Thursday, June 29, 2006

Superman Returns - Movie Review

Reviewed by Jason Apuzzo

Earlier today I had my first opportunity to watch a $260 million film. I've never seen a $260 million film on the big screen, and so I was a bit curious as to what the experience would be like.

"Superman Returns" - which is not to be confused with "Batman Begins" or "Spider-Man Reborn" or "The X-Men Get Rolling" or whatever other comic book movie has been out there lately - clocks in at about 2 1/2 hours - while feeling twice that long. It represents an attempt by Warner Brothers to restart what is thought to be the ultimate comic book franchise.

Whatever I or anybody else says about the film, the Superman franchise has definitely been restarted. When a studio pumps $260 million into a film, there is basically no point standing athwart the tide of history yelling "Stop!" The franchise is going to happen. Sequels must be made, video games must be sold. What does it matter what anybody thinks about it?

And yet it does matter what people think. All of us as audience members have our pride, and at least some of us remember when movies were better - a great deal better, actually. Some of us are romantics, you might say. And so, for what it's worth, here's what I think of director Bryan Singer's $260 million "Superman Returns":

I think it stinks. I think it's a complete waste of your time and money. I think it's a film made by idiots, for idiots - a film made for people whose standards have dropped so far they don't even remember what a good film was like.

Saying these things, I recognize that I run the risk of being called cranky or even crazy. Comic book movies these days seem to survive every market trend in Hollywood, every downturn, and so I have no doubt that "Superman Returns" will open to a massive, $100 million-or-more weekend. The people who always see these films will go see it, lots of people will leave the theater with placid smiles on their faces, so why complain? Who cares? Hey - what did Brandon Routh ever to do you?

Nothing, of course. But Brandon Routh isn't really the problem with "Superman Returns" - he's merely a symptom of it. Granted, he looks to be about ten years too young for the role, but I think Bryan Singer got what he wanted out of him. Routh comes across as a pleasant, bland, affectless Superman who will play well in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Thailand, Ecuador - or wherever else this film plays. Have you ever heard Muzak playing in an international airport lounge? That sort of vague, synthesized, colorless music that lulls you into a pleasant stupor as you wait for your next flight? That's our new, generic Superman.

Supposedly Nicolas Cage was at one point attached to this film as Superman. Personally I think that would've helped matters enormously, because if nothing else Cage has what is quaintly referred to as a personality. But this is obviously not the direction Bryan Singer wanted to go. Why? I think because personalities are funny, unpredictable things. They have rough edges. They lead people in unexpected directions. And you really can't base a $260 million franchise film on a "personality," can you?

No, you can't. Executives at Warner Brother would find that fiscally imprudent, and so what do we get instead with "Superman Returns"? We get bland, affectless actors like Kevin Spacey (playing Lex Luthor). Experts have been telling me for years that Kevin Spacey is a bona fide Hollywood "star." Really? Well, it's funny because I remember Gene Hackman playing this same role years ago, and Spacey's flat performance is an embarrassment in comparison.

You also get people like Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. Actually, you get Kate Bosworth as hard-bitten, Pulitzer Prize-winning, mother-of-a-5-year-old Lois Lane, a role Bosworth might've been suited to if she were ten years older and a bit more careworn in the face. The problem is that Bosworth is 23, and although she might've looked great in a bikini in "Blue Crush," she doesn't have much of a personality.

Anybody sensing a pattern here?

Our new Superman, incidentally, doesn't even stand for "Truth, Justice & The American Way" anymore. Playing Daily Planet editor Perry White, Frank Langella tells us that Superman stands for "Truth and Justice . . . " and leaves it at that. The "Superman Returns" press materials tell me that Superman now stands for "truth, justice and all that is good." "All that is good" is apparently the phrase of choice when "The American Way" sounds too . . . what? Imperialistic? Jingoistic? Symptomatic of Bush-style militarism? I'm not sure, exactly.

All I know is this "American Way" stuff is now apparently too edgy and controversial for a Warner Brothers product shipped to Peru, Pakistan and Malaysia. Don't want to offend anyone!

I would normally pause at this point and discuss the "Superman Returns" plot, but characters and plotline really aren't very important here. Like most summer films, "Superman Returns" exists in order to provide one violent and spectacular FX sequence after another.

For whatever reason, incidentally, most of these sequences involve Kate Bosworth getting thrown around like a rag doll. There was a more civilized time when violence against women was kept to a minimum on screen; not anymore, apparently. Mr. Singer likes it rough.

"Superman Returns"' FX tend to be on the hyper-detailed side, and impressive. Clearly about $200 million of the film's budget was spent on FX, but after a while the visuals cease to be compelling. You just want a character, some recognizably human personality to hang on to.

You can't make a 2 1/2 hour film and not have characters - but that's basically what Singer's done here. He expects you to be 'blown away' so much that you don't notice what's missing: humanity, emotion, personality. Superior filmmakers like George Lucas and Peter Jackson use visual effects to create worlds, new environments. Singer does none of that - his New York looks no different from Spider-Man's New York, no different from any other New York - just louder and a lot more violent.

I'd like to stop the review here and make a suggestion to the powers that be in Hollywood. Hollywood spends a lot of its time and seemingly all of its money these days making superhero movies about guys with special powers. "Superman," "Spider-Man," "Batman," "X-Men," "Daredevil," "Hulk," "Fantastic Four," etc., ad nauseam. And here's the rub: I don't remember guys like Humphrey Bogart or Gary Cooper or James Cagney or John Wayne or even Harrison Ford having "special powers."

The only special powers those guys had were their fists, their wits, and their character - their substance as human beings. Most of us in life don't have 'special powers' to brood over. We're just regular Joes trying to get by, and we have a hard time relating to wonderboys like Brandon Routh or Tobey Maguire because their problems seem extremely trivial, and because while they probably look great in Zegna suits on the cover of GQ they don't look like they can take a punch. Nor do they seem to stand for much. I know what Gary Cooper stood for in his films. I have no clue what today's boyish little superheroes stand for, other than their own narcissism.

Just think this over, folks, because this comic book thing is getting really old.

"Superman Returns" opened on June 28.

Reprinted here with permission from the author.

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