality is excellent, making the most of the bright colors and flashy visuals on display. Take, for example, the moment aboard Lex’s boat in which he holds a piece of kryptonite while talking. The entire scene is covered in a warm, golden light, and in this setting the green of the kryptonite stands out with an almost 3-D clarity. The audio is even better, pushing all five speakers to their maximum. At the beginning of the film, when an object from space crashes on the Kent farm, notice how the sound of it moves from the right speakers through the center and then to the left, perfecting the illusion that the craft is soaring right through your living room. Needless to say, the score by John Ottman (X2: X-Men United), based on the classic Superman theme by John Williams (Star Wars) also sounds terrific, making it so you’ll be humming it for weeks after watching.
When you use the convenient “play all” option, the combined featurettes on Disc Two total about three hours. They begin with footage of Singer going over script ideas even before pitching the film to Warner Brothers. From there, they cover the casting process, with an emphasis on prepping Routh for the role, following by the production itself, with a lot of detail about the small army of workers who constructed the many gigantic sets. For all the great behind-the-scenes info seen here, there are also a lot of questions left unanswered, and Singer never gets a chance to defend his reasoning for changes made to the characters. Singer himself seems oddly incongruent during the footage, being upbeat and smiling one minute, and giving in to tension and snapping at his crew in the next. At one point he even barks “turn off the camera!” to the DVD crew, which leads me to wonder just else we’re not seeing. A second featurette, not included in the main group, reveals step by step how footage from Marlon Brando (The Godfather) filmed for the first Superman film was reused in this film, with the help of generous amounts of CGI. The additional scenes, with completed special effects, all add some nice character touches and small details not seen in the film. This makes them worth viewing, but it’s easy to see how they would have slowed down the movie overall. Singer doesn’t do a commentary, which is unfortunate because it could have filled in gaps not on the second disc. Also, there’s no information about the last 15 years’ worth of failed attempts at a Superman film from directors like Tim Burton (Batman Returns), McG (Charlie’s Angels), and Singer’s X-Men replacement Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand).
It’s November 2006 as of this writing, and to be honest, I’ve completely lost track of which versions of which Superman movies will and won’t be included on which box sets or collections. But as far as this two-disc set goes, it’s a big, fun Superman adventure and an excellent DVD presentation.
This movie raises the question, “Does the world need Superman?” To answer that, I’d like to point viewers to a moment late in the film, in which it looks as if Superman has been defeated, and he suddenly flashes back to the voice of his late father, telling him, “You will inspire others to greatness.” This is Superman’s greatest power, not flight or strength, but being an inspiration to others. I’ll bet that somewhere in the world right now, a young person is discovering Superman’s adventures for him or herself for the first time, and this young person’s imagination is taking off on a flight of its own, wondering about all of life’s unexplored possibilities.
There’s a quick shot at one point in Superman Returns, in which Metropolis residents in the early evening see Superman flying overhead. They quietly watch as he glides off into the distance, as one little girl, barely audible, says “It’s Superman.” I love this moment for what it represents—a hint of what it would be like to live in a world where someone like Superman exists. This “sense of wonder” feeling is what I love about movies in general, and it’s why Superman Returns works for me, despite a few of its flaws.