Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2006

He's baaa-aack!

With plenty of help from Donner and Co., Bryan Singer finally breathes new life into a dead franchise with 'Superman Returns'

Superman Returns
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris
Starring: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Frank Langella, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Sam Huntington and Tristan Lake Leabu
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 37 minutes
Opened June 28, 2006
(out of four)

You didn't think it would ever finally get here, did you? We've been hearing about Superman's return to the cineplexes for a decade now, and nothing ever came of it. Every time the project seemed on track, it was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped.

We had Tim Burton behind the camera. Then it was Brett Ratner. Then…shudder…McG (mimic projectile vomiting motion; sound effects optional). Robert Rodriguez was offered the job, then Michael Bay, and then the rumor mill has it that even Richard Donner -- the director of the 1978 original -- was considered. We had a script from Kevin Smith, then one from J.J. Abrams, and countless others in between.

And now, all that material has been discarded and a new vision is in its place -- that of director Bryan Singer and practically his entire X-Men team. While other versions previously in the works completely reinvented the franchise (including one based on the 1993 comic series in which the "Doomsday" creature kills Superman -- which would still make a great movie, by the way…or two). Singer, however, decided not to start over, but to go back to the originals and take off from there.

Well, the first two, at least -- we'll just pretend Superman III and IV never happened. Superman Returns, which takes place about five years after Superman II, clearly intends to be as seamless a continuation of the original series as possible. With all the homages to the 1978 film, including several lines of dialogue, references to past plot points and the repeated use of John Williams' original score, Singer clearly has a ton of respect for his source material.

All things considered, he succeeds. Given all the production problems the Superman franchise has succumbed to over the last several years, it would be easy to be pessimistic about it.

But it seems to have worked out quite well. I mean, just look at that list of previous directors -- you've got three certified hacks in there and, with the exception of maybe Burton and maybe Donner (though his recent returns haven't been good), we could have confidently expected garbage from anyone else in that bunch. But Singer has saved the day.

While Superman Returns doesn't achieve the magic of the original, it is still a splendid piece of pop entertainment, a careful balance of old-fashioned superhero camp and naturalized modern fable.

When we first enter upon Metropolis, Superman is a memory. The people have moved on. Even his biggest fan, the woman who loved him, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is over him -- in fact, she even won a Pulitzer Prize for a piece entitled, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman."

Ahem…someone's got sour gra-apes.

You see, when Superman left five years ago, out of the blue, he didn't even bother saying goodbye.

Bad move, Kal-El.

And so Lane, the hard-working but still spelling-challenged reporter ("How many Fs in 'catastrophic'?") shacked up with her co-worker, Richard (James Marsden), who is also the nephew of irritable Daily Planet editor-in-chief, Perry White (Frank Langella, of Skeletor fame).

True to the movie's title, Superman returns in grand fashion, saving a falling airplane -- which just happens to contain Lois Lane -- from the sky in a thrilling early action sequence. "Statistically speaking," Superman (Brandon Routh) remarks after saving the day, "it's still the safest way to travel" -- one of the film's many winks to the '78 classic.

And so Superman is back making headlines on the front page of The Daily Planet. Quite coincidentally, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, who has also been missing for five years, returns to Metropolis just about the same time Superman does.

Also, Lois has a young son who is -- all together now -- five years old. And by sheer chance, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has just been granted his freedom after five (5) years in the clink.

You've gotta love the logic of superhero movies. But no bother. Amid Superman/Clark Kent's re-entrance into society, and thus a re-entrance into Lois' life, Luthor has devised a plan to create his own continent -- he would own all the land, you see, and "make bank," in the parlance of our times -- killing billions in the process. Needless to say, Kryptonite is involved, and Luthor of course believes that he will finally be able to defeat his greatest nemesis. Clearly, he wasn't aware that everyone had already signed on for a sequel.

Singer and his writers, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (who wrote the first two X-Men pictures), have fun with the story and characters and take the story in some nice new directions. There are a couple of standout action set-pieces, and one beautiful scene where Superman uses his X-ray vision to spy on Lois and her new family. Yes, certain segments of Superman Returns are a bit too digitized for my taste, but there's a lot of flat-out entertainment value on display here.

Much of the humor is nicely placed -- there are even a few sly jabs at Superman's rather flimsy "disguise," and that is refreshing to see. At least we're not the only ones scratching our heads and wondering how a mere pair of glasses can fool people so thoroughly.

Where it falls short, unfortunately, is where Donner's original succeeded so remarkably -- the characterization. Brandon Routh is adequate -- he looks the part and does the job, but he simply doesn't have charisma that Christopher Reeve brought to the role. Reeve gave a square superhero character just the gravitas it needed, and infused both characters with charm and humor. He, like Routh, was an unknown at the time, but he nailed it. Routh just doesn't seem to be that good of an actor -- at least not yet. Maybe he'll grow into the role in the sequels. Similarly, Spacey -- playing a meaner, more sadistic Luthor -- doesn't quite measure up to Gene Hackman, but he's entertaining nonetheless. And then there's Bosworth…I have no problem with her performance. She plays Lois much differently than did Margot Kidder, and she does just fine. She and Routh certainly don't have the same kind of chemistry, but she works. The problem is, she's 23. Twenty-three. And she looks it. This movie is supposed to take place five years after the second one…and somehow she looks like a grad student. Right.

But that might be a nitpicky point.

Sure, it would have been nice if Singer and his writing team had focused a little more on getting to know Clark and Superman -- maybe digging a little deeper into why he left for so long, and what it's like now that he's back -- but it's hard to complain when the film is so effortlessly entertaining, warts and all. At 157 minutes, it flies by faster than……OK, I really can't make that joke. I just can't. Don't say I didn't try.

But all that really matters is the Man of Steel is back on the big screen, where he belongs. And it's true, what they say: You will believe a man can fly.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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