Superman Returns
Warner Bros. // PG-13 // $39.99 // November 28, 2006
Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 3, 2006
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Recommended
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Superheroes are iconic figures, and filmmakers can't seem to resist the urge to reinvent them. Early drafts of Batman Begins redrew Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred as a black car mechanic named "Big Al", and Kevin Smith had audiences in stitches while running through the robot spiders and polar bear fights that he was forced to shoehorn into his treatment for the long-in-development hell Superman Returns. Churning through a never-ending parade of writers and directors, it didn't seem as if Superman Returns would ever get off the ground until X-Men mastermind Bryan Singer made the bold choice of going in the complete opposite direction. Even though it had been nearly two full decades since Superman had last soared into theaters, Singer opted to pick up where Richard Donner's films had left off years earlier.

Superman Returns opens in a world without a Superman. The Man of Steel (Brandon Routh) left Earth without a word of warning, spending the past five years investigating the ruins of his home planet of Krypton. The world he left behind has suffered in his absence, prompting an embittered Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) to pen a Pulitzer Prize winning article titled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman". He's able to return to his life in Metropolis as Clark Kent with ease, but the world he knew has changed. Lois now has a fiancé (James Marsden), the nephew of Daily Planet publisher Perry White (Frank Langella), and she's also mother to a young, asthmatic son. Most of the world at large is thrilled to have Superman return as its savior with the exception, of course, of Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey). Fresh out of prison and flush with cash, Luthor has discovered Superman's Fortress of Solitude and schemes to use its advanced alien technology to wipe out most of North America and create his own continent.

Bryan Singer isn't a director shamelessly trying to cash in on a high profile franchise. This is clearly a movie by someone with boundless passion for the material, and Superman Returns is a worthy follow-up to Richard Donner's films. Singer has done a remarkable job staying true to Donner's vision from a quarter-century earlier while still feeling rooted in the here and now. Most of the campier elements from the earlier movies have been gutted. Ned Beatty's Otis has been discarded, and Superman Returns's equivalent of Miss Teschmacher has been dialed down a few notches, even if the character is still ultimately useless. Kevin Spacey's spin on Lex Luthor is faithful to Gene Hackman's performance while having more of a menacing edge. Spacey's Luthor seems like a genuine threat in Superman Returns, not just a wealthy, eccentric goof, and his eventual confrontation with the Man of Steel in the finale is wincingly brutal. I'm not entirely sure why he's convinced a barren, uninhabitable rock of an island would have any resale value, but that's beside the point.

Taking the reins from the late Christopher Reeve after his near-legendary turn as such an iconic character must have been indescribably daunting, but Brandon Routh does a tremendous job as both Clark Kent and Superman. His Kent in particular is a seamless transition from where Reeve left off and is a pitch-perfect recreation of the nervous energy and awkwardness he brought to the character. Routh does play a very different Superman, however. Superman may be a strange being from another world, but Reeve exuded the kind of warmth you'd expect from someone embodying truth, justice, and the American way. Routh's colder, more alien Superman is in keeping with the tone of the story, where he's been removed from humanity for five years and feels detached from the world at large, but I didn't feel nearly as strong an attachment to him. Routh is about the same age that Reeve was when cameras started rolling on the original Superman film, but he looks so much younger that it's easy to forget occasionally that this is supposed to be Superman Returns, not Superman Begins. I have some slight misgivings about the way Superman was handled in this film, but if the rumors of an impending sequel are true, I'm looking forward to seeing what Routh brings to the character the second time.

With most action movies, it seems as if a small army of writers scattered themselves across a conference table, brainstormed the most elaborate, over the top, effects-driven sequences they could imagine, and then haphazardly tossed together a story to string 'em all together. I was left with the opposite reaction to Superman Returns. Singer paints Superman as some sort of messianic figure who's a savior, not a fighter, and he literally doesn't throw a punch in the entire movie. There are several phenomenal effects sequences that are certain to get pulses racing -- the world's re-introduction to Superman as he rescues a plane that's careening into the stratosphere, steadying a crumbling Metropolis as Luthor sets his megalomaniacal scheme into motion, and sparing hundreds of millions from certain death in the film's closing moments -- but those really just see Superman intervening as disaster looms. Only a bank robbery has Superman struggling against an actual opponent, although even much of what happens there is passive; Superman just stands there and lets ricocheting bullets do the work for him. I'm not trying to downplay what an adrenaline rush these sequences are, but one of the most frequent criticisms of Superman Returns has been its lack of action. I admittedly did not find the movie at all dull despite the lack of Kryptonian soldiers or twenty story robots, but I hope the eventual sequel will offer a better balance of characterization and megabudgeted summer blockbuster thrills.

