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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Superman Returns

It’s conceivable to feel affection or nostalgia for the hokey, visually clumsy 1978 Richard Donner Superman. But reverence? Yet that is what Bryan Singer, director of the new Superman Returns, has been professing in publicity interviews. Singer is a great talent, and the new movie is vastly superior to the old one. But the careful respect with which the director approaches the material is ultimately what keeps this from being a really exciting or important movie. And it so longs to be important.

Like Batman Begins, last summer’s DC Comics spectacular from Warner Bros., Superman Returns wants above all else to avoid ridicule. Studio executives seem to have said, we’ll give you mountains of money, as much as you need – just don’t embarrass us with another Batman and Robin or Superman IV: Quest for Peace. In this, both movies succeed: they are rarely or never cringe-inducing or campy-silly. But there’s also a certain dullness to them, a lack of risk-taking or exhilarating imaginativeness. Compare them to Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, Sam Raimi’s second Spider-Man movie, even Ang Lee’s much-maligned The Hulk. In each of those, there seemed to be real creative fire at work, and real feeling – and a willingness to go for broke visually and emotionally, to risk absurdity, in order to reach operatic heights.

There is much to admire in Superman Returns. It has a visual elegance and consistency that couldn’t have been easy to bring off – gigantically budgeted spectacles can look patched together and ugly, as indeed the 1978 Superman often did. And the holy-holy-holy tone applied to Superman’s relationship to us Earthlings (he’s our Savior, we are repeatedly reminded), which might be expected to wreck the movie, actually provides some of the emotional high points. The unfulfilled love story between Superman and Lois Lane also produces a surprisingly strong emotional tidal pull. And there’s not a dry eye in the house when the words of wisdom spoken earlier by a magically reincarnated Marlon Brando, as our hero's father, are repeated by Superman to someone I can't name without spoiling a clever plot point.

Other pluses: The stately pace makes for a long (over 150-minute) movie, but helps avoid the rushed, chaotic feeling of many action fantasies. The brilliant notion of having Superman’s “flying” often instead become silent, graceful hovering or floating, is beautifully accomplished. Kevin Spacey is an inspired choice to play a merciless villain with a sardonic edge. Kate Bosworth, as Lois Lane, has a difficult role (torn between two lovers and also between two rather ridiculous headlines Lois has written, one of them implausibly a Pulitzer winner), but she more or less maintains her dignity and credibility.

Christopher Reeve, certainly the best part of the seventies movie, is a hard act to follow. The part doesn’t require an actor exactly – more like a convincing presence. As written, Superman is also Super-Nice-Guy, and his resolute cheeriness and politeness could become grating. But I believe Brandon Routh accomplishes what he needs to in nearly every scene. Who knows if this should be called acting, or what he could do with a different kind of performing challenge? But as a physical and vocal presence, he is convincingly and satisfyingly Superman. (He may find it hard now to be accepted playing any other role.)

As for Imax 3D: Thank God for Imax, which is the closest we get currently to the magical sharpness and clarity of the now rarely-used 70mm. It has added to the visual impact of every feature I’ve seen it used for: Batman Begins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Polar Express. Just as a superior way to see the “flat” scenes in Superman Returns, it’s wonderful. But the 3D effects, used just for a few scenes, are a mixed bag. The flashing symbols onscreen telling you to put on and take off your special glasses are an amusing reminder of the days of William Castle exhibition gimmicks, and they bring this sometimes too-solemn movie down a welcome peg or two. But while in wide shots, with clearly differentiated foreground and background, the stereoscopic effect is eye-popping, in several of the darkly lit interior scenes, with their fast editing, the action becomes murky, all but indecipherable…just a lot of blurry things flying around.

My main objection to this movie, and even more so to Batman Begins, is that it is a detour away from genuine artistic development for one of our best young directors. Certainly it’s depressing to think that Christopher Nolan, who gave us a mindbending near-masterpiece in Memento, already spent a few years of his life on one Batman movie and is now preparing another, which will occupy him for more precious years. But is making a better Batman movie than Joel Schumacher really a worthy goal for a talent so large? For Bryan Singer, the stakes may be slightly different, since none of his movies, including The Usual Suspects, has been as amazing as Memento, and since his best work, in fact, was in another stupefyingly expensive comic-book movie, X2. Nonetheless, $260 million (and Lord knows how many months and years) could have been used to make four (seven? ten?) more interesting movies. These big successes may well bring great future opportunities to Nolan and Singer (and the money and adulation may be hard to resist). But they won’t get these years of their lives and careers back. Will they be glad they spent them this way?


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