Thursday 7 December 2006

Thursday 7 December 2006
DIRECTOR: Bryan Singer
WRITERS: Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris
CAST: Brandon Routh (Clark Kent/Superman), Kate Bosworth (Lois Lane), Kevin Spacey (Lex Luthor), James Marsden (Richard White), Frank Langella (Perry White), Sam Huntington (Jimmy), Parker Posey (Kitty Kowalski), Eva Marie Saint (Martha Kent), Kal Penn (Stanford), David Fabrizio (Brutus) & Tristan Lake Leabu (Jason White)

After a five year absence, Superman returns to Earth and finds Lois is engaged to be married, with a young son. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor has stolen Kryptonian technology...

The story may claim Superman's been gone for 5 years, but it's actually been far longer than that in reality. It's 19 years since the movie franchise died with Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, and an incredible 28 years since Christopher Reeve donned the blue tights for Richard Donner's 1978 original. But now, after a decade of failed attempts, director Bryan Singer oversees Superman's triumphant return to the silver screen...

As a gay man, Bryan Singer knows about being different. His personal experiences of homophobia fed into his two X-Men movies, and Superman is another character with an outsider status (literally) that Singer uses to create a more tangible sense of alienation than even Donner's celebrated classic.

Brandon Routh takes the lead as the eponymous Kryptonian hero, an extraordinarily difficult role to get right given its inherent silliness and audience identification with Reeves' performance. Routh's interpretation is generally good -- more youthful than Reeves', but with the same quiet confidence. Crucially, he exudes good vibes and looks great in the costume.

As Clark Kent, Routh's emulation of Reeves is more noticeable; his voice, mannerisms and features clearly in homage. However, Routh is less accident prone, just socially awkward. If there are problems with Clark in the film it's more a fault of the script and not Routh.

Kate Bosworth is better than expected as Lois Lane, but her youth and cutie-pie features don't fit with the brassy reporter's deameanour from the comics. I never once believed she was a top investigative reporter, primarily because there's very little reporting to be done in the movie. However, Bosworth isn't totally miscast, as there's believable chemistry with Routh and scenes with boyfriend Richard and son Jason are excellent.

Kevin Spacey gets to ham it up as villain Lex Luthor. He's always a fantastic on-screen presence and a perfect piece of casting. Spacey channels Gene Hackman's flamboyancy, but twists this occassional camp into more ruthless and sadistic areas. Spacey isn't the revelation I was expecting, but he's good fun and looks fantastic with his bald head and white trenchcoat.

The supporting cast are strong: James Marsden is great as Richard White, Lois' boyfriend and thorn in the side of Superman's romantic aspirations. It would have been easy to make Richard a one-dimensional slimeball, but thankfully the writers were clever and make him a decent guy -- injecting complexity and interest into the love triangle (or is that a love square if you include Clark?)

Elsewhere, Sam Huntington is good as overeager photographer Jimmy, Frank Langella is okay as Perry White (just too calm), Parker Posey is memorable as Kitty (Miss Teschmacher in all but name), child actor Tristan Lake Leabu avoids the "annoying kid" tag as Jason White and Eve Saint Marie is perfectly cast as Martha Kent.

The source of Superman Returns' greatest strength, and its greatest weakness, lies in the script by Singer and his X-Men 2 scribes Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. The overall premise is good -- that of a Saviour returning to a world that has moved on in his absence, while Luthor's masterplan to create continents using crystals stolen from the Fortress Of Solitude is interesting and neatly plotted.

The film really flies in its subtext. Superman Returns is the most achingly heartfelt popcorn movie for ages, dealing with loneliness, fathers and sons. The film finds weight when using Superman in a spiritual context (Prometheus is mentioned, while Jesus Christ and Atlas are referenced visually) and once the storyline mixes with the notion of family... it's almost bursting with emotion.

A moment where Martha Kent is unable to be at her sick son's bedside for fear of revealing his real identity is almost a throwaway moment, yet contains more humanity than Fantastic Four managed in over an hour.

However, the script falls down in some key areas: the Daily Planet, that hotbed of investigative journalism, just doesn't ring true. Lois Lane's adventuring is entirely by accident (her investigative journalism amounts to some phone calls), while a partnership with Clark is missing. These oversights are strange given Singer's love for Donner's original -- as the 1978 Daily Planet, with its bustling frosted glass offices, and the close parternship between Clark and Lois, was realizeed much better.

