A Film Review by Reginald Williams
Review Date: 7/7/2006
Superman Returns is a movie of many surprises and a few disappointments. Returns had the huge obstacle of overcoming the grandeur, scope and excellence of Richard Donner’s Superman and all the other well made and well executed superhero films that have come out over the years since Superman 4: The Quest for Peace hit the big screen in 1987. Superman Returns does surpass most of them and stands as third best amongst the Superman films with Superman 2 being second best and the original Superman being the first. Even with state of the art special effects and a budget that surmounted the first two films by almost a 100 million dollars, Superman Returns’ elongated and wasted runtime hamper a viewer’s overall enjoyment of film. These time periods can be described in one word: dull. When Brandon Routh’s Superman or Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luther aren’t on screen, the movie meanders and you are waiting for them to show their faces again. This was the same occurrence in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. When Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow wasn’t on screen, that film was infinitely less exciting and interesting. This is the same situation with Superman Returns. The co-stars’ characters, for the most part, aren’t given the dimensions their former incarnations were in the earlier films. They are simply archetypes with no real substance or personalities outside of the realm of the story. This isn’t true of two “new” characters added to the Superman lexicon, two individuals whom you don’t expect or think much of when you first see them but we’ll get to them a little later.
Beyond the characters in the film, when Superman Returns presents dramatic sequences to the viewer, it does so to near perfection. The show piece action sequence within this film is the shuttle/airplane rescue perpetrated effortlessly by Superman soon after he returns to earth after being away for five years. This scene slowly builds to intense action like in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King’s Battle of the Pelleanor Fields. Both start with anticipation, then exhilaration at what you’re seeing on screen and both end with a hilarious comical touch (Gimli, son of Gloin: “That still only counts as one!”). There is a scene later on in Superman Returns with a crystal land mass and a yacht that’s pretty gripping as well but it’s the scene that precedes it that is trademark Bryan Singer. It is very surprising. I won’t ruin it. I’ll just say that it involves playing the piano to the best of your natural ability.
This is also where the first of the two “new” characters I mentioned earlier comes into play. David Fabrizio is one of those actors you’ll swear you’ve seen before in something but can’t place. He plays Brutus in Superman Returns, a criminal that had been in prison with Lex Luther and is now one of his henchmen. He has an unsettling tattoo on the back of his head of a pair of eyes and a smirking smile. It is this small, simple detail that adds so much more to Fabrizio’s character. When Fabrizio unveils the tattoo, Singer’s camera immediately focuses in on it and when Brutus is looking down at a character that is crawling on the floor, you first see that tattoo then the person on the floor. It adds an entire layer of menace to Fabrizio’s character that wouldn’t be present if the back of his head were the ordinary assortment of skin and hair we usually see. If Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is right and “God is in the details” then He is in this small one added by Singers’ writing team of Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. That and the fact that someone in the Brutus’ past had the inclination to give him (a portion of) a classical education and got him piano lessons, one of the most difficult instruments to learn how to play.
Acting far better than she did in the lackluster (at best) third installment of the Blade film series is Parker Posey as Kathrin “Kitty” Kowalski, the second of the two “new” characters I spoke of. Brandon Routh acts a lot with his face in Superman Returns, he is forced to by a lack of decent “Clark” dialogue but he and Posey both show their character’s internal turmoil very effectively through their facial expressions. Posey’s Kitty has far more humanity in her than Valerie Perrine’s Eve Teschmacher, who was only concerned about her mother and not all the other lives Jean Hackman’s Lex Luther was about to extinguish in the original Superman movie released in 1978. Kitty doesn’t mind if a few people get hurt during the course of Luther’s malevolent schemes in Superman Returns but mass murder and genocide are things her conscience (or what passes for one in her mind) can’t abide by. And the viewer sees that indecision, that disquiet on Posey’s face during almost every scene after Luther’s grand plan is brought to light and fruition.
Superman Returns is a good summer movie but not a great movie in its own right like Batman Begins. It’s not the classic that the first Superman movie is or the near “Donner-less” classic that the second ones is. The third act of this film is where Superman Returns falters and it should have been its strongest. It should have been the culmination of everything and every Superman movie that had preceded it. It isn’t and it’s not the new Man of Steel’s fault. Brandon Routh is a very good Superman and more than once I thought I heard Christopher Reeves’ voice coming out of his mouth when he was in Clark mode. As I alluded to earlier though, it’s the Clark Kent aspect of Kal-El that is never given the room to breath that he was in the original Superman film. For one brief instance, you see that Clark in Superman Returns. It’s when Clark returns to Metropolis and soon enters the Daily Planet with suit cases in tow underneath both arms. He’s bumbling, confused and underfoot in the maelstrom of the newsroom, a photocopy of the same Clark that movie goers fell in love with in ’78. This resurgence of the old Clark soon dissipates and we are left with a lower key and subtle Clark Kent, a man that can blend into the background of a room and almost disappear. Christopher Reeve could never do that, which was his strength as Clark Kent and his weakness as an actor. Superman Returns’ strengths are its release date, memorable (though recycled) musical score, some surprise performances by it supporting cast and three or four inspired action sequences. Its weaknesses are its run time, its “adequate” performances by Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth and its third act. Superman Returns is a good first step, as was Singer’s superior first X-Men film in 2000. Let’s hope as with X-Men 2, that the acting, action, musical score, inclusion of new characters and the continuation of established story acres are brought to bear in Superman 2, which is scheduled for release in 2009.