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Film review: Superman Returns

This isn’t really a review. It’s more of a collection of my thoughts on the film. This film has been reviewed to an incredible degree on the blogosphere, as is appropriate, and I’m writing this over a week after it came out in the UK, not to mention the two weeks before that when it came out in the US. Thus, this is somewhat less structured than normal, with some reflections on the film more than anything else. There will probably be spoilers, but anyone reading this will have seen the film already (if not blogged about it themselves), so I’m sure I won’t be ruining it for anyone.

I’m not an enormous fan of Superman. I can’t pinpoint the specific reasons, but I haven’t read many stories that have really made me connect with the character. I understand his importance, and I have enjoyed stories in which he has been a part, but I don’t have that primary love for him that is associated with many fans of superhero comic books. It doesn’t help that I don’t particularly like the first Superman movie (which is practically heresy), despite it being a well-made film – I just HATE, HATE, HATE the ending beyond belief, as well as other niggles that are probably to do with my take it or leave it attitude to the Man of Steel. That’s the end of my disclaimer.

Superman Returns is a very good film that I like very much but don’t love. I think that Singer has made essentially a love letter to Superman the character and specifically the movie version. As such, I don’t know if that makes a completely satisfying movie experience, but it is definitely the best cinematic Superman (for me) and it looks fantastic.

Starting with the visuals, the film is beautiful. Singer has taken considerable care to ensure that the screen caresses the eyes with stunning optical opulence. From the beauty of the desolate Smallville farm, to the architectural grandeur of Metropolis, to the alienness of the Fortress of Solitude and the new land mass, no detail is too small. This is shown best in the FX used to create Superman in action – breathtaking visual poetry, capturing the essence of the Superman character the way that Spider-Man the movie captured the way Spider-Man should move in real life. The power, the speed, the flutter of the cape, the heat vision, everything looks exactly as it should do. Perfection.

In fact, for me, this is contributes to the lack of total narrative satisfaction, as we don’t see nearly enough of Superman in all his glory. The set piece with the shuttle and the jumbo jet is so spectacular, it leaves you wanting more of seeing Superman in his element – saving the day, being powerfully superheroic and doing the stuff other superheroes are not equipped to do. It is a compliment to Singer that he can make it so stunning that you want more.

Talking about Superman means talking about Brandon Routh. He is the Superman for our age, perfectly capturing Clark and Kal-el, so I hope he gets the chance to breakout of being typecast, as he does a great job. There is a spooky resemblance to Christopher Reeve, but it doesn’t linger and you can enjoy him in the role. Even the suit worked well in the film, something I wasn’t sure about from the publicity shots. Kevin Spacey is note-perfect as Lex Luthor, the anger, the intelligence, the danger. Kate Bosworth does a nice job as Lois, channelling the feel of Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, but I never really got the feeling that she WAS Lois Lane. I don’t know if it’s because she’s a natural blonde or the youthful face, but it never completely clicked, but she inhabited the role well. The other characters are mostly superfluous, although it was nice to see James Marsden get to do more acting and be on screen more than in both X2 and X-Men 3 combined.

The plot of the film echoed too much of the first film to allow the film stand on its own. I understand that it echoes the modus operandi and goal of Luthor, but it just seemed to be the same idea for the new millennium. Having a ditzy female (Parker Posey in an unusual role) as Luthor’s plaything who feels sympathy for Superman was too reminiscent, although at least she didn’t have to save Superman (thus negating the arc of Superman and his status as hero, a problem I have with the first film). The explanation of Luthor getting out seemed completely silly, but it is only a minor point. Superman saving the day by being Superman was a much more emotionally satisfying climax than the first film, which made me happier. Only it wasn’t the climax, as we had to have the bizarre mumbo jumbo between father and son at the finish.

This emotional ending seemed a little strange (leaving it open for the future films that may or may not happen), but the whole child issue seemed a little strange. It was only a minor point throughout the film (and obviously we have to ignore Larry Niven’s Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex essay), even though the five-year gap meant it was there immediately. I think it was part of the love-letter aspect, Singer giving Superman a son (without the nappy years) and a woman who will always love him (and he her).

There are some wonderful moments in the film (the wonderful tension of Lois, Richard and baby in the yacht as it sinks is stretched to the actual moment where you think that Superman won’t be able to save them; the rapturous applause of the baseball park when he casually places the plane on the field after stopped it from crashing into the park; the heroism of Superman pushing the landmass into orbit while kryptonite crystals are pulsing towards him; Spacey shouting, ‘Wrong!’) that made it a delight to watch and made the two and a half hours fly by (if you’ll pardon the pun). I was humming the John Williams theme all the way home on the tube. My girlfriend, who is more a fan of Superman than I, loved it (and thought Routh was great as Superman), a review that Singer would be happy with, as he fashioned the film to be a ‘chick flick’ (in his words). The gayness thing wasn’t there (what were people going on about?), even if the Jesus thing loomed in the mention of sending his only son and needing a saviour, but not to the detriment of the film. Still, trying to appeal to everybody might be the reason why the film stops short of perfection for me, but how many perfect films are made these days, especially with one of the most recognised icons on the planet? And it was better than Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Definitely the most enjoyable blockbuster I’ve seen all year.

Rating: DAVE

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