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"Quite capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, (but) does so without much care or conviction."
"Routh brings a quiet warmth and tenderness to Superman that would have made the Reeves proud."
"With all the creativity that can be mustered in Hollywood these days, this caped crusader deserves so much more."
Superman Returns  

Cast

Clark Kent/Superman: Brandon Routh
Lex Luthor: Kevin Spacey
Lois Lane: Kate Bosworth
Richard White: James Marsden
Perry White: Frank Langella
Jimmy Olsen: Sam Huntington
Martha Kent: Eva Marie Saint
Kitty Kowalski: Parker Posey
Review July 2006

"Look up in the sky. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Superman." Not since 1987's far from super effort, "Quest for Peace," has the Man of Steel appeared on the big screen. But after a long hiatus, he returns, faster than a speeding bullet. Picking up where "Superman II" left off, the film follows Superman's return to Earth after a five year journey to Krypton ends in disappointment and despair. But perhaps even more damaging is the universal rejection he receives from a world that no longer needs him. At least, until Lex Luthor shows up and starts making a continental mess of things. Directed by Bryan Singer, whose work on the X-Men franchise earned him favorable comic credibility, "Superman Returns" combines retro style with visual panache. At the center of attention is the casting of Brandon Routh, who does an admirable job filling in for the late Christopher Reeve. But it's not enough to keep the story from plodding along, as disjointed and erratic as years of development heck would indicate. And while this updated Superman is quite capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, it does so without much care or conviction.

After saving the world from Zod and his evil henchmen in "Superman II," the Man of Steel journeys to the far reaches of the galaxy, searching for survivors from his home world, Krypton. It's a mission that takes roughly five years and one that produces zero results. Saddened by his lack of findings, Superman crashes back down to Earth outside the Kent farm in Kansas, empty handed and alone. Nursed back to health by his mother, Martha Kent, he regains his strength and heads back to Metropolis as his alter ego, Clark Kent, to get his old job back. However, his return is not well received. Of most significance, he is heartbroken to discover that the woman he loves, Lois Lane, has moved on with her life. In particular, she is engaged to Richard White, the young nephew of the Daily Planet's Editor-in-Chief. And the two even have a son named Jason. Worse still, Clark discovers that the world has gotten used to Superman's absence. In fact, an embittered Lois Lane has even earned a Pulitzer for an essay entitled, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman."

Yet, while Metropolis is no longer the same superhero haven, some things never change. Arch nemesis Lex Luthor has been released from prison and has come into a large sum of money. Along with a group of thugs, he and his partner in crime, Kitty Kawalski, venture to Superman's Fortress of Solitude, and steal a handful of generative crystals. The crystals, when met with water, have the ability to grow large objects, even landmasses. Which is precisely Luthor's intent - to create his very own continent, flooding the entire United States in the process. And yet, with a damaged ego, a lost love, and a displaced home, Superman returns to save mankind once more. Making the ultimate sacrifice in the process, he proves through his actions that the world truly needs a superhero. A Superman.

Throughout the years, Superman has gone through many reincarnations. But it was his first appearance in Action Comics #1 back in 1938 that is the most regarded. In fact, it's a cover so well known that director Bryan Singer pays tribute in "Superman Returns" in a scene where the Man of Steel rescues a woman from a car without brakes. From that point forward, Superman went on to become one of the most popular superheroes of all time. He was featured in a newspaper strip for over thirty years, a series of animated shorts in 1941, and two live action serials. All before the first feature film entitled "Superman and the Mole-Men," back in 1951 and starring George Reeves. Then, in 1978, the first contemporary rendition of Superman hit the big screen. Starring a relative unknown, Christopher Reeve, and heavy hitter Marlon Brando, Richard Donner's interpretation went on to big success, spawning three sequels, the latter two of which were so bad that "Superman Returns" ignores their very existence.

Depending on whom you ask, the projected budget for "Superman Returns" ballooned to a whopping $260 million, more if you include all of the money spent on failed scripts and directors over the last ten years. But much of that money was also spent on special effects. And they certainly don't disappoint. In the 21st Century, Superman rockets through the air at high speeds without quirky blue screens, he gently hovers above ground fluidly, and the weight ratio and gravity details seem to be well under control. The film even resuscitates Superman's father, Jor-El, played by the late Marlon Brando by using computer technology based on cyber and lumispheric scans. Overall, the film incorporates some 1,400 visual effects shots, but none as stunning as the sequence involving the rescue of a super space shuttle and a passenger plane. It's a sequence well worth the price of admission.

Heading into the film, it was hard not to question the casting of a relative unknown in the leading role - Des Moines native, Brandon Routh. After all, it's a role that was so synonymous with the late Christopher Reeve, who gave Superman and Clark Kent such charisma, strength and virtue, and above all, humor. And with Dana Reeve's blessing to go forward, Routh appears in the film, oftentimes eerily resembling Reeve himself and other times, like a mannequin at Saks 5th Avenue. But apart from the uncanny resemblance, Routh actually does the role justice. Even though the red boots are hard to fill and the role lacks the words or dialogue you would expect from a leading character, Routh brings a quiet warmth and tenderness to Superman that would have made the Reeves proud.

Unfortunately, however, the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast. There's just no energy, no excitement, and no fun. It's as if the actors are going through the motions without a care for their characters' feelings, relationships, or situations. In particular, there's Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, a character that seems so depressed, so clueless, and deflated that she makes Clark Kent look like an extrovert. A far cry from Margot Kidder's sarcastic, edgy, and fallible reporter who carried loads of sass and sureness, perfectly complementary to Reeve's upstanding and wholesome Superman, Bosworth sets a joyless tone. Along with James Marsden, who faithfully plays her tag along fianc?, Richard White, the film never emerges from the depths of despair. Even the gifted talents of Kevin Spacey, cast as the maniacal Lex Luther, are wasted, downplayed in dutiful and delusional fashion.

For Superman, Kryptonite represents his biggest weakness. And for the film, it's continuity. Supposedly, the story takes place after the events of "Superman II," but it becomes glaringly obvious that it does so only when convenient for the plot. After all, why is it that no one catches on to the fact that Clark Kent and Superman have both been gone for five years? Additionally, there are major plot snafus involving Krypotonite, the durability of the Supersuit, Lois Lane's son, and the conflict between a modern Metropolis and a vintage set design and wardrobe. Much of this can be attributed to the string of production woes that cost the project oodles of dollars, many years of production heck, and three remarkably different directors just to get off the ground. But it will provide little solace to those eager and enthusiastic audiences, who know the history, the characters, and the storyline through and through.

Dedicated "with love and respect" to Christopher and Dana Reeve, "Superman Returns" certainly has it's heart in the right place; it's just that it doesn't capture the right spirit, the right synergy. While the special effects are conspicuously modernized and bold, it's hard to put any weight into them when the rest of the film has little sense of timing and continuity between events, past and present. Add to that a cast with tepid enthusiasm and you have a film that is barely breathing, lifeless and ordinary. It's a shame, really. Due to years of story rework, crew changes, and legalese, a pop icon gets a bad facelift. Was it inevitable? Probably. But with all the creativity that can be mustered in Hollywood these days, this caped crusader deserves so much more.



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