Cape Fears

Washington City Paper | June 30, 2006
Development hell is a place that even Superman can’t get out of. Or so it seemed when it came to Superman Returns, Warner Bros.’ apparently damned attempt to resurrect the Man of Steel, last seen in 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Tim Burton, Nicolas Cage, Kevin Smith, Brett Ratner, Ashton Kutcher, Josh Hartnett, McG—at one time or another over the past 13 years, each of these names were attached to the project. So was a hero who didn’t wear the iconic duds, didn’t fly, and had some significant dealings with a giant robotic spider.

By 2004, the flux was over, with X-Men vet Bryan Singer firmly in charge. His pitch had all the right moves: He wanted to keep the outfit. He wanted to keep the flying. He even wanted to keep John Williams’ score. He wanted to ditch the spider, of course. But most wisely, he wanted to take a let’s-forget-III-and-IV approach and continue the story from the franchise’s only respectable sequel, Richard Lester’s 1981 Superman II. Of course, that didn’t stop the fanboys from going into a frenzy. After all, the guy Singer announced as his lead was known mainly for having won a Hollywood Halloween contest. And the director had been saying things about how he identifies with Superman because he was adopted, too.

The result is far from the disaster message-boarders feared. Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, Singer’s ace writers from X2, turn the plot on the sudden disappearance of Superman/Clark Kent (Brandon Routh). For five years, the Daily Planet has been without its pantywaist reporter, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has been heartbroken/pissed over her crush who didn’t say goodbye, and the disaster-prone people of Metropolis have soldiered on without their savior. When the hero just as unexpectedly shows up again, he discovers a changed world: Sure, he still has released convict Lex Luther (Kevin Spacey, colder than Gene Hackman) to contend with, but Lois has both a fiancé, Richard (nonpresence James Marsden, once in contention for the tights), and a young asthmatic son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu, funny and not movie-cute). She also has a Pulitzer, for a piece entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”

Superman Returns runs a potentially patience-testing 154 minutes, and it’s not without flaws. Routh and Bosworth’s eye colors are distractingly—and unforgivingly—inconsistent, for instance. And Frank Langella’s Perry White is quite possibly the blandest, most even-keeled editor-in-chief in film or reality. Most egregious, though, is the casting of Bosworth as Lois, who is supposed to be brash. And a bit pushy. And, well, a woman. With her angelic, wide-eyed face, the 23-year-old Bosworth comes across like a prom queen with a fake ID—which would mean that back when Lois and Superman fell in love, this now-award-winning wife and mother of one wasn’t already an intrepid, world-wise reporter but a phenom piece of jailbait. Her Lois is too damn nice, though she does make a cut-to-the-chase phone call while investigating a blackout—hanging up without even saying goodbye!—and not nearly as feisty as she should be, despite that escape attempt via surreptitious fax. For purists, it’s probably best to forget comparing her to Lanes gone by and accept the character as some soft-edged beaut whom S-man happens to be really into—and to enjoy her early demonstration of how serious an unbuckled seat belt can be when a plane loses control.

When Superman Returns is good, however, it’s very, very good. Singer builds anticipation—as if any more were needed—by training on the backs of heads and legs before revealing characters’ faces. His superhero can still fly faster than a speeding bullet, but in scenes that are nearly Spielberg-poetic, he glides and floats as well, ascending into the sky and occasionally just hanging out, gazing at his imperfect adopted planet as his cape flutters behind him. Routh is like Reeves reborn, not only resembling him physically but also re-creating the do-gooder grins and starched PSAs that come at the end of averted disasters. Even better is the actor’s goofy Clark Kent, whom Singer depicts at moments of peak social awkwardness—say, turning around to listen to breaking news still hunched over his lunch, with noodles hanging out of his mouth. The alter ego’s gigantic glasses are gone, but his more fashionable ones still serve as magical disguise. And contrary to rumor, guys and gals, Clark isn’t closeted, though Planet staffers do have their suspicions about another co-worker.

The script shines: romantic, funny, and occasionally aching, with a great twist near the end. Besides those eyes, the filmmakers’ attention to detail, too, is impressive. You’ll notice, for example, the hippie bike messenger, who offers realistic counterpoint to most superhero flicks’ generic big-city crowds. Even the toys include nice touches, such as the “Just Married” tag on the back of a tiny car crushed in Luther’s model of the havoc he intends to wreak.

OK, you’ve waited for it: the effects. The opening catastrophe, the near crash of a 777 carrying a space shuttle, is rife with fireballs and palpable inside-the-plane fear; after holding your breath, you’re rewarded with a nearly silent moment of passenger weightlessness and a unique landing that’s capped with a silly tension-cutting laugh. Singer also shows off his destructive range with earthquakes, a claustrophobic touch of Poseidon, and a spectacular Metropolis ball-dropping that’s a nightmare version of New Year’s Eve. Between the chaos, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, also from X2, drapes Lois and Superman’s world in a beautiful, gossamer gold.

That last bit of cinematic craft might not be what catches the attention of fans who were worried about how their beloved character might be brutalized, but they’d do well to notice it: It means reverence, and it’s admirably paid.

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