Superman Returns (2006) — The forgotten Supes entry

“You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one.”

Kyle’s rating: Just as I felt obligated to apologize to my date, I apologize to you if you happened to sit through this

Kyle’s review: There is a definite sense that Bryan Singer can do no wrong when it comes to superhero films. At least among some fans and critics, that is. Depending on who you talk to or what you read, Superman Returns was some combination of any of the following:

  • An excellent updating of Superman that utilized a perfect mix of the source comic books and universally-adored Superman and Superman II (at least the portions of II that are Richard Donner’s)
  • A box office disappointment
  • Completely boring and too slavishly devoted to emulating Richard Donner’s films
  • Financially satisfying, when you take foreign receipts, DVD sales, and merchandising into the equation
  • Too long
  • Too short
  • Stolen by both/either Lex Luthor and Kitty Kowalski
  • Totally lame

So, yeah. It’s totally up to you how many and which descriptors you care to assemble to communicate your feelings about Superman Returns. Just be careful to whom you tell your opinion to, because this is another one of those movies that can easily spark a heated debate between casual fans and die-hard Reeve-worshippers and Singer-apologists. And by “heated debate” I mean a “kung fu showdown to the death, or until the naysayer whimperingly admits Superman Returns rules!”

The realm of Superman movies, and the practice of reviewing them or simply talking about them, operates with a completely different and fairly unique set of rules. Not only in comparison to other superhero franchises, but in comparison to almost every other film series that exists. Part of that is Superman’s iconic status as a comic book character, another part is the nostalgic and revered place he tends to hold in many grown-ups’ childhood memories (see: the Super Powers action figure collection, among others).

Mixed inexorably with these elements, and ultimately casting a massive shadow over the whole shebang, is Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman and his real-life tragedy. To so many people, Reeve is Superman, much more powerfully than Sean Connery is James Bond for some. It’s no wonder Singer, already admittedly a fan of Reeve, Donner, and their Superman films, approached idolatry in discussing Reeve’s Superman. To do anything less would have probably offended legions of fans and geeks, already feeling trepidation about a Superman sequel, let alone a sequel purported to follow Superman II as though III and IV never really happened. Was such a thing possible? If so, should it be done?

Personally, I’ve never bought into the arguments that say Superman is too powerful a character to write comics about, let alone to star in movies. Absolute physical power is extremely impressive, yes, but there are plenty of ways to challenge such capabilities in ways that could lead to fascinating stories, both written and filmed. And that’s just Earthbound possibilities: As Superman himself is an alien, that opens the doors for any type of alien race as an antagonist. So when I hear the argument that Superman is too powerful to deal with, I tend to doubt the speaker’s belief in the powers of imagination. There are multiple ways to make a logically-sound and exciting story where Superman is the underdog, so when I heard about a new Superman film with Bryan Singer at the helm, despite my misgiving about his critical and financial blockbuster X-films I knew that he could easily come through with a polished and thrilling work cementing Superman as a powerful and iconic character.

I’m still waiting for the film that will really elevate Superman to iconic heights, at least in a story sense. I think Reeve’s performance and John Williams’ absolutely brilliant Superman theme are responsible for the perceived greatness of the celebrated Donner films and all those misty-eyed nostalgic memories people are carrying around. As an unrepentant comics geek, I have no problem saying that there are plenty of comic book stories out there that completely eclipse any existing Superman film in terms of exhilarating plotting and creative use of Superman and his powers, so I understand why Superman is such a revered character. Although I was naturally pessimistic about it, I still believed that Singer’s Superman Returns could be good. Maybe even great. If it drew on the established greatness in the comics that made Superman such an attractive figure for film adaptation.

To finally get to the actual review: Superman Returns is mostly disappointing. I say that very apologetically, because I have friends who actually followed through on the prediction that they would cry while watching the movie. They saw something here that they were able to connect with, in an emotional sense, that allowed them to say without any trace of irony, that Superman Returns was “good.”

I personally didn’t see it. Like I said, when the movie was over, I turned to the girl who had graciously accepted my last-minute invitation to see a sneak preview of Superman Returns and told her quite truthfully that if I could somehow return to her the three hours of her life that had just been wasted, I would. Laughing, she told me it was no big deal and that she sort of enjoyed it. Thankfully, I had had enough fun during the evening (and admittedly during portions of the film) that I was able to not immediately scrunch up my face and be all “Wait, you liked that? Why?”

