Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Looking To The Stars - Superman Returns - A Review

The first and last time I saw a Superman movie in the theater, I was nine years old.

It was about a month after my birthday and I had just gone through surgery for an abscessed tooth. I couldn’t eat anything for a day after and couldn’t drink anything except sugar-free lemonade or water. And yet, despite my mom’s protests, I insisted that we go and see Superman IV as soon as we left the dentist’s office. The fact that she allowed this AND took me to see the live action Masters of The Universe movie that same summer is perhaps the greatest testament to my mother’s saint-like patience.

Given that Superman IV was considered by most to be one of the worst movies ever made, some might argue that I was lucky to have had the pain of the surgery to make the movie more tolerable. Personally, I hold that Superman III was the worst of the Superman movies. At least Four TRIED for quality. Three was a comedy that wasn’t funny – a greater offense to me than an unintentionally goofy action film.

Sure, the effects were sub-par and the plot silly even for Superman… but the movie had its’ heart in the right place. And to a nine-year old Starman whose Novocain was wearing off, that was enough to take my mind off the pain and the feeling of helplessness that surgery always leaves me with.

So here we are; roughly 18 years and 11 months later. I didn’t have surgery but I did come off a painfully dull shift at work and a 20 mile drive to the theater that was having a 10 pm premiere of Superman Returns with tickets for only $4.00 American. I got one of the last tickets and was forced to take a seat on the front row between two groups of young boys.

Now, it’s worth mentioning at this point that I am a back of the theater kind of person. I hate sitting on the front row. And I hate getting stuck next to kids at the theater because of the inevitable noise when they get bored.

I shouldn’t have worried. The kids didn’t make a peep during the whole thing except to cheer or say “Woah!” And that was in the WHOLE theater. The only talking I heard came from an alleged adult three rows back who was making smart-ass remarks at about two hours in. But the first two hours…. Dead silence and awe.

That is perhaps the best complement and recommendation I can pay Superman Returns, which is also not perfect but it has its’ heart in the right place.

I have some more analysis for those of you who like to compare notes after a movie is over or for those who want a little more information before seeing the film. But before I conclude the spoiler-free part of this column, let me make three recommendations before you go see Superman Returns

1.) Go see it on a day when you can be assured there will be lots of kids there. This will help put you in the child-like frame of mind that will maximize your enjoyment of this movie.
2.) If possible, see it in an IMAX Theater. This movie is gorgeous on a big screen but I can only imagine how amazing the flying effects and more look with the big planetarium screen.
3.) Go to Google and read about the tangled history behind the creation of this movie or watch one of the many videos where Kevin Smith gives his account of working with Jon Peters. Then give thanks to the deity of your choice that all Jon Peters was allowed to do to this film was put his name on it.

There we go. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Now… SPOILERS AHEAD…

The opening credits were the first sign that Bryan Singer and company had every intention of doing this right. The credits are equal parts tribute and teaser… with the original John Williams Superman score playing as the credits swoop toward us in blue block lettering. But now the blue is mixed with red. And instead of the static star-field of the original Superman credits, we also mix and weave between planets and asteroid belts as we move past the stars, towards the Earth.

As always, let’s define our terms and categories.

PLOT: The big SPOILERS BEWARE part. A basic summation of the story.

INFLUENCES: What are the comics that this movie was inspired by and/or ripped off of?

CHARACTERS: Are the characters written well and true to form?

ACTING: Separate from Characters, this is a measure of how skilled the acting is regardless of how “true” it is to the comic book personality of the character.

ARTFULNESS: Nice touches and beautiful artistic shots in the cinematography.

FX: The flashy whiz-bang material and how it looks.

COMIC BOOK GUY QUOTIENT: Another big SPOILERS BEWARE section. Nit-picking over anything relating to “how it SHOULD have been done” and general Monday Morning Quarterbacking.

OVERALL: The broad summary of how I felt about the movie in general.

PLOT: After a five year absence, during which time he was searching where Krypton was for some sign of survivors, Superman returns to earth. Most everyone is glad to seem him back, with three exceptions. Lex Luthor, who has a new plan to take over the world using Kryptonian technology looted from the Fortress of Solitude. Lois Lane, who was abandoned without so much as a goodbye by Superman and is now a Pulitzer Prize winner and mother of an asthmatic, allergy-ridden son. And Richard White, son of Perry, the new man in Lois’ life and supposedly the father of her son, who is somewhat uncomfortable that this man in Lois’s past is making her uncomfortable.

Give at 10 for 10 for originality. The subplots all flow together beautifully and this story is an original if nothing else.

INFLUENCES: Unlike X-Men 3, this movie borrows more from the previous films than the comics on which it was based. The first big action scene, involving a shuttle take-off, is a slightly more modernized take on Superman’s first appearance in John Byrne’s Man of Steel. And elements of the last 20 minutes of the movie draw upon elements of The Death of Superman. There is one fight scene that seems to draw off the concept of Intergang – the thug with an insanely powerful gattling gun. But the biggest inspiration is Richard Donner’s Superman I and II.

