The humble movie trailer, while an essential element of the cinema-going experience, causes no end of internal consideration and consternation for this scribe. Put bluntly, is it poor form to expect people to shut their pieholes throughout the previews of coming attractions? When I’m emperor and overruling my own utopia speaking when within ten feet of a cinema complex will be an offence worthy of imprisonment, but should the fabled tut and glower of disapproval be reserved for the opening credits of the feature presentation and beyond?
This writer last wrestled with that particular quandary (and lets be fair, as a dilemma it’s up there with Sophie’s Choice) while parked in the multiplex and waiting for the curtain to lift on The Dark Knight Rises. Astounding though Nolan’s trilogy undoubtedly is, I couldn’t help but be more excited at the glimpse of another caped crusader; preceding Batman’s tussle with Bane was the first trailer for Zack Synder’s impending Man of Steel, Superman’s long-awaited return to the big screen. That it’s been six years since the last bout of silver screen flights and tights is nothing less than a travesty; not least because Bryan Singer’s love letter to the big blue boy scout, Superman Returns, remains the finest four colour adaptation of this century.
Yeah that’s right, I went there. Superman Returns is better than Singer’s own mutant magnum opus, X-Men 2. Superman Returns is superior to Sam Raimi’s initial brace of superb Spider-flicks. Superman Returns bests any screen venture of the Batman – yep, even Nolan’s trilogy.
The long and tortured path Superman Returns took to the screen is well-documented elsewhere, so we’ll leave that tale of woe for another time. By the time Singer has jumped ship from the X-franchise he had moulded into something special – and helped launch the boom in funnybook films that still endures over a decade later – WB had already spent an obscene amount of money in attempting to bring DC’s prized paladin back to the big screen. Meanhwhile, 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest of Peace had cured the previous generation’s casual moviegoers of any fondness they may have retained for the Last Son of Krypton. For many though, the precious memories of the Richard Donner original and its first sequel (we’re not even getting into assigning credit for that one) burned bright.
Bryan Singer clearly counts himself among those many, as Superman Returns acted as a belated complement to Donner’s concept. This was a decision that was criticised heavily upon Superman Returns’ release. It seemed the clue wasn’t in the name. Sure, it could be argued that Singer is so enthralled by what came before that he did not stamp his own authority and vision into his movie, but that’s no bad thing. From the moment John Ottman’s homage to that John Williams march starts to play over the opening credits (credits that also retained the same font as Donner’s vintage tour de force), goosebumps were never far away. It was instantly clear that Bryan Singer was treating those of us who cherished these classics with respect, and delivering something gloriously cinematic in the 70s tradition.
It’s amusing that history seems to have judged Superman Returns as slow and low on spectacle, as everything about the movie is huge. Every cent spent on the production is up on screen with some glorious set design, and while the screenplay focusses on character emotion over perpetual motion, there are plenty of action scenes that played gloriously in IMAX. The biggest of them all, the rescuing of a space shuttle from crashing into a baseball field, encapsulates everything that makes Superman Returns so delightful – thrilling action, convincing special effects, a spot of slapstick comedy that hits the mark and a one-liner from Brandon Routh that channels the late, great Christopher Reeve so immaculately that one can only assume that actor and director were toying with a ouija board before shooting.
Ah yes, Brandon Routh. In what sane and just world is the man not on the speed-dial of the A-List? Routh simply owned the role in his sole shot at portraying the Man of Tomorrow, filling Supes with a perfect blend of charisma and human frailty, while his Clark Kent is just goofy enough to convince without over-acting.
It’s when given the chance to emote while acting under the guise of Kent that Routh really excels – check his reaction to discovering just how many word disasters took place while he was away and unable to help; his face when Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane’s contemptuously suggests that her and Clark have no relationship; his response to meeting Lois’ son and discovering that she never once mentioned Clark in his five year absence (“Really? Never?”); the look on his face while Lois and her fiancé Richard interact. These are moments that hurt the Man, regardless of the superlative, and Routh captures his anguish flawlessly. Indeed, perhaps one of the character highlights of the movie come in a scene that finds Clark and Lois alone, with the former’s decorative glasses falling from his face – the look on Routh’s face as he agonises over whether to reveal his secret to the woman he loves is worth a thousand lines of dialogue. Meanwhile, the small touches of humanity he brings while in costume – the milking of the applause when saving the baseball stadium, the cocky smile in the face of the bank robber who pulls a gun, the determined but agonised cry of “I’m still Superman!” whilst receiving a kryptonite-sponsored kicking from Lex Luthor more brutal than any 12a certificate deserves – add an extra layer to a character frequently derided as two-dimensional.
