Superman Returns

©2006, Warner Bros. Pictures
Brandon Routh as Superman in “Superman Returns.”

In attempting to write a commentary on this film, it’s become clear to me what I liked about the previous “Superman” movies (let’s just pretend the latter two never happened) all along. The instant I hear the Krypton theme in the opening sequence, returning us back to familiar and almost hallowed territory, I’m transported back to childhood. But I’m no longer a child, and as much as I try, I cannot help but see Superman through twenty-six more years of experience than when I had first seen Christopher Reeve play the Man of Steel in 1978.

I’m telling you this as one who grew up loving the character, the hero, the mythology of Superman. Even speaking as an atheist who’s perfectly comfortable with the Christ parallels, as I’m only interested in Superman as a good story and not necessarily a guidebook to living. My first Halloween costume was Superman… well, okay, it was blue pajamas with feet and a reddish blanket—not exactly the thing to go trudging around at age four in the Grand Forks winter, a foot of snow on the ground. But I digress.

The point is that I’ve every reason to love “Superman Returns” from the standpoint of nostalgia, or despise it entirely for not being a Christopher Reeve incarnation. But I find myself almost completely ambivalent about the affair. I don’t resent what’s been done, but I don’t get very excited about it. Is it my age, or is it the content? I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps both.

Superman (Brandon Routh) has returned from the shattered Krypton after five years during which he traveled to see for himself whether his home planet, discovered from Earth by astronomers, was still there. I’m willing to ignore the peculiarity of a Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) who seem younger than Reeve and Margot Kidder when they carried the mantle in Richard Donner’s iconic creation, and the oddity of a Metropolis that isn’t actually New York, and a world easily dated by technology (LCD screens, cell phones, etc.) ten years after the last Superman film. I can also believe that Brandon Routh can carry himself as Superman/Clark Kent. He has the potential, though not all of it is utilized in this film.

But what am I missing? Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) certainly seems a bit different. In an absurd scheme designed almost exclusively to insert a cameo of Noel Neill (the original Lois Lane from the 1950s TV serial, who also appeared as Lois Lane’s mother on the train in Donner’s “Superman”). I could think of many other ways to put Neill into the story rather than being the unwitting hand in marriage by which Luthor, recently released from prison, inherits a fortune to help him get back on his feet.

The plot involves Luthor discovering all the secrets of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. It contains a sort of Library of Krypton, the sum total of Superman’s home planet’s knowledge and wisdom, stored in crystals which also have the ability to generate land structures—the habitability of which is debatable. Having learned the intricacies of the Krypton crystals, Luthor plans to create a new continent entirely of his control, which, by displacement of North America, will become quite the hot property. Some critics have found this plot to be quite mundane for a maniacal supervillain. I, for one, always found it hilarious that the running joke in the Superman films was Lex Luthor’s perverse fixation with real estate as a path to world domination. Silly as it may be, it’s certainly worth examining the career of Donald Trump to ascertain the veracity of that concept.

Is it the subplot with the sickly child that bothers me? No, not really. Is it the idiotic relentlessness with which Superman pursues Lex Luthor knowing that he has previously possessed and may very likely continue to use Kryptonite to ward off any potential interference from the caped defender of truth, justice, etc.? Possibly. Don’t you ever wonder why Superman doesn’t just carry a lead box or shield with him at all times (it’s not like it would burden his load) so that, should he happen to encounter a villain armed with Kryptonite, he can shield himself or trap the Kryptonite before it does any serious damage?

In actuality, there are two chief problems I have with this film. The first is the fact that in brief moments of inspiration the movie is so astonishingly good that it makes other scenes seem either drowsy or stilted by comparison. I like various touches, such as a shot of Superman resting, seeming to meditate, above Earth to muffle (but not silence) the voices he hears from all over the planet. At the first police alarm, he immediately awakens and dashes to earth to intervene.

The film has some great imagery of Superman in ways that the previous installments could not approach, largely for lack of the technology to make them convicing and realistically-paced. It’s actually a thrill to see the shockwave from a sonic boom as Superman takes flight, or the way his cape flutters about like a flag in high winds, or even yet the thousands of rounds of ammunition from a gatling gun riccocheting off his chest. While this iteration is replete with such moments, and some clever references to the past films, and while as children we found these elements reason enough to sit, grin, and be entertained, it may not be enough. While we’ve grown older, matured, and evolved as people, we don’t necessarily expect the characters to change drastically… but a little more evolution of storytelling would be in order.

What about bigger questions? When Superman is kicked around by Luthors crew, under the paralyzing influence of Kryptonite, how does such an experience affect him psychologically? When you know that you are nearly invincible, you probably grow up with a certain set of assumptions about your place in the world. So, in what ways does it turn Superman’s sense of self-worth, purpose and his view of human beings, on its head, to know pain and suffering as we do? I think “Superman II” did a slightly better job of exploring the dichotomy between Superman’s desire to fit in with the rest of us and his irrefutable knowledge that he is anything but. However, only “Unbreakable” has really, truly penetrated so deeply the pyschological trauma of someone unable to cope with extraordinary abilities or the loss thereof.

