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"Superman Returns"...Um, Okay

Superman Returns, Brandon RouthThe reviews are in (“Amazing!”). The box office is off-the-charts good (108 million!). The trailers are stunning (Even his eye reflects bullets!). Bryan Singer has done it again! Superman Returns carries the industry on its back through the 4th of July weekend! You’ve GOT to see it!

So, here you are, on the delicate “second weekend.” Sure, sure, blockbusters are made or broken on the opening weekend. You don’t have to be a movie analyst or a filmwhore to know that these days. So, Superman is an unqualified success in industry terms...but now we have to see if it has legs. This baby cost over two hundred million (and that’s just what they’re reporting), and if it doesn’t carry its weight into the next couple of weeks you're gonna see a lot of money men paging through Variety for the International section. “We just made $20,000 in Manila!”

So, before you haul ass to the cineplex, the question it THAT good? Let me preface this by saying that I love Bryan Singer. (You can see where this is going...) Not just because I think he handled both lofty expectation-filled X-Men movies with grace but with flair. They weren’t just “give me my bang for my buck!” spectacles but thoughtful with enough dimension that you felt you could justify eating your Frosted Flakes because basically they were sugar-coated Wheaties. It’s also because Bryan fought for his films and that quality. Rumor has it that Mr. Singer was fired numerous times on BOTH X-Men features because he refused to back down from what he thought they needed. No one surrounding or working on those films will tell a simple tale of grace and ease on the set (unless they are on Access Hollywood or they are Hugh Jackman who is unfazed by ANYTHING!). It was work and it was tense. Plain and simple.

He’s also remarkable because in person his demeanor is understated, unassuming, and present. Not the brazen ring-leader so many young directors feel they need to be to remind you of their “star quality” (see Bret Ratner references below). Bryan knows what people like to see because he has a fan's eye. He obviously loves movies. The Usual Suspects and its cinematic referential style should confirm that. SO...that being said...the answer is, unfortunately, no.

Superman Returns, Marlon BrandoI’m not here to bring down Superman. Not the Lex Luthor of Kryptonian critics there to gouge the fatted hog of Hollywood. I think it’s great the box office is still muscling forth gives me hope. But it feels discernably like a step back for Mr. Singer and his grace with mega-expectation. (Even with going over budget again here...keep it up, Bry!) The movie feels oddly uninspired, all the while its fantastic images and score pound and shake the theater. The most striking moment in the film, for me, happened in its first few minutes, and it rarely if ever captured it again. The slightly mumbly, lispy and iconic voice of Marlon Brando as Superman’s father permeates the darkness. Brando...from beyond the grave, from childhood, from the again, to herald in a new version. My goodness, I was stunned and I even knew it was coming. He had me. Bryan is no fool, he needed that gravitas to get us on board for what is to follow. Yet the very brilliance in using this gift is at the core of what’s wrong with the film.

Superman Returns is neither a re-invention of the franchise nor a continuation. It is an homage whether intended or not. Its cinematic predecessor is more Gus Van Sant’s re-enacting of Psycho than last year's inspired Batman Begins. One has the feeling that Mr. Singer “really liked” the Superman movies growing up and didn’t want to change them but “sure did want to make one.” Which, at its very essence, is what cuts this film down from its great heights of possibility and makes it more a cinematic wax museum of good intentions. It is the laborious honoring of its predecessors that mires the heart of the film in languid pictorial detachment.

Much was made of the casting of the young lead, Brandon Routh, as the Man of Steel. Simply because he had few credits that would merit such stunt casting. Apparently, Bryan hand-picked the kid for greatness. So much so, he reportedly had to buy him clothes so that he would be suitably dressed for interviews. Having seen the film, there can be no question on how/why Mr. Routh booked this role. There are many uncanny moments when you can eerily feel Christopher Reeve just seeping through his delivery. I would not hesitate to doubt that Bryan had Routh glued to his DVD player watching Reeve's moments and absorbing the very lilt of his voice. None more evident then in his guise of Clark Kent. Even the goofball grin and adjustment of his glasses is to the point precision of Reeves. So much so, one has to admire Routh for such a thorough study. Yet, again, where the homage falls short is locating the actor's or director's own voice in all this nostalgia.

