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Singing for his super
A film review of SUPERMAN RETURNS by Camus
"I forgot how warm you are…"
Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane to Brandon Routh's
Superman at a pre-flight prep smooch.


I had the good fortune to belong to a select group of men and women in the late seventies and early eighties who lined up for G&Ts and tasty nibbles late at night twice a week. Handed glossy synopses and, if you were lucky, black and white stills, we all huddled together in a darkened auditorium to pass judgement on the latest releases before their official openings. I remember sitting with a friend in the fourth row watching a Merchant-Ivory movie (sorry, 'film') entitled The Bostonians. In it, a tall actor is featured and called upon to play his role with an accent that was truly, uh... memorable.

Every time this actor opened his mouth, my friend and I were on our knees, tears pouring out uncontrollably. Not only was this southern lawyer's accent appallingly delivered, it was allowed to be appallingly delivered and to this day I do not know what possessed James Ivory and Ishmael Merchant to let those mangled vowels and tortured consonants emanate from their leading man and therefore their film. I have deliberately not seen The Bostonians since that fateful night over twenty years ago just in case it robs me of such a sweet memory. Christopher Reeve may have been oh, so miscast as handsome lawyer Basil Ransome, but as Superman - oh boy, did that guy fly. I remember the original 1978 Superman with great fondness (my father and I attended an open day at Pinewood Studios and visited the Fortress of Solitude set... "It's all polystyrene!" my father wailed as if film sets were actually supposed to be real. It entranced me well enough). It seems as if I wasn't the only one.

Bryan Singer, the commercially gifted director of a few franchises, one which has just bowed out (it is an ‘X-Franchise' you might say) and one just beginning (take a bow, the returned Superman), has completed a terrific piece of work with Superman Returns. His chosen company name - "Bad Hat Harry Productions" - clearly states his love of the benchmark in seventies' cinema. Jaws fans, rejoice. He has brought to bear the most cutting edge technology that Hollywood can pay for and added a personal dollop of fondly remembered thrills and all that lavish attention he has spilled on to, in essence, a love letter. His tribute to Richard Donner's 1978 original Superman, is so steeped in Donner homage, Donner respect, Donner re-invention (add awful pun on Turkish food here) that you get the impression that Singer dived into a bowl of Donner soup and has yet to surface for air. John Williams' main theme is intact as is the style of the main titles. There is something almost anti-art about re-making a movie just so you can shoot it in colour and call it a modern film (who will ever remember Gus van Sant's Psycho?) but what Singer has done is create a sequel to a film (we are dismissing Supermans II, III and IV, I see), a film which he gleefully quotes from visually and word-for-wordily very often. He has made his 'we are not worthy' movie as a superb piece of Hollywood kitsch. I had always thought Singer would provide the kitsch and sink (sorry but some word-play is irresistible) but his Superman flies and in a way that is both celebratory and a wonder to behold. There is a large thorn in the movie's side but all in good time.

The plot is a mere crystal trifle. Superman returns from his holidays (he had to see for himself his shattered home world) and finds that not only has his adopted world gone to hell, but Lois has shacked up with another man, had a baby and won a Pulitzer for writing an editorial on why the world does not need Superman. Not only that but arch nemesis Lex Luthor is out of prison and rich (Supes did not appear as an appeal witness so Lex walked, a free man) and he's snooping about in Superman's Fortress of Solitude. He finds alien crystals and decides to create continents (as you do) for personal gain. Superman has to come to terms with his feelings for Lois and defeat Lex whose new continents boast DNA of pure Kryptonite. So in Lex-land, Superman is merely a man, weakened enough to truly have the Kryp kicked out of him.

There is a word that Richard Donner had the cast and crew learn on the set of his first and only crack at the man of steel. The word was 'verisimilitude' - six snappy syllables meaning simply 'the appearance of being true or real'. His cast and crew duly went about their task creating a world in which the existence of Superman is gradually woven into society and accepted in the Donner-world as being 'real'. For some unimaginable reason, Donner then let his Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) ham it up so much that no scenery was safe from his incisors and I swear he had trotters on the ends of his legs. To work that hard to usher in a super-strong alien into the world of the late 70s and make it real (except for that teenager running shot which has always looked utterly stupid) and then ruin it all by making the villain more arch than arch nemesis was such an odd creative decision. I can only think of it being the equivalent of making a ship super-buoyant at the front and drilling a massive hole in the hull at the rear.

But then Hackman had one of the best all-time lines of fantasy cinema history: "We all have out faults. Mine's in California." referring to the San Andreas fault that will, by the explosion of a nuclear missile, tip the whole west coast of America in to the ocean. Take a bow, Mario Puzo. As a sub-textual tour de force, that line beats "My father made him an offer he couldn't refuse," hands down. But then the latter was probably Coppola adapting Puzo's Godfather novel.

