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Superman Returns (Mark's Take)

01/07/2006. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

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

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Brandon Routh steps into the cape of Superman for the first film in the series in nineteen years. Though it does not seem to hurt the film's box-office prospects, the writing of Superman Returns is full of holes and the film is poorly edited, finds Mark. Audiences may respond to the film's look at Superman's personal life, still superficial, but at greater depth than in the past. The film's subdued colours just do not work for a Superman film.

Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10

Spoiler Alert: following the review is a spoiler section in which I will discuss problems I found with the film.

The new Superman film has dim colours and dim characters. The first television program I remember being filmed in colour was "The Adventures of Superman" with George Reeves. That was a good choice on the part of the producers. Superman is a colourful character. You need to see the bright blue suit and the bright red of the cape and of the insignia. The colours really are part of the character. Every version of Superman I remember since then made since that time has the bright colours . . . until SUPERMAN RETURNS. The entire film is shot with colour muting filters. The blues are drab and the reds are sort of maroon.


Back in those 1950s episodes occasionally Lois Lane might wonder if perhaps Clark Kent could be Superman, but then would cast the idea aside because they acted differently. The characters were not bright enough to figure it out, but the program was aimed at children. In SUPERMAN RETURNS, Lois and Jimmy Olson (Kate Bosworth and Sam Huntington) notice that Kent and Superman have the same height and build. Physically they look a lot alike. On top of that, they each just disappeared mysteriously for five years and each has now returned just as mysteriously. And one point in the plot of SUPERMAN RETURNS, Superman goes through a period of about a week when everybody in the public knows exactly where he is (I will not say where that is).

Daily Planet editor Perry White (played by Frank Langella) tracks his reporters fairly closely but does not notice that for that week he does not know where Kent is. The writers just seem to feel that they have handled the issue and never have to worry about it again. The staff of the Daily Planet is just going to be assumed to be terminally dense. You have to love them because they are stupid. Lois Lane is a reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper and she asks how many F's there are in "catastrophic." Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) on the other hand is not just an evil genius; he is also (gasp!) an intellectual. You can tell he is an intellectual because he listens to opera and to classical music. [At the risk of sounding like an evil genius myself, I have to admit that I myself am partial to opera and classical music.]

The title has a double meaning. In the real world it has been almost since two decades since the last (regrettable) Superman film. The loss of Christopher Reeve to play the role essentially seemed to have ended the series. Now a new actor, Brandon Routh, who sometime even seems to resemble Reeve, is cast as the new Superman and Clark Kent. Admittedly Routh lacks much of Reeve's natural charm, but then who doesn't? So, after a long hiatus Superman is returning to the screen. In the plot Superman and Kent are also returning, but for them it was only a five-year gap while Superman returned to the remains of his home planet Krypton to make some dubious connection to his own lost people.

Finding the destroyed remnant of his planet and people has left him as emotionally empty as he started. He returns from space crashing his crystal ship on the front lawn of Ma Kent's farm. Eva Marie Saint (of ON THE WATERFRONT, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and EXODUS, incidentally) plays Martha Kent. Seeing one of the most elegant women in Hollywood still acting is probably the high point of SUPERMAN RETURNS. Apparently in his absence Superman has learned to use his powers to levitate, so the trip was not wasted.

Meanwhile Lex Luthor has returned to his plans to create and to own lots of beachfront property. He forms an expedition to Superman's Fortress of Solitude to steal crystals. The fortress still looks majestic, but in the muted colours of Newton Thomas Sigel's photography at the same time it looks a bit dismal. Perhaps it needs a new coat of ice.

The screenplay seems to be rather confused and confusing. The film opens with the explosion of Krypton and the escape vehicle that carries the future Superman. Under the credits it flies to Earth through interstellar space, as an amusement park engineer would envision space. When it crashes to Earth we expect to see a baby Superman emerge. Instead we see a grown man. Somewhere there was a switch and we are looking at Superman returning after his pilgrimage. Between the script and the editing the viewer is frequently confused about just what he is seeing. Much of the script is just bad writing as some of the problems in the spoiler section below indicate.

There are lots of little homage's to previous Superman stories sprinkled throughout the film. Once again Superman saves airline passengers from certain death and reminds them, as the Christopher Reeve Superman, did that flying is still the safest way to travel. And he should know. Of course, for Superman there are no unsafe ways to travel. Another inside joke is to have Jack Larson as Bo the Bartender and Noel Neill as Gertrude Vanderworth. In the 1950s they played Jimmy Olson and Lois Lane. The new musical score by John Ottman borrows heavily from the 1978 score for SUPERMAN by John Williams.

Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris's screenplay lays on the Christian symbolism a little thick. Superman, we are told, is everybody's saviour who will always be around. I should also mention some of the good aspects of the script. Superman is much more a three-dimensional person in this film and goes through some very human moments. In addition, Lois Lane is the vertex of a love triangle between Superman and Richard White (James Marsden), Perry White's nephew. The standard cliché would be to make Richard an obviously bad choice. In fact, Richard is a very decent person and also a good member of the team.

I suppose this is a reasonable attempt to jump-start the series again. I would rate it as better than were three of the four Christopher Reeve Superman outings. BATMAN BEGINS, however, did a much better job in restarting its series. There was a lot that was wrong with the plot of SUPERMAN RETURNS, but I will go into that in a spoiler section after the review. I rate SUPERMAN RETURNS a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.

SPOILER WARNING...

These are additional script problems bothered me about the film.

I thought Superman flew between planets on his own. Was this crystal spacecraft his original one as a child, or did he build another one? We are not sure how it fits into the plot.

This story simply does not need a cannibal dog. Where did that come from?
EMP (Electro-magnetic pulse) would simply destroy all the computers in range and lots else beside. These computers just seemed to go away for a few minutes and then return to the exact screens they left.

I might believe that Lois Lane would break into a boat where she thinks some evil doing is going on. Would the door be left open for her? Would she bring her young son into danger with her?

What kind of a hoodlum is assigned to watch two prisoners and then sits down to play a piano (!) with one where he cannot see the other?

The Man of Steel is going to have sex with a human partner? Think of all the problems that causes. First they are not even the same species. Then he is the Man of Steel. Wouldn't she be ripped apart? Larry Niven wrote "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" a collection of the problems such a union would have.

Superman flies up an elevator shaft and the next thing we see he is out of the building. What does he do, fly through the roof? I doubt the top of the shaft is open to the weather.

There is a huge disaster happening in Metropolis. Is saving Lois Lane and a couple of other people really the best use of his powers? Hundreds or thousands may be dying. Isn't he more needed elsewhere?

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2006 Mark R. Leeper

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