Thursday, June 29, 2006


Reverent. That's the word I kept thinking while seeing Superman Returns. The reverence Bryan Singer and Co. had toward everything Superman is apparent in every element of this film, and it's that kind of thinking which has helped produced the best comic book movies, and the exact feeling which was missing in the last X-Men movie. Whereas X-Men was a slow-moving parade from one special effects sequence to another who-cares plot point, 'Superman Returns' exudes a charm that it is the best possible incarnation of a worshipped cultural icon.

The best decision Singer made with this movie was placing it somewhere in Richard Donner's Superman universe. As a pseudo sequel to Superman II, Singer didn't need to spend an hour with Supes' origin. This was the right decision not only story telling-wise, but also because it allows the first two entries in the series to be appreciated as they should be, while also enabling fans to further forget the last two Superman movies. I think this was an early stumbling block by fans, as the thinking was 'Superman' didn't need to be remade, as Donner's 1978 will always be a landmark achievement for all comic and blockbuster films.

And like Donner's film, 'Superman Returns' feels like two movies. I've always felt that the first third of 'Superman' is the high-water mark for any superhero movie, which is why some feel disappointed with the movie as a whole, because the rest is almost a letdown. 'Superman Returns' is the reverse of this, with the movie kicking into high gear after the first hour. Where 'Superman Returns' will pale in comparison to the 'Spiderman' franchise to non-comic fans is that first hour, where you'll feel kind of lost if this is the first Superman movie you've seen. But it's impossible not to smile once you see how right Brandon Routhh looks in the suit (which in my opinion, does NOT need to be fire engine red and sky blue, the straight-up colors looked hokey even in '78 and would come off worse on today's screens, I like the new pallette), how much fun Kevin Spacey is obviously having as Lex Luthor (despite what Ebert says, more on that later) and even though flying sequences are old hats nowadays, Singer manages to conceive something effortlessly startling in many scenes. This is most apparent at the end of the much-talked about airline rescue scene, I won't spoil it but when you see the notes Singer ended it on, you'll get a feeling for how much creative energy was really put into this film, I know I did.

I re-watched Superman: The Movie with my nephew the day before seeing the new one, and I recommend doing the same, just to get a handle at how connected the two are. Sure, Gene Hackman's Luthor was fun as hell and Spacey's is more evil than gregarious, but then how would expect Hackman's Luthor to act after spending five humiliating years in prison? I knew Singer was headed in the right direction when I heard he was re-using some of Brando's footage, and it turned out to be a revelation. Brando IS Jor-El, using a new actor would be all wrong, and I think my favorite scene of the new movie is at the end when Superman recites my favorite Jor-El line. But this wasn't from Jor-El talking to him through the crystals, this came right before he left Krypton, as if the father HAS become the son and vice versa. I wasn't expecting it and was just blown away when I heard it.

'Superman Returns' is nearly flawless, but there are still some parts of it that bother me. Chief among them is the decision to have a Superman Jr. in this. I can understand putting this device in a sequel, but now they HAVE to put lil Supes in the sequel, and they didn't really get much mileage out of him in this movie. Do we really want to see a coming-of-age Superman learning his powers in the next movie? I'm sure they will make it work when we see Superman again in 2011 or so, but it just seemed like an odd decision which didn't prove too fruitful. Another is that while Singer weaves the Superman world masterfully, we never really get the feel how happy Earth is to see Superman again after a five year absence. Seeing the miracles he works, don't you think the populace would really miss him, and if he came back, shouldn't there be some sort of global emotion? You see it at the end, but never really get the impression when he first arrives. Also, some minor fan boy quibbles: if this is a sequel, why does the Kryptonite Lex steals from the museum still say 'Abbas Addiba' on it? Lex already stole this piece of Kryptonite in the original and presumably used it, did someone recover it and put it back in a museum? We're never really convinced why Superman would want to return to Krypton, I mean if a planet explodes, it explodes, meaning even if there were some chunks left floating around, there wouldn't be anyone hanging out on it Little Prince style. One last note: there were a few scenes where my wife and I both thought Routhh's unusually perfect features were digitally enhanced. I know it was filmed in digital and we were seeing it at a digial theater, but watch for a few shots where Routhh comes off looking more like a Ken doll than human.

Finally, I have to say how much I disagree with Ebert's two star review. I've been reading Ebert for at least 10 years and don't think I've ever thought he was ever so wrong. The ho-hum action sequences he describes sure don't sound like the ones I watched, same goes for Spacey, who seemed to relish playing someone genuinely devil-ish. I thought Ebert would appreciate the creativity which went into 'Superman Returns,' as well as the story, which was miles ahead of X-Men 3, for which he gave a positive review.

Late review: A Prairie Home Companion
As much as I enjoyed 'Superman Returns,' my favorite movie of the year is still A Prairie Home Companion, which is the rare kind of movie that leaves you with some sort of baptismal feeling exiting the theater. Everything works. Everything. As good as the casting looked on paper, it becomes near perfection when you see Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly in the prototypical Harrelson and Reilly roles. This is especially true for Kevin Klein, who would get an Oscar nom for this if he hadn't played this same role a few times before. It's a movie full of Best Supporting Actor nominations, but if I could pick actor who will actually get this nomination, it's actually Virginia Madsen, who's in the role of her career and literally sparkles throughout. Throw in the wonderful-as-usual Garrison Keillor writing, and you have a movie that you have to be kind of an asshole not to like.


Reel Fanatic said...

Great stuff ... I'm finally gonna get to see this tonight, providing I can get out of my workplace in time ... I'm ashamed to say, however, that Prairie Home Companion has already left the theater in my little corner of the world without me seeing it ... DVDs to the rescue

Anonymous said...

Great review. Would you be interested in also posting it at Mathematician vs. Philosopher to provide some ... balance to Ben's jaundiced review?