June 29, 2006

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Superman Returns (PG)
The most pure-hearted superhero of all gets a revamp in the lovely, dashing Superman Returns, a movie that fits in roughly after the action of Superman II.

Superman III proved a real corker of a get-rich-slow scheme but little else in the way of advancing the series that had already become a bit shaky. So Superman Returns begins with the title card telling us that Superman, the only survivor of the destroyed planet Krypton, was raised by a couple in Kansas and became a great hero. However, somewhere in this superheroing career, Superman learned that astronomers had located the remains of Krypton and he disappeared for five years.

We get our first look at the Man of Steel (Brandon Routh) when he crashes the pointy, star-like spaceship that brought him here from Krypton the first time into Martha Kent's (Eve Marie Saint) field. Superman/Clark is just an exhausted boy in this scene — one who wakes up the next morning trying to figure out what to do with his life. He decides to return to Clark Kent's job at The Daily Planet, which he gets back, Perry White (Frank Langella) tells him, because the guy who had it died. Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) is still an eager beaver photographer and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is still an aggressive reporter. But Lane has moved on, she's engaged to Planet assistant editor Richard (James Marsden, poor Cyclops, always the less exciting boyfriend) and has a young son.

While Clark isn't surprised that Lois hasn't thought much about him, he's a bit devastated that she doesn't seem to miss Superman. Ah, apparently being faster than a speeding bullet doesn't ensure that a man will be quick enough to catch the look of surprise and longing on Lois' face when she sees Superman for the first time after he saves the plane she's in from crashing. Superman's spectacular return is, of course, the biggest story ever and Perry wants Lois to cover all the angles. But Lois is reluctant to let Superman back into her life. Plus, this ace reporter is more interested in what caused the massive power outage that led to the almost-crash to begin with. And by the way, she and Jimmy wonder, what does Lex Luthor think of all this?

Lex (Kevin Spacey) has thought of little other than Superman. When Superman didn't show up to Lex's appeal, Lex got out of jail. Armed with money thanks to a rich old woman and with a new set of henchmen, Lex heads north to Superman's Fortress of Solitude (which, you'll remember, Lex got a look at in Superman II). He borrows some of the fortress' crystals and gets a lesson in what they can do from Jor-El (Marlon Brando), father of Kal-El — Superman's Kryptonian moniker. While everybody's busy with Superman, Lex is also able to steal some kryptonite and he begins to assemble another dastardly world domination plan.

Lex's crackling evil and Superman's unironic yet unsentimental goodness don't come face to face until nearly the end of this movie. Surprisingly, the long build-up really works — when these great adversaries finally meet, we're completely given over to the life-or-death-ness of it all. The issues in this battle are what they always are for Superman — saving humanity, saving Lois, occasionally having to pick which to do first. But the movie is rich — we get Spider-Man colors with comic book framing and X-Men-style cleverness to both the visuals and the dialogue. And overlaying everything like another visual dimension is the score, based on that John Williams triumphal symphony we first heard in 1978. The music has received a real polish here, with the heroics sounding more heroic, the romantic movements getting more depth and the emotional conflicts playing themselves out more with song than with dialogue.

And, at the risk of scaring away fans looking for pure action, Superman Returns is a very emotional movie. When the movie begins, we get a Superman looking for his parents, specifically for his father. Despite that both character and actor are long dead, Marlon Brando's Jor-El plays a significant role in the story arc of this movie. His lines, many of which are computer enhanced, are no less thrilling than they were when I first heard them repeated over movie clips in early Superman Returns trailers. Martha Kent reminds Superman that he's not alone but we can see Superman searching for his father to give him strength and allow him to believe in what he's doing, even when it's lost him the woman he loves. This Superman doesn't need to end up with the girl; he needs to find his dad. Though this Superman is still an uncomplicated white hat (with none of the strains of pissy teenager like Peter Parker or the psychosis of Bruce Wayne), we see him suffer, both physically and emotionally, and we see him lose things. Life is not perfect even for him.

Life is not perfect but the movie is near perfectly constructed. Writer/director Bryan Singer, who gave so much life to the first two X-Men movies, here builds a movie that uses our knowledge of Superman and the excellent performances, dazzling visuals and smart writing onscreen to build a truly captivating adventure. I read in an interview with Singer that he wanted to craft a movie that, in part, is from Lois' point of view and is something of a love story. We do get a lot of Lois and Superman Returns is a love story — but very sweetly and surprisingly so. It's this quality — this fulfillment of expectation while still offering something fresh and exciting — that makes Superman Returns such a delight.

Finally, the boy from Smallville gets an amazing adventure. A


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