7.05.2006

Superman Returns, for good

Superman ReturnsSuperman Returns is more than a film; it is a work of renovation. There is perhaps no pop culture icon as familiar, as pervasive, as universal as Superman. He is a Christ figure, a Golem, an √úbermensch who has been alternately fighting for "truth, justice, and the American way" since 1938, when Franklin Roosevelt was starting only his second term. While this film, and this Superman, is unlikely to make anyone forget his earlier incarnations, Bryan Singer does manage to renovate the filmic career of one of America's most enduring, and longest suffering, icons.

Mr. Singer left the thriving franchise he helped create in X-Men and X-2: X-Men United to help revive one of comicdom's more moribund properties. The risks were many, but the possible reward, in both the artistic and monetary sense, was great. How do you resurrect a film franchise whose last entry, nearly twenty years old, reviled and forgotten, was described by its star as "simply a catastrophe from start to finish"? Mr. Singer's answer was to take the whole thing back where it started. Singer essentially hits the Reset button, pretends the third and fourth film never happened, and loosely picks up where Superman II left off.

Singer's reliance on elements from the first two Superman films is so heavy, it lumbers past "homage" and borders on "remake." John Williams' score? Check. Whooshing title sequence? Bingo. Marlon Brando? Correctamundo. It goes even further. When Superman saves a plane from crashing, he tells the passengers the same line Christopher Reeve said to Margot Kidder in the first film, that flying is still the safest way to travel, statistically speaking. When Lex Luthor asks his moll to repeat what his father once told him, she replies, "Get out." When Superman crash-lands in the field behind the Kent farm, his spaceship is the same kind of pointy-star spaceship that he arrived in as a baby, only bigger. When Superman glides past the screen high above the Earth at the end of the picture, Brandon Routh seems to just barely restrain himself from flashing the audience the kind of knowing grin Christopher Reeve once did at the end of his Superman films. All that's missing, strangely, is the "S" on the back of his cape.

The effect of all this is to make Superman Returns a work of cinematic restoration. The Superman film franchise is like a house: it's got some fine craftsmanship, nice woodwork and trim, spacious rooms, a big yard. But the previous tenants painted all the woodwork sparkly gold, put up drop ceilings and track lighting in all the rooms, and installed a tiki bar in the backyard. The Superman franchise has character galore, but it's a fixer-upper.

Previous efforts at revitalizing the franchise have been memorably disasterous. Tim Burton and Nicholas Cage were once slated to pick it up. I remember hearing that they wanted Superman's suit to be all-white, and that he would fly as though he were standing upright. And they were going to kill Superman. Gee boys, aren't you clever? They got about twenty million for their troubles. I remember seeing Kevin Smith on a late-nite show talking about penning a Superman script, and saying that the producers wanted him to throw in elements that would sell Superman toys, so he went and wrote a scene where Superman wrestles some polar bears outside the Fortress of Solitude. Somewhere along the way there came the idea to film "Batman vs. Superman," but the Batman franchise was faring just as poorly, thanks to one Joel Schumacher and his leather fetish. The producers then went and tried to find some of the worst directors they could find to helm the revival: first Brett Ratner, and then McG. Ratner was fired after sinking another twenty million into development, and then ironically, was tabbed to direct X3 after Mr. Singer left to direct Superman Returns. McG, best known for unleashing Charlie's Angels parts one and two on the unwitting public, was all set to start filming, and then backed out because he was afraid of flying, and didn't want to fly to Australia. When the inevitable chatter comes along pointing to Superman Returns as a disappointment ticket-wise, it's important to remember that about sixty million dollars went into a bunch of guys doin' nothin'. One should also factor in the fact that, for expediency's sake, a lot of the preproduction work done by Messers. Ratner and McG was handed to Mr. Singer, which makes his resume as a renovator even more sterling when one studies the results.

Though there's no clear figure as to just how much Superman Returns really cost to make, suffice it to say that the balance is reflected nicely on screen. Superman has never flied as fast as he does in this film. Every setpiece is, in fanboy terms, awesome. If you once believed a man can fly, you'll also believe he can bench-press a small continent.

Singer's decision to recycle so many elements of the first two Superman films is a move that could have been seen as cannibalism. Yet it needed to be done, both to remind us just how awesome it once was to see Superman flying across the big screen, and to help us forget how awful his latter incarnations were.

Christopher Reeve as SupermanIt features scene-stealing turns from Kevin Spacey and Parker Posey. Kate Bosworth is no Margot Kidder, for what that's worth, but she doesn't embarass herself. Similarly, Brandon Routh seems unable to make us forget Christopher Reeve. I believe that speaks less about the merits or faults of Routh's performance, and more about how great Reeve was as the Man of Steel. Though it haunted him throughout his career, Reeve wore the red cape better than any Superman before or since, and to his eternal credit, played the comedic everyman Clark Kent to clumsy perfection.

Maybe it's because he was the Superman I grew up with, but I just can't think of Superman without thinking of Christopher Reeve. His injury and death were the definition of tragedy, but it is clear that the tarnishing of the Superman image, though no fault of his own, was a tragedy as well for the actor. His ghost hangs over this film, and likely will in all subsequent ones.

On that note, I sincerely hope that there will be another return of Superman. Sure, it could have stood some more stringent editing. Sure, Bosworth's Lane is rather two-dimensional, and Routh's Kent has little more to do than stand around moping and waiting to bust out of his three-piece suit. Again, one should remember the baggage Singer had to carry going in that he inherited from previous, ahem, directors such as one McG. Consider also that X-Men suffered from the same sort of tentative awkwardness that occasionally muddies this film, but never fatally so. Then realize that Singer's X-2 was an unbound triumph, and his work conceiving X-3 was so strong, even Brett Ratner could hardly ruin it. Superman Returns is just less than a great film, but Superman is a great hero who deserved much better than he has gotten in the last few decades, and this film goes a long way towards reversing that injustice. With any luck, Singer will return to prove that Superman, once and for all, is here to stay.

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