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Superman Returns – lanky lethal lothario loves Lois Lane

I'm going up Lois, don't be long. Any chance of a cocoa?

Superman Returns – Brian Singer

Billy Connolly reckons a sign of getting older is that your feet get further away – harder to reach. So we should cut Superman some slack if it now takes him two and a half hours to save the world: a little chore he used to knock off in a touch over two. Especially as it’s 30 years since we first saw him and he does wear well for a theoretically over-50 super-hero.

The big S is back from a fruitless 5-year truth and justice sabbatical searching for traces of his long gone home planet Krypton. And as played by Brandon Routh, our hero has acquired a not unappealing melancholy gravitas. This helps him cope with a still unmarried but partnered-up Lois and her frankly slightly freaky, young son. Much broody angst behind the X-ray eyes about this signals Singer’s intention to flesh out the 2D comic book characterisation. Superman cries. Well almost. But all is not quite what it seems in Soop’s trip down Lane’s memory.

Our hero’s cosmic tour took in a visit to his tailor as he has had a makeover. A heavy textured cape now offers improved flutter at near light speed and a wicked ‘S’ on his outer-under-wear suggests more a super-cool pair of Speedos than Y-fronts. The boots rock but even darker blue lycra is still lycra and making lycra look cool is beyond even the Man of Steel’s super-human powers. Sadly even at near light speed, no time for the hair-stylist, so he still sports that dumb retro Bill Haley kiss-curl.

Lex Luthor is now Spacey-ed out on the same old world domination schtick having avoided jail thanks to Soop’s no-show at his trial. Lex’s anonymous and dispensable henchmen just scowl a lot and Parker Posey’s (is she kidding?) moll is given nothing much to do except kick in with the usual conscience-stricken sympathy for Soop that helps him when the chips are down. Lex isn’t a great learner from experience – all his women have problems with commitment – to world domination.

Much tosh about crystals and kryptonite in Lex’s dastardly plan neutralises Soop’s powers and creates a new continent just off the US Atlantic seaboard. Just mix with water and wait. Lex’s great criminal concept makes him the Estate Agent from hell. Nothing new there then. Much lazy talk about billions of people dying in the process but with the whole US at under 300 mil, our disbelief glands begin to give us serious gyp. Just when we’d successfully papered over the inherent Clark/Superman problem – “it’s the same guy you dumb broad. And they’ve both been away 5 years and have come back at the same time. C’mon Lois, you’re a Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist – you can do it.

This is all fun enough but outside Spacey and Routh the casting is off. Kate Bosworth’s Lois is limply wimpy and lacks Margot Kidder’s sass and spark. The freaky kid is well, kinda freaky. But does turn out to be the most interesting plot development. The CGI set-pieces are effective but CGI can’t carry a movie on its own any more.

The Christ references are too embarrassingly literal to be ignored. It is disturbing that SR played to more people, opening weekend, than any film in history. Cherishable though the image of GW Bush in lycra tights is, the fun palls at conflating absolute power, evil but stupid bad guys, and talk of the people “wanting a saviour.” Jesus wept – if you’ll forgive the expression. And the same old two-wet-towel (for the aching head) moral dilemma – how does the SOS (Saviour of Steel) decide which people to save and which not? Pass. Superman/US as world policeman is a dangerous delusion. Real policemen work within the constraints of a well-established body of law and due process. Not an empty aphorism about ‘truth and justice’ backed up by irresistible unilateral power. ‘The American Way’ only plays satirically now, so Singer has dropped it. If art reflects life there is scary stuff in Superman Returns. But it’s just a movie, right?

Singer did not spend $250 million on a one-off. He’s re-launching the franchise. And he does set up some intriguing possibilities for the sequel – Superman Settles Down And Gets A Mortgage (now that’s a real Superman). They may find a buzzier title. Let’s hope it’s not Superman – the Resurrection.

I liked the movie despite myself, especially the poignant dedication to Christopher Reeve. But the screenplay is uneven and at times turgidly literal. If you set your storyline so OTT with billions of dead, whole cities destroyed, there’s nowhere to go to ratchet up suspense and you miss out on all the low key fun stuff with the SHP’s (Super Human Powers). We can care quite satisfactorily about a few people (or the immortal bleedin’ dog) on a bus or a train saved in the nick of time. We don’t feel exponentially more for a billion than ten. Rather the reverse.

As Superheroes go, Spiderman and Batman challenge the imagination precisely because their powers are limited. Invention is required to get them out of scrapes beyond their capacities. Superman plays off a different base – how do we make him vulnerable? And by what self-imposed moral principles does he limit his unassailable powers? Kryptonite solves the first but this is inconsistently thought through in SR. Brando outtakes from SM1 help out with the second. But the feeling nags that a bit more of the $250 mil should have gone on sharpening the screenplay.

Not a bad night out. Good CGI set pieces. Distinctive visual and contemplative emotional tone. A miscast and flatly written Lois robs the franchