December 2006 -- Superman Returns. Starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Eva Marie Saint, and Marlon Brando. Screenplay by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. Based on a story by Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris. Directed by Bryan Singer. (Warner Bros. /Legendary Pictures, 2006, Color, 154 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13.)
After a nearly two-decades-long absence, the Man of Steel returns to the big screen in this superb fifth installment in the Superman series. But this belated movie is actually more of a sequel to the first two Superman films, the second released a quarter century ago in 1981.
Director Richard Donner, novelist Mario Puzo, and uncredited screenwriter Tom Manckiewicz (listed as “creative consultant” in credits) conceived the initial outing, Superman: The Movie (1978), as a legendary epic of almost Shakespearian dimensions, a saga pitting good versus evil. Unfortunately, their lofty vision was not shared by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Uncomfortable with a serious treatment of the Superman story, they brought in the husband/wife screenwriting team David and Leslie Newman to make the script more “campy,” à la the 1960s “Batman” TV series.
As a result of creative differences, and the Salkinds’ refusal to pay Marlon Brando’s steep royalties, Donner was replaced with director Richard Lester on the next installment, Superman II, and much of Donner’s original footage was left on the proverbial cutting room floor. Fortunately, cinematic history has been kind to Richard Donner. On November 28, Warner Home Video finally releases his authorized version of Superman II, not only restoring scenes with Brando back into the film, but also restoring Donner to his rightful place as director.
To understand the downward spiral of the Superman franchise, consider 1983’s Superman III, written solely by the Newmans and directed by Lester. An appalling collection of poorly timed slapstick gags, it has earned the dubious distinction of being the only movie in which comedian Richard Pryor can’t buy a laugh. Superman IV in 1987 was even more unwatchable, suffering from bargain-basement production values and a PC script that reduced Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s classic superhero to a “No Nukes,” Bleeding-Heart of Steel.
Now, years after lesser filmmakers left the Man of Steel in rust, director Bryan Singer finally restores the untarnished, larger-than-life superhero to his pedestal.
Comparisons between Superman Returns and Superman: The Movie are inevitable, especially because Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris consciously planned this film to have the same look, feel, and sound of the original. The most obvious similarity is in casting relative newcomer Brandon Routh in the role of Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent. Routh bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Christopher Reeve; indeed, he looks as though he could be Reeve’s younger brother.
Superman Returns builds upon the plot of the first Reeve movie, and part of the second. To explain Superman’s absence from the screen during the past nineteen years, Singer brings him back to Earth after a five-year self-imposed exile, during which time he trekked among the stars searching for the remains of his home planet, Krypton.
The movie opens with an amazing special-effects sequence as Superman’s spaceborne ship hurtles through the galaxies back to Earth, returning to his family farm outside Smallville, USA. Voiceover monologue from his father, Jor-El—taken from Marlon Brando’s unused footage for Superman II—sets the tone for the drama that follows. “Because of their [Earthlings’] capacity for good, I send them you, my only son.” Using Christ-like visual imagery, Superman is cast as Earth’s savior, rescuing the planet time and again from those who wield the capacity for evil.
Every superhero needs a supervillain in order to bring out his best virtues.
After a brief reunion with earthly mother Martha Kent, played by Eva Marie Saint, Superman reclaims his alter ego, Clark Kent, and his job in Metropolis as reporter for the Daily Planet. Things haven’t changed much at the paper, except that cell phones have replaced desk sets and typewriters have been retired in favor of personal computers. Otherwise, editor Perry White (Frank Langella) is just as gruff as ever. Shutterbug Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) is still the same earnest greenhorn, and the only reporter in the MSM, aside from Tucker Carlson, still sporting a tacky bow tie.
But one important thing has changed. When Superman left on his intergalactic quest for his roots, former lover Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), the Planet’sace reporter, believed she’d been ditched. Feeling betrayed, Lois won a Pulitzer Prize for an article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” “The world doesn’t need a savior,” she tells Clark, “and neither do I.” He is devastated to learn that, on the rebound, she has given her heart to Richard White (James Marsden), the boss’s nephew. What’s worse, Lois and Richard now have a son, Jason.
