Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Superman Returns - Movie Review

Superman Returns 2006

We have another confession to make. We have been huge fans of Superman since the Man of Steel burst from the pages of Action Comics # 1 sixty eight years ago this summer. And since then he has become the archetype of the superhero in bright tights saving the world from despotic villains and crackpot megalomaniacs. While the latest incarnation “Superman Returns” is hardly the first time we have seen a live action portrayal of the famed Superman from Krypton, it is the first major motion picture to feature the most famous of all heroes in almost twenty years.

So, of course that means to the bean counters in charge, a whole new franchise is opening up with the latest re-imagining, helmed by Bryan Singer and featuring a lead turn by our future husband, relative newbie Brandon Routh as Supes. Although, our boy Brandon is hardly the first hunk to slap on the famed pair of tights.
Superman made his live action debut way back in 1939 at the famous World’s Fair held right in our beloved New York City. How well we remember traipsing betwixt the Trylon and the Perisphere with our gal pal Lottie Hinkelgruber, when Lottie let out a shriek that could blindside a mule once she cast her peepers on that hambone actor Ray Middleton, dressed as the Man of Tomorrow!

The movies would discover the eternal appeal of a buff man in a flowing cape with Kirk Alyn as Supes and Noel Neill as Lois Lane, headlining the popular 1940s movie serial, thrilling youngsters with their daring exploits.

George Reeves would take over for the early 1950s film and television appearances, with Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane in the first season prior to Noel Neill reclaiming her trademark role as the plucky girl reporter and shameless man chaser.

From animated shorts to newspaper comic strips to the Great White Way, the adventures of the last son of Krypton would firmly enter the realm of mythology by the time Richard Donner directed the now legendary major motion picture debut in 1978. Starring a veritable who’s who of Oscar friendly stars and penned by Mario Puzo of all people, the film launched the career of the then unknown Christopher Reeve who would come to be recognized the world over as the Superman for the Ages.

Television again hosted the next generation of Superman’s exploits with Dean Cain and media whore Teri Hatcher playing media whore Lois Lane in “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”. And the Superboy franchise would finally begin to take off with the 1980s television show featuring John Haymes Newton and later Gerard Christopher as the Boy of Steel.

But it would take the strapping hunky charms of Tom Welling as the WB’s teenage heartthrob Clark Kent in “Smallville” to finally establish a successful tween market.

To most fanboys and moviegoers the world over, the late Christopher Reeve will always be their cinematic Superman. The latest film is dedicated to his memory and one can sense Bryan Singer’s admiration throughout. And we applaud that. Both “Superman” and “Superman II” recreated the world of the comic book icon and transformed the legend to cinematic terms that worked beautifully. The casting of Christopher Reeve in the title role and a pre-dumpster diving Margot Kidder as Lois Lane was not only spot on – but magical in many moments. What the first two films did so well was establish a world filled with the possibility that a man could indeed fly.

Bryan Singer sets his revamp, if you will five years after the second film. Maintaining many visual references, included a resurrected ghostly image and voiceover by the late Marlon Brando who once again appears as Superman’s father, Jor-El. From the opening credits, which pay homage their cinematic forefather to the famous theme composed by John Williams almost thirty years ago – this film sets out to bask in the celluloid Superman legacy.

It is therefore with a mixed reaction of pleasure and remorse that we admit they almost succeed in supplanting the famed 70s version. Bryan Singer was correct in ditching the “X-Men” franchise for the opportunity to plant his moniker on the big red one. (Metaphorically speaking, get your minds out of the gutter.) His grandiose dreams and attention to detail are to be applauded. From the famed costumes wink to its origins in the 1930s, to the gravitas he manages to infuse the dazzling flight sequences with – here is a director that has every intention to get every damn shot right. The pity is when he fails, and that is more in the wandering script choices and lackluster central storyline.

The casting thankfully succeeds surprisingly well, but never manages to equal the chemistry supplied by the originals. Brandon Routh may not be winning any Oscars for his portrayal, but then again neither was Mr. Reeves. What is needed for the role of Superman is less of great acting talent and more of an imposing physique and presence. Mr. Routh has both, and is only missing that extra quality that brought Christopher Reeve such long lasting fame. Star quality. Although he does handle the Clark Kent charmingly doofus persona in a deft manner.

As Superman’s most famed arch nemesis, Lex Luthortwo time Oscar winner, Kevin Spacey alternates from oozing smarmy evil to full out scenery chewing. Which is of course precisely what the role requires. What else would we expect from a grown man whose hatred of a flying muscled hunk borders on being a knife wielding stalker. (Or Kryptonite shard wielding stalker as the case may be.)
And as the long suffering but resourceful Lois Lane, Kate Bosworth dyes her trademark blonde tresses and provides a nicely modulated if not stellar turn. At first we were hesitant of her casting, picturing her to be more the Sandra Dee type she eschewed well enough in Spacey’s Bobby Darin biopic. She manages to maintain the believability required to sell the fantasy, although we question her being old enough to be the mother of the five year old child she now has. (Was she all of eighteen when Superman left for the final frontier?)

The supporting players are an uneven gang of vets and newbies. On the veteran front we have Frank Langella’s majestically imposing editor-in-chief portrayal of Perry White. Worlds away from the desk pounding, cigar chomping stock character in the comics that was nailed spot on in the original by famed child actor turned character pro, Jackie Cooper.

