Superman Returns Far Sharper than "Steel"

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With Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel due to open on big screens at 12:01 AM Friday morning, it remains to be seen if it will be a box office success.  Of course, “success” is a relative term as the film carries a pricetag of $225 million and though reports claim up to $170 million in product placements (!?!) helped defer some of those costs, experts say the movie will have to bring in anywhere from $500 - $750 million globally to turn a profit.  While we wait to see if the public embraces this new look at the Man of Tomorrow, it seems as though the critical consensus is already taking shape.  At the Rotten Tomatoes website, where an aggregate rating for a movie is determined after hundreds of critics weigh in, the film is getting 59% positive reviews, with nearly 100 more critics yet to post their opinions.  60% is the cut-off line as far as if the site gives a film an overll recommendation or not, and while it will be interesting what the final percentage of positive and negative reviews will be, I’d be willing to bet that Warner Brothers Studios, which put up the lion’s share of the film’s budget, is less than thrilled that such a major investment for them is overall getting lukewarm reviews.

I found the film to be a cold, special effects exercise lacking in wit, charm and wonder (, so much so that I ended up going back to watch the one Superman film that I thought everyone missed the boat on, a movie that, though flawed, captured the sense of awe and humanity inherent to this icon that Snyder’s film ignores.

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The hype surrounding Superman Returns (2006) was just as big as it has been for this current incarnation yet from a fan’s point of view, there seemed to be more riding on this film than Steel.  We hadn’t had a good movie featuring the character since 1980 with Superman II , as the two sequels that followed embraced parody over spectacle and the franchise ended up dying a slow and ignoble death.  Stoking the fire of great expectations was the fact that Bryan Singer was at the helm and what with the success of the first two X-Men films behind him as well as having made The Usual Suspects, it seemed as though the Last Son of Krypton was in good hands.  And from my point of view, that proved to be the case as Singer’s film gives the character the reverence it deserves, going out of its way to strike a mythical tone, much in the same way Richard Donner did with Superman: The Movie.

As Returns unfolds we learn that Superman has been gone for nearly six years, his whereabouts unknown.  In the meantime, the citizens of Earth have learned to adapt to a world without a guardian angel, though those close to him have had some difficulty making the adjustment.  Ma Kent (Eva Marie Saint) has struggled not having her son near, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been serving a five-year prison term due to the failure of his scheme to destroy California, while Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), now a single mom with a five year-old son, has soldiered on. The fact that she has recently won the Pulitzer Prize for her piece entitled “Why the World Doesn’t need Superman,” pretty much sums up how she feels.

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However, everything is thrown into turmoil when Superman (Brandon Routh, on his way to unjustly becoming the George Lazenby of the franchise) returns in spectacular fashion, saving an airplane that is falling from the sky, set to land nose-first in the middle of a major league baseball game.  Luthor, just released from prison, kicks his latest plan for world domination into high gear, while Lois has to contend with her repressed feelings, much to the chagrin of her current beau Richard White (James Marsden).

For my money, the airplan rescue is still the best action sequence in any of the modern superhero films.  It has an epic scale to it, attention is given to the most minute detail (check out how metal of the plane’s fuselage ripples as our hero arrests its fall) and is filmed and edited in such a way that you can follow the action and drink in what an incredible feat you are witnessing.  While this is the movie’s main set piece, the rest of the action is well done, primarily because of their scale and the fact that Superman is always seen as being so physically small in them that what is taking place takes on a sense of grandeur.

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The cast Singer assembled is equally good and all worthy of bringing new life to these iconic characters.  Spacey has great fun as Luthor, biting off his lines with barely held contempt and bringing a sense of ruthlessness and menace that makes him seem more of a threat than Gene Hackman’s interpretation.  And while I had my reservations about Bosworth as Lois Lane, she does a fine job bringing the tough, plucky woman to life, not just because she’s convincing as an ambitious professional but that she gets us to sympathize with the character’s confusion regarding her love for an alien who left her high and dry.  As for Routh, he got the short end of the stick where his efforts are concerned.  Charming, self-effacing, genuine and every bit the hero, he is second only to Christopher Reeve in regards to tapping into the humanity and morality of the character.  There’s not a bit of cheese in his performance as he is thoroughly convincing when he sets off to sacrifice himself for a race he is desperate to save and earn back their trust.

To be sure the film is not without its flaws and the problem is that they are not minor quibbles but major structural problems.  Singer is so enamored with Superman: The Movie and Superman II that he puts his own work in the shadow of these films to such an extent that he can never escape them.  Not only is John Williams’ score from those two movies used here but lines of dialogue are repeated while heavy-handed allusions to them abound.  This prevents Returns from wholly putting its own distinctive mark on the franchise and the character.  While I do not know for sure, I’d be willing to bet that Singer told Routh to model his own performance after Reeve, which immediately paints the actor into a corner and does him a huge disservice.

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Perhaps the biggest problem viewers had with the film was the plot twist – which isn’t much of surprise – that was the most risky narrative turn in the movie, one that would have had huge ramifications for the mythos of the character had this story been continued.  While some labeled it as a cheap twist, I couldn’t help but think it was an inspiring move.  To those who have objections with this plot point, I say this: "You’re charged with reinventing an American icon who has been around for nearly 70 years for a new generation and making him relevant again.  What do you do?"  At the very least, Singer and his crew didn't play it safe when they were left with this question.

Like it or hate it, this story strand is far more daring than anything in Snyder’s film, which makes the error of mistaking destruction for spectacle and fails to understand that a connection must be made between the audience and the story’s hero or all of the peril you put him in means nothing.  Do yourself a favor, avoid the crowds at the multiplex, save yourself a ton of money and rent Superman Returns to watch from the comfort of your own home this weekend. You’ll find yourself amazed, amused, entertained and, most importantly, moved in a way that Man of Steel fails mightily to deliver on.

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