Saturday, July 01, 2006

Superman Returns / **** (PG-13)

Clark Kent/Superman: Brandon Routh
Lex Luthor: Kevin Spacey
Lois Lane: Kate Bosworth
Richard White: James Marsden
Perry White: Frank Langella
Jimmy Olsen: Sam Huntington
Martha Kent: Eva Marie Saint
Kitty Kowalski: Parker Posey

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, and Singer. Based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Running time: 154 min. Rated PG-13 (for some intense action violence).

Maybe comic books will save Hollywood. Films like “Elektra” or “The Punisher” may not offer much evidence of this, but over the past few years, some of the most popular comic book characters— Spider-Man, Batman, and now Superman— haven proven the superhero genre to be both highly entertaining and capable of great character depth. “Superman Returns” shows us a contemplative Superman, not sure of his place on Earth or in the universe, no mater how much the public accepts him as its hero.

In this sequel, director Bryan Singer (the first two “X-Men” films) pays tribute to 1978’s “Superman”, starring Christopher Reeve. As the film opens, Superman has left Earth to revisit the ruins of his home planet of Krypton. Five years have passed, and the world has moved on. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth, “Beyond the Sea”) is engaged to Richard White (James Marsden, “X-Men”), son of The Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella, “Good Night, and Good Luck”). The two have a young son.

Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, “The Usual Suspects”) has managed to weasel his way out of a double life prison sentence thanks to due process and is amassing a huge bankroll swindling old widows out of their family fortunes. Luther, still obsessed with Superman, searches out his Fortress of Solitude to learn the secrets of his nemesis’s home planet.

Spacey obviously relishes his role as the villain. His performance is a little more subtle than Gene Hackman’s blustering in the 1978 film. The character isn’t as rich, but he makes up for it in down right devilishness. He is joined in his evil schemes by Parker Posey (“Blade: Trinity”) as Kitty Kowalski, the not-so-bright assistant. Posey plays well off Spacey, adding a comedic counterbalance to his cool menace.

Newcomer Brandon Routh makes for a fine Superman. He’s not as over the top nerdy as Reeve when playing Clark Kent. Routh’s Superman is more meditative upon his return to Earth than the hero has been in past incarnations. The problems he returns to are more complex than in the past. His girlfriend has moved on to other, less adolescent pursuits, and as a renowned reporter has taken it upon herself to write Superman off for the rest of the world as well.

Superman’s actual return to the public limelight takes place during a spectacular action sequence involving a piggy-backed space shuttle launch. While the action never becomes the point of the picture, there are some wonderful special effects at work here. The flying sequences alone have evolved light years since 1978. Superman truly seems to defy gravity as he flies without breaking the rules of weight and movement.

In many ways, “Superman Returns” is like a remake of that original film. Lex Luther’s plot to destroy a large part of the United States, thus providing himself land ownership riches, remains in tact. Superman’s introductory action sequence again involves an aircraft carrying a helpless Lois Lane. Perry White is still determined that Superman is the only story worth pursuing. Superman and Lois even share another moonlight flight together, although this time it’s not as much about romance as it is about character motivations. Like last year’s “King Kong”, the advances in technology have let the filmmakers broaden their pallet of the action and locations, allowing the film to take on a more epic feel.

Singer obviously loves the 1978 film, and he takes the opportunity to pay tribute to it and other cinematic standards of Superman. Wisely, he and composer John Ottman keep much of John Williams’ ’78 musical themes in tact. One of the few problems with “Batman Begins” was that Batman had no theme music, but John Williams’ Superman score has become almost as well associated with the character as his blue tights and red cape. Singer even presents the opening credits in the same style as the ’78 movie.

Singer also references several iconic Superman images, such as a shot recreating the original “Action Comics” cover art from Superman’s first appearance, and another of Superman catching the Daily Planet globe as it plummets to the street below, invoking the imagery of Atlas carrying the Earth on his shoulders.

Remake or tribute, “Superman Returns” is a film made with sincerity and love. Film critic Robert W. Butler of the Kansas City Star disparages the film as “terribly sincere” in his review of it. I’m not sure when sincerity became terrible. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the changed world in which Superman now finds himself, but Superman has always been a symbol of sincerity. Perhaps the dark times since 9/11 call for a sincere hero. These filmmakers understand what made Superman work almost thirty years ago and couldn’t have done a better job delivering the hero we need today.

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