R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Why the World Needs Superman.

Ok, so this week’s column was supposed to be about V for Vendetta and how it helped bring about the full circle comeback of DC Comics’ characters to the big screen, but the guy in the big red cape just won’t leave me alone. I then got half way through a column about Supergirl and some of the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini animated movies, but after seeing Big Blue on screen, I can’t concentrate on anything else. For those that don’t know me, I’m completely obsessed with Superman. Since childhood, he has been the single greatest Comic Book icon in the world for me. I know I’ve told the story several times on this site on how my father was in the Air Force and when I was very young my family lived overseas. On the airbase there was only one channel that spoke English, so I had to rely on my father’s BETAMAX collection. There were two tapes that were officially mine. One was marked Star Wars. The other simply said Superman.

From then on, the two movie franchises would consume my young mind, until I started to actually grow up some. I went through other phases, loving Arnold Schwarzenegger and other Action pictures of the 80’s, but always coming back to these two franchises. Then in my high school years, my love came flooding back, as I received each of these movies on VHS in re-releases and The Death of Superman had everyone around me reading Comics, even if for a short time. Making things worse were the rumors of sequels and prequels and reboots to the movie franchises.

While I’ll get to the Star Wars Special Editions and Prequels in another column, a new Superman film always seemed little more than a rumor. I heard about and read articles about Kevin Smith, the new champion of Geekdom at the time, writing a Superman script. There were always rumors about Nicolas Cage, who desperately wanted to be the Man of Steel. There was then a bit of a feud going on, as Tim Burton was brought on to be director, and Smith’s script was thrown out. How did this factor in? Was the script that bad? Was Burton the right choice? I liked Batman, but would he be able to direct a movie with the kid friendly Man of Steel?

When I saw the first production photos for Superman Lives, the answer was a resounding “NO”. The pictures I saw weren’t pictures of Superman; they looked more like Edward Scissorhands with a cape. Then there were other pictures of Supes with no cape! My heart sank as I knew this would be the end of seeing my favorite superhero on screen.

But eventually someone at Warner Brothers must have woken up. Someone must have said “That is not Superman!”, because Superman Lives was eventually scrapped. Maybe we just wouldn’t see a Superman. I was actually kind of down with that as we already had two great Superman films that I loved dearly, but as Marvel’s properties started soaring at the box office, you know Warner execs had to be frothing at the mouth to get Big Blue back into theaters. So what did they do? Started another revolving door of directors with McG, Brett Ratner, and possibly Michael Bay.

All were working from a script written by J.J. Abrams that, from all accounts, was terrible. Krypton didn’t explode, Lex Luthor was a Kryptonian, Superman knew Kung Fu, and Jor-El ends up talking his son into coming back to life to save the masses. Casting didn’t help my mood either as anyone from Aston Kutcher to Josh Hartnett were up for Superman and Beyonce Knowles’ name kept coming up for Lois Lane. Then again though, all of these rumors went away yet again.

Then like a ray of hope, Bryan Singer came on board. He said that instead of rebooting the franchise, he would continue the series I already knew and loved. John Williams’ theme would come back, as well as footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El. Now, around ten years after hearing about Superman coming back to the big screen, and waiting through all the bad ideas and rumors I’ve finally seen my favorite superhero return.

Superman Returns Starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, and Kevin Spacey. Directed by Bryan Singer.

Now, I know many people have been calling for a reboot to this franchise for some time, but from the opening moments of Superman Returns I knew Singer had taken the right path with this character and series. With Superman, much of his power comes from nostalgia, and hearing John Williams score music while laser blue titles run past, it’s hard not to feel. Suddenly, I’m three years old again, with a blanket wrapped around my neck, and driving my parents crazy running and jumping around. There’s just so much power and majesty in that Superman theme, as it almost tells a story in and of itself. I’m not even sure I’d want to see a Superman movie without it.

Oddly enough, the first person you see onscreen, isn’t Superman, but a Lois Lane. Noel Neill, who portrayed the feisty reporter on the 1950’s Adventures of Superman makes a cameo as Gertrude, a rich widow who has fallen in love with a sweet-talking Lex Luthor. Some have attacked Singer for this plot element online. Why would the greatest criminal mind of our time need to swindle money out of an old lady? Well the answer is far from simple.

When Gene Hackman originally played the character in Superman: The Movie, the character in the pages of DC was always known as a mad scientist. While Hackman always took criticism for not shaving his head, I don’t believe his character was that far off from what the character in the Comic Book was. For years though in the pages of DC, Luthor has gone through several changes. He’s been a business tycoon, secretly ruling Metropolis and its criminal elements with his vast fortune, he’s been President, and he’s always been a ruthless tyrant, wanting to have more power than even Superman possesses.

In an early shot in this picture, Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor takes a ridiculous wig, and rips it off. To me, this symbolizes this transition in the series from the funny, goofy Lex Luthor, to a more sinister version of the character. While this transition is not quite all the way the character in the current continuity, it is a fusion of the past and the present. Yes, Spacey’s Lex is still comical in places, but he is MUCH darker than Hackman played the role, and I love it. Teamed with Parker Posey as his mistress Kitty Kowalski, whose character possesses more than a passing resemblance to Valerie Perrine’s Eve Teschmacher, Lex’s plan is both a great throwback to Hackman’s Lex and a new more sinister grab at god-like power over his dominion. My favorite shot of Lex comes late in the film, as a mushroom cloud of green contempt for goodness washes over him. He stands triumphant waiting for his caped foe to try and thwart him.

