Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Superman Returns (review)

So the summer of sequels and rehashes continues ...

Here's my review of Superman Returns. A variation of this will be published Wednesday in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

“I hope this experience hasn’t put any of you off flying,” Superman (newcomer Brandon Routh) tells a plane full of passengers whose lives he has just saved by expertly guiding their wounded aircraft to a gentle landing in a crowded baseball stadium. “Statistically speaking, it’s still the safest way to travel.”

The late Christopher Reeve, as the big-screen Superman of the late ‘70s, would have delivered that line with the slightest suggestion of a smirk, a twinkle in his eyes and telling body language, all combined to make a comic, human connection with viewers.

That’s a feat not quite achieved in director Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, a slightly overstuffed superhero adventure that does manage to please on several levels, including that of brilliantly executed special-effects effects sequence such as the one described above.

Routh, he of the sculpted face and body ala Reeve, and the caterpillar eyebrows borrowed from Peter Gallagher, simply doesn’t fill Superman’s tights and cape – or Clark Kent’s work suit and black glasses – as entertainingly as his predecessor.

And sorry, but the new Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth, Blue Crush), while suitably cute, isn’t nearly as interesting as the endearingly quirky, rather obsessive Lois Lane played by Margot Kidder in 1978’s Superman: The Movie. The Gen Y version is a workaholic overachiever, who picked up a Pulitzer for an editorial titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”

She has a five-year-old son (Tristan Leabu) and a live-in fiancĂ© (James Marsden), too, so how’s our hero going to get together with his soulmate without reflecting poorly on his commitment to truth, justice and the American way? It feels a bit odd to be rooting for the Man of Steel to become a home breaker.

Superman, of course, does turn out to be an honorable fellow. And that’s precisely why we do need him, despite the gist of Lois’s award-winning column, which was really a cry for help in disguise.

When he returns from the remains of the planet Krypton, where he’s been searching for the meaning of life, he makes his arrival as a flaming streak, singing the cornfield next to the farmhouse that’s the home of his earthly parents – his elderly mom (Eva Marie Saint) and late father.

Then it’s off for a quick blitz of crime stopping, as he applies his powers of flight and bulletproof chest to foiling evil worldwide, from Houston to Shanghai. He makes hundreds of appearances, on seven continents.

That’s the cue for the Daily Planet’s staff to get into action. “Three things sell papers today – tragedy, sex and Superman,” shouts hard-bitten editor Perry White (Frank Langella), whose nephew, Richard White (Marsden), also on the news staff, has stolen Lois’s heart while Superman’s been on vacation. The setting is Metropolis, circa now, but the newspaper building offers several touches – an oversized elevator, each of whose occupants are reading the hot-off-the-presses paper – hinting at the beginnings of the original Superman comic, in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.

Superman has bigger things to worry about than routine crime stopping. Namely, ex-con Lex Luthor (reborn with Kevin Spacey’s snarky performance), who’s planning to combine stolen pieces of crystal from the superhero’s Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic with kryptonite to generate new, massive pieces of land that will be his, all his. Billions of people will die, he casually explains to his daffy sidekick Kitty, played to the hilt by Parker Posey, the former indie It Girl.

Before everything can be put right, Superman is forced to survive a near-deadly encounter with kryptonite and to confront an issue earlier incarnations of the superhero never had to face: Did he accidentally father a child? Maybe Superman is more human than he, or we, ever thought.

For good measure, Singer (X-Men, X2) bolsters his movie with a couple of key cameos. The late Marlon Brando resurfaces in archival footage – his priciest, least memorable performance ever – as Jor-El, Superman’s pop. And Bo the bartender is played by Jack Larson, AKA the Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen in the 1950s “Adventures of Superman” television series. Nice touches.

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