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Superman Returns

2006superman

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The Last Son of Krypton enjoys a mostly triumphant homecoming in Bryan Singer’s version of one of the most durable of superhero mythologies. “Superman Returns” is earnest, heartfelt, and stately, which are not necessarily bad things in the context of a storyline that has traditionally embraced fairness, civility, and helping others (not to mention “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”). Singer’s Man of Steel reveres key elements of D.C. comic book iconography and the Richard Donner film of 1978, which is consistently mined for both style and inspiration in this new incarnation, especially in the employment of John Williams’ familiar theme music.

A credit at the end of the movie dedicates the picture to Christopher and Dana Reeve, and many will note the remarkable physical similarities between Reeve and Brandon Routh, who dons the cape and tights with more dignity than one might imagine. Routh is not given a great deal to say – this Superman definitely prefers action to words – but his performance is better than passable. Not enough time is devoted to Clark Kent, however, and Routh’s humorous wet-noodle expressions when he appears as the “mild-mannered” Daily Planet reporter earn audience laughter and goodwill.

Following years of complicated development difficulties, the Singer vision of Superman is much stronger on special effects than it is on developing the well-known characters who interact with the Man of Tomorrow. Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane, now romantically involved with another man and the mother of a young son, has won a Pulitzer for an article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” If her writing isn’t indication enough, Lois is angry and bitter about Superman’s disappearance, and the movie never allows her an opportunity to recover. Kevin Spacey, as nemesis Lex Luthor, turns in a restrained performance, and with one or two exceptions, nibbles the scenery more than chomps it.

Notwithstanding the inevitable tweaking of the character’s continuity (which yields at least one major alteration this time out), hardcore fans will be anxious to see whether Singer’s imagination can conjure up some worthy set-pieces. A mid-flight rescue of a space shuttle and jumbo jet more than fills the bill. The early sequence is exhilarating, and also manages to demonstrate that despite his almost infinite abilities, being Superman is not easy. The flying effects are top notch, and many of the hero’s other powers, including x-ray vision and super hearing, are included for good measure.

Some viewers might find limitations in the serious tone of “Superman Returns.” The movie is certain to inspire an outpouring of discussion on the extent to which Singer utilizes elements of Christian theology. Perhaps more salient is Superman’s status as an outsider, reinforced by Marlon Brando’s beyond-the-grave dialogue. Secret identities almost always insist on some degree of loneliness in our costumed crusaders, and Singer clearly relishes playing up the somber sacrifices Superman constantly makes. If there is any significant complaint to be made about “Superman Returns” (other than its running time), it is that our suffering demi-gods and champions should be allowed to experience a little more joy in their extraordinary abilities.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/3/06.

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