Everyone who sees Superman Returns seems to write a post bashing it, from Simon to TV comedy writer Ken Levine. Well, now I'm going to do the same thing.
Before I do, I should grant that it's a pretty enjoyable, tolerable movie, especially considering that it's two and a half hours. It certainly doesn't commit the egregious trespasses against Storytelling that the first Superman movie does. Sure, Bryan Singer includes some of Marlon Brando's ponderous nonsense monologues in voice-over, but at least it's only in snippets and there's plenty of other things going on.
Beyond that, I can't really compare Returns with the old Superman movies because I never got that far with the original. Want to know how Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth compare to Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder? Look elsewhere. I never finished watching the first Superman. The half-hour or so of Marlon Brando pointlessly mumbling on while pacing one of the cheesiest sets of the '70s, shot through a gauzy filter that only makes it look more dated, really tried my patience. But after half an hour of inconsequential Smallville/Fortress of Solitude meandering, with a confusingly miscast "young" Clark Kent who looked older than Christopher Reeve (who was still easily young enough to play those scenes himself), the movie lost all claim on my good will. If I am one hour into a Superman movie and I am just now meeting Lois Lane and Lex Luthor, I am watching a movie that has wasted my time. People love it so much that perhaps someday I'll give it another chance, but a movie with such an inept first hour does not exactly engender confidence in a viewer.
But enough about that. Let's talk about the new movie. As always, the spoiler warning applies.
I've always felt Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth are too young for their parts. Routh is just old enough (although he is the same as as Reeve was in the first movie), but Bosworth is ridiculously young. Is it that awful to cast a thirty-year-old woman? This movie continues the recent tradition of Hollywood movies that suggest you can have an accomplished career with no time for accomplishments. If Lois has a five-year-old kid, then she must have been knocked up in high school. Is Superman the father? Does that mean he's a statutory rapist? Singer said he wanted actors who had room to age as the franchise continues, but this is absurd. All of Bosworth's acting RAM seems to go toward acting like a grown-up, leaving precious little memory space for creating a character. You know you've cast too young when Katie Holmes as a District Attorney starts to look credible in comparison.
I like Parker Posey, and she gets off some good lines here and there, but overall she doesn't have enough to do. She seems to spend the whole second half of the movie fretting that Lex is being a little too evil. She's always sort of on the verge of tears, to the point where you're like, you knew you were dating Lex Luthor, right? Did you not expect to be complicit in killing billions of people? Parker Posey is so good at being weird and amoral; why isn't her character Kitty more excited about all this? If she were on board with Lex's evil plans, that could have resulted in some delicious moments. Instead she's the conscience, as if without her we might not recognize that Lex's plan is mean. It's no fun being the conscience.
Kal Penn is also here, as the henchman Stanford. He's in the opening credits and everything, but it's not clear why a recognizable actor is even in this role. He has one line in the entire movie, and it's not even in close-up, so it's easy to miss. Occasionally we cut to his reactions and they seem to be given more weight than those of the other henchmen ("What does Kal Penn think about all this?") but his character is still unceremoniously killed off before doing anything memorable. Disappointing.
But then, hardly anyone is given anything to do in this movie. Lex has the most lines and Kevin Spacey offers the most interesting performance. The only other person with anything to do is Kate Bosworth. She gets through it without being overtly embarrassing (aside from the fact that she looks like a middle schooler playing dress-up), but never gives you much to latch on to. Interactions between characters are limited and cursory, and you never feel like you get to know anyone.
For a two and a half hour movie, not much actually seems to happen. Well, there's always something going on, but each thing takes a really long time. What happens is, Lex Luthor steals some crystals from the Fortress of Solitude. He plans to use them to grow a new continent which will sink America and create great demand for his new "beachfront property." The problem, as one of our friends pointed out, but which no one in the movie seems to notice, is that Kryptonian crystals happen to grow the most ugly, barren wasteland you can imagine, where no one could build and no one would ever want to live. So the whole plan is pointless. As our friend put it, "It's the new Antarctica."
Lex's lousy plan takes a lot of setup. After pilfering the crystals, he does a test run in a miniature lake in a model train version of Metropolis, destroying the toy city. Then he steals some Kryptonite. Then... well, suddenly he's tossing the real crystal into the real ocean, and you're like, wait, that's it? Did he just do the plan? Is it actually happening already? For all the buildup, the actual plan itself does not seem to take much work. He simply does it, and later, Superman undoes it.
