Superman Returns

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So I finally managed to find some time to go and see the new Superman. I’ve been in a relative blackout of information about the movie, not because I didn’t want to ruin it for myself but because I wasn’t particularly interested in it. Superman has never been one of my favorite comic-book characters and the latest batch of comic-book inspired movies have been clearly horrible (Fantastic Four, need I say more?). I can count the few tidbits of information I’ve seen about the movie on one hand: The prerelease promotional photo of Routh in the Superman costume, some postings on message boards discussing alternate casting choices, and Steven’s note about the movie’s less than stellar opening.

Spoiler-ish discussion below…

Particularly because of Steven’s mentioning of many criticisms of the movie I went in not expecting much. The movie starts out slowly and for awhile it had me wondering whether it was going to continue to be so plodding. Spacey’s Luthor hams it up in a humorous, comic-book fashion but doesn’t seem to be the criminal genius we know him as. “When is Superman going to be on screen?” I kept thinking to myself. Singer seems to be a director who’s willing to develop things over time, to pay attention to the details and to reward the viewer who does as well. I have to say I feel that it pays off.

The first action sequence in this movie is meticulously planned and paced. Thus far in the movie we really haven’t seen Superman, and so the tension is building over when we will finally see him. We see Clark mooning over Lois, and then Lois falls into danger. As the viewer we’re immediately aware, but Clark is unaware. The agonizing slowness of the twenty-four hour television news networks leaves him in the dark until… Finally the news networks cover Lois’ plight. Jimmy the copy boy says, “Maybe I should do something?” but Clark is gone. We see a streak of blue across the blue. Radar images show an unidentified bogey. “It’s Superman!” you think in exultation. The release is great, but it doesn’t stop there. The entire scene is wonderful, culminating in an amazing cathartic experience when Superman finally succeeds in saving Lois and the two lock eyes for the first time in five years…

The action in the movie is great spectacle, but the real conflict here is Superman’s alienation from the world of man. Lois has a new love interest in the form of another Daily Planet executive, Richard. Surprisingly the relationship of this man to Superman is not confrontational but rather asymmetric — Superman is not human, and he has a greater duty than just to Lois. Richard is a mere human, but he still clearly loves Lois. Lois’ heart still belongs to Superman, though, and the tension between the two smolders on the screen. Where the action in the movie is intense and over-the-top the romance is understated but broiling. The scene where Superman meets Lois on the roof of the Daily Planet was extraordinarily intimate and overwhelming with sensuality without even a kiss passing between them.

I have to say that while I was watching this movie I forgot that I was watching a “comic book movie.” An artificial genre, of course, but one that pays due to the notion that the films it describes would not pass muster if it were not for the years of history behind the characters. I thought the original X-Men movie, also by Singer, was mediocre and only passed muster because of the fondness I had for the X-Men characters. The second movie was an excellent action film that relied heavily on the comic-book background of the characters. Superman Returns is not a comic-book movie. It’s a movie and, more importantly, it’s an artistically rich movie with trappings of an action film to explore human themes. It is probably the best mainstream movie I have seen since The Matrix and is definitely in my top 100 films.

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