I wasn't much of a fan of Margot Kidder in Donner's Superman movies, and I think even less of Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane. She has one leg up on Kidder in that she's actually attractive, but Bosworth is completely devoid of any presence on-screen. I was told that Lois is in love with Superman but never felt it thanks to the utter lack of chemistry between Bosworth and Routh. At least Margot Kidder managed to sell Lois as a spunky reporter, but Bosworth doesn't even attempt to capture that sort of tenacity. Bosworth also seems much too young for the role; she looks like she may have just gotten her undergraduate degree in Journalism, but a seasoned, Pulitzer Prize winning writer? Not so much. Bosworth is passable but instantly forgettable. Oh well. Maybe she'll don a pair of tights and a cape herself for the next installment. With as violently as the dainty actress is repeatedly thrown around in every other scene, it seems like she'd have to be superpowered to always emerge without a scratch. Giving Lois a son also strikes me as a misfire. Hollywood has been churning out action sequels for decades now, and in the history of cinema, there have been two...maybe three...cases where adding a kid into the sequel wasn't an unmitigated disaster. For some inexplicable reason, directors are determined to keep trying, and Lois' wheezing tyke is as ill-conceived an idea as ever. Give the audience a little credit for being able to suss out the kid's parentage from word one too.

Bryan Singer's sequel inhabits the same world as Richard Donner's films, but the core of the story is almost excessively faithful to the original. A spaceship crashes to Earth from the long-dead planet of Krypton. Superman makes his presence known to the world by rescuing intrepid reporter Lois Lane from a mishap involving an aircraft. He later has a rooftop interview with Lois and whisks her across the night sky. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor schemes to cash in on the creation of new beachfront real estate at the cost of untold millions of lives, and he has his ditzy but good-hearted moll feign danger as a distraction for a theft. Luthor gets his hands on some Kryptonite to bring Superman to his knees near the climax, and it all ends with the Man of Steel soaring heroically into space. Roll credits. I didn't have a problem watching Superman Returns a few months after Donner's Superman, but sitting through the two back-to-back would undoubtedly inspire a nasty case of déjà vu. Sometimes its adoration of Donner's original works incredibly well, though. It's a thrill to hear John Williams' instantly recognizable orchestral score again, and reincorporating some digitally manipulated archival footage of Marlon Brando is a clever and effective touchstone. The movie is littered with subtle nods to various incarnations of Superman, from the casting of Noel Neill and Jack Larson to an homage to the cover of Action Comics #1 to the origin of the Kryptonite that Luthor and his thugs nick from the museum.

For months, I'd heard Superman Returns praised, assaulted, analyzed, and dissected from every conceivable angle. It's such a polarizing movie that I wasn't sure what my reaction would be when I got around to seeing it, but I never expected to feel so completely indifferent. Superman Returns is a movie I appreciate on a great many levels, but for something so enormously anticipated, just being okay doesn't seem like enough.

Video: Superman Returns' 2.39:1 high definition presentation has a very distinctive look to it, one that puzzled some filmgoers theatrically and is certain to meet with mixed reactions on HD DVD. Superman Returns looks less like a film and more like a painting in motion; contrast is flat, and the image has a hazy, slightly soft appearance. It's a tremendous improvement over the DVD on the flipside of this disc, but fine detail outside of tight close-ups is rarely striking. Aside from some eye-popping colors such as the otherworldly blues of Kal-El's eyes and the hues of the water as it floods into Luthor's sinking ship, its palette is unexpectedly subdued as well. From everything I've read, this is precisely how Superman Returns looked theatrically, and comments on the disc's feature-length documentary reinforce at least some of those claims.

If the home theater-centric message boards I frequent are indication, too many gearheads can't stomach these sorts of stylized movies, but this HD DVD appears to be a near-flawless representation of Superman Returns. A handful of dimly-lit stretches have a slightly noisy quality that could be owed to the high-def video cameras used to shoot the movie, and there is some banding in the underwater sequences. Both of these concerns are borderline-inconsequential and leave little impact on my overall impression of the disc. As faithful a presentation as it seems to be, though, this is still not a title I'd pull out to show off my home theater.

Superman Returns is a combo release, and on the opposite side of this dual-layered, 30 gig HD DVD is a standard definition disc playable on any traditional DVD player.