Singer has been wise to be as earnest in his film-making as Donner was (almost) in his verisimilitude. Yes, Luthor is still something of a pantomime hiss-receiver but played by Kevin Spacey, he's entertainingly evil and thoroughly enjoying himself. On newcomer Brandon Routh; I'd seen stills and a few clips and I was willing to suspend my disbelief at his potential. Not only is Routh marvellous in the role, he does two things which I hitherto thought nigh on impossible. He inherits the role from Reeve and simultaneously he re-creates Reeve's performance. But the fact that this is a good thing makes his achievement all the more remarkable. Yes, he's not in your face but then Superman, by definition, has to be somewhat reserved. I mean, once you've saved a wingless, stricken airplane and gently landed it in the middle of a packed baseball stadium amidst huge roars of approval, you have to have a little humility - and extraordinarily, Routh pulls it off.

The two and a half hours fly (ahem) by and you care about what super-snooping Superman sees with those X-ray peepers of his in the Lane household. Lois has shacked up with Cyclops (James Marsden of X-Men fame) and is trying her very best to put Superman behind her, so to speak. So now we enter into the 'hero has a rival for romantic attention' territory and here is where the movie scores so highly. The usual Hollywood schtick is that the boyfriend/husband of the heroine is a well meaning but ultimately replaceable romantic partner. Not only does Marsden hold his own in the love triangle, he's also a tortured hero because he knows he cannot compete with Superman. But the fact that Superman accepts this and lets his rival stay with Lois is a real triumph of adult behaviour in a summer blockbuster. It is to the film makers' credit that they didn't just push Marsden away and let Superman have his super-way. In a sense, Marsden's character is the Lois common denominator and he grounds the movie in a way a man who can fly cannot.

But here's the rub. In 1978, Lois Lane was an unconventionally attractive woman with high ambition and a heart of steel. To get under her defences, you needed a crowbar and the strength of a rhino. Margot Kidder was perfect - just attractive enough, iconoclastic almost and it seemed that she shouldn't have been cast because in a big summer movie, she should have been more... uh... conventionally attractive. Kidder ran with it, gave it her all and proved worthy of the attention of the world's most eligible pyjama-clad god. Now I am about to stray into gender politics so forgive me if the PC waters seem a little choppy. Lois Lane, as played by Kate Bosworth, belongs in another movie. I do not know if her performance is the result of her being cast and directed by a gay man (does one's sexuality affect casting decisions? Of course! You cast whom you find attractive hoping the audiences agree with you) but Bosworth gives us an independent movie performance which sticks out like a 747 in a baseball stadium. She's tortured but exhibits low energy. She's broody but not all there. She's not worthy of anyone's rabid attention and shrugs off life threatening experiences that would put normal mortals on the counsellor's couch for six months. She's Teflon and Lois Lane needs to be the woman for whom Superman turns back time for. In Superman Returns, she's a mousy career woman with all the presence of an animated set decoration. If actors were words, then Bosworth is Rachel Weisz in italics. She just never seemed, ironically, to be on the page.

It's a small gripe in a big movie. If I had another small gripe, it would be in the whole cast not realising with (ahem) crystal clarity that the bumbling oaf in the Daily Planet's office is, in fact, Superman (by any other name but Clark Kent will do for now). The movie flirts with this obvious non-recognition flaw (and with the gleeful pop-art abandon that Russell T. Davies had making the stair-bound Dalek fly; "Elevate!") but it didn't get in the way too much of a summer blockbuster that deserves a sequel. The door is left ajar (as summer blockbusters' doors are, given the franchise potential) with the mysterious identity of the film's moppet character, Lois' son. Is he really Superman's progeny? The way that grand piano despatched a villain suggests this, as does Routh's touching soliloquy to the boy he knows is his offspring. All we need now is the dog. With a cape.

So we end with Lex stuck on a desert island (not the best fate for a man with such global dominance ambitions) and despite the running time I expected a final showdown between Superman and Luthor. It never materialised but I had spent a good two and a half hours caring enough for these characters that the ending wasn't such a downer. Many have commented upon the religious iconography. To that I say, stuff it. This is Superman, not Jesus. Allegorise all you want. Superman doesn't need to be nailed to a tree to be heroic. He's Superman...

Superman Returns

USA 2006
154 mins
Bryan Singer
Gilbert Adler
Jon Peters
Bryan Singer
Michael Dougherty
Dan Harris
Bryan Singer
Michael Dougherty
Dan Harris
Newton Thomas Sigel
Elliot Graham
John Ottman
John Ottman
John Williams
production design
Guy Hendrix Dyas
Brandon Routh
Kate Bosworth
Kevin Spacey
James Marsden
Parker Posey
Frank Langella
Sam Huntington
review posted
24 July 2006

related review
Superman Returns (Lord Summerisle review)