Monday, January 08, 2007

Another look at Superman Returns

Superman Returns on DVD is less of a spectacle than on the big screen. The rousing feats performed by the world's most familiar superhuman lose their magnanimity on the small screen. And this makes a decidedly dogdy movie a little less watchable.

There are several reasons why Superman Returns struggled to capture my imagination. Let me start off by saying that I remain a big fan of Bryan Singer's work. I remain grateful to to 20th Century Fox for braving a gamble on a then unknown Singer to helm their X-men franchise. Singer immediately established himself as someone who could realize character driven stories against a larger than life backdrop. His audacious opening sequence in X-men where he ties Magneto's gut wrenching childhood with the holocaust created an emotional backdrop that kick started that movie and franchise.

Ostensibly to choose him to direct Superman Returns makes sense. For one, DC Comics has struggled to pair Superman against an entity worthy of battling his powers (how do you come up with a villian to battle someone who can do just about anything?!), creating complex storylines related to gods, time travel, additional dimensions, etc. This works in comics but leaves the cupboard bare in terms of things that can be effectively mass marketed in a movie. That leaves squeezing the juice out of the Superman-Lois relationship as the best way to propel the movie forward (and bring in a larger contingent of the female audience). Unfortunately this lemon has been squeezed before so the unfolding of the romance feels well worn by now.

First off, you must understand that to watch this movie you need to be well educated in the Superman universe. You don't have to be a fanboy or girl but you need to know the basics. In this regard, Superman Returns in very much a sequel to any of the previous Superman movies starring Christopher Reeves. Only, of course, its many years late. I'm not sure how much this alienated audiences - the movie (estimated budget $270 mil) pulled in about $391 mil internationally not counting DVD sales and was largely considered somewhat of a disappointment.

Although Brandon Routh makes an impressive Superman, a thespian he is not. He laces the identities of Clark Kent and Superman nicely together but he is too milquetoast an actor to project the slow burn of Superman's romance-gone-cold and increasing alienation. Kate Bosworth works really hard to update Lois as a young working mother balancing her love, career and family but struggles a bit in key scenes which require her to show us how torn she is between the man she loves and the man she lives with.

And we've seen this so many times before that one more time now: does Lois know that Kent is Superman or does she not? A few scenes later in the movie, turns out she doesn't. Confusion abounds again when Kevin Spacey shows up and snarks his way through some mysterious byplays with crystals stolen from the Fortress of Solitude that grow uncontrollably when exposed to um, water. It is all supposed to come together in the last third of the movie in an "a-ha" moment for the viewers but instead leaves us scratching our heads. And while I'm at it, why do screenwriters have to cut the power to the city's grid to potray "an amazing event of considerable magnitude in the making"?

Finally a word on the special effects. Time and again Hollywood filmmakers have been relying on CGI to show sequences that wouldn't look as entralling or real when done with green screen or any other non-digital trick. This is well and good but as each movie attempts to up the ante on the action and camera angles get funkier in these CGI sequences, the technology struggles to catch up. In a movie like Spider-man, where the main character in the CGI sequence is fully costumed, it's harder to spot the difference between real and animated. But in a movie like this, where human characters need to be fully animated, the difference is painfully obvious and a little embarassing. The characters simply move too much like someone out of Grand Theft Auto, lending a B movie air to the whole production. This is at the forefront in the early sequence where Superman reflects on an early childhood memory about learning he can fly.

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