Superman Returns, a.k.a. The Passion of the Superman, is a misguided and verveless extension of the ancient franchise. Superman Returns continues the saga that started with 1978’s Superman, Marlon Brando and John Williams’ theme song among the resurrected elements. The theme of resurrection is strong with this one. So strong, director Brian Singer often confuses the hero with the outer underwear with Jesus Christ. I wish I could categorize the allusions to ‘The Passion’ as subtle and effective. They are about as subtle as a footlong nails driven into your wrists.
I’d be willing to overlook the Bible camp if the plot had anything to offer. Boiled down, the story concocted by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris & Bryan Singer contains a love triangle that generates three or four emotionally resonant closeups. Both Clark Kent and Superman having — coincidently — been gone for five years (fear not: the coincidences between ego and alter ego are explicitly laughed away in this film), Lois has “moved on,” fathering a child with Cyclops James Marsden’s character, a handsome, clueless, nepotism beneficiary and newspaperman and pilot (and a few other character traits convenient to the plot.) Superman, ever the gentleman, tries his best to break up the relationship indirectly, creating plenty of moments for Lois to melt in his beefy blue arms.
Continue reading about Superman Returns (spoilers)… how little action it has. The opening takes its sweet time with redundant exposition before a shuttle launch imperils Lois. Why a space shuttle? I guess someone needs to ask this film’s producers why they thought the space-shuttle-in-danger trope would resonate after The Core, Fantastic Four and, oh yeah, Appollo 13. And while they are at it, maybe the producers should try renting Poseidon, The Perfect Storm and Titanic — the movies from which the other major action sequence was cribbed. The paucity of style in the action, in contrast to the slow and rather poetic imagery summoned in the rest of the movie, seems unforgivable. Singer even copies himself from minutes earlier when he has Lex Luther’s helicopter drop out of frame for a nice long suspenseful beat before returning safely to frame. Might’ve been a nice trick, if only the airplane with all our heroes hadn’t just done it. The one moment I’ll allow a frisson of creepy was the ‘Chopsticks’ duet.
Is the movie, to settle a debate on this blog, at least pretty to watch? The answer, as far as the film print in South Lake Tahoe’s Horizon Casino Theater is concerned, is… no. The brilliant cinematographer who converted special photo stock for motion picture use on Three Kings, the one who created the gritty-but-comic-book look for films like The Usual Suspects, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the first two X-men movies; the man here claiming to be Newton Thomas Sigel shoots everything as reflected in a puddle of mud, alternating sickly orange and vomit green overtones, crushing the black levels too much to allow meaningful detail in the actors’ performances, but not enough to make it look intentional. It may well be the fault of the new Genesis cameras this movie broke in that it looks like poo. Or perhaps the movie looks great when properly projected. But my opinion right now is not high of Sigel, Genesis or the company who transferred the digital master to film.
A few bright spots shine like Eva Marie Saint’s neon lipstick. Relative unknown Brandon Routh is Superman. I don’t know if he can act; the script never challenges him to do so. But as far as occupying an inoccupable iconography, the guy is the cat’s jammers. His resonant and Midwestern voice, his bemused smile, his ability to look straight in the gayest of costumes — the guy brings It, brings it in a way ‘It Girl’ Kate Bosworth cannot come close to bringing it. Kevin Spacey as arch nemesis Lex Luthor and Parker Posey as his clueless accomplice keep up the tradition of comic book movie villians being the only ones who look like they are having fun. Seeing the Spiderman 3 trailer before this movie, I couldn’t help thinking what fun Sam Raimi would’ve had with Superman Returns. It wouldn’t have been as deep or allegorical as Bryan Singer’s. But it would’ve sold more popcorn.
Also of note is the fact that they chose to use this camera on a nearly quarter billion dollar production – so clearly film costs were not a consideration here – the look was the primary reason (sharp images), and the workflow conveniences (already digital info) was the ancillary benefit.
Of course, the workflow conveniences didn’t save money if the production ended up costing a quarter-billion dollars (see Sequel Update link above).