Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Truth, justice, all that stuff.


It's no accident that, if we are to assume that Superman Returns is set in the present, the titular hero has been absent from Earth since the summer of 2001. This is not to say that Bryan Singer has exploited 9/11 for hamhanded stabs at thematic significance; rather, this Superman is a mature, nuanced reboot of the Man of Steel mythos that finds Kal-El returning to a planet more in need of a hero than ever. And, most importantly, it's incredibly fun; an early flashback shows young Clark discovering the extent of his powers, and the entire film gets off on the sheer zippy thrill of wondering what it's like to be Superman. It's a perfect marriage of "pop" and "culture," and when I wasn't frozen in awe or rapt attention, I was grinning from ear to ear.

In a sequence that evokes the suburban wonder of 70's-era Spielberg, we witness through the eyes of Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint) the return of her adopted son Clark (Brandon Routh) after his long journey searching for the remains of Krypton. Soon we're back in Metropolis, at the Daily Planet, where Clark is reunited with his unrequited love, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). Lois is engaged to Richard White (James Marsden), an all-around good guy who, alas, isn't Superman. Not only must Clark figure out whether he has a chance (Lois recently won a Pulitzer for an editorial slamming her ex), he also has to deal with the question of her son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu), who is about five years old (and, in the process, settle the Mallrats debate once and for all). This all could have been horribly soapy, but Singer and the leads pull of an impressive tightrope act: the relationships aren't "realistic," but they ring true. Bosworth, in particular, has to carry much of the emotional weight of the film, and while I miss Margot Kidder's off-kilter energy, she does a fine job portraying Lois as torn between Earth and the stars (chalk the negative internet response up to dorks' typical fear of women).

Then there's Lex Luthor - I'm happy to report that this is Kevin Spacey's best performance since American Beauty. We meet Luthor, recently out of prison, as he reclaims his fortune in the sleaziest way possible, and Spacey never falters, giving Lex just the right mix of opportunistic smarm and cold-blooded megalomania. I wouldn't dream of spoiling Luthor's plan here - it's just too cool. Suffice to say that it leads to a heartwrenching final reel, as this is a Superman with more on its mind than stringing together action sequences. Don't get me wrong, Singer delivers on the front of sheer kinetic thrills. And it's witty, too, populated with characters like cynical editor Perry White (Frank Langella), boy photographer Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and Luthor's token "hooker" Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey). But its heart lies in moments like Kal-El hovering over Earth, listening to our prayers.

I'm pleased to report that Brandon Routh does more than a Christopher Reeve impression; he honors Reeve with a performance that contains the same kind of wit and earnest heroism. He's a perfect fit for Superman Returns, which does more than just reference earlier comic and film incarnations; it's crammed with details (hooray for laser-blue titles!) that playfully illustrate the ways that our myths reverberate through the generations. Using the new Genesis HD camera, Singer and DP Newton Thomas Sigel have opened digital cinematography up to a new realm of possibilities - Superman Returns doesn't look like film, but it's magnificent and painterly. Blue has never looked so blue. There's little dialogue in the film, but screenwriters Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty have a near pitch-perfect job of breathing life into these characters, supporting a remarkably pure visual cinematic experience.

The reviews seem hung up on plot points; I think we're too close to Superman Returns right now to see what a staggering achievement it truly is. It's a film with a lot on its mind about fathers and sons, the ways in which we create and then tear apart our heroes (particularly the ones we love) and our fundamental need to find something, anything to believe in. It earns the word "inspiring." I can't wait to see it in IMAX; I can't wait to see it about a hundred more times; I can't wait to show it to my kids someday.

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