Superman Returns

Superman Returns

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Nineteen years after his last big screen outing, five years after his in-story disappearance and following a time during which America has experienced tragedies which only someone like him might have averted, Superman returns, falling like a comet from the skies back into the cornfields where he thought he was raised.

After a futile search for surviving remnants of the culture from which he came, he wants to get back to what he's good at - rescuing people, posing for the cameras, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, and so forth. So eager is he to return to normal that he almost forgets to show some affection to the foster mother who has patiently waited for him, not knowing if he was alive or dead. And on returning to his job at the Daily Planet, he discovers to his despair that his self-centred actions have also cost him the heart of intrepid reporter Lois Lane.

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Director Bryan Singer has described this film, somewhat jokingly, as a chick flick, and it does indeed incorporate many of the tropes of that genre, which work well when they're not overplayed. Like several other recent superhero movies, this is concerned as much with character as with action, and particularly with how those endowed with unusual abilities cope with trying to find a place in the wider world.

Newcomer Brandon Routh is perfect as the lonely superhero only just coming to terms with his personal weaknesses; he looks the part, but he can also act it, and he does so with a humour which helps to balance out the necessary sentimentality of the tale. Kate Bosworth works well as the resilient Lois, struggling with conflicting emotions, but avoiding the temptations of melodrama; and James Marsden is especially good as Richard, the new man in her life, who is trying so hard to be decent and understanding that he persistently robs Superman of any opportunity to hate him.

Lois' journalistic success and her responsibilities for her apparently fragile child have changed the dynamic not only of her relationships but also of her work life, making the demands of Frank Langella's still crazy newspaper boss Perry White (brilliantly represented in a 'get to know your Planet' poster with his full Dracula grin) seem all the more ridiculous. White's concern with exploiting Lois' personal connections to get an all important Superman interview emphasise the conflict between public and private life which is at the heart of the hero's struggles, and do so far more effectively that phonebox costume changes and panic over bad guys knowing too much.

The bad guy in this film is classic Superman opponent Lex Luthor, who pictures himself as Prometheus, pilfering the alien technology of Superman's ancestors to bring it to the world. Unfortunately for that world, a few billion people must die for his scheme to be realised, and he will, of course, want his cut. With Superman later portrayed in classic Atlas symbolism, the stage is set for a clash of the Titans.

Kevin Spacey plays Luthor with relish and with a certain casual gracelessness which only serves to emphasise his capabilities. He also plays him as a human being, taking the time to look out for his colleagues even if it is his own actions which persistently put them in danger; there is a real sense that this is a team working together, not just a random collection of disposable thugs. Unfortunately, his girlfriend Kitty (Parker Posey), though she gets some great lines and provides effective comic relief, is just a little too cartoonish to convince in this context, and one can't help thinking that Luthor might be less frustrated with his life if he tried spending his time with more intelligent people.

What most people will be looking for in a Superman film is, of course, action, and here the film does well, with some stunning cinematography to set it off. There are chases, explosions and dramatic escapes aplenty. The action sequences are inventive and well planned, with due consideration being given to the laws of physics - Superman may be fast and strong, but he can't compensate for the weaknesses of the objects he interacts with, and when he catches a vehicle he can't protect the people inside from being shaken around.

Powerful though he may be, he is still just one man, and the script makes good use of his limits, as of the ways in which his abilities can work against him. The film is well paced and gripping almost all the way through, faltering only towards the end, when it is left with too many emotional issues to resolve and not enough action story to run alongside them. Overall, it is intelligently written, full of delightful jokes and references, and brilliant in its attention to detail. Superman is a tough subject to present effectively, and Singer has done an excellent job.

Reviewed on: 12 Jul 2006
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The Man of Steel returns to save lives - but can he salvage his own?
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Jennie Kermode ****
Jennie Kermode ****
Jennie Kermode ****

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, from a story co-written with Bryan Singer, and based on characters by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster

Starring: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Frank Langella, Eva Marie Saint, Parker Posey, Kal Penn, Sam Huntington, Tristan Lake Leobu, Marlon Brando

Year: 2006

Runtime: 154 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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