As for Superman himself, I do not envy Brandon Routh, who had huge shoes to fill when coming into this part. Christopher Reeve IS and may always be Superman for so many of us, but Routh gives it his all here. His Superman has all the power and majesty required for the part, and then some. In all the scenes in the blue costume, Routh exudes confidence enough for us to believe that he is and will be the Man of Steel for some time to come. I also loved how Routh seemed to play the scenes with a sense of humility, not posturing for the crowds or striking poses. He simply does his job with a little grin and wave and flies off. This is also a Superman with plenty of humanity to spare.

With bullets merely bouncing off his frame, the only thing that truly hurts him in this picture is the loss of his true love. In this timeline Superman has left Earth to try and find his homeworld, much like he has done in the past in the pages of DC Comics and also in the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini Superman: The Animated Series episode Lost Little Girl. In the time he has been away, Lois has found a new love and become a mother, which is a bond that not even Superman can break. He wants to sweep her off her feet, but Lois is pulled to stay grounded in the love for the man and child who have become her life in the absence of the Man of Steel. I have to say I was very impressed with Routh during all these scenes, as his hurt was still visible, but not over the top.

I also had to wonder if he was going to be able to pull off Clark Kent. Reeve’s bumbling Kent was a masterpiece of acting, as for the first time on screen, you could finally see why no one would mistake Superman for Clark. His body posture and voice made for the perfect disguise, as he tried desperately to get affection from Lois while not revealing his true identity. Here again, Routh passes the test with charm. He is not quite the bumbler that Reeve portrayed, but does get to show off quite a bit of his comic timing, as his goofy smile is absolutely heartwarming. So for the record, I’ll go on saying that while he’s not Christopher Reeve, he does do the actor’s most famous part very proud. Routh is a Superman I can see taking the role for years to come.

Honestly, the role I was most worried about was Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane. Sure, I thought she was pretty enough, but I didn’t think she would have the spunk that Margot Kidder and other incarnations of the character would require. After seeing the movie, she isn’t as spunky as those other Lois Lanes, but that isn’t the character that’s supposed to be on screen. This is world weary Lois Lane, whose great love has been missing for years and then suddenly comes back into her life. She’s a wonderful mother too, and has a great relationship at home with her boss’ nephew, boyfriend Richard White (X-Men’s James Marsden). Her struggle to balance her love for Superman and the people she is committed to is a genuine balancing act for this character that I believe she pulls off very well. She does have one scene, in which she’s complaining about the assignment given to her, where the beach girl I was afraid of peeks out, but overall she’s fine.

As for the film’s other characters, I have to say the supporting characters are all a success but one. That one is Kal Penn, who plays Lex Luthor henchman Stanford. He is onscreen so often in this movie it’s excessive, and yet he has not two lines. Perhaps he was an Otis type character, whose scenes were cut because of running time or wanting a darker tone. It baffles me why he was really even cast, but on to the rest of the players.

Sam Huntington IS Jimmy Olsen. This is such a spot on character adaptation and he brings a big smile to my face every time he’s on screen. His hero worship for Clark is endearing and I’m overjoyed that I’ll see him again in the next picture. Not fairing quite as well but playing the part with a lot of class is Frank Langella as Perry White. I wish he showed the fury and gusto that Jackie Cooper played the part with, but still his screen presence is quite powerful when on screen. Eva Marie Saint is also quite good as Ma Kent, bringing a quiet dignity to the role.

Then comes the characters that have not been seen before. As for James Marsden, I cannot believe how much I cared for this character. For someone that isn’t even a part of the regular continuity, this is a great part that Mardsen handles quite nicely. Hats off to the actor and Bryan Singer, for crafting a man that is able to compete for Lois’s affection with love instead of great power. As for the kid in the movie, let me assuage your fears as Tristan Lake Leabu is absolutely adorable and makes himself right at home here. I’m intrigued and worried as to where this character’s story will go on from here, but I hope for the best and know that the character is in good hands.

Finally, I come to Bryan Singer. It’s odd to me that while I was in High School, one of my favorite movies at the time, if not my favorite, was The Usual Suspects. Little did I know he would be the one to bring the hero from my childhood back to the screen. While other directors fumbled with the grand Science Fiction portions of the character, Singer focused on his humanity. Not that there aren’t AMAZING, EPIC action sequences to be found here. The plane/shuttle rescue stands as an amazing visceral achievement, with modern special effects that make the eye pop. Also, other sequences stand as intrinsically iconic and beautiful.

Even more than that, Singer probably remembered how the first film brought hope to a turbulent time of Watergate and other tragedies. Now, in this time of war and corruption, Superman stands as a symbol of hope again. He stands for the morals that are quintessentially American. That is the Superman that Singer brings to the screen. The Christ allegory is also really played up, perhaps even too much, but all of that is to bring the character’s real dichotomy to the screen. Here is a god who can do anything he can imagine, but who wants nothing more than to give himself to his people and protect them. Singer, an orphan himself, has an obvious love for the character that shows itself in every frame of this movie.

While Superman Returns is not perfect (it has pacing problems and its climax isn’t as tense as it could have been), the film’s intentions are completely in the right place. The Man of Steel has returned to bring hope to those who have none, and help to bring peace to a world that needs it. Bryan Singer has brought Superman back to the people, and back to me personally.

Picture Credits: impawards.com, myspace.com, cinemovies.fr

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