Perhaps the most significant achievement of this film may be its technical contributions to cinematography. This is the first motion picture filmed entirely using Panavision’s Genesis HD camera, the successor to the HD-900F that was used in the last two “Star Wars” prequels. The reason I mention this is partly because I’m a strong proponent of digital cinematography, distribution and exhibition. That isn’t to say I abhor 35mm optical film. On the contrary, I think it is important that, as digital filmmaking advances, optical processes and standards do not entirely disappear… at least not for some time. Therefore, it’s especially noteworthy that unlike the HD-900F, the cameras used on this production did not require custom lenses to minimize the distortion produced by the color separation prisms that filter red, green and blue light to the corresponding image sensors in earlier HD camera designs. Instead, the existing line of Panavision prime and zoom lenses are usable with the Genesis, giving cinematographers the ability to duplicate 35mm depth of field in a digital camera. The result is most impressive. Digital color adjustments aside, the imagery in “Superman Returns” is so astonishingly crisp and detailed that it trivializes many of the live action sequences in “Star Wars.”

Most noticeable is the clarity of photography in low light. Scenes on the Kent farm at early dawn and late dusk appear to have been filmed with little or no artificial light. Wide location shots at morning’s first light that would be impossible in 35mm without enormous and obviously present artificial lighting are so visibly rich in both composition and depth that Terence Malick might wish he had waited until now to film “Days of Heaven.” Films such as “Superman” and “Star Wars” aren’t particularly great dramatic enterprises, but they have always served as testbeds for innovation which more experienced directors and cinematographers may be later persuaded to employ in the pursuit of the purest image.

Unfortunately, cosmetic improvements cannot make up for lacking performances and underused talent. I believe Routh could be a great Superman, but part of Clark Kent’s charm was the loquaciousness of Christopher Reeve’s bona-fide, bespectacled nerd persona. I’m not bothered by the fact that Routh is essentially imitating Reeve, because Reeve was, more or less, imitating—no, channeling—Cary Grant. The problem is that Routh isn’t given much else to do except act as a Flying Plot Device. (EDIT: To which my wife responded, “Oh, but he’s such a beautiful Flying Plot Device.”)

Spacey plays Luthor with a dynamic range that dwarfs Gene Hackman’s. His moods, individually more subtle and textured by the slightest facial gesture, are more nuanced than Hackman’s snake oil salesman. By contrast, Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane is a study in the art of still life. Kidder was at once brazen and confident around Clark, yet a blubbering, infatuated mess in Superman’s arms. Bosworth is neither. The intrepid reporter is now engaged to Richard White (James Marsden), the nephew of The Daily Planet publisher, Perry White (Frank Langella). It’s intriguing, the possibilities, of a Lois Lane changed by career (she has won a Pulitzer for an essay titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”), marriage and child. But is it believable that these events annihilated the core of her charmingly ruddy personality?

What set “Superman” (1978) and “Superman II” above all others before or since was the human element. Consider, as corny as it seems, the scene in “Superman II” in which General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his ex-con associates from Krypton dispatch Superman, and the residents that attempt to organize to take on the would-be assassins. Superman is, as it is mentioned repeatedly, considered a savior by the people of Metropolis. The citizens take it personally, and logically the camera narrows in on reactions of various enraged Metropolitans stirred to action. Yet in the updated version, when Superman is hurt, Singer’s cinematographer restricts the imagery primarily to wide shots so that we never completely identify with Superman’s sympathizing public on any kind of personal level.

But then, many of Donner’s techniques may not have worked in the context of 2006. The melodrama and hammy nature of “Superman: The Movie” is tolerable, even oddly endearing, in the context of 1970’s cinema and of the 1970’s in general—perhaps the tackiest decade in history. We regard it with warm nostalgia, but how would it play if it were seen by eyes today for the first time? Not so well, I imagine.

And therein lies the second problem. I cannot be sure that the original two Superman films were really all that good. Part of what compels us to like them even more so is the already iconic status of Superman, and of the mythos of all supermen. These are grand ideas, on grand scales, coupled with fantastic imagery, inherently possessing superficial characteristics that might skew our perspective to tolerate some faulty writing here and there. But should we handicap our attitudes thus? Or should we, in the view of films such as “Unbreakable” and “Batman Begins,” though neither are entirely perfect, know that we can conceptualize and demand better, more imaginative and more creative entertainment and, maybe, just maybe, a little more depth of character? Is it too much to want a superhero story that challenges us to be active participants in a truly engaging experience rather than passive passengers on a Disney-ish park ride with all its preprogrammed action sequences interrupted by the occasional attempt at a story that’s regarded by the designers not so much as the motivation, but as the filler?

Is it any surprise, then, that the concept for Singer’s first film, “The Usual Suspects,” began not with a story, but with the cover art in mind? “Superman” undoubtedly begins with the image… that many men my age and older would love to resurrect for one more go around. But to begin with an established image is to begin with a safety net, never really pressed to write a great story because you’re standing on iconography you can’t help but think gives you some extra padding. Maybe all remakes or franchise adaptations are inherently poisoned by this reality of myth-resurrecting. The trouble with this movie is that, inside and outside of it, the realization is never expressed that Lois was right to ask the question: Why does the world need Superman?

That’s not a rhetorical question, as I state it. The question, and the myriad responses it provokes, would make for a much more interesting story than the incidental one that was flogged over nine years, several writers and $260 million dollars.

Superman Returns • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 154 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense action violence. • Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures

Dolby and the double-D symbol are registered trademarks of Dolby Laboratories.