Meant to be a the latest epic addition into the Superman franchise, Superman Returns ends up being nothing more that a prolific entry into the ‘Let’s see how much money we can spend on CGI’ school of filmmaking, doing for superhero films what Troy did for historical action dramas: reminding the world that ‘loads of cash’ + ‘popular genre trend’ does not always = ‘good movie’.
With a budget that topped out at $270 million, the big question is where did the money go? Sure, we got to see Superman take a bullet to the eyeball, but is that the best we can do with over two decades of filmmaking experience under our belts since Christopher Reeves made the world believe that a man could fly? Can you really justify blowing a wad like that on set design and computer graphics without concerning yourself with character or plot development? This film could have been easily made with half the budget and two-thirds fewer screenwriters, and the end result would have possibly left a better taste in the audience’s mouth afterwards. With that said, $200 million domestically and $191 million at the foreign box is plenty enough to guarantee that the guilty party will be cranking out a sequel sometime soon. Do we want one? No. Do the studios want one? Hell yes.
Normally, the review format at This Movie Sucks involves a chronological breakdown of the film, our personal way of sharing our misery with you one painful scene after another. Superman Returns defies this approach, as there isn’t really any cohesive plot to follow. As a whole, the film is nothing more than a random series of romantic interludes (yawn), lame comic relief (Doesn’t Clark look like Superman? Nah!), evil Lex Luthor moments (like driving cute dogs to cannibalism for humorous effect, or destroying a giant toy train set as miniature voices scream in terror), and the occasional attempt at story development. Like a three-hour Magic Picture movie, the best you can hope to do is gaze at the whole mess and hope that your peripheral vision creates the illusion of having seen a Superman movie.
The beginning is the perfect place to start, however, as Superman Returns manages to annoy and repel before the first scene opens. Unless you’re going to remote-block it like the FBI warnings on DVDs so we can’t fast forward them, lose the fifteen minute opening credits sequences. They were impressive back in the day when going to the theatres was actually an experience, and the special effects couldn’t be duplicated on a teenager’s laptop.
Any film that features a shot of a Scrabble board with ironically relevant words on the triple letter score is always a bad sign, especially when the word has a double meaning to the plot. The focus on Alienation in the beginning is even more painful because it is reminiscent of the film Alien Nation, and brings to mind two other things I’d rather do; watch a bad 80’s sci-fi movie and drink sour milk.
Superman’s actual ‘Return’ in the movie starts off a huge string of logic issues with the film. If Superman is now as super as he is because of our yellow sun, why would he need to return to earth in another meteor space pod? And why is he so drained and fatigued when he collapses into Ma Kent’s arms? He seemed rather un-phased by the crash landing as a toddler. So the adult Superman is too weak to handle interstellar travel without collapsing into a heap, yet the first film’s Super Toddler is energetic enough to stagger out of a crater buck-naked and giggling, wave down a passing childless couple, and fill in for their car jack. Apparently, the modern-day Superman is a bit of a wussy.
Of course, this is where the geniuses behind this one made their biggest mistake. If they had just chosen to reinvent the franchise like Batman and Spiderman, then much could be forgiven. Considering Singer’s obsession with the original that apparently motivated him to recycle huge chunks of it, simply remaking the film would have probably been a wise choice. But when you decide to recast every role, modernize the script and setting, and call it a continuation of the previous films in the franchise, you are setting yourself up for a world of dissatisfaction. Keeping Brando and the original score intact makes it hurt so much more. William’s score is such an integral part of the film it’s like a character all by itself. When you hear it you expect great things, you just never get it and makes it all the more disappointing. Having the score swell dramatically every time someone glances out a window doesn’t help, either.
This vast disappointment is especially unavoidable when you cast actors in the lead roles that are younger than the original stars in the first film. The actor’s portraying Clark (Brandon Routh) and Lois (Kate Bosworth) make you appreciate Christopher Reeve and Margo Kidder all the more. Reeve’s nerdiness and Kidder’s abrasiveness actually added depth and personality to the characters, while Routh and Bosworth just manage to squeak by.
Brandon Routh was obviously hired based solely on his spandex-wearing abilities, and his performance is nothing short of an insult to Reeve’s memory. His version of Clark doesn’t even bother to change the part in his hair, leaving the glasses and not-too-untrendy clothing to do all the acting on their own in between hunky outer-space cheesecake poses. His ‘impression’ of Reeve’s Clark Kent is passable on occasion, but falls far short of what you would call a ‘performance’.
As for Kate Bosworth’s watered-down version Lois, the airplane disaster sequence that introduces her comes way too early in the film. Bosworth is bounced around the cabin like a rag doll long before the audience has been exposed to enough of her blandness to actually wish suffering upon her. After two hours you actually end up rooting for Lex Luthor’s goon on the Evil Yacht when he tries to bash her skull in with a paperweight. All that remains of Kidder’s hard-nosed, chain-smoking, semi-illiterate journalist are a couple of spelling corrections, some not-quite-probing question, and two attempts at lighting a cigarette. It is also oddly perverse that the filmmaker’s would go out of their way to avoid having their lead character smoke, yet they have no problem with showing her five year old son kill a man with a grand piano.
The list of aspects stolen directly from the original extends far beyond the poor attempts at mimicking the first film’s performances. Lex Luthor is the main villain once again, and his flakey female sidekick is yet another dizzy dame with a soft spot for the Man of Steel. I can’t even begin to figure out why Lex Luthor thought a runaway car careening through traffic would be the perfect way to distract Superman while he steals Kryptonite from a museum unnoticed, but I guess that’s why they call him a criminal mastermind. Hell, he’s gotta be smarter than the screenwriters. After all, they’re the ones that have him marrying a wealthy widow while behind bars and swindling her family out of her vast estate, when you’d think an evil genius like himself would be more than capable of amassing a fortune through online day trading. It would be much more convincing to imply that Lex Luthor was single-handedly responsible for the housing market crash through online mortgage refinancing. Robbing from the elderly, that’s just mean. But House Flipping for cash and destroying real estate values in the process, now that’s downright diabolical.
