Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Review: "Superman Returns"

***MINOR SPOILER WARNING***
***MINOR SPOILER WARNING***
***MINOR SPOILER WARNING***
***MINOR SPOILER WARNING***
***MINOR SPOILER WARNING***
***MINOR SPOILER WARNING***
***MINOR SPOILER WARNING***
***MINOR SPOILER WARNING***
***MINOR SPOILER WARNING***
***MINOR SPOILER WARNING***
***MINOR SPOILER WARNING***
***MINOR SPOILER WARNING***

Superman Returns - After twenty-six years, there's finally a worthy sequel to 1978's Superman: The Movie and 1980's Superman II, and one which takes the Superman mythology in a bold direction for a new generation.

This film uses Superman: The Movie and Superman II as a vague backstory, and some time after the events of the second film Superman journeys to Krypton to see what remains of his birth planet. Five years later, he returns to find that the people of Earth may have moved on without him; even Lois Lane is bitter about his leaving and now has a fiance and a young son. It soon becomes apparent that the planet and Lois still need him as Lex Luthor uses stolen Kryptonian technology to put in motion another devious plan to gain power and only Superman can stop him.

Director Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2: X-Men United) and co-writers Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris (X2: X-Men United) remain faithful to the vision of Superman explored by director Richard Donner in 1978 while modernising it and giving it some fresh directions to go in. The film explores the messianic hero aspect of the character, perhaps not as fully as it could have, but still it's something previous films and television shows have mostly ignored (although Smallville plays in the same field). The story is cohesive and wisely takes its time in setting up the characters before showing Superman in action, just as the first film in 1978 did. I won't spoil any of the big surprises, but one of them adds an entirely new spin to the Superman mythology, and does so in an emotionally satisfying manner.

This film was shot using the new Panavision Genesis high definition digital video camera rather than on film. How does it look? Amazing. It's the first film shot on digital video that doesn't look like it was shot on digital video. Earlier films shot digitally still had a bit of a video look and this film represents a huge leap forward in the technology of filmmaking. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel gives the film a polished, sophisticated look, perfectly blending live action and CGI effects into a cohesive visual whole. The creations of production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and costume designer Louise Mingenbach harken back to both the 1930s origins of the character and the previous films while also looking completely modern. Although I had some qualms about the new costume based on still shots, it looks marvelous on screen. Composer John Ottman (also the film's co-editor) nicely blends the John Williams themes from the 1978 film and his own compositions into a satisfying whole (keeping the fantastic Williams themes was one of the best decisions Singer made). All of the personnel listed above previously worked with Singer on the X-Men films, giving them familiarity with both the director and superhero films, and the experience pays off. The visual effects are stunning. If you believed a man could fly after the original film, wait until you see this one. You'll feel like you're flying with him.

Although Christopher Reeve remains the best Superman ever, and newcomer Brandon Routh lacks some of Reeve's range as an actor, Routh still successfully re-interprets the character of Clark Kent and Superman for the 21st century and a new generation of fans. The film works because he is believable, both as Clark Kent and as Superman. I had doubts about 23-year-old Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, but she quickly dispels them. Kevin Spacey plays Lex Luthor like Gene Hackman did, but gives him more of a sinister edge in a showy performance that works wonderfully. I wanted to see more of him. Tristan Lake Leabu is charming as Lois' young son and James Marsden (Cyclops in the X-Men films) is surprisingly good as her fiance. Parker Posey plays Luthor's none too bright moll exactly right. Frank Langella as Perry White, Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen, and Eva Marie Saint as Ma Kent are all well-suited for their roles. Jack Larson and Noel Neill (Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane in the 1950s television show) have brief cameos, as does Sir Richard Branson as a shuttle pilot. It's nice to see a digitally resurrected Marlon Brando as Jor-El once again.

In short, this is the best Superman film since the first one in 1978. I went in with high expectations and wasn't disappointed once. It takes the Superman mythology and adds to it, while paying homage to its predecessors (the three dimensional opening credits and Superman's fly-by at the end). This film will take hold of you as soon as the famous John Williams theme starts playing over the opening credits and won't let you go until the theme plays again over the closing credits. It literally takes you up, up, and away, and the Man of Steel demonstrates that he remains the greatest superhero of all time. In case you don't get it yet, I'm highly recommending this film. Now I can't wait to see where the next film takes the franchise and the mythology.


Side Notes: After seeing Superman Returns, there's no doubt in my mind that Bryan Singer is a great director of superhero films. Even when his films don't follow comics continuity, they still capture the spirit of the characters for the screen. He gets to the essence of the characters, and perhaps only Sam Raimi does it as well. I rank Singer higher than Raimi because Singer has done it with two franchises. How good could the third X-Men film have been if the studio had waited for Singer to finish Superman Returns?

I was eight years old when Superman: The Movie was released in 1978. I absolutely loved the film. One of the coolest moments in it was at the end when Superman flew into space, smiled, and flew past the camera to the strains of John Williams' theme. I felt like my eight year old self again when Superman Returns ended the same way.

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