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Wednesday, June 28, 2006
It's just too heavy for Superman to lift
As a tyke, Superman II was one of my favorite movies. I had an old VCR copy taped off HBO sometime in the early '80s, which I must have watched at least once a month for years. With the exception of a few ridiculous moments (Superman somehow turning the logo on his chest into a weapon, Superman magically erasing Lois' memory at the end), it's just about as perfect a superhero movie as a preteen dork could hope for.
Then along came a glut of new superhero movies starting with X-Men in 2000, all directed by critically-lauded, filmmakers know for critically-lauded, low budget features. These new cinematic versions of Professor Xavier's mutants, Spiderman, the Hulk, and Batman were a good deal different from the sort of ones you'd find on The Superfriends, the cheesy afternoon cartoon show that introduced a lot of people my age to the DC universe. Pathos and gravitas replaced spandex and all of these films were dead serious, avoiding the campiness of what had came before. Sure, there was Tim Burton's first Batman movies but even those are pretty cheesy in hindsight (the Joker dancing on a parade float to Prince? Please...).
Given the success of all of these blooming franchises, it was obvious another Superman movie was going to appear at some point. The decade-long boondoggle that finally led to Superman Returns has been widely reported and, if you're curious the whole, strange saga is recounted here. It's been 19 years since the last Superman movie with Christopher Reeves and Warner Brothers spent millions bringing the Man of Steel back to movie theaters. No one seems willing to fess up but, given the lengthy production and all the money dropped on previous attempts to jumpstart the franchise, this could be the most expensive movie ever made. Was it all worth it?
Yes and no.
Officially, this isn't a remake or a complete reboot, it's a direct sequel to Superman II. It's a loving tribute to Richard Donner's two Man of Steel movies. The opening credits are just like the ones from those films and director Bryan Singer even resurrected old footage of Marlon Brandon playing Jor-El. Stylistically, Superman Returns is caught somewhere between the '30s and modern times and it looks like a classic comic book. There's even a scene where Superman catches a car and brings it back down earth, striking the same pose that the character did on the cover of his comic book.
They couldn't have found a better guy to play the title role than Brandon Routh and, as much as I can't stand him, Kevin Spacey does make a great Lex Luthor. Superman Returns is a great-looking throwback to the old days with just enough "issues" to bring the character up to speed. While the bittersweet ending effectively paints the developing franchise into a corner, it's a great conclusion for a stand alone movie. If only Reeves had been able to star in this movie back in the day rather than subject himself the comical debacle of Superman III and the ill-fated, low budget Superman IV.
But it's the little things that drag what could have been the best superhero movie ever made down several notches. One problem is Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. She looks all of 18 and there's nothing to her performance. As miscast as Margot Kidder was in the original movies, at least she was sarcastic and plucky like her comic book counterpart. The only time Bosworth makes any attempt to capture Lane's cocky persona is during a scene when she argues with the editor of the Daily Planet. Listening to her throw around phrases like "c'mon, chief" is like watching a little kid play reporter.
From here, I'm going to dive heavy into SPOILER territory. If you haven't seen the movie or plan to, now would be a good time to stop reading.
PAT BOONE SHOWS UP AND THE LAST HALF OF THE MOVIE FOCUSES ENTIRELY ON HIM WRITING A SONG WITH LOIS! Except....not. The comic book above has nothing to do with anything. I just stuck in here to create a break between the non-spoilers and the spoilers.
There are plotholes in this thing big even enough to drive a dozen of the film's space-shuttles through. The most glaring hole, and one that will be long lamented by geeks for years to come, no doubt, is Lex Luthor's big plan to conquer the world and defeat Superman in the process. He sneaks into the Fortress of Solitude and makes off with all of the crystals used to construct the place, planning to use them to create a new continent and destroy most of North and South America.
So what we've got here is another real estate scheme along the lines of the ones Gene Hackman's Luthor launched in the first film. When Lex launches a kryptonite-ladden missile with one of the crystals into the Atlantic, it conjures up a small island, roughly the size of Superman's pad down in Antarctica, instead of the one the size of the Louisiana Purchase he outlined earlier in the film. Even if he tossed in all the crystals, he would get a continent the size of, maybe, Manhattan. This might cause a huge earthquake in Metropolis and some minor flooding on the eastern seaboard but it's hardly going to bring the world to its knees. Plus, Luthor's pint-sized continent is completely uninhabitable and, had his scheme worked, why does he think he would have soul-ownership of all this unusable real-estate? And what's to stop the US government from storming in and easily killing him and his handful of goons with a few missiles? If this guy's a criminal mastermind, why, after five years, could he only come up with a plan that could be foiled by a single army helicopter?
I could keep going but it's obvious that no one out there is reading this. Aside from the plot holes, there's too much going right in this movie for the little details to ruin the whole thing. The cannibal dog, Marlon Brando's monolog, Superman flying up into space and listening for any signs of trouble before blasting back down to Earth, John Williams' old score, Lois saving Superman from death, Superman slowly lowering a plane into the middle of a baseball stadium, the most powerful man in the universe being powerless to get the only thing he wants, a final shot reminiscent of all the ones in the Reeves' saga, that shot of Superman snatching a guy out of mid-air and plopping him on a sidewalk in one swift swoop, the cannibal dog getting its just deserts - all ingredients in a pop classic.
Anyway, for no particular reason, here's where I would rank Superman Returns in the recent glut of superhero franchises:
1. Batman Begins
2. Spiderman 2
3. Superman Returns
4. X Men 2
5. X Men
7. The Hulk
8. Fantastic Four
Oh, and, uh, you should see this site if you haven't already.