Super Movie Monday – Superman Returns, Part 1

Beginning a three-part recap of the latest and final (so far) appearance of Superman on the big screen.

Last week, we finished talking about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. In the intervening years, Superman continued to be a fixture in popular culture. His popularity was eclipsed by Batman’s due to the overwhelming success of Tim Burton’s 1988 Batman and Bruce Timm’s Batman: the Animated Series. But he carried on, featured in TV series like Superboy, Lois and Clark, and later, Smallville. He also had his own well-received animated series in the wake of Batman’s success, and went on to feature prominently in the Justice League animated series as well.

And in the meantime, the comic book made headlines for the “Death of Superman” storyline and subsequent aftermath, featuring four substitute Supermen for about a year or so until the real Superman returned to reclaim his mantle. Superman also made inroads into bookstores with tie-in novels, including a Lois and Clark novel penned by Hugo award-winning author C.J.Cherryh.

But although several high-profile directors and actors were attached to various Superman films in development, the films just never seemed to come together. Tim Burton came close to getting one made, and Kevin Smith made a big splash among fans when his spec script was posted on the web. The Tim Burton film was particularly intriguing (and for many, horrifying), because it would have broken definitively with the 1978 Salkind reinterpretation which had influenced pretty much every version of Superman to emerge afterward, down to Smallville appropriating both the crystalline architecture of the Fortress of Solitude and the concept of Superman’s shield as a Kryptonian symbol rather than simply a stylized letter ‘S.’ Also because it would have had Nicolas Cage as Superman. Brrrr.

But then director Bryan Singer, fresh off his success with the first two X-Men films in making comics characters believably dark and relevant to modern-day adult audiences, took over the character and immediately repurposed the project into a love letter to the 1978 Richard Donner film. If you thought that Superman IV: The Quest for Peace had a lot of Superman callbacks, you haven’t seen anything yet. So let’s see what Singer’s 2006 version of Superman looks like.

Superman Returns opens with a text summary of how Superman came to Earth then returned to space to try to find the remnants of Krypton. The film fades in on Kryptonopolis exactly as it appeared in the first film, while on the soundtrack, Brando(!) as Jor-El gives his pompous speech about the son becoming the father and the father becoming the son over the stirring strains of John Wiliams’s Kryptonian fanfare. The camera retreats out into space to show Krypton silhouetted by a gigantic red sun…

and then… Boom!

Roll credits! Like the first Donner film, the credits roll over a trippy trip through space, only this one is computer animated, so less abstract and somehow less impressive. And it still uses John Williams’s main theme; John Ottman composes music for the rest of the film.

Stormy night at a mansion. Cue the movie’s first cameo: Noel Neill, the original Lois Lane, plays Gertrude, a rich old lady on her deathbed.

As she is dying, she pronounces her love for Lex Luthor, played this time by Kevin Spacey. She corresponded with Luthor in prison, fell in love with him, helped him get out on parole, and signs her entire fortune over to him seconds before she dies. He emerges from her room wearing a wig (a nod to the Gene Hackman portrayal in 1978), but immediately pulls it off and hands it to a little girl, one of the family members locked outside begging Gertrude not to sign.

Lex tells her she can have the hairpiece, but everything else is his.

Cut to the Kent farm, where Martha Kent, played by Eva Marie Saint, is washing dishes after supper. And now we can see that, though the film in its opening shots has explicitly declared that it is in the continuity of the first Salkind film, it now explicitly rejects both the third and the fourth films (since in both of those, Martha was dead).

Martha watches a fiery meteorite descend from the heavens and crash into her fields. She drives out there and sees something that looks a lot like baby Kal-El’s original ship, only before the atmosphere burned the spikes off.

And in an echo of the first film, she also finds Kal-El, although thankfully, he’s not nude this time.

Next we see Lex Luthor on the yacht he has inherited from the old lady. After a conversation with Kitty (this film’s Miss Teschmacher), he is informed that they have arrived at their destination: the North Pole, where Lex leads Kitty and his  minions (Otis has been replaced by four crooks Luthor met while in the joint) to the Fortress of Solitude. This film looks like it’s going to have a lot of Lex in it.

