Now that the Cheese Fry’s knee-jerk approval (“I actually kind of liked it”) has slowly given way to incredulous disappointment (“Shouldn’t it have been better?”) and finally assured irritation (“They spent $200 million on that?”), forthwith are twenty pseudo-objective musings on Superman Returns, the box office blockbuster that wasn’t.
1. Kate Bosworth is no Margot Kidder. People (i.e. the media) sure do seem to love Bosworth, but why exactly? She’s one of those actors that feel pushed onto us by glossy Hollywood magazines – call it the McConaughey Rule – whether we like it/her or not. Her brittle, prissy Lois Lane walks a line between boring and annoying. What’s Superman see in her exactly? Kidder may not be as traditionally pretty as Bosworth, but at least Kidder projected a rough-and-tumble toyboy sexiness.
2. The best thing about the film is undoubtedly the opening titles that use the same zooming 3-D text effect as the first films. This sets up a giddy, retro expectation… that the film never meets.
3. Which brings us to a rather strange problem. On one hand, director Bryan Singer seems intent on linking Superman Returns to the first two Superman films with Christopher Reeve. He uses the same music. He puts a picture of actor Glenn Ford, who played Clark Kent’s father in the 1978 film, on a Smallville mantel. He uses the same production design for the Fortress of Solitude. Marlon Brando even shows up from the dead to play Jor-El. But at the same time, this movie is undeniably creating a different mythology and exists in a universe all its own. Singer can’t quite find a logical way to connect his film with the Reeve films on a fairly important narrative detail: Lois Lane’s Superbaby. All good geek fans know Superman and Lois did the Krypton Clinch in Superman II after he gave up all his powers in that weird plexiglass box. But then he wiped out Lois’ memory. So she’d have no recollection of her time with Superman. But in Superman Returns, Lois’ irritation (and Bosworth-esque petulance) with Superman’s 5-year departure carries with it a clear suggestion that they Had Something Going when he left. If this had been just a re-imagining of the story, then we’d assume they did before the movie started. But there’s a clear suggestion (if not in the film text, then in numerous interviews with Singer) that Superman began his 5-year absence shortly after Superman II ended. It’s not connecting.
4. There are homages and then there are rip-offs. Look closely. This movie shares similar story beats with the 1978 film. Luthor hatches a plot to kill millions (“billions” in 2006 in what seems to be the result of a sort of super-villain-threat inflation) so he can have real estate to sell. Superman takes Lois on a nighttime flight. Luthor has a female sidekick – their relationship seems too platonic to be romantic – that expresses sympathy for Superman and turns on Luthor as a result. It could be that the filmmakers are banking on the fact that the core audience of teenagers and 20-somethings never saw the 1978 film, in which case the Routh-Bosworth flight carries zing it cannot for those who saw Reeve-Kidder do it almost 20 years ago.
5. By the way, who the hell’d want to live on that craggy continent of onyx that Luthor wants to create anyway? What kind of evil genius plan is this? It’s cool that Luthor uses the green Fortress of Solitude crystal for evil and creates a kind of anti-Krypton of dull blacks instead of shiny whites, but a big plot turn like this needs to be more than just cool, doesn’t it?
6. From what’s on display in Superman Returns, it’s hard to imagine actor Brandon Routh having a long career beyond this franchise. He seemed like a nice enough guy on “The Tonight Show” but for the most part, he works as well as he does in the film mainly because he’s doing such a great Christopher Reeve impression. Especially in the Clark Kent scenes.
7. Was the character of Jimmy Olsen always such an annoying nerd?
8. Bryan Singer predictably hits hard the themes of alienation that served him so well in the first two X-Men films. And it works pretty well here, too. Superman is certainly not like us. He’s all alone, the last of his kind. No one understands him. But part of his angst is completely self-created. He’s the one who left for five years, remember. Did he think nothing would change? Again, if Lois Lane were at all likable and interesting, if we could get a handle on why Superman loves her so much, this part of the movie would probably resonate much more strongly.
9. It’s pretty cool that Lois Lane’s new boyfriend is a pilot. Nice detail. This is a girl likes guys who fly.
10. You’d think Kevin Spacey would have been better as Luthor. You also wonder why Batman has so many cool villains and Superman just has this one. Which is another reason why Superman II was so good – the villains posed a formidable threat to Superman because they shared his powers.
11. By the way, Superman II (“Kneel before Zod.”) doesn’t hold up so well. There’s a lot of cheese to be had. Not to mention the clumsy special effects. And as powerful a moment as it is when Superman gives up his powers for Lois Lane, it’s never clear just why has to do so.
12. The film delivers a powerful emotional punch when Superman’s weakened by kryptonite and Luthor’s thugs beat him to a pulp. Reminds you that drama comes from conflict – and it’s tough to manufacture conflict when your hero’s practically omnipotent.
13. The film has Luthor get out of jail on a technicality. Wouldn’t someone as smart as him come up with a more, like, interesting escape plan? Further points are deducted from the suggestion that Superman is somehow partly to blame for this – because he was gone for five years, he missed some kind of hearing that was apparently essential to keep Luthor in custody. Yeah, right. We’re not buying it.
14. It’s a goose-bump moment when Superman first appears on screen to save the only-in-the-movies shuttle/747 disaster. A wonderful popcorn moment.
15. A nice touch to show Superman basking in the yellow sun – recharging his Kal-El batteries – before exerting himself to lift out of the ocean Luthor’s craggy continent. As crazy as it is to see Superman lift a mountain (and yes, it's crazy), at least filmmakers tried to mitigate it by showing Superman soaking up the yellow sun rays.
16. There is something appealingly poignant seeing humans take Superman to the emergency room. What can they really do for him? But how can they not at least try? A nice moment.
17. Biggest plot hole: Luthor’s platonic sidekick Kitty diverts Superman’s attention from Luthor’s kryptonite theft by careening down a street in an out-on-control car. Superman predictably comes to her aid, which helps the plot… but doesn’t that seem like a pretty flimsy plan on Luthor’s part? Of all the crime in Metropolis, they’re banking on Superman attending to a moving violation. And he does. Not acceptable, people.
18. All in all, it’s really quite remarkable how brilliantly Sam Raimi and his crew have worked the first two Spiderman films.
19. A lot of right-wing pundits were chattering about the way the film dropped the last item in the familiar “truth, justice, and the American Way” line, choosing instead to have Perry White say “Truth, justice, and all that stuff.” Was it a liberal Hollywood decision motivated by international box office, to avoid draping Superman in the American flag at a time when the world sneers at the U.S.? Or was it an innocent story decision to make Perry White seem cynical and play with the line? Or should we all just get a life and stop worrying about stuff like this?
20. The Messiah metaphor isn’t very subtle here. We get Superman striking at least one crucifix pose. He hovers over the planet like some kind of god, listening to the cries and whimpers of what seems to be the entire population. There’s much debate about whether humanity needs a “savior.” And then there’s the awkward moment when the hospital staff checks on the sick Superman and finds him gone, the bed sheet tangled like a certain Someone’s tomb shroud. On one hand, these allusions add some interested depth to the story. On the other hand, it’s like, okay, we get it.