Many of the supporting cast acquit themselves equally well. Frank Langella is a very warm presence as Perry White, while James Marsden as White’s nephew/Lane’s fiancé is hugely impressive, convincing as a man that has to watch his fiancée fall in love with a superhero all over again before his very eyes. Kudos is due to Singer for having the courage to make the character to congenial throughout rather than provide an easy way out, proving that not all heroes wear capes. Kevin Spacey, meanwhile, is a treat as a Lex Luthor pitched somewhere between Gene Hackman’s eccentric egomaniac and the chilling psychopath frequently portrayed in the source material. Whether dropping a quarter into a $10 museum donation box, swindling a dying elderly lady out of her fortune or gleefully announcing the deaths of billions in the name of profit and personal gain, Luthor is never less than a magnetic presence. His presence in the movie being explained by Superman failing to attend a court hearing as a witness in also a nice touch, though it’s made clear that a five year absence has done nothing to dull Luthor’s obsession with the alien – “Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind” is a choice piece of dialogue, spat with real relish by Spacey.
Alas there is an element in the room that can’t be ignored when discussing Superman Returns; the woeful miscasting of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. It’s no fault of the actress that she is simply too young for the role, and thus fails to really deliver the world-weariness so associated with the character. Coupled with this, Boswell’s delivery in scenes between Lane and Kent moves beyond unwitting indifference to a coldness that Margot Kidder so skilfully managed to circumvent. The chemistry with Routh for the fabled rooftop night flight, however, cannot be disputed.
An element that alienated many was the addition of ‘Superboy’ – the reveal that Lois Lane’s son Jason is actually the product of Kal-El’s kryptonian loins. This was actually a potentially fascinating character development for any sequels that may have materialised – what difference would having a child make to the life of a superhero, especially one who lost his biological parents so young but was raised so well his adoptive Ma and Pa? Would it cause him to take fewer chances, concerned about leaving behind a fatherless son? Think back to the scene in this very movie, where the Metropolis Marvel lays in a hospital bed clinging to life by a thread and Martha Kent waits outside for news with the rest of the city’s populous, unable to reveal her anguish for fear of exposing her son’s secret identity. Could Clark Kent grieve privately, and Superman remain undistracted from his world-saving duties, if something were to happen to the little mite? It’s made clear throughout Superman Returns that Jason suffers from any number of medical ailments – there some things even a Superman can’t help or cure, how would he react to his son’s life being endangered by a foe he could not defeat with a well-aimed punch in the chops?
Audiences clearly weren’t prepared to embrace such an old-fashioned Superman flick in 2006, with the movie underperforming at the worldwide box office despite a solid enough critical reception. Naturally this meant sequel plans were soon shelved (though perhaps this is for the best – after all, what could they title a follow-up? Superman Loiters? Superman Never Left After Returning?). Maybe this was due to the films expectation that viewers would be familiar with the two movies that form its backstory. Maybe it’s because the character is frequently seen as somewhat goofy and star-spangled in the modern era – after all, even in Superman Returns references to the American Way are omitted from talk of Truth and Justice. Plans have been afoot to spin the franchise off into darker and murkier waters since the success of Batman Begins, a direction that would have to be handled very carefully but could work (a Death of Superman trilogy was mooted, and will surely make an appearance some day – make do with the animated movie Doomsday for a fix in the meantime). It’s presumably a more grounded and gloomy direction that Man of Steel will fly in next summer, and it promises to be hugely exciting to see Superman soar on the silver screen once again. One thing’s for sure though; Zack Snyder and the new man in the tights Henry Cavill have a lot of work to do if they are to top Superman Returns, the finest comic book movie of the 21st Century.