As Supes / Clark’s devotedly doting foster mother, Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint brings her considerable talent to bear on the tenderest scenes back on the old homestead.

And as Superman’s nerdy, camera toting bestest pal, Jimmy Olsen - Sam Huntington rarely rises above collegiate acting requirements, but is thankfully brief in his attempts at humor. (And that camera ain't helping those "Gay Superman / Phallic Symbol" internet rumors, any.) In contrast, it was lovely to see the 1950s TV Jimmy Olsen - Jack Larson in a brief cameo as a neighborhood bartender.

The real surprise here is Parker Posey as Luthor’s moll. Taking a tip from Valerie Perrine in the 70s version, she brings a degree of sexy malignancy coupled with a completely unnecessary wardrobe culled from central casting circa 1946: veils, furs, chunky heels and lapdog. And most shocking of all, manages to pull it off! (Not the wardrobe, you pervs.) Clutching a bottle of Grey Goose (A gal after our own heart, that Kitty Kowalski!), and juggling a martini glass overbrimming with stuffed olives her performance could easily have transgressed into full on camp mode, but she manages to pull it in long enough to deliver her requisite zingers and a nice touch of emotion. Brava, Parker!

We were thrilled to see the original cape chasing girl reporter, Noel Neill from the 1940s appear in a well done cameo as the fabulously wealthy invalid who falls hook line and sinker for Lex’s scheme to finance his latest plot to conquer the world. And in a bizarre twist or homage to the original, this too involves a real estate scheme. Albeit an alien-technology-misabused-to-destroy-the-North-American-Eastern-Shoreline-reality-scheme, but in a comic book flick . . . why not?

What Bryan Singer does exceedingly well in this movie is to frame the action sequences and special effects in general with a gravity and force that is truly equal to the Man of Steel’s famed reputation. And this film relies on the strength of the Superman myth and our belief that he is the epitome of a super-hero. For when the film begins, Superman has been missing for five years. We learn he has gone to investigate the possible existence of the remains of his long dead homeworld, Krypton. Upon his return, he attempts to ease back into his life as “a mild-mannered” reporter by day, superhero by trade.

Unfortunately for our hero, his heart is bruised to find his beloved Lois in a relationship with the finely chiseled but sadly wasted James Marsden as Perry White’s nephew. Supes is also a tad mystified at the appearance of a five year old boy, who calls Lois mommy but is not quite sure who his daddy might be. Hmmmmm. Shades of “Lace”? Even worse for our high flying guy is the plot hatched by Lex Luthor to use Superman’s own Kryptonian technology to conquer the world. While Bryan Singer does an admirable job in attempting to balance the soap opera “who’s your daddy” storyline with the “War of the Worlds” scenario, they both ultimately play second fiddle to the bigger show. Superman himself.

For this film to succeed, we need to believe in the power of a man who can fly, shoot laser beams (Okay, you fanboy nerds, “Heat Vision” – there, are you happy now?) and x-rays from his baby blues, toss airplanes around like ping pong balls and still find time to save kittens stuck up in a tree. When it comes to the special effects, the film is dazzling. The flight scenes, in particular the ones at night have a gorgeous look and believability to them. The midair rescue of an endangered airplane is breathtaking in its camera angles and judicious editing. It is only in the plotting of Earth shattering events, that the film begins to resemble a lost episode from the Dean Cain years. We simply don’t care about Lex’s evil ploy. Sure, he’ll wipe out millions of lives but all for the sake of beachfront property? Jesus, Lex. Just buy a share in the Pines with Bryan, Jack and Dame Ian and call it a day.

The saving grace is Bryan Singer’s ability to keep a film moving along at a brisk pace, and despite the two and a half hour running time we were never bored. And certainly with the delicious Brandon Routh and some solid supporting work, the actors meshed well enough with their comic book counterparts to sell the material. The only thing missing was the sense of grandeur of the original or those wonderful goose-pimply feelings of watching the legend come to life. Like we felt way back in 1978. We did indeed believe “a man can fly”. Or maybe it was the LSD? Who knows? While we admire Bryan for his gumption and some of his past work, what the Superman mythos really needed was a director like Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg – one that can handle the digital effects, imbue the film with high powered action sequences and the all important sense of awe. Here, like Supes’ Clark Kent persona we just kind of felt “awwww, shucks”. Bless you all!

Brandon Routh as Clark Kent / Superman
Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor
Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane
James Marsden as Richard White
Parker Posey as Kitty Kowalski
Frank Langella as Perry White
Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen
Eva Marie Saint as Martha Kent
Tristan Lake Leabu as Jason White
Jack Larson as Bo the Bartender
Noel Neill as Gertrude Vanderworth
Stephan Bender as Young Clark Kent

Directed by Bryan Singer
Screenplay by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris
Story by Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris
Superman created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster

Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel
Film Editing by Elliot Graham & John Ottman
Original Music by John Ottman
Superman’s Theme by John Williams
Art Direction by Hugh Bateup, Damien Drew, Lawrence A. Hubbs, Catherine Mansill, John Pryce-Jones & Charlie Revai
Set Decoration by Brian Dusting
Costume Design by Louise Mingenbach


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