Audio: This HD DVD's video may not be demo-worthy, but its lossless Dolby TrueHD audio certainly is. Superman Returns boasts the most exceptional sound of anything I've heard pumping out of my home theater rig, HD DVD or otherwise. The incredibly aggressive mix immerses the room in sound as effects whir from channel to channel. Clarity and detail are uniformly stunning, and the track's dynamic range is remarkably expansive. The effects-heavy sequences in particular are bolstered by devastating sonic thunder -- the waves of bass as Krypton detonated felt like I'd been slugged in the gut -- but the sound design is so strong that even quieter moments never fail to impress, and I'm sure repeat viewings will reveal color and subtleties I overlooked my first time through. Despite all the tumult, the film's dialogue doesn't once get buried in the mix. Superman Returns has set a new benchmark for audio on HD DVD, and if we're treated to something this wonderful seven months into the format, I'm eager to see what the future holds.

Subtitles and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 tracks are also offered in English, Quebecois-French, and Spanish.

Supplements: On far too many of these combo releases, HD DVD owners have had to get up and flip the disc to the DVD side in order to watch any of the extras. Superman Returns, for a change, piles all of its extras solely on the dual-layered HD DVD side.

It may not sound all that impressive on the surface to say that Superman Returns includes sixteen minutes of deleted scenes, a few trailers, and a five part documentary until it sinks in that this doc is nearly three hours long. Running a half hour longer than the movie itself, Requiem for Krypton documents the shooting of essentially every scene in the movie and features comments from literally several dozen members of the cast and crew. Its cameras rolled during the entirety of pre-production and the first unit leg of the shoot, and everyone from director Bryan Singer and all of the central cast down to animal trainers and storyboard artists are given a chance to chime in.

More of a production diary than a traditional documentary, a sense of humor permeates almost every inch of Requiem for Krypton. It casts such a wide net that I jotted down four pages of notes while watching the documentary, and I won't bore you with a full recap. The short version...? If it happened during pre-production or principal photography, from cutting Brandon Routh's hair for his 65mm screentest to the different methods of painting sets and props, it's featured somewhere in here. It's a lot to take in, and I don't know if I'd recommend trying to watch it all in one sitting as I did, but I really enjoyed Requiem for Krypton. It's candid, charming, and extremely comprehensive. However, it doesn't offer sort of thematic insight a commentary track typically would, and as principal photography comes to an close, so does the doc; it doesn't touch on the movie's extensive digital effects work, John Ottman's score, the editing, or any other aspect of post-production. Requiem for Krypton is absolutely worth a look despite those omissions, and stick around through end credits for some outtakes from the movie.

Requiem for Krypton is in standard definition but has been enhanced for 16x9 displays. I think the disc may have buckled under the weight of all of this footage, and it looks like it's been overcompressed to fit. A separate four minute featurette, widely YouTube-d before the movie's theatrical release, shows how Superman Returns' effects team digitally resurrected Marlon Brando for Jor-El's brief appearance.

For a format with "HD" in the name, it's a bit surprising that only a very select few HD DVDs have bothered with high-definition extras. Superman Returns is among that tiny handful, though, offering its deleted scenes in 1080p. A set of twelve scenes sounds like quite a lot, but since they only run sixteen minutes in total, they're obviously exceedingly brief. Nearly all of them are quieter character moments culled from the early stretches of the movie. One completely excised character makes an appearance -- James Karen as Martha Kent's love interest, Ben Hubbard -- and this footage also explains why no one in Metropolis is suspicious about Clark's lengthy absence. There are no new effects sequences, and in fact, some of these were removed so early in the process that the wires suspending Stephan Bender mid-air haven't even been removed. Other footage in this set includes an epilogue as well as a montage of Kevin Spacey screaming "wrong!"

The extras are rounded out by three standard definition trailers: the original teaser, the full theatrical trailer, and a plug for EA's video game.

Conclusion: Superman Returns is clearly the result of a staggering amount of passion from hundreds of talented people, and I almost feel guilty for not having a stronger reaction. It's hardly the disaster so many have made it out to be, but I can't enthusiastically recommend rushing out to buy it either. I think enough of Superman Returns to avoid dismissing it with a "Rent It" rating, but for those who haven't seen it, I would suggest a rental or looking for the right price so you can form your own opinion. Recommended, but with reservations.

Related Reviews: Daniel Hirshleifer has penned reviews for the HD DVD releases of Richard Donner's Superman and the revisited Superman II. Randy Miller III's DVD review of Superman Returns is far more positive than mine, if you'd like another perspective, and DVD Talk also hosts a pair of enthusiastic write-ups from the movie's theatrical run.


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