It sounds like a conundrum, but allow me to explain. During the first few minutes of Superman Returns, specifically during the wonderful title credits, I had an unabashed gleeful grin on my face. I flashed back to childhood battles where teams of figures comprised of a hundred different toy lines (yes, I was a spoiled child) were just about to be vanquished by Skeletor, Cobra Commander, Darkseid, and endless forces of evil when Superman shook off the effects of that awesome piece of kryptonite that came with Lex Luthor’s Lex-Soar 7 (or Batman drove in with his Batmobile and liberated Superman) and turned the tide back to justice. So when my friends report any kind of tears, I know exactly where they’re coming from. In a lot of ways, I envy them for being able to sustain those good and vulnerable vibrations that I felt during the titles. Their experience of the film was obviously quite different from my own.

But at the same time, I feel sorry for people who loved or even liked Superman Returns. Ultimately, it’s an uninspired effort that at its best echoes past films, and whose only real new contribution to the Superman mythos is something I don’t care to spoil, not because I particularly care about your viewing experience (I do and I don’t, you dig?) but because I’m anxious to forget it.

Oh, and if you had never made the connection between Superman and Jesus Christ, this film points it out to you. Many, many times. I’m not sure which was more blatant: Superman Returns’ constant reminders that Superman is the savior, or Spider-Man 2’s singular yet Passion of the Christ-hearkening scene on the train, where Peter (as my friend e puts is) briefly “dies for your sins, Octavius!”

Yeah, that’s all I’ve got. The cast was lame; Kevin Spacey was a good Luthor, and Parkey Posey was an amusing henchwoman. But other than a few noteworthy scenes, nothing else sticks out as being remotely memorable. I was more blown away by Brandon Routh in an interview I saw him in a week or so before the movie, where I noticed how eerily similar he sounded to Christopher Reeve. Otherwise, I guess he did an adequate job as an emo stalker Superman. But it isn’t the sort of Superman I care to see. I did like Lois Lane’s black toenail polish. Nice choice, Lois!

In case you want to just write off my opinion as untrustworthy or biased, here’s a nice out for you: I’d recommend Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s bi-monthly comic series All-Star Superman over this film, for its superior take on the iconic Superman and his similarly iconic supporting staff, from Jimmy Olson to Lois Lane to Perry White. The film labors, arguably much too hard, to be not only great but great in the exact same way Donner’s Superman film was. 28 years after Donner’s film, we needed a little more innovation in a Superman film, not a polished yet dedicated remake that seemed to hope against hope that everyone had forgotten the original film so this would seem fresh and new.

Sue’s rating: Christopher, I miss ya.

Sue’s review: I have absolutely nothing against Brandon Routh. He seems like a fine and upstanding young citizen on the planet Earth. I’m glad he’s here. I think he’s actually quite adorable.

I also think he looks — marginally — like jail bait. I know he’d be carded in most quality drinking establishments. Granted he’s well beyond the age of consent, for practically anything short of applying to the AARP, but he looks… young. Or maybe I’m old.

Anyway, therein lies my first problem. Superman shouldn’t look like jailbait.

My second problem is a little less nitpicky and a lot more emotional.

I miss Christopher Reeve.

Of course various incarnations of Superman were around long before Christopher Reeve got the cape and varsity letter, even in live-action. I know this. Heck, I even vaguely remember watching reruns (RERUNS, I SAID, NOT ORIGINALS) of the George Reeves episodes on television when I was a kid. It’s just that when I was growing up, and through my teen years, Superman was Christopher Reeve and Christopher Reeve was Superman. It wasn’t for one movie, it was for four. You form attachments. Even when the joy is gone, the acting is mediocre and the dialogue coaching job has apparently been taken over by a small chimpanzee with a lisp, you form attachments.

Now maybe, if Reeve hadn’t suffered a life-altering, and ultimately life-ending tragedy, I wouldn’t be quite so disconcerted as I am, but, for lack of a better way to say it, I have an emotional investment in Christopher Reeve that I can’t quite overcome. I don’t like seeing anyone else in the blue jammies. Oh, the animated Justice League fellow is fine, but live-action — nope. I don’t like it. Can’t adapt to it. Old and set in my ways I am, young padawans.