But first, Superman gets his ass handed to him by a bunch of Lex's cheap thugs. Because, see, Lex has cleverly fused the crystal with Kryptonite, thus growing a wasteland continent that is part Kryptonite itself. So when Superman lands on it, he's as weak as your average guy. Oddly, the fact that this huge land mass is half Kryptonite doesn't stop Superman from later lifting the whole thing into space, but it does... um... make him break a sweat while doing it? Oh, Kryptonite, you'll be the death of my deodorant yet!
The movie likes its ominous earthquakes. You know, where things start shaking and you're like, oh shit, something big is totally about to happen! Like when Superman comes crashing home to the Kent farm. Or when Lex tests the crystal. Or when Lex uses the crystal. And seemingly two or three other times. I lost count of how many times things started shaking to indicate impending danger.
The story itself has an odd pace. Lex Luthor has a plan, Superman is stopping the plan, and there don't seem to be that many steps in the process on either side. When Lois gets herself captured, it's like, huh? Already? Superman confronts Lex, fails, is rescued, and immediately rallies and foils the plan. But the movie somehow isn't over, and what little third act there is takes a weird turn into Million Dollar Baby: Superman Edition.
Then there is the love story, where Superman proves that he can stalk his ex-girlfriend with abilities far beyond mortal men. Between the eavesdropping, flying and X-ray vision, you'll never find a better-equipped stalker. It's very realistic for Singer to recognize that, hey, if you were Superman, you know you'd totally use your powers for stalking.
As our friend pointed out, Lois spends all her time telling Superman how she doesn't need a savior, even after he has saved her life. I guess she had her own exit plan from the burning airplane getting dragged into space by the malfunctioning space shuttle? On the other hand, maybe she's right: during the crisis she's thrown around the plane by rocketship-level G-forces, no doubt receiving multiple concussions, yet never loses consciousness even though she can never quite reach an oxygen mask. So who knows, maybe she's invincible now, too.
Thr problem with the movie's Christ metaphor--and yes, it's there, and painfully obvious--is that you can't really deal with the question of whether the world needs a savior when your story spends all its time concerned with whether the world's savior can get his ex-girlfriend back. Because then mankind's struggle with skepticism and faith is equated with whether Lois is still hot for her baby's daddy. Yes, perfect. I can totally see the parallels. If Superman is Jesus, there's some Da Vinci Code shit going on here.
Superman makes a useful metaphor for a lot of things. Frank Miller used him to represent America's arrogance and blind use of force. The best Superman story I've read, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's "A Superman for All Seasons," uses Superman as a mirror to examine the human-scale characters of Pa Kent, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, and Lana Lang. But the Christ metaphor in Superman Returns is both heavy-handed and half-assed. It is self-important but unwilling to be truly serious.
There has been a lot of fuss, in the movie's development and in the discussions of the film, about whether Superman is still relevant in today's world. It's definitely hard to take a Superman story seriously, as we can see above. Superman is more useful as a grand archetype of the Superhero myth than he is as an actual character in complex stories. The broad strokes are elegant. The details make no sense.
Here is a character with these incredible abilities, and in this movie he is portrayed as being more omnipotent than ever. He flies up into space to listen to the whole world (or at least one side of it), listening for who needs him most. He's seen on the news saving people in France and Germany. The "truth, justice and the American Way" phrasing has been phased out because, among other reasons, Superman is humanity's superhero. Oh, really? Then why are so many of his superheroic feats so trite?
Imagine you're up in space, listening to the world. You can help somewhere, but only one place at a time. You have the whole world before you. Who needs you, right now, right this moment? What is the worst problem going on right now in the entire world?
Someone is robbing a bank in Metropolis!
Someone's car is out of control!
But of course, the world is bigger than that. After all, Superman is also there when someone falls off a building in Germany. Does he only listen to the western world? Predominantly white countries? Cities with good media coverage so he can smile at the TV cameras? When Clark Kent returns to Earth, he sees news reports about warfare and strife around the world. Presumably he is watching them and thinking, "Whew. That looks hard." Because he never attends to any of it. African genocide? Israel/Palestinian conflict? The War on Terror? Forget that. The bank robber has a machine gun! No wonder Superman seems irrelevant.
At least in WWII he fought some Nazis for us (but then, so did Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse). Sure, that stuff seems like simplistic wish fulfillment now, but at least it was timely. Superman Returns argues that the world needs a savior because otherwise people might fall off of things and vehicles might crash. As such, it never adequately engages with just what a savior even is.