Which leads us to the question of why, five films into the Superman movie franchise, Lex Luthor seems to be the only villain they can scrounge up as a sinister plot device? Except for Superman III, that brilliant bald bastard has been behind every plot to destroy superman. DC Comics has been churning out Superman adventures for seventy years, and they can’t scrounge up another bad-guy to stir things up? Did the screenwriters do any research beyond watching the first film five or six times? How about Mr. Mxyzptlk? Metallo? Brainiac? Doomsday? Bizarro Superman? Hell, even Ambush Bug would be a welcome change of pace. In the old days you could argue that it was cheaper to have Luthor instead of spending any real money on super villains. Back when Superman I (1978) and II (1981) came out, they were the most expensive films ever made at $55 and $60 million respectively. In this day and age, with budgets exceeding anything resembling realistic figures, there is no good excuse not to explore other evil-doers.
Oh, and surprise, surprise! I hated the drawn-out romantic flying sequence from the first film, and what do you know, I hate the carbon-copy version they slapped into this one. If they had trimmed out all of the pointless romantic angst melodrama, the film would have easily come in under two hours.
Of course, the romantic aspect of the film raises the question of why the filmmakers decided to redefine American Pop Culture’s favorite bulletproof boy scout as the type of morally ambiguous screw-up that would not only have sex outside of marriage, but give her a super-sperm injection without using protection, knock her up, skip town while the girl’s still pregnant, only to return years later and try to muscle in on her new relationship, going so far as to spy on her and her new paramour. This is the kind of behavior you expect from a US Senator, not the Man of Steel. On top of all of that, he’s a shade dumber than the old Supes, as he not only doesn’t bother to keep tabs on the one man who has tried repeatedly to kill him, but also can’t sense the presence of a mile-wide slab of Kryptonite until he’s standing on top of it. It’s hard to feel sorry for old Supes when Luthor shanks him prison-style with a jagged blade of Kryptonite. Even Super Dog would have seen that one coming.
Despite the romantic padding that weighs the film down to a hefty 154 minutes, the screenwriters still managed to squeeze in plenty of other useless wastes of time. Like Jimmy Olsen. As if the film isn’t long enough, the writer’s felt the need to inject a Jimmy Olsen sub-plot that is almost as brief and useless as the character itself. A one-minute scene of a kid using his camera phone to take a picture of Superman, a one-minute scene in which Perry White tells Olsen that children are taking better pictures than him, and a one-minute scene in which Jimmy takes a great picture of Superman. Presto! Three minutes of conflict resolution and you have a story arc as useless and unnecessary as Superman’s horrendously painful outer space crucifixion pose. Why the religious community didn’t flip over this obvious comparison of The Man of Steel to the Son of God is beyond me.
But so much of the film’s so-called story is unnecessary, except to set up meandering eye-candy. Superman hovers in the earth’s stratosphere and listens to everyone on the planet simultaneously, only to fly right back down to Metropolis so he can foil a bank robbery. Not only is it cliché, but it shows a strange wall-eyed xenophobia that pervades the film. Except for a quick Luthor Cruise Lines visit to the Fortress of Solitude, the film doesn’t stray far from Metropolis. Even the previous films visited Canada, France and Italy. The best this one does is give a brief glimpse of Superman helping foreigners where the rest of the world seems to belong in Singer’s vision; in the background on news. Even after he flies into deep space to get rid of Kryptonite Island, his unconscious body still manages to crash straight back down into midtown Metropolis!
Bitter griping and complaining over this film’s numerous errors and shortcomings could stretch on longer than the movie itself, but the basic point is unavoidable. The only thing super about this movie is the feat of herculean strength of will it takes to make through to the end credits.
And if you actually manage to run the gauntlet, you may be begging for a bullet in the eye yourself.
Oh, and the new heat vision sucks.
Editing Room - What we would change:
*When Superman falls to the ground unconscious, military units arrive and whisk him away before concerned citizens and paramedics can make it to the scene. Superman is reported dead by officials. He is then carted off to Area 51, where scientists armed with diamond tipped laser drills hollow him out like a canoe in a vain attempt to figure out how to create a race of superhuman soldiers. Later, at Superman’s symbolic funeral, his bastard child forgets his own strength while hugging Lois and pinches her head off like a dandelion.
*The giant pothole Superman creates when he falls to Earth at the end creates nothing but problems for the city. Traffic is rerouted and backed up for hours, public utilities are knocked out for miles around, and the shock wave weakens the foundations throughout the city. Lex Luthor leads Metropolis in a class-action lawsuit against the Man of Steel, and the end credits roll over him performing community service by using his super breath to aid the street sweepers.
*Clark Kent challenges Richard White to arm wrestle for the girl and the kid. Superman lets Richard think he is winning then tears his arm out of the socket at the last minute. Clark mugs at the camera, ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ plays in the background, and the credits roll.
*Superman fails to save Metropolis. Everyone dies. In a desperate attempt to fix everything, he flies around Earth at super speeds, reverses the planet’s rotation, and effectively turns back time. (Richard Donner had originally planned on reusing this at the end of Superman II, so it isn’t as far fetched as you might think.) He rewinds things a bit too far back, however, and when time finally starts moving forward again he finds that he is now in the first film. Then, in the confusion, Brandon Routh’s Clark bumps into Christopher Reeve’s Clark at the Daily Planet. Reeve’s snaps Routh’s neck like a pretzel, and stuffs his body in a nearby broom closet.