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The Usual Suspects

 

Superman Returns

Bryan Singer, USA, 2006

Rating: 3.7

 

Posted: June 28, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It's hard out there for a superhero -- at least at the movies. The last X-Men movie featured mutants getting snuffed out left and right, and in the upcoming My Super Ex-Girlfriend, even a caped hottie who looks like Uma Thurman can't catch a break --she gets dumped by Luke Wilson, of all people. And now the Man of Steel, of all super-people, returns from a five-year sabbatical in outer space to find himself cock-blocked by none other than James Marsden. What's an invincible Last Son of Krypton to do?

Not much, as it turns out. Yeah, the world's most famous superhero spends a fair amount of Superman Returns -- his first new movie in almost 20 years -- saving innocent lives, foiling bank robberies and the like. But for a man who can change the course of mighty rivers and even turn back the hands of time, he's a disturbingly passive sort. Or is that passive-aggressive? At one point, he uses his X-ray vision to eavesdrop on Lois's life with her new guy and five-year-old son. (Hello?! Dude, that's called stalking. What is this, a Lifetime movie event?)

But we can't be too hard on ol' Kal-El: After all, he's trapped in a script that deliberately mires itself in that kind of vague, hazy Ronald Reagan past where life was better than it is today. Director Bryan Singer deliberately grounds Superman Returns in the milieu of the first two Superman films; Richard Donner's 1978 original and Richard Lester's action-packed 1980 sequel: that weird crystalline technology; Marlon Brando's dispatches from beyond as Superman's long-dead father Jor-El; John Williams' score; even Superman's insistence on acting like a bumbling oaf in his human guise as reporter Clark Kent. Except for a joke about camera phones and a brief plot point hinging on a fax machine, the movie could easily take place in the Superman movie universe version of 1981.

Maybe, in this Batman Begins era of reinventing superhero franchises, Singer thinks this old-school strategy ironically makes him a forward-thinking visionary. But there's nothing visionary about it. It isn't just the third and fourth Superman movies (which Singer wisely avoids) that derailed the movie franchise -- it's also Superman's declining currency as a valid, relevant pop-cultural icon.

Ever since John Byrne "rebooted" the Man of Steel in the 1980s, comic book writers have been struggling with how to make a virtually omnipotent, morally upright demigod relatable to readers in an age of increasing moral relativism. I don't have the answer, but as a longtime fan of the character, I suspect it doesn't involve shackling him in a retrogressive, fantasy-world setting and relying on Christopher Reeve's wholesome apple-pie take as a character template. (Newcomer Brandon Routh, while he seems a tad young for the part, nevertheless does a credible job of filling Reeve's boots, and seamlessly approximates his predecessor's Clark Kent buffoonishness.)

Of course, Singer likely doesn't give a hoot about all that highfalutin' stuff, and there's an argument to be made that movie audiences want the Superman they remember and are comfortable with. Fair enough. But Superman Returns makes the world's most iconic character a symbol of nostalgia, and that can't be good for his long-term health. It relies too heavily on our memories of and associations with the character instead of trying to update them. It's easy to see why interest groups are projecting their own agendas onto the Man of Steel: He's Jesus! He's gay! He's ... a blank slate.

But then, nobody else gets updated either. All the usual suspects are back in play: Besides Lois (played by the almost-but-not-quite gorgeous Kate Bosworth as a driven career woman and spurned ex-girlfriend), there's Daily Planet editor Perry White (an oddly cast Frank Langella, whom you keep expecting to do something evil), photographer Jimmy Olsen (an affable Sam Huntington) -- and of course Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, hamming it up for all he's worth), whose criminal plan once again involves real estate (you'd think he'd move on to manipulating the stock market or something). No surprise, then, that the newer characters -- Parker Posey's sarcastic moll, Marsden's Richard White (turns out stuffed-shirt Cyclops can actually act) and Tristan Lake Leabu as Lois's son, who might be more than he seems -- are the more interesting ones.

At the end of the day, of course, it's just a movie, and if it's a half-hour too long and a bit too numbingly familiar, it does feature some engaging action sequences, and it's hard not to get caught up in the moment when a stadium full of onlookers applauds our hero after he saves a plunging airplane from certain doom. Still, it'd be nice if Superman Returns inspired us in some way. Stirred our passions. Got us worked up about truth, justice and the American way. Instead, it wraps us in a warm, cozy blanket and assures us that everything's going to be all right. As long as that's all we expect from Superman, his reappearances will continue to yield diminishing returns.

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