Now as far as the movie goes, I can’t say I was displeased with the plot or its execution. Sure it was sort of slow. Sure it was a little hokey. That’s okay because that keeps it well in line with the first few movies. I can’t say I liked the deal with the shaggy kid (get a haircut!), but the fact that Lois Lane didn’t start reciting poetry in some bizarre internal monologue is nothing but a Good Thing. Lex Luthor — King of Wigs, fine. (In fact, I can’t say I minded any of the other cast changes aside from the biggie.)

The Superman-in-jeopardy arc was actually easier for me to buy into than the one in the original movie. The action sequences were… certainly active. In fact, the only real quibble I have was the habit Superman seemed to have of levitating around in some unconsciously snotty less-gravity-prone-than-thou pose. It was distracting and maybe the only part of the whole super powers thing that I thought was unrealistic. Aren’t you allowed to fidgit when you’re levitating? Wouldn’t your feet… I dunno… dangle maybe? The flying was great though; far superior to the original movies as befits the improvements in special effects and whatnot.

Do I think it was a pretty good movie? Yes. Do I think it was a great movie? Well… no. Do I think it stands with other popular modern incarnations of superhero classics like Spider-Man or Batman Begins? Also no. It’s safe to say that I’m looking forward to see what Spidey gets up to, and you’ll catch me in the front of the line for Christian Bale in the bat suit. But if there’s another Superman movie in the works… eh. Maybe I’ll catch it on video. Eventually.

Sorry Brandon. I know you did your best.

Justin’s rating: The “S” stands for “on Sale”

Justin’s review: Hey, Supes! Yo! Over here! Yeah, I know you’re a thousand miles away on a peace-keeping mission in, geez, Yukon Territory or something, but you have those super-ears and can hear everything anyone says, so why shouldn’t you listen to me? Because I’m just some no-name movie critic who wasn’t particularly kind to your fourth movie?

I know you’re supposed to be the big daddy of all superheroes and have been going strong since the early 1700s, but you have to face facts: You’re perfect, yet dull as a three-color fence post. You’re the guy that everyone goes “Aw! Superman! Woohoo!” and then they quickly get distracted by the rising cost of gasoline while you stop a pumpkin-shaped meteor from smashing into – ironically – a Smashing Pumpkins revival. You might be invincible, have flight, eye laser beamy things, are able to see through solid walls like a Peeping Tom, and can fool 99% of the movieland population by putting on a pair of thick geek glasses, but that makes you a little hard to relate to.

Sure, Seinfeld loves you. And that was great for the 1990s, but now he’s dead or in retirement or whatever washed-up sitcom stars do in their off-season, and you’ve lost your biggest support group. Everyone claims to love Superman, but what they really love is the legacy, not the man or the adventures. They love the proto-superhero, the great John Williams score, and your wacky ability to drug your dates with magical kisses, but that’s it. That’s where it ends.

We’ve seen your life as a cartoon, as a romantic drama, and as a teenthrob origin story. There’s still a warrant for your arrest for the crime of introducing Aquaman back to the TV screens. Yet if there was a demand for more Superman, I haven’t heard of it.

While it might have seemed like a good idea to get your foot back in the door after a long absence, banking on nostalgia to sell your movie wasn’t the smartest move. We’ve already seen Lex Luthor in, like, three movies already. We have lost the luster for the dangerous thrill of kryptonite already. And you cannot count on anyone other than die-hard fanboys to squee when you announced that Marlon Brando would be coming back from the dead – with the aid of powerful techno-necromancers – for some ultimately forgettable cameo.

Yeah, the plane sequence was cool and nifty, but it didn’t result in an atomic blast that opened up a portal into the Phantom Zone – it just disrupted a major league baseball game. Not exactly your most thrilling hour. And while the partial amnesia that conveniently forgets Superman 3 and 4 was wise, yet we’re of the opinion that you should’ve just gone the full Batman and started completely over.

So while the X-Men are battling armies of mutants with fantastic powers, Spider-Man is delving into the emo lifestyle, and Batman is joyfully hopping from rooftop to rooftop in a tank that gets two mpg (highway), you’re once again facing off with a bald guy who sleeps with elderly women so that he can rip off the plot of the very first Superman and try a caper that’s failed already. Meanwhile, police agencies everywhere are just waiting for you to give them a solid afternoon to help crack down on drug rings and child slavery and make a real difference in the world.

But that’s okay. Go on wearing your primary colors, and we’ll just be over here, not giving a tinker’s damn.

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