Superman Returns fulfills much of the promise of this long-awaited continuation of the series. It just does not do so with as much passion...

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Look, up in the sky! It's a bird. It's a plane...." Great Caesar's ghost, it's more CGI.

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like every new actor playing Superman is younger than the one before him. Director Bryan Singer said he wanted a relative unknown playing the new Superman because he was trying to make the character an Everyman, a super man of the people. But it seems as though he chose somebody who looked as much as possible like Christopher Reeve. And, indeed, the new guy, Brandon Routh, not only looks like Reeve, he is almost exactly the same age as Reeve when Reeve took on the part. It's just that somehow Routh looks younger. Never mind, too, that neither Reeve nor Routh look much like the comic-book Superman. Apparently, that's beside the point. Both men are tall, handsome, dark-haired, and athletic. In 2006 as in 1978, the two actors undoubtedly appeal to young people, which is all that matters.

Yes, the new "Superman Returns" movie flies. It just doesn't soar. Not only does Routh remind one too much of Reeve, there is a feeling throughout "Superman Returns" of having seen the whole film before. Whereas last year's "Batman Begins" reinvented the main character, prompting viewers to want to watch it more than once, "Superman Returns" feels like once is enough. Where "Batman Begins" was fresh, "Superman Returns" is mostly more of the same, though for the most part, it's almost enough. What's more, the movie boasts some excellent special effects, and it comes packaged in one of WB's bonus-laden Two-Disc Special Editions.

So, what's the same about it? According to the new film, Superman has been away from Earth for five years, and when he returns, it's to his adopted mom's farm, just as before, crashing into a field. Eva Marie Saint takes over the job of the mother, Martha Kent, since in reality it has been some twenty-eight years since we saw Phyllis Thaxter in the Reeve "Superman" movie. Then, a correspondingly similar roster of familiar characters shows up to fill out the rest of the film: the love interest, Lois Lane, the villain, Lex Luthor, the Man of Steel's actual father, Jor-El (Marlon Brando in archive, digital footage), newspaper editor Perry White, and reporter Jimmy Olsen.

Moreover, the new movie's structure almost exactly duplicates the 1978 entry. Superman comes (returns) to Earth. He reunites with his foster mom. He takes up his old job at the Daily Planet. He begins saving lives and keeping people out of mischief. His dual identity as Clark Kent and Superman continues to give him romantic trouble as Lois still sees Clark as a dork. Lex Luthor is back on the loose, having been released from prison on a technicality, and he's up to his usual no good (actually, worse than ever, about to kill billions of people with a cockamamie scheme that will destroy most of North America). Kryptonite continues to play a big part in the goings on, and everything ends with the notion of a continuation in the near future. Oh, and the heroic musical themes that John Williams gave us in '78 again underline many key scenes.

OK, so what's new about the film? New actors in key roles create a slightly different perspective. Kate Bosworth is the current Lois Lane, and Lois is now a mother with a five-year-old son in tow, plus a new love, Richard White (James Marsden), the nephew of the Daily Planet's editor. Although this situation makes the Clark Kent-Superman-Lois Lane relationship more complex than before, Bosworth seems less interesting and less involved with any of the other characters than Margot Kidder was. Interestingly, too, even though five years are supposed to have gone by since the last time we saw Lois, Ms. Bosworth is actually about seven years younger than Kidder was when Kidder first played the role. Well, this is a fantasy, after all, and I guess in fantasies it's possible for people to get younger as the years go on.

Kevin Spacey is the new Lex Luthor, and he plays it straighter than Gene Hackman did. Luthor is now more seriously menacing, less a cartoon character, and practically steals the show. I'm not suggesting Spacey is any better than Hackman in the role, just different enough to give "Superman Returns" some edge, and a needed life and energy. Parker Posey plays Luthor's girlfriend, Kitty Kowalski, replacing Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine in one fell swoop and doing a good job at it as a semi-comic foil to Spacey's deadpan Luthor. And Frank Langella and Sam Huntington do respectable jobs as Editor-in-Chief Perry White and the young reporter Olsen.

This time out, the film portrays Superman more than ever as a Savior of Mankind, with Jor-El more than ever a god. It's not just the same Jor-El voice-over that helps create this mood but the fact that Superman's super powers are more super than they've ever been. Not only can he stop speeding jet planes, he can carry an entire continent into outer space (don't ask--you gotta see it).