The Fortress looks much like that of the previous films, but more so. The computer effects which didn’t really add much to the opening credits work better here, emphasizing the alien power of the place. The recording of Brando as Jor-El gives the little lecture about trying to find answers together, and then prompts Lex to ask a question. Lex says, “Tell me everything, starting with crystals.” Lex, no! When Kal-El did this, all he asked was “Who am I?” and the answer took 12 years! You’ll be dead before he shuts up.

Back on the farm, Clark is remembering his youth, and the day he learned to fly. We’re treated to what will be a pretty regular occurrence, which is the use of computer graphics to substitute for Superman when he’s doing something super. And though the match is close, it’s recognizably not real in an uncanny valley kind of way. One other tid-bit: young Clark is wearing glasses, but as he learns to fly, his glasses fall off and he realizes he no longer needs them. This will be important later.

Clark has a heartfelt discussion with his mother, then returns to the Daily Planet newsroom where he shares a hug with Jimmy Olsen, then thanks Perry White for giving him his old job back. “Don’t thank me,” says Perry. “Thank Norm Palmer for dying.” Hmmm. I question the timing. Could Superman have…? Naaah. Surely not. Probably.

He also checks out Lois’s desk, where he learns she won a Pulitzer for an editorial she wrote titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” And as he’s looking at pictures of her with a guy and a kid, Jimmy tells him that she’s a mom and nearly engaged to Perry White’s son. Clark takes the news pretty hard, so Jimmy takes him out for a drink with bartender Jack Larson (who played Jimmy Olsen on the Superman TV series of the 50’s).

Meanwhile, Lois (played by Kate Bosworth, sexier but less wacky, and ultimately less memorable, than Margot Kidder) is on a plane that is piggy-backing an experimental space airliner for its first test launch, while Lex and crew show up back at Noel Niell’s mansion (where the one remaining lapdog is feasting on the remains of the other in a grim but funny moment).

Lex experiments with one of the crystals he stole from the Fortress. He drops a tiny sliver into water to see what it does.

What it does is cause a blackout across Metropolis and even into the sky, where the airliner carrying the shuttle experiences a momentary power failure. After the blackout ends, the crystal shard begins to grow into a huge mass that destroys the elaborate miniature railroad set-up in the basement (and as the toy trains crash, the tiny fake people scream on the soundtrack).

Meanwhile in the sky, the release mechanism malfunctions, and the experimental shuttle (with co-pilot Sir Richard Branson) fires its boosters, dragging the launch plane along with it. Because on the one hand, Lois is a jinx, and on the other hand, the structure of this film is a lot tighter than the original Superman films. Lex is actually responsible for the disasters Superman has to fight from early on.

Clark switches to Superman and flies up to the shuttle. And in a nod to the Smallville TV series, Superman’s heat vision is now depicted as a heat distortion rippling the air rather than a glowing red laser beam (following the comics where John Byrne originated the “invisible heat vision” concept in his late 80’s reboot of Superman).

He breaks the shuttle free, but the plane now begins to spin out of control as it plummets toward the ground. Superman tries to stop the spin, but ends up breaking the wing off the plane instead. Oops.

And though the flying is a lot faster and more dynamic than in the previous movies, the CG is sometimes apparent, breaking the illusion a little. But Superman saves the shuttle, shares a little eye-sex with Lois in the plane, then receives a standing ovation from the crowd in the baseball stadium where he just happens to drop the plane.

And because Bryan Singer is so determined to reference the previous movies as much as he can, he has Superman give the same speech about the safety of air travel (almost word-for-word) that he gave to Lois in the first film. And lest you think that this Lois almost 30 years later will be any stronger or more liberated, let us note that, just as in the first film, Lois faints.

Be here next week for Part 2.

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One Response to Super Movie Monday – Superman Returns, Part 1

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