I’ve been a big (albeit very surprised) enthusiast of the Batman reboot. In fact, I’m still smarting over the Academy Awards’ failure to nominate The Dark Knight for Best Picture. However, I didn’t get particularly excited about the latest Superman flick. Is it because Superman is considered too milquetoast for our contemporary sensibilities?
Or maybe the fact that I’m already in the tank for Batman, it would have been too much “superhero stuff” for one post-pubescent married woman with two children. I’m not into comic books or Star Trek or role-playing games. (However, I do have a secret yearning to attend Comic Con every year because that’s where all the good film previews break. I hope you can still respect me.)
I realize Superman Returns is old news now but I caught it on TV the other night for the first time and have a few random thoughts to purge in order to free up some brain cells for the cold fusion theorem I’m working on.
In a nutshell, I was pleasantly surprised. Superman Returns is a very good film. Since I didn’t hate it, I see little point in writing a full-fledged critique of the thing. (What? No basis for snide one-liners? Where’s the fun in that?) But I did have a few random thoughts. Some spoilers ahead.
First of all, I think composer John Williams should have the world’s shortest resume. All it should say is this: “I wrote the soundtrack to American life. Deal with it.” Let’s recap: Star Wars, Jaws, the Indiana Jones films, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurrasic Park, most of the Harry Potter films, need I go on? I haven’t watched a Superman movie in probably ten years or more but his score for the original Superman (1978) is so indelibly iconic, it made me smile the minute I heard the main theme resurface here. Superman Returns used John Ottman to riff on Williams’ original score — which has got to be the easiest money ever made in Hollywood. It’s a brilliant theme. Only an idiot would screw it up.
Which leads me to the imagery of Superman. Milquetoast or not, I realize how much I love the pathos of The Man of Steel. Truth, justice and the American way. A man who cannot tell a lie. “Nobody” talks like that anymore. “Nobody” values that anymore. But this movie not only made it work, it preserved that pathos far more than I could have anticipated. Plus the visual imagery of Superman skimming the atmosphere as he circles the Earth is powerful to anyone who was a kid when Christopher Reeve made his maiden flight in tights.
Brandon Routh, the man who assumed the tights for this film, is very good. The only minor complaint I might make is that he seems less to be playing Superman than to be playing Christopher Reeve playing Superman. His portrayal is completely watchable but I think divorcing the character from Reeve’s portrayal would have allowed Routh to stretch his acting muscle to the betterment of the film. There were also a couple of scenes where the dialogue clearly meant to harken back to Reeve’s super-banter of earnest but humorous admonishments. Routh was not at his ease in these moments and they seem corny and forced. This film began production only a short time after Reeve’s death, so its not hard to imagine the producers making this (intentionally or otherwise) almost a tribute film to his most famous role, but it’s a bit awkward nonetheless. A Superman reboot is in the works, helmed by the folks behind the successful reboot of Batman. If Routh is chosen to reprise his role as The Man of Steel, I hope he’ll have much more latitude to grow into it without the shadow of Christopher Reeve. He could be very effective.
Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor on the other hand, while worlds away from Gene Hackman’s campy portrayal, is just not scary. Kevin Spacey. That’s right. The guy who played John Doe in Se7en and scared the pants off fat people, hookers, lawyers and the rest of us. He’s entertaining to watch. Not scary. On the other hand…
There’s a great scene in which Lois Lane and her son are being held prisoner on Lex Luthor’s yacht. The Henchman assigned to watch them has an amazingly creepy tattoo of a skull on the back of his bald head. Scared the biscuits outta me. When his head turned, the skin wrinkled and made the skull’s expression seem to change. Yikes. Then Lois’ son goes over to play on the grand piano and the Henchman follows. For a moment, you wonder what this goon with the nightmare body art is going to do to this poor sweet child — until he sits down and starts playing “Heart & Soul” with the boy. Of course, later the Henchman tries to kill Lois and we get the whole creep factor back in spades. But I wondered: why make the Henchman more terrifying than Lex Luthor?
Kate Bosworth did a suitable job as Lois Lane. But I couldn’t stand her hair. I know she’s a blond in real life and they had to correct that. But it was so mousy-messy that it did Bosworth no favors in the looks department. I realize Lois is a no-nonsense reporter, but it wasn’t even no-nonsense hair. It was painstakingly crimped, over-long, dull (as in non-shiny) and frumpy.
I realize I’m nitpicking here, but Superman’s shoes were another mistake. Previous Supermen all wore those red tights-boots reminiscent of Robin Hood in the Errol Flynn era. I don’t think they looked unmanly on Christopher Reeve. But this Superman wears thick, clunky “space boots” that look like a pair of orthopedic shoes your grandpa might wear if he was on active duty with the Green Berets. Which wouldn’t be important except that they kept showing them.
I loved James Mardsen as Richard, Lois Lane’s fiance. Marsden is always great to watch, but I thought his character was a huge asset to the film. Apparently, the filmmakers’ intention was to provide Lois with a fiance who was very “Superman-esque” and I think they succeeded brilliantly. Richard isn’t a heel, a cad, a deadbeat, or a creep. He’s a good-looking, smart guy who also happens to love Lois and her son Jason. He flies, too — albeit in a plane. No cheap thrills of a cliched rivalry here. Richard and Superman don’t duke it out; the tension of the love triangle works itself out in dialogue, action and expression, as it should. One of my favorite moments in the movie: Lois and Jason are trapped on Luthor’s now sinking yacht. But when the door opens, it’s not Superman who comes to save their lives but Richard. Superman shows up later and saves all of them, but the point is made: even sans superpowers, Richard is a hero — and one who deserves Lois just as much as Superman. Which lends even more poignancy to her eventual choice between them.