Then there's that five-year-old, little Jason White (Tristan Lake Leabu), to contend with. He turns out to be the most enigmatic character in the film, his personality both sweet and mysterious, and again we can smell sequel written all over him as well as the rest of the movie.

Here's the thing: In his previous big film, director Bryan Singer infused "X-Men 2" with a heart and soul I thought were missing from the first "X-Men" movie, and it's clear he tried to do the same here. "Superman Returns" has its fair share of thrills, including an extraordinary sequence early on involving a shuttle craft and a jet airliner, but it also has long stretches of character interaction and dialogue, things you don't always see or expect in an action-adventure film. Some of it works, and some of it doesn't. While the Superman-Lois Lane relationship opens out nicely, an extended sequence at the film's climax with a "Snow White" ending tends to go on much too long.

In the last analysis, "Superman Returns" fulfills much of the promise of this long-awaited continuation of the series. It just does not do so with as much passion as most of us remember from the first Christopher Reeve outing. Even if the new CGI graphics are terrific, they aren't quite as awe-inspiring as those older visuals, perhaps because we've seen so much of this computer-generated work by now that we're all getting harder to impress. Nor do the characters leave one with as much sense of wonder and satisfaction as the old characters did. What's more, at over two-and-a-half hours, the film seems to drag on forever, especially during that last half hour I mentioned. More is not always better.

Trivia notes: Noel Neill, the movies' and television's original Lois Lane, and Jack Larson, television's original Jimmy Olsen, both have bit parts in "Superman Returns," Neill playing Gertrude Vanderworth and Larson playing a bartender. It's a touching tribute, much as was the casting of Kirk Allyn, the movies' original Superman, and Ms. Neill in the Reeve "Superman" movie as young Lois Lane's parents.

What I remember most about this movie's picture quality in a motion-picture theater was its crystalline clarity, shot as it was with a new Panasonic Genesis HD camera. However, I also remember it not looking entirely natural because it seemed too glossy, clean, and flat. Now that it's transferred to disc in a high-bit-rate, anamorphic widescreen measuring about 2.20:1 across my television, I notice there is a tad more delicate grain in the DVD picture than I noticed in the theater. Fortunately, it tends to give the digital image a little more texture and realism, so I can't complain. Yet despite the new camera's higher resolution and the best standard-definition DVD transfer possible, there is a soft, muted look about the proceedings compared to conventional photography. So, while the video is fine, I'm not entirely happy with it.

I have no complaints about the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. It has a strong impact, the opening explosion just about jolting a person out of his seat. There is also a very wide stereo spread and pinpoint directionality in the surrounds, producing a sound field that envelopes the listener 360 degrees. Include some deep bass and wide dynamics, and you get an impressive sonic experience.

Given that this is a very long movie done up at a very high bit rate, the first disc in this Two-Disc Special Edition is given over entirely to the film. Along with it are forty-one scene selections (but no chapter insert), English and Spanish spoken languages, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Disc two contains only four bonus items, but the first one is a doozy. It's the documentary "Requiem for Krypton: Making Superman Returns," and it's two hours and fifty-three minutes long! For convenience, it's divided into five parts, which can be played individually or all at once: "Secret Origins and First Issues: Crystallizing Superman," "The Crystal Method: Designing Superman," "An Affinity for Beachfront Property: Shooting Superman," "The Joy of Lex: Menacing Superman," and "He's Always Around: Wrapping Superman." The documentary takes us step by step through the entire moviemaking process with the filmmakers and actors, and it is probably more than anybody needs to know. Frankly, much of it seemed trivial to me. The second item is a brief, three-minute featurette, "Resurrecting Jor-El," about digitalizing Marlon Brando's old shots for the new film. The third item is a series of deleted scenes, totaling about fourteen minutes, all of it in anamorphic widescreen and some of it with strings attached. Finally, there are trailers for "Superman Returns" and other Superman-related materials. The dual, slim-line keep case is housed in an attractive and handsomely embossed slipcover.

Parting Shots:
I dunno. Maybe I'm just an old fogey living in the past, but even though I enjoyed "Superman Returns," I did not find it anything I'd want to watch again very soon. Certainly, the filmmakers wanted to recall and pay homage to the Reeve series in particular, but I found far too much of the new movie utterly predictable, as though the filmmakers had gone too far in their attempts to evoke nostalgia for the old pictures, with the few innovations they created not quite innovative enough. Still, it is probably adequate to keep purists happy and new fans occupied.


Film Value