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SUPERMAN RETURNS(director/writer: Bryan Singer; screenwriter: Dan Harris/Mike Dougherty/based on a story by Mr. Singer, Mr. Dougherty and Mr. Harris from characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and published by DC Comics; cinematographer: Newton Thomas Sigel; editors: John Ottman/Elliot Graham; music: John Ottman; cast: Brandon Routh (Superman/Clark Kent), Kevin Spacey (Lex Luthor), Kate Bosworth (Lois Lane), Eva Marie Saint (Ma Kent), Frank Langella (Perry White), Sam Huntington (Jimmy Olsen), Noel Niell (Gertrude Vanderworth), James Marsden (Richard White), Stephan Bender (Young Clark), Kal Penn (Stanford), Parker Posey (Kitty Kowalski), Tristan Lake Leabu (Jason White), David Fabrizio (Brutus), Jack Larson (Bartender); Runtime: 154; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Jon Peters/Bryan Singer/Gilbert Adler; Warmer Bros.; 2006)
“For me the length was the real killer, if it was cut to 80 or so minutes and made with more of a spontaneous joy I think I could have jumped on board.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Man of Steel returns to the screen to fight for truth, justice and the American way (and let’s not forget to make lots of coin for the suits) for the first time since the tacky 1987 “Superman IV.” This one is better, which might not be saying much–but it is better. On paper, it makes seemingly the right choice in director Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”/”X-Men”/”X-Men 2”), a lover of the comic book story who tries to keep the square myth (good versus evil) going by picking up on Richard Donner’s 1978 version and playing down the other sequels; but, on further reflection, I wonder if he’s really the best choice since he takes this goofy comic book story far too seriously and adds nothing new by continuing this outdated myth without infusing it with new energy. The likable newcomer Brandon Routh is a decent choice to play Superman, after all he’s a hunk and is almost a dead ringer for Christopher Reeve, but he’s too bland to play the nerdy Clark Kent part and turn him into an interesting character. The thirtysomething Lois Lane character is confusingly played without warmth or a smile by the 22-year-old Kate Bosworth, no less, in a brunette wig; she’s hard to like and suffers from a bundle of nerves since she has so much on her plate from doting over her asthmatic young boy Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu) and her loving journalist live-in boyfriend Richard White (James Marsden)–the nephew of editor Perry White (Frank Langella), being confrontational about writing assignments with Perry and maintaining a crush on Superman. It also disappoints with Kevin Spacey playing the effete villain who glibly talks like a smartass smug technocratic real estate tycoon just cutting another business deal, who always seems to be more ready for a quip than to threaten Superman. But the film should please its target fanboy audience as it becomes exciting when Superman soars through the air with the greatest of ease. Unfortunately it comes down to Earth too often and its unappealing earthbound soppy love and ‘save the world’ stories are both tedious and pointless. The superhero disappoints by acting like a whimpering naive teenager as he suffers from puppy love, whose very human vulnerability didn’t make me feel more sympathy for him. But the film’s biggest flaws are that it’s overlong at 154 minutes, it’s leaden, it’s too grim without justification, and it tries too hard to make more of its comic book story than is possible by adding on flabby weight through its grating romantic conflict story. What is best is the spectacular look of the film (if that was the only thing that counted, then this would be a great film), as it gets great visual and special effects from its $200 million-plus budget. But I needed more from this film to find a love for it, especially since I’m no friend of comic book stories ever since I read my last Superman without any regrets at 12 or 13 (probably the target age of its readership).

The pic comes at a dark time in American history, when escapist films and a belief in a savior (even if only in films) might be what the public craves; of course, the box office will tell us if this is so and I believe the public will reward the film with a banner business because the film delivers big time on its action sequences and visuals and its fan base, judging by reactions to other comic book stories made into film, couldn’t give a damn that the characters or story are uninspiring. It’s written by the X-Men team of Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, who script it from a story they wrote with the director.

The story opens with Marlon Brando as the character he played in the 1978 film, coming back from the dead (courtesy of footage) as a spectral vision and voice of Superman’s extraterrestrial father Jor-El and offering him some fatherly advice. It then picks up with Superman returning after five years of a secret visit to the ruins of his birthplace in the planet Krypton. After Superman crash lands on his adopted mom Martha Kent’s (Eva Marie Saint) Smallville farm and watches the depressing news on TV, we know the world is filled with conflict and are led to believe it does need a savior (the director tries vainly to make a connection between Superman and Christ by having the man in the cape take on several Jesus poses). Superman soon settles back into the big city of Metropolis (filmed in Australia as a substitute for Kansas) and continues his bumbling alter ego disguise as the mild-mannered Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet, to mingle with the earthlings (Don’t ask why?). Soon as Clark gets back his old job, he tells harried cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) over a brew (the bartender is played by Jack Larson, he played Jimmy Olsen on TV in the 1950s) that he sought out lamas in far off lands to find himself. Superman also left his love interest Lois Lane and now jealously discovers the star reporter is engaged to Richard and has a child. To Superman’s chagrin, Lois has won a Pulitzer Prize over her story “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” It’s also learned that Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, Kevin Spacey revising the role played in 1978 by Gene Hackman, has been freed from prison, after sentenced to a double-life sentence, due to technicalities in the law, and is back to his old tricks. We see him dispose of his crone wealthy benefactor (Noel Niell, she played Lois Lane in the TV series back in the 1950s) and take up with his flustered female companion Kitty Kowalski (Posey Parker), and resume his treacherous ways by causing a power outage that puts a shuttle launch in jeopardy that lands safely only thanks to Superman. That action scene was a stunning technical achievement and the film’s best.

The second half drags with too many earthbound melodramatics, and a few thrilling but pointless action sequences that take far too long to be conceived. It concludes with Superman confronting the diabolical Lex, whose mad scheme is to create an entirely new continent through the use of stolen Krypton crystals from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and making most of the world, including America, disappear due to flooding, and thereby he will become the biggest realtor on the planet and exact enormous fees to rent the land.

Judging the comic-book picture strictly on its entertainment worth, I found there were things to like about it but too much of it was a drag. For me the length was the real killer, if it was cut to 80 or so minutes and made with more of a spontaneous joy I think I could have jumped on board. It speaks volumes how humorless and emotionally cold it was, that even the usually funny Parker Posey couldn’t get a laugh out of a role that was crying out to be funny.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”