Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Superman Returns

Title: Superman Returns (2006)
Dir: Bryan Singer
Rating **** out of 5 stars

For The Diamondback...

When director Bryan Singer left the X-Men franchise after two films, it meant certain death for the series, as this summer’s lackluster X-Men: The Last Stand proved. Fortunately, some good came from Singer’s departure – he went on to direct Superman Returns, the latest cinematic installment about DC Comics’ most famous superhero. With a solid new cast and Singer’s undeniable love for the Man of Steel, this satisfying sequel is sure to please comic book fans and mainstream audiences alike.

Picking up where 1980’s Superman II left off, Superman Returns finds the superhero (played by newcomer Brandon Routh) returning to the city of Metropolis after a five-year hiatus. As mild-mannered journalist Clark Kent, he resumes his job at the Daily Planet newspaper, where he soon learns that his beloved Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth, Blue Crush) has moved on with her life. Or has she? Although engaged and now a mother, Lois still struggles with her feelings for Superman.

Meanwhile, Superman’s arch nemesis, psychotic millionaire Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty), has been released from prison and is plotting evil deeds. Using powerful crystals from Supe’s home planet, Lex plans to sink the United States into the ocean and build a new world, naming himself as ruler. Only Superman can stop his old enemy’s latest plot, but Lex also has a plan to wipe out the Man of Steel for good.

Superman Returns closely follows the style of 1978’s Superman. Singer’s decision to emulate director Richard Donner’s design really benefits his film. Despite a new cast of faces, this installment feels like a seamless continuation of the first two movies. It acts as a cinematic homage to the originals while still offering solid, new material. But if you have not seen the original films, don’t panic – this sequel stands on its own legs. While seeing the first two movies is recommended, it is certainly not necessary to follow and enjoy Returns.

The film, much like its first predecessor, starts slowly, but once the action begins, Singer tackles the full gamut of action sequences, from plummeting airplanes to sinking ships. Needless to say, the movie relies heavily on computer-generated effects, but thankfully they do not overwhelm or distract the audience. You can’t make a Superman film without heavy special effects, and this movie uses them tastefully.

Filling the red boots of Christopher Reeve is no easy task, but Routh does a pretty good job. While he does bear a convenient resemblance to Reeve, he provides more than just a chiseled face. He lends a convincing sense of vulnerability to the caped hero, as well as an appropriately mild sense of humor. Superman was never an emotionally complex character to begin with, so it is easy to mistake Routh’s performance as wooden and humorless. On the contrary, his true pitfall is as Clark Kent, who is played far too much like Superman and not enough like Reeve’s uber-geeky reporter.

As Lois, Bosworth is good, although not as spunky and aggressive as fans would expect of Ms. Lane. Then again, it is possible that five years without Superman changed her into a meek woman. You can be the judge. As Lex Luthor, there was never a better casting choice than Kevin Spacey. He is delightfully evil and occasionally funny, but this Lex still pales in comparison to Gene Hackman’s original portrayal. The real disappointment is that Spacey is very capable of owning the role, but the script never really allows him to.

The film’s biggest success is its sense of humor. There are some funny moments for the general filmgoers, but mostly there are lots of in-jokes for fans of the comics and the original movies. Returns is a labor-of-love, made by Superman fans, for Superman fans. Anyone can enjoy the film, but it is a special treat for true fans. There are even some cameos by cast members from the 1950’s Adventures of Superman.

The film’s biggest flaw is excessive length. A few scenes should have been trimmed, as the movie does tend to drag. Both action and drama scenes alike suffer from this excess, unfortunately. A quicker pace and the loss of a half-hour would have done the movie a great service. There are also a few inconsistencies that are sure to be endlessly debated in online forums, but nothing of real concern to the average filmgoer.

It is not so consistently exciting as Spider-Man 2, and not as poignant as Batman Begins, but Superman Returns is a worthy addition to the short list of good comic-to-film adaptations. Much about the movie is good, but not quite great. Still, it meets all the requirements of a summer blockbuster and is sure to make fans very happy. After almost two decades without the Man of Steel on the big screen, the citizens of Metropolis won’t be the only ones celebrating Superman’s return this summer.