It's also clear that the script and direction steal shamelessly from Superman and Superman II. I have no problem with this, as Superman contains iconic designs that will probably never be surpassed. Singer utilizes many of Donner's ideas: the Fortress Of Solitude, Marlon Brando as Jor-El (resurrected with high-tech wizardry), the 3-D flying credits sequence, Lois' bad spelling, choice dialogue, the closing Superman flyby in space, John William's theme tune, etc.

Whenever Singer references Superman's past, it sends a tingle of satisfaction down your spine (there's even a nod to Superman's front page debut in Action Comics #1) and without these touchstones Superman Returns would be an emptier experience. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then on the evidence of Superman Returns Richard Donner must be redder than Supes' cape!

Ultimately, Singer was wise to incorporate elements from the earlier films, as Superman can't be as easily revamped like Batman. Singer's movie is a beguiling mix of futurism (the Boeing 777), modernity (mobile phones), and retro (Metropolis' art-deco design). It's a mix that works well; fresh and new while still identifiably ripped from the Golden Age of comics, with 70s undertones courtesy of Donner's influence.

The special effects are extremely good, with the flying sequences particularly well accomplished -- although the use of a CGI double for Routh looks false in places. Spider-Man got away with it because Spidey's face is always obscured, but Routh's digital features often looks too plastic. The VFX highlight is undoubtedly a stunning airplane rescue, closely followed by the finale's feat of incredible strength. The script finds plenty of opportunities to demonstrate Superman's abilities in interesting ways, too: x-ray scanning Lois for injuries, disintegrating debris with laser vision, or crumpling a bullett on his eye.

Overall, while I found some areas disappointing (Lois and Clark in the Daily Planet) Superman Returns generally provides an emotionally engaging story full of entertaining performances and exciting action. Singer's take is quite slavish to the past, so anyone hoping for a totally fresh movie could be disappointed. But, for fans who just want to scrub Superman III and IV from their memory and get a decent continuation from Superman II, look no further.

There's an emotional purity to Superman that no other comic-book property can match (the Jesus Christ allegory isn't an overstatement -- check out the finale), and fans of Superman's legacy will get additional thrills with the numerous injokes and references. Above all, Superman Returns swept me up with its performances, effects, engaging story and sense of nostalgia.

The Man Of Steel has definitely returned...and he's flying high!


PICTURE: The 2.35:1 widescreen image is annoyingly below par for a movie filmed with digital cameras in the last year! Compression artifacts pepper the transfer, particularly during dark scenes, while edge enhancement is noticeable. Daylight scenes are excellent however. Not terrible, but inexcusable.

SOUND: The DD5.1 sound mix is awesome! There's always something going on aurally and the action sequences are brought to vivid life. A few sequences even caused me to jump in my seat! Dialogue is crisp and distortion absent.


The film is held on Disc 1, with all the extras on Disc 2.

Requiem For Krypton (2 hrs 53 mins): An exhaustive documentary that chronicles the history of the production, from Singer's initial involvement, through Brandon Routh's screen test, onto all the production insight and ending with a blooper reel. Absolutely fantastic!

Resurrecting Jor-El (4 mins): A wonderful animation that details how Rhythm & Hues managed to resurrect Marlon Brando for the movie, using deleted footage from Richard Donner's original film. Excellent.

Deleted Scenes (15 mins): 11 scenes that were cut from the movie, many of which are very good, such as Clark reading some old newspapers using his x-ray vision. Entertaining.

Trailers: the Teaser and Theatrical Trailer for the film, together with promos for the Justice League Heroes video game, the Christopher Reeves Superman Collection and EA Games' Superman Returns video game trailer. Good stuff.

A fantastic line-up, if nothing revolutionary. The menu screens are disappointing given the possibilities with a property like Superman, but the Requiem For Krypton documentary is worth the price of this Special Edition* alone.

It's unfortunate there are no commentary tracks, although I suspect quite a lot of supplementary material is being kept back for a future re-release. Those greedy studio execs would make Lex proud...

* A cheaper one-disc release is available, minus all extras.