Meanwhile, having discovered Superman’s secret hideaway, the Fortress of Solitude, arch-enemy Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) launches a diabolical scheme using crystals laced with Kryptonite—the radioactive remains of Superman’s planet that render him powerless. Placed in the Atlantic Ocean, the crystals multiply, creating a huge, artificial island that displaces enough ocean water to threaten much of North America with flooding. It’s an ecological disaster right out of Al Gore’s most fanciful nightmares, one that will force millions to turn to Luthor if they want to stay dry. Cha-ching!
Brandon Routh more than fills Chris Reeve’s boots, and also those of George Reeves, the square-jawed actor who portrayed Superman in serial movies and on television during the 1950s. Like Reeve, Routh convincingly projects the superheroic qualities of Herculean strength and speed, as well as honor, chivalry, and courage. However, this loner-hero is cast in a more human, vulnerable light, though without ever mocking his dignity and heroic stature. This is a nobler Superman: all the annoying touches that in previous movies were meant to undermine the character are absent here.
Every superhero needs a supervillain in orderto bring out his best virtues, and the movie delivers by casting Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Although Gene Hackman is a great actor, he underplayed in the Luthor role a generation ago, almost to the point of nonchalance. Part of his failure to portray a true supervillain was due to his goofy wardrobe and even goofier sidekick (Ned Beatty). The sheer silliness undercut his credibility as a viable threat to Superman.
By contrast, Spacey’s Luthor is a plausible adversary for the Man of Steel. “Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their powers with anyone else,” Luthor snarls. Spacey’s characterization conveys that, for little men with big ambitions, envy of the good can be the most corrupting motive. When I first saw Spacey in American Beauty (1999), his smarminess as anti-hero Lester Burnham really rubbed me the wrong way. But after seeing him as Jack Lemmon’s duplicitous boss in Glengarry Glen Ross and as the deliciously sociopathic Luthor here, I find him uniquely suited to playing cads and villains—not unlike George Sanders (Rebecca, All About Eve) a couple generations ago.
Kate Bosworth is somewhat less successful as Lois Lane. Undoubtedly a better actress than the previous Lois (Margot Kidder), Bosworth’s waifish looks and spiral curls aren’t what come to mind when you think of the spunky journalist from the DC comic books. A stronger, more alluring actress, such as Hilary Swank, would have been perfect to play the female lead in Superman’s life.
Superman Returns may just be the savior that Hollywood has needed.
For the guys, it has street cred as an action flick, with its shoot-’em-up pyrotechnics and computer-generated images. These are truly spectacular, because they don’t look so much like special effects as like natural camerawork. In fact, this film comes off as even more realistic than another visually impressive superhero flick, Spiderman II.
For the women in the audience, the movie offers a heart-rending story of unrequited love, though hinting at the possible reconciliation of the (literally) star-crossed lovers in the next film in the franchise, planned for release in 2009.
For fans of John Williams’s soaring score in the 1978 film, there is composer John Ottman’s skillful weaving of Williams’s brassy fanfare into the new soundtrack, and conductor Damon Intrabartolo’s lush interpretation.
For older movie buffs, Superman Returns also boasts the first reunion (in dialogue, thanks to the sound editors) of the late Marlon Brando and actress Eva Marie Saint since they appeared as working-class lovers in Elia Kazan’s 1954 classic, On the Waterfront.
And for the kids, the picture provides not just grand entertainment but also some wonderful lessons. Its themes of gallantry, honor, and bravery will cause even many adults to revert to the child’s uncorrupted and innocent point of view. In fact, when we saw this movie at an advance critics’ screening—in midtown Manhattan, no less—that was exactly how that normally blasé audience reacted.
If a bunch of aging, cynical critics can “Wow!” aloud at the implausible actions of their childhood hero, boo and jeer at the soulless villain, and rise to a raucous standing ovation at the end, then Superman Returns may just be the savior that Hollywood has needed during all the years that he’s been gone.