Thursday, June 29, 2006


Look! Up In The Sky! It's A...What?


Superman Returns is a great, um, what exactly?

Sure, it's going to be the mega-movie of this weekend -- and perhaps the whole year.

Guys will flock to it for the action and the very good special effects. Women will also enjoy it because of the rather odd love triangle at the center of the flick. Surprise though! It's not the Superman-Lois Lane-Clark Kent one that has been the heart of the Superman mythos from the beginning.

On the surface, director Bryan Singer (late of the first two X-Men movies), has created a grand, majestic spectacle. As has been noted often, the film is more an extension of the two Richard Donner-initiated Superman films from a quarter-century ago than just an homage -- the opening credits, the construction of the Fortress of Solitude, the use of the Marlon Brando/Jor-El footage, Kevin Spacey channeling Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor. (Parker Posey, remarkably, almost steal each scene in which she appears as Luthor's assistant Kitty. She also ends up weirdly resembling a young Jamie Lee Curtis.)

However, Singer is also a very modern director and he pulls out all the stops with great CGI-assisted Super feats. Brandon Routh looks like he is Christopher Reeve's clone (the film is dedicated to the memory of Christopher & Dana Reeve). On the other hand, in the footage set back on the Kent farm, Routh is dressed and looks vaguely like Tom Welling who plays the not-quite-yet Superman in television's Smallville.

Singer also demonstrates that he knows what era it is: Luthor's stark Kryptonite island is reminiscent of the smoky jagged remains at Ground Zero in the days immediately after 9/11. When the Daily Planet's signature globe begins to sway, threatening to fall to earth, it is difficult not to think of other huge metropolitan structures that typified a city's skyline -- but are no more.

The plot isn't great: Luthor's desire for his Kryptonian continent is rather confusing. But, hey, Luthor is a lot smarter than the rest of us. Besides, plot is secondary to the general iconic/mythic Odysseus-like story of long-gone adventurer coming home.

However, there is one annoying logical flaw in the movie -- beyond the usual "Wow! How could that really happen?!?" suspension-of-disbelief type of comic-book action where hardly anyone gets killed when the hero is making one of his last minute saves.

No, this particular flaw bothered me from the moment I went into the theater. I won't say what it is now; I'd rather wait until at least the weekend is over, so more people can watch it without me throwing out an unfair spoiler.

That said, the larger problem that prevents this movie from being quite on the par with recent superhero flicks -- Batman Begins, Spider-Man and X-Men -- is that Superman/Clark Kent is not the emotional heart of the film.

Yes, there are tender scenes between Superman and Lois (a brunette Kate Bosworth who ends up looking like Katie Holmes and acting only slightly better), and Superman with various "family" members such as Ma Kent (with a neat photo of Glen Ford -- who played Pa Kent in the Donner Superman -- on the Kent living room mantle).

Yet, the "real" emotional anchor and arguably a true hero is the character Richard White. He is played by actor James Marsden who, fresh off playing nice guy Scott (Cyclops) Summers in the X-Men franchise, is used to being in a love triangle (vying with bad boy Wolverine for the attention of Jean Grey).

Richard is Lois' significant other, nephew of Planet editor Perry ("Great Caesar's Ghost"), ajournalist himself, a pilot -- and the man James, Lois' young son calls "Daddy." He loves Lois, but she is the one who refuses to make their relationship "legal." Yep, Lois is living in sin -- something of a significant leap forward from the rather chaste traditional depiction of the character (though she and Superman did hook up in Superman II, after he gave up his powers).

In any event, Richard White knows that he is forever in Superman's shadow, but that never stops him.

In the most interesting sequence, Richard shows up unexpectedly to save Lois and Jason, as the ship they're on breaks apart around them ("How did you get here?" asks Lois. "I flew," Richard the pilot responds matter-of-factly.)

Then Superman arrives to save all three.

Yet, 20 minutes later, the roles are switched: Lois convinces Richard to turn their plane around as it approaches Metropolis -- in order to save Superman from Luthor's Kryptonite trap. Lois dives in to fish the hero out of the soup (note to ladies at home: Swimming in a long, formal gown is generally ill-advised).

By the film's end, Richard can almost be considered the true hero: He is the one who sacrifices his future happiness -- exactly the opposite of the aforementioned Superman II where the hero realizes he has to give up the likely happiness of a normal life and married love in order to fulfill his mission to the world.

So, one must ask: If, in a comic book movie, it is the ordinary guy -- with no powers -- who risks his life for his family, knowing that he is likely to lose the woman he loves...who is the true super-hero?

And is Lois Lane's alleged Pulitzer Prize winning op-ed, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman", the ultimate ironic twist in the movie?

Thus, we are left asking -- Superman Returns is a very good what? On one level, it is not as good as the comic book movies mentioned above -- or even the slightly more obscure Hellboy. But, it is a well-textured film -- much more complex than one thinks at first glance (incredibly annoying logical flaw aside, which could have been resolved with one or two lines of dialogue).

It is in that sense, I lean to giving the film a solid B+.

However, after more folks have gone to see the film, I will write more. There is a rather fascinating subtext which makes Richard White an even more intriguing character --and the entire project one of the boldest moves that director Bryan Singer has ever done.

UPDATE: Oh, almost forgot. Here's one major reason to go see Superman Returns -- and to get there early! Not surprisingly, after this preview ran, the audience broke out in spontaneous applause (for a movie that won't be in theatres until May 2007). Somewhat surprisingly though, the same thing happened after the next preview ran, for this movie coming out in December of this year. Kinda cool to know that there is as much enthusiasm for Spidey and Mary Jane as there is for Mary, Joseph and J.C.

UPDATE II: My Post colleague Tom Elliott links to a Page Six item (geez, how synergistically circular can we get!) pointing out a certain phrase that is missing from the new flick: When a character says "Does he still stand for Truth, Justice...", instead of saying "...and the American Way," he says "and all that stuff".

Is "the American Way" no longer relevant (or profitable) for a movie that will have international distribution? I must admit that when that scene occurred, I did notice it.

Similarly, as much as Singer's film borrows from Richard Donner's Superman The Movie, it does not copy it's closing scene with Superman flying into the sky carrying the American flag. Indeed, that memorable scene was most recently aped in a different super-hero feature, Spider-Man, which closed with the hero standing on a flagpole and Old Glory flapping in the wind. For more on that film's post-9/11 patriotism, check here.

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