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Empire List #496: Superman Returns

I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand it was a great feeling to go see a Superman movie on the big screen for the first time and to see Kevin Spacey do an impeccable job as archvillain Lex Luthor. On the other hand, having already seen three Superman movies on the small screen and many TV episodes, whether animated or live action, I didn’t feel that “Superman Returns” brought anything new to the table: same villain, same on/off relationship with Lois Lane, and same evil plot.

This new Superman movie came out in 2006, years after the disaster that was “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” and one year after the release of “Batman Begin” which had grounded the superhero genre in a more dramatic and realistic landscape. Suffice to say that the bar was high. I felt that the movie was in good hands knowing that it had been made by Bryan Singer who had done a great job with the first two “X-Men” movies and had made one of the best crime movies of the 90s, “The Usual Suspects,” when teamed him up with Kevin Spacey.

So in the summer of 2006 I entered the Cineplex Odeon in Quebec City hoping to have a good time. I was just happy that it was in English and not dubbed in French for one thing. Ever since I had gotten back from South America I had to deal with the fact that maybe there is one big movie that comes out in its original version in Quebec City. The rest of the time they are re-recorded by French actors, and if there is cheesy dialogue in the original version, I find that is even cheesier when it’s translated.

But on that particular occasion I was lucky enough to be able to enjoy a big Hollywood movie during what was turning out to be a stressful summer. I had just finished two years of CEGEP (a pre-university program in Quebec), I was doing a mediocre summer job (telemarketer), and in a few weeks I was heading for the University of Sherbrooke. Some escapism was needed.

From the very beginning you can tell that Singer has a lot of love for the first movie, since he uses the same music originally composed by John Williams for the opening credits as the camera zooms across the galaxy. It’s a clear message: the Superman we know and love from Richard Donner’s original movie is coming home. Later there is an homage to Superman’s first night of fighting crime in the city of Metropolis from the first movie, only this time special effects allow for a shot in which a criminal shoots a bullet aimed at Superman’s eye and the bullet bounces off his retina.

With permission from Marlon Brando’s estate, Singer even manages to bring back Superman’s father, played by Brando, despite the fact that the actor had died two years before the movie was released.

No doubt about it this movie has thousands of amazing special effects sequences, such as when Superman rescues an out-of-control plane, or when an island emerges out of the Atlantic, and when Superman actually lifts that island to throw it into outer space. Yet oddly enough I found some of the flight scenes from the earlier movies to be somewhat more realistic. Maybe it’s the costume. In the original movie Christopher Reeves was wearing a costume that looked like real cloth while flying in front of a green screen with superimposed footage. In this news version, the emblem on Brandon Routh’s costume looks like it’s made out of plastic and his cape looks artificially animated. As a result, I got the feeling I was looking at a cartoon shooting through the sky.

Speaking of which, Brandon Routh is great as Superman since he resembles Reeves a lot. Yet as Clark Kent, he comes off as weaker than he needs to be. When Kent learns that as a result of Superman’s prolonged absence from Earth, Lois Lane has a son and will soon be married, he mopes off to a bar and stares down a glass. I know that Clark Kent is the weaker half of the two people who share that body, but come on! Man up!

My biggest problem with the movie is with Lex Luthor’s evil plan. Because Superman was absent from Earth for years and could not testify against him, he was paroled and has been plotting a big revenge/comeback scheme ever since. Not much of a plan: once again Luthor plans to cause a major catastrophe that is related to real estate, this time using technology he found at Superman’s lair, and once again he will use Kryptonite to try to kill Superman. By now, shouldn’t Superman anticipate this? In the animated series I used to watch in the late 90’s a scientist had actually been smart enough to build a radiation suit to protect Superman. It makes sense. It’s his only weakness in the entire universe, shouldn’t he be thinking of a way to withstand it?

One interesting new character is Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu) Lois Lane’s son. The kid is at first quite uninteresting as he is always puffing on an inhaler. However, it becomes quite clear that his father is not Richard White (James Marsden) Lois’ fiancée, when Jason hurls a piano at a henchman that was threatening his mother. I had never seen a version of any Superman story in which he has a son, so it would be very interesting to see where that particular storyline could go in other movies.

As of this year, the rumours are that Christopher Nolan, he who reinvented the superhero genre with “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” will produce the next movie. I anticipate a solid story and I hope he hires Kevin Spacey to once again play Luthor, but I hope new villains are introduced. As far as I am concerned, the best movie in this franchise is “Superman II” because in that one Superman had to fight three supervillains who had the same powers he did. Talk about a triple threat. Also next time, enough with the kryptonite, it’s getting old.    


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