The film uses John Williams’ same musical score throughout and stock-footage of Marlon Brando as well as some of the more famous Superman lines of all time. This could make the film seem like a cheap rip-off but it doesn’t. The effect is one of respectful tribute; best summed up in the credit, after all the speaking-role actors are listed, dedicating this film to Christopher and Dana Reeve.

Singer set out to create an alternate-timeline sequel to Superman II and damn me if he didn’t succeed. 10 for 10 here, as well.

CHARACTERS: If you’re looking for a Pre-Crisis Superman, you won’t be disappointed. Fans of the evil millionaire, Donald Trump with better hair version of Lex Luthor may be saddened but Luthor is every bit the crazed mad scientist who would sell his own mother to the gypsies for an advantage. Lois comes off a little softer than usual but given the circumstances surrounding her conflict regarding the man she loves and the man who was always there for her (and which one is which, for that matter?) that is understandable.

Let’s call it 8 for 10. Lex comes off a little TOO manic, even for Pre-Crisis here and Lois’s writing could use a bit more edge.

ACTING: Character by character…

Superman/Clark Kent – Brandon Routh does not disappoint. He comes off a little stronger as the goofy Clark Kent then as Superman, but given the script does require Superman to be somewhat off-balance given the situation he comes back to with Lois, this actually fists the character somewhat. And in the moments where he has to be regal and strong, he is.

“You say people don’t want a savior. Every day, I hear them calling for one.”

That line may be paraphrased a bit. But I remember getting a little teary-eyed when he said that.

Lois Lane – Kate Bosworth has been slammed by some of the fans, but I think she did a competent job. Other critics have complained she looks and acts too soft. I think most of the blame for that lies in the script, not the portrayal. Because when she needs to be hard, like telling Superman why she wrote an article titled “Why We Don’t Need Superman” and chewing him out over leaving Earth without saying goodbye, she is hard. In the newsroom, she is a hardass. It is only when Superman or her child are in danger that she begins to melt and… well, I’ve seen strong women crumble a bit when they were worried about their child. Strong men too, for that matter. So I think any talk of Bosworth not doing Lois Lane, as she is in this reality justice, is horsehockey.

Richard White – Okay. James Marsden is playing Cyclops again. But this time, he’s allowed to try and make Cyclops a likeable character.

Seriously, that is his role in this movie. He’s the good, reliable man that the main heroine is drawn to even as she lusts after the main hero. But unlike the X-Men movies, Marsden is given a chance to show us why on earth he was able to win the heart of the woman he is sharing his life with. He is likable, he is heroic and he is secure enough in himself to not fuss about Lois being confused about her feelings regarding Superman returning. It’s a thankless task and in a lesser film White would have been killed off in a dramatic fashion so as to allow Lois to move on, guilt-free. Thankfully, Singer is better than that and so is Marsden.

Lex Luthor- Any actor will tell you that it is always more fun to play the villain than the good guy. Kevin Spacey is obviously enjoying himself here, playing everyone’s favorite land-snatching mad-scientist. And the fact that it’s Kevin Spacey enjoying himself in a role is all I need to say.

Jimmy Olsen- Better than the originals, if only because he’s actually a youngish, annoying redhead with a bow-tie.

Perry White- Skeletor says Great Ceaser’s Ghost. ‘Nuff Said.

Kitty the Henchwench – She’s no Miss Teschmacher. The one bad performance in the whole thing as her sudden change of heart is telegraphed WAY too early.

Let’s call this a 7. Parker Posey has done way better.

ARTFULNESS: Sadly, the film lacks a bit in this department. Many shots are handled too close and too quickly, like most of the action scenes and particularly the action inside the crashing plane in the first action sequence. There is much to admire though, but on reflection I find that most of it is Singer reshooting a classic moment from the original Superman. Still, the new flying effects and view of the city and the Earth from above more than redeem the lack of originality.

Give this a 6.

FX: There’s a few obvious CGI moments, but nothing glaringly bad. A solid 7.

COMIC BOOK GUY QUOTIENT: Old-School purists may balk at the idea of Lois Lane as a mommy and Superman as a potentially dead-beat dad. And I’m sure there is someone out there complaining that this alternate reality sequel is destroying the integrity of the Superman franchise and that Superman III was an unappreciated classic. Apart from that, there’s really not much for the purists to complain about apart from the duller red on the cape. 8 out of 10.

OVERALL: A solid 8. It’s a great movie and a worthy continuation of the Superman franchise. Not quite as good as the original, but it doesn’t really try to be more than a worthy sequel.

Oh, and one last bonus bit before I go…Click Here for NEXT Summer’s Best Superhero Movie

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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