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Superman Returns (Frank's Take)

01/09/2006. Contributed by Frank Ochieng

Buy Superman Returns in the USA - or Buy Superman Returns in the UK

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Could Bryan Singer's big-budgeted comic book odyssey that looks to mark the return of the Man of Steel capture the imagination once again for starved audiences looking to welcome back the Caped Wonder, muses Frank?

Well, filmmaker Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins successfully brought back the Caped Crusader in 2005 after this action hero's film franchise died down some years ago. So can Singer invigorate the interest and duplicate the magic after the Superman film series concluded in 1987 on a whimpering note with the late Christopher Reeve donning the distinctive red and blue tights?

In Superman Returns, Singer serves up our virtuous heat-vision hero in brooding, introspective mode confined within a monstrous 2 plus glossy fantasy epic. Not only does this updated version of Superman come with the trademark feats of strength and endurance courtesy of Singer's tenacious special effects technology we are fed a robust sentimental love triangle that involves our powerful protagonist's romantic interest-the persistent journalistic juggernaut Lois Lane. Although Superman Returns is a handsome production and is very ambitious in continuing the wonderment of flavoured filmmaking in the tradition of a vibrant superhero saga, Singer's polished action-adventure is a mixed bag. Still, this film resonates with energizing purpose and reminds moviegoers why Superman was such an escapist treat when it first hit the big screen almost three decades ago.

It's strikingly uncanny how Superman Returns parallels the similarities with Richard Donner's 1978 film. For starters, newcomer Brandon Routh bears an eerie resemblance to Reeve and was his very same age when signing on for the role of a lifetime. Also, Singer is respectful to the previous film franchise by utilizing the familiar John Williams movie score and opening sequence. And the subtle nuances of featuring cameos from Superman-oriented icons from the past (most notably the late Marlon Brando as Ka-El's Papa-from-beyond and the 50's Superman TV mainstays Noel "Lois Lane" Neill and Jack "Jimmy Olsen" Larsen). Overall, Superman fanatics will get a kick out of the return engagement of an everlasting comic book icon destined to outlast his legendary allure.

The premise in Superman (Routh) "returning" refers to the five-year absence from Earth in which our mighty man takes a sabbatical from saving the world. When he goes back to Metropolis as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, things have dramatically changed. Apparently the reunion with main squeeze Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) wasn't as promising as expected. The intrepid Lois is about to give her hand in marriage to a new guy (James Marsden) and happens to be a single mother. And as if Ms. Lane wasn't cynical enough already, she penned a Pulitzer Prize editorial entitled, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman". Poor Clark/Superman. Oh well, our iron-willed but heartbroken reporter/rescuer dutifully picks up where he left off and tends to the demands of preserving humanity.

Now what would Superman's life be without his number one nemesis Lex Luthor? (two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey taking over the treacherous part from another two-time Oscar winner in Gene Hackman). For one, it would be a little more peaceful. For another, it may be an empty existence because the balding menacing misfit does present Superman with an everyday challenge of the obligatory good versus evil dynamic. Nevertheless, Luthor is back as well and is plotting a diabolical plan that will probably place spontaneous gray hairs on Superman's wavy jet-black noggin.

Singer and screenwriters Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty ("X2: X-Men United") do provide a boldness with their Superman enterprise in that they try to juggle between reminisces of the original blueprint and touching up their contemporary product with a contemplative edginess. The consistency of moodiness in Singer's melancholy actioner may throw off some avid Superman enthusiasts that may reject their Man of Steel's "mental" woes. It's a daring and fresh approach that has its up-and-down moments.

Folks that crave the nostalgic characterizations of these well-known comic caricatures may be slightly disappointed by Singer's creative license to tamper. After all, Superman/Clark Kent is as introspective as a hurt puppy dog, Lois Lane is giddy more than she's combative and Lex Luthor seems restrained. This alone may have viewers wondering about the carefree exchanges between Reeve's nebbish Clark and Margot Kiddler's brassy Lois. Even Hackman's Lex Luthor had the conceited swagger that's somewhat sorely missed.

While Singer's inventive spin with the moping overtones of Superman Returns can be mildly applauded in its inexplicable brush with a listless superstud, this edition has that occasional old-fashioned saviour complex that tugs on the antiquated heartstrings. There's nothing wrong with Singer wanting to be reflective and experimental. However, fans expect a rousing jolt from a reliable action figure that's been missing from our cinematic consciousness for nearly a decade. Embracing an amazing wounded soul surrounded by a saccharine-coated love story and eye-popping special effects isn't exactly the ideal popcorn pleaser for action-oriented aficionados.

What might be considered a minor problematic observation is the performance by unknown Routh. Granted he fills the Superman suit with the right kind of physicality. Yet Routh's emotional and expressive take on his high-flying alter ego feels so uptight to the point you wonder if he's a drag more so than an under-appreciated spectacle.

Reeve had such a stiff-minded but solid charisma. The regimented script doesn't allow Routh the flexibility to emote freely and give him more of a playful presence. Bosworth's Lois Lane feels incredibly young and impressionable and we aren't really convinced that this is the same go-getter gal that would chase a floating butterfly much less a hard-nose story. Spacey's Lex Luthor borders upon the sophistication of a villainous freak that looks like he should be doing his demented thesis at Club Med. The other supporting roles are decent-particularly Marsden as Clark's/Superman's lover boy competition and Parker Posey as Luthor's hanger-on harlot.

The superb cinematography stimulates the excitable proceedings and the movie's soundtrack adds a compelling component to the scope of affection and antagonism. The subtext theme of philosophical persecution involving Luthor's doomed agenda for a Christ-like Superman is indeed over-the-top and inappropriately overdramatic. Singer pounces on the point that our Superman-in his progressive vision anyway-is conflicted and courageous thus being a revered martyr for the ages.

Superman Returns is a passable if not flawed fable that looks to invigorate our preoccupation with one of pop culture's grandest and glorified good guys. Routh's Superman may have lost a step or two in this fresh instalment but one wouldn't mind if this plagued powerhouse took a bullet off his durable chest for our summertime diversion.

Frank Ochieng

Frank Ochieng 2006

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