Passion of the Superman
Forget Mel Gibson. In need of that old-time religion at the local cineplex? Superman has returned, and he is here to die for your sins.
The Superman-as-Jesus motif is ladled on thick 'n creamy in Superman Returns, the comeback for the movie franchise in which the late Christopher Reeve starred as the Man of Steel. While there is plenty to admire in this retooled $204 million flick -- particularly some jaw-dropping special effects -- this revival bears little of the gee-whiz wonder and virtually none of the humor that distinguished the 1978 Richard Donner motion picture and its 1980 sequel directed by Richard Lester. And, hell, I wanted to like it. Really. Director Bryan Singer, after all, is a gay Jew. If that isn't someone worth rooting for, who is?
Bear in mind, however, that my disappointment is likely a minority opinion (I tend to have them these days). When I saw Superman Returns at an advance screening, I sat between two friends and fellow movie fans. One loved it. The other loathed it. I fell somewhere in between, although I was certainly underwhelmed. As my pro-Superman pal noted, it was as if we had seen different movies.
The polarizing views of critics and fans alike are fascinating, really -- and perhaps, ultimately, a testament to the willingness of its makers to take creative risks in a summer blockbuster. While most reviews have been positive, there have been some noted raspberries from the likes of Roger Ebert, The New York Times' Manohla Dargis and The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan.
My complaints with the film stem from its fake sentiment. Superman, lonely and alienated, yearns for the humanity as exemplified by Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), and yet she is just kind of a whiney dishrag of a character. More irritating is a father-son theme that is more said than shown, the failings of a pedestrian script that believes it can wring pathos simply by presenting us with a kid who may or may not be spawn of Superman. "In the end, sadly, this script is shown as comprised of gossamer threads tying together moments and characters," concludes Creative Screenwriting magazine. "Superman Returns could have been one for the ages, but the Man of Steel was grounded by a shallow story. The writers took easy, sometimes illogical choices, and hobble what should have been one of the year's, and maybe even the decade's, greatest films."
Perhaps my biggest gripe with the film is its grim tone. Such ambivalence and darkness worked beautifully in Batman Begins, in which the filmmakers grounded that particular superhero legend with a sense of grittiness and plausibility.
But, hey, the Superman myth is a different breed of cat. When a guy's disguise is dependent solely on eyeglasses, it seems to me that the story calls for anything but joyless reverence. There are some terrific moments in Superman Returns, but only fleetingly -- such as the sequence in which farmboy Clark Kent discovers his superpowers -- does the movie soar with wonder.
For me, David Edelstein hits the nail on the head in his review for New York magazine: "It’s not that the movie is 157 minutes; it’s that it feels like 157 minutes."