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July 6, 2006

Superman Returns

Three out of five stars

Superman returned to movie theaters last week, and to hear Hollywood whine about it, he was not met with open arms nor did a grateful public throw flowers at his feet. In this day and age, a single day box office take of "only" $21 million is the disappointing equivalent of a moviegoing insurgency that sabotages financial expectations. After seeing it myself on opening night, I'm afraid the outlook may not get much better.

It's not that "Superman Returns" let me down. My expectations for this version were never very high. Compared to other summer movie releases, the hype was initially very low. I saw the trailer for it the first time only a few short weeks ago, and only in recent days did my excitement build. Ironically, my areas of doubt ended up being the strongest parts of the movie, and my areas of anticipation ended up being the weakest.

Let's start with the Man of Steel himself. Seemingly chosen for his occasional resemblance to Christopher Reeve, 26-year-old unknown Brandon Routh was a dubious casting choice. I mean, were they going to make "Superman Returns" or "Superboy Hits Puberty?"

But sometimes filmmakers do know best; Routh is fantastic in the movie. He effortlessly transitions between Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent, and displays the heretofore unseen sensitive side of the character(s) and the true heartache of both being a stranger on a strange planet and suffering from unrequited love with fellow reporter Lois Lane.

All my other casting expectations were turned upside down as well. Actors I assumed would be terrific, like Kevin Spacey as arch villain Lex Luthor, were merely adequate. And actors whose presence I feared, like Parker Posey as Luthor's henchwoman Kitty Kowalski, were pleasant surprises. (Posey provides what little comic relief there is in this over-serious adventure).

Other key characters straddle an awkward line between familiarity and originality: Lois (Kate Bosworth), Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington), Perry White (Frank Langella) and Ma Kent (Eva Marie Saint) may suffer from underwritten roles. None really stand out either as being similar to the people we know, or as being entirely new creations. Therefore, they're bland and unmemorable.

That really hurts the story, especially where Lois Lane is concerned. Key events unravel based on decisions she makes. One such action is so uncharacteristic of the character that I realized after watching "Superman Returns" it is the point where the movie began to fall apart for me.

It's not entirely her fault, however. She is saddled with a plot revelation in "Superman Returns" that has never been approached expect perhaps in alternate reality storylines from 1960's Superman comic books. It's a hard one to swallow, and does not bode well for any future sequels, should they be made.

At least there was this effort to put something new into the story. The rest is a thinly disguised remake of the 1978 Christopher Reeve version.

We've got the same villain, Lex Luthor. Instead of plotting to blast California into the ocean so he can control a new West Coast, he now plans to create a new landmass in the Atlantic Ocean that will submerge the East Coast. I don't remember Lex being so concerned with real estate in the comics. And almost 30 years after the 1978 movie, can't somebody think of something new? Certainly not screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris.

It both helps and hurts this update that director Bryan Singer was allowed to use the original John Williams music for "Superman Returns." It's hard to imagine Superman without it. Yet it's also hard to not compare a modern version to anything else that has used it. I almost wish Singer had updated the music to go along with his fresh, young cast, and to truly kickstart a new series for modern times.

I get it. "Superman Returns" is very respectful of the original and pays tribute to both Christopher Reeve and director Richard Donner. But if you're going to do a remake, don't pretend that it's something new. Singer made two much better comic book movies with "X-Men" and "X2: X-Men United." They were original and exciting, something we hadn't seen before.

I think the basic set-up of "Superman Returns" is flawed. Instead of crashing to Earth as an infant, Superman crashes to Earth as an adult following a five-year hiatus. I loved the first part of this movie with its air of mystery. However, it turns out that it doesn't really matter where or why Superman has been gone. It's just a device to set up the drama of the characters moving on when he disappeared, then reacting when he reappears. That could have been interesting except that the focus is on the Lois Lane relationship. With the plot developments hinted at above, I would be more interested in how the rest of the world dealt with Superman's absence.

It sure sounds like I hated "Superman Returns." Really, I didn't. I mostly enjoyed it, but I have to point out the missed opportunities. For example, there is really only one memorable action sequence, an exciting airplane rescue about a third into the movie. It's all anti-climactic from there. For me, the conclusion was long, drawn out, and boring. It offered none of the entertainment value of the earlier sequence.

Ultimately, though, it may not have been nemesis Lex Luthor that was Superman's biggest enemy. Rather, it may have been another costumed crime fighter. Prior to "Superman Returns" was shown the first trailer for "Spider-Man 3." Those few minutes offered more excitement and anticipation than the full-length movie that followed. Not only were Internet rumors confirmed for the sequel (Venom and Sandman are going to be the villains) but the audience was reminded of what truly are this generation's best comic book movies. I guarantee more people are going to be talking about this than "Superman Returns."

Or the threat may be more immediate. Tomorrow, pirates set sail for the box office to pillage from the spoils of "Superman Returns" (and every other summer movie). As doubtful as I was a few months ago, it appears that "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" may not have to deliver much to truly end up being this summer's box office champion.

  • Jeff Owens is co-owner of Couch Potato Video in De Soto and an avowed movie buff.

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