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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 30, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Superman Returns

If you have never watched a Superman movie, a few things in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns may be a bit baffling. That's because this movie is meant to be a direct sequel to Superman (Richard Donner, 1978) and Superman II (Richard Lester, 1980) the first two movies that starred Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel.

Twenty-six years is a long time between installments. So let me catch you up on what you have to know.

In Superman, a superbaby from the planet Krypton was delivered by meteor to the farm of Jonathan and Martha Kent, who adopted him and named him Clark. After an adolescence in which he discovered he could outrun schoolbuses, he donned a pair of glasses and went to work as an oafish reporter at The Daily Planet, where he fell in love with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), who recited really bad poetry while flying with Superman; and, from time to time, stripped off his civvies and saved people. Finally, to fend off a ludicrous plot by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), Superman circled the Earth in reverse so fast that he was able to arrive before he left and prevent a bunch of really bad disasters.

In Superman II, Lois finds out that Clark and Superman are one and the same, whereupon he goes to the Fortress of Solitude, a superigloo in the arctic, and goes through a transition that makes him an ordinary mortal. This is a really bad time to do this, since three miscreants from Krypton arrive and start taking over the Earth, ruling much the way the Democrats claim that Bush is already governing. So even though Superman and Lois make super love together (without killing her), they have to part so Superman can reverse the process and go back and fight the evil Zod (Terence Stamp) and his cohorts. Superman wins, but it leaves him with super powers, which means that things just aren't going to work out with Lois, which makes her so sad that he gives her a super kiss and sucks the memory of their love affair right out of her head.

OK, between II and Returns, there were a couple of astonishingly inept movies that are so embarrassing that they have been given the Bobby-Ewing's-shower treatment -- they didn't happen after all. Instead, Superman went off for five years to visit the wreckage of his home planet, Krypton. While he was gone, Lois got herself in a "committed relationship" with Richard White (James Marsden) and had a baby boy, Jason (Tristan Leabu) who is now almost five years old.

I tell you these things because officially, Lois does not know that she ever had sex with Superman -- the memory was erased. The movie, however, assumes we will guess that the kid is really Superman's, and therefore we expect him to have superpowers at some point. When she sees this, Lois will realize whose child he is, even though she has no memory of sleeping with the dude.

She does not conclude that it was date rape. In fact, she is not curious about how this child was conceived at all.

Because, in Bryan Singer's hands, the Superman story has now become the Christ story, by way of the Nicene creed. We watch as he hears the "prayers" of all the people of the whole Earth; we hear him discussed as a savior; and we have a twisted version of the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father idea. So immaculate conceptions are not out of order here.

The ending of the movie is powerful indeed, but it is not the same movie we saw at the beginning. At first, the movie is dancing as fast as it can to link itself to the familiar Richard Donner Superman. We get a perfunctory recap of Superman's birth father (Marlon Brando via archive footage) and his adopted family.

Then we have Clark Kent returning to the Daily Planet, where the poor actor playing him, Brandon Routh, has to imitate Christopher Reeves's version of Superman trying to act like a geek.

The trouble is that Richard Donner's Superman was practically a cartoon. Reeve actually had to fight against the rest of the cast to make Superman believable at all; with Clark Kent, Reeve surrendered and made him a buffoon.

Routh is thus forced to imitate the most clownish part of Reeves's performance, but without the wit and charm Reeves brought to the role, and without a script that cares about the Clark Kent part of the movie at all.

Proof of this is that during the last sequence of the movie, in which Superman is incommunicado for some time, not one person notices that Clark Kent also seems to be missing.

I know, that's the conceit of the entire Superman story; but this movie expects us to forget Clark Kent's existence. He is simply dropped.

This is the opposite approach to that taken by the brilliant TV series Smallville, in which we think of the character of Clark Kent as the "real" guy, and the Superman identity as something forced on him by fate. This movie ignores our five years of Smallville -- which is certainly their privilege.

But it strands Routh in a weird kind of no-man's-land. Is he the jokey, smirky Superman who plays at being Clark Kent? Or the tortured soul who just visited the wreckage of his parents' planet and is broken-hearted that his true love has turned to someone else and had a kid?

That second one is the movie director Bryan Singer ordered written, and that's the movie he directs, with the same earnestness he brought to the first two X-Men films. That's why Lex Luthor, played by Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey, is actually scary and his plot is almost credible, in the movie's own terms at least. This is in marked contrast to the first movies' Lex Luthor (Oscar-winner Gene Hackman), who swaggered through a cartoon portrayal that the movie thought was hilarious but wasn't.

The Superman franchise only works when the villains are at least moderately plausible -- Terence Stamp made Zod scary in II and Kevin Spacey makes Luthor scary in Returns (even in the final cartoony moment on the beach at the end).

Here's the other part that works: Lois (Kate Bosworth) and her "family." Tristan Leabu as the kid is wonderful, and James Marsden as the ur-husband is so good that he almost steals the movie. He and Bosworth actually have the chemistry that Routh-and-Bosworth so completely lack. You want Lois to stay with Richard. Superman is too otherworldly, distant, unreal ... we want the kid to have a real father.

Ultimately, this movie is a mess with a decent ending. Bryan Singer couldn't get rid of the baggage from the comics and the previous films; the script had dialogue so empty and predictable we were saying the "clever" lines just before the actors; Routh couldn't get out of the shadow of Christopher Reeve and make the part his own; too many "bits" went nowhere; too many story threads were dropped cold.

The first hour was, in a word, dull. $260 million was spent on this movie, and for an hour, nothing happens that we can remotely care about.

But if you stick it out -- and at these prices, most of you will -- you'll get some good stuff in the last hour and a half. Not logic, mind you -- if Kryptonite embedded in a massive object weakens Superman when he stands on it, it's hard to figure out why it doesn't weaken him when he's lifting it. (I know, he had some rock between him and the kryptonite, but was it lead? I don't think so.)

Still, we're given a solid dose of the noble romantic tragedy, the good guy who has to sacrifice everything for the good of others. We're still suckers for that one, as well we should be, since that's what parenthood and schoolteaching are all about, but without the publicity and the abs of steel.

Some people in the theater applauded at the end. I don't know why. But I did enjoy the film. I'm glad I saw it. Once.

What I'm looking forward to is the sequel starring Tristan Leabu. Now he has some sizzle on the screen, young as he is. I hope as he gets older he also turns out to be talented. Some child stars (Mark Lester, McCauley Culkin) have grown up to be sad disappointments on that score; but I really believe this kid might be more than a pair of soulful eyes.

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