The reference to last year's parallel comic book re-invention is unavoidable again: Batman Begins, with all its Joseph Campbell and dark, Nietzschean heart, thrives because it dares to have its own voice. Damn the consequences. Yet, even it hobbled at times when it came to the protagonist's counterpart. For some reason comic book adaptations struggle to find a woman equal to the task of her own ferocity of conviction, yet tender-hearted enough to need saving (regardless of the amount of qualified actresses out there). Katie Holmes struggled against baby-faced precociousness to be taken seriously as a determined, philanthropic lawyer. (Hey, if Elizabeth Shue can invent cold fusion in The Saint, I guess we can wash this down with the same stupid juice.) Not to be outdone by Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, all pouty and stammering that she won the Pulitzer (yes, the Pulitzer) on an article she now regrets titled, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” (also a surname for this article, apparently). Again, I like Kate Bosworth, but I do not think she’s Cate Blanchett, either.

The movie is not without its considerable merits. The action sequences are seamless in their execution. Gone from the original is any feeling of blue screen or the sense that this guy is being elevated by wires into the air. They are fast and abrasive and as honest as you could hope for in a movie about a guy in tights. But, more importantly, it is here that Singer tries to infect the film with some vision and depth. One can see the visual sculpting and care the director has put into telling the story and why Singer isn’t just gifted with characters but with storytelling finesse. The references to Greek mythology are numerous in these sequences. Superman falling from the sky like Icarus. Superman, like Atlas, carrying the world on his back. Or, when Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, starts his pursuit of power by comparing himself to Prometheus and his desire to steal the fire form the gods. Points for style, again, but without the heart pumping beneath them they are simply ideas.

One wonders how much of the decision to shoot this film came from Mr. Singer's constant fights with the studio over the X-Men franchise. Apparently, with more success comes more friction rather than the opposite (go figure). I have not yet forced myself to see the third installment of the mutant franchise since it changed hands with Bret Ratner at the helm (emphasis on the second syllable). Something seemed rotten from the get-go when Singer signed off on a successful run and then, in similar fashion, Matthew Vaughn mysteriously removed himself after being hired from the job. Matthew Vaughn was the first-time helmer of the Brit-indie Layer Cake and X3 would have been a huge step for the film-maker who had “undisclosed reasons” for leaving the job vacant. Enter the director of Money Talks, Rush Hour, and After the Sunset. Okay. He, too, didn’t want to disrupt the already successful franchise and the great work Singer had already done. Fantastic. One wonders the motivations, besides youthful endearment, Singer had for taking on this pre-conceived Super-franchise. It is well known that the project had been lingering in desperate development for years with rumored connections to Nicholas Cage starring to Kevin Smith writing and directing. One wonders if it was a convenient place to hide.

Before the movie opened I was on an island (not figuratively...) shooting my own epic disappointment. The director, who knew my fascination with Mr. Brando, rushed over to me upon arriving to set with this “great Brando story” (I sort of collect them). Apparently his friend is a visual effects animator and was working on Superman Returns for some time. His job? To recreate Marlon Brando as accurately as possible so that he seamlessly fits into the film as another actor. This man studied and recreated Brando’s performance from original using unused out-takes and footage never seen. The result is supposedly startling and, according to him, disturbing.

“Doesn’t that scare you? As an actor that they can do that?” No. Why? Because somewhere a group of people probably spent millions of dollars and hundreds of hours recreating the performance of a man who was working at best at a fifth of his talent. Yet, the indelibility of his presence is profound. Which is at the source of where Superman Returns stumbles over its own weight of potential. A lot of talented people honoring something that is gone while leaving their own legacy behind.


Agent Bones said...


Nice review. I haven't been able to force myself to go see this movie, and will likely hold off until it comes out on cable.

I have been able to hold off, despite the onrushing Hollywood Hype Machine leading up to its release (the same Machine that snagged me into seeing Pirates this past weekend--so I'm by no means immune to the powers of the Machine), primarily because I did like the performances of Christopher Reeve in his first couple of Superman movies--as a kid.

Now the appeal of Superman as a character is also lost on me. Perhaps it is simply growing up and realizing that the character of Superman is too perfect, that there is no real challenge to him, since his only weakness, his only fault, lies in his vulnerability to a simple element-Krypton.

I guess my heroes now have to have a few more flaws in them to be all that appealing anymore. The more those flaws are based on quirks of personality and reflect the struggles of basic human existence, the better.

I've seen and admired both of the first X-Men movies, a franchise and a brand that both harder to capture on film and yet more interesting to film than the Superman franchise can ever be, so I do like Singer's work there.

I am glad to have read your review prior to seeing the movie, and will now do so with far lower expectations in the comfort of my home in a few months, if I ever do see it.

Finally, glad to see your work here on the Ionarts blog.

Take care,

Doug Pierce
aka Agent Bones of

Todd said...

Good to hear from ya, D. Thanks for the feedback. It's fun, ain't it?