“Superman Returns”–a very late review

I didn’t see “Superman Returns” in the theater–I didn’t want to. There was nothing for me to look forward to. Bryan Singer was vocal about his reverence for and the need to stay true to the legacy of the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies, neither of which necessarily hold up today. The Reeve Superman movie continuity was best left in the dust, as the Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney Bat-film continuity was when “Batman Begins” rebooted and reenergized that franchise.

I grudgingly watched Singer’s vision of the Man of Steel yesterday, and it confirmed my worst fears. “Superman Returns,” while quite the visual feast, was a hollow waste of a multimillion dollar bankroll. Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman was…good…but good in the sense that his performance was a note-perfect Christopher Reeve imitation. It’s kinda like seeing Kashmir cover “Black Dog” on a Saturday night at Champ’s. It’s cosmetically dead on, but you’re constantly aware that the original was infinitely better.

All the plot points were half-baked and never explored to a logical conclusion. The basis for the movie, Superman’s disappearance to investigate astronomer’s claims that Krypton was still floating around in space, is never discussed to any great length. He checked it out. It wasn’t there. He was gone for five years. Now he’s back.

Similarly, Lex Luthor (played gleefully by Kevin Spacey) hatched a scheme that wouldn’t cut muster in the ridiculously overwrought Curt Swan-pencilled comics of the 1970’s. His mad scheme? To create a continent out of Kryptonian crystal technology. A mad real estate plot? The Superman franchise has been dead for two decades, and this is what he came back to thwart? Somewhere in America, Kevin Smith, who wrote a much more satisfying preliminary story for a Superman movie, is laughing. Loudly. The inevitable conflict between Superman and Luthor, one of the most thrilling moments of the movie, lasted for less than ten minutes and was unfortunately the only time the two characters intersected on screen. Luthor’s never taken to task for either creating the new continent or for kicking Superman’s ass on screen. His fate was campy, brief, and completely unsatisfying.

One of the biggest misfires of “Superman Returns” was casting Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. Making matters worse, the role was written and conceptualized all wrong. The Lois Lane of the comics, T.V. shows, and even the Reeve movies, is a tough-as-nails, firecely independent, nosey, pitbull. Here, she’s a vulnerable kid in a big girl’s job. The real Lois Lane would never settle for a milksop like Perry White’s nephew (played by Cyclops from the X-Men franchise, of which Singer directed the first two films). The real Lois Lane would never settle for a quiet suburban life. The real Lois Lane is years away from being “mom” material. Lois is a strong and vibrant character in the Superman mythology, and critical to defining both Superman and Clark Kent. This off-the-mark interpretation brings down the entire movie.

The worst plot point of the film is one that will haunt the future of the franchise. SPOILER WARNING:
Superman’s a dad. He and Lois had a love child. No mere love child, this asthmatic cutie has super strength, just like his pop. In taking this creative liberty and trying to “humanize” Superman, Singer has saddled the hero with baggage that will demand future exploration in the coming films. The idea of future story threads involving the super-seven year old offends the purist in me, as well as my “jump the shark” radar.

How can the franchise be fixed? A few thoughts:
-Singer needs to get over his drooling over the Donner/Reeve legacy and get to telling some fresh new stories.
-Those fresh new stories should be true to the comic source material. As we’ve seen over recent years, the best comic book movies (”Batman Begins,” “Spider-Man 2″) have faithfully translated the spirit of the original printed material to the screen.
-If Luthor returns, let him be the “big bad” we know him to be. Spacey is a great, maniacal, villain. Let him and Superman go at it off and on for the span of an entire movie–not just ten minutes.
-Introduce a more sensational villain. Superman is a science-fiction hero–a space alien with godlike super powers. As such, he needs a worthy foe. Bring on Darkseid or Mongul.
-Kill the kid.
-Hire Kevin Smith or Jeph Loeb as screenwriter.
-Fire Kate Bosworth.

If you want to see a great comic book adaptation over the holidays, rent or buy any of the “Justice League Unlimited” DVD collections. The (late, lamented) Cartoon Network series was far removed from kiddie fare, and the most faithful comic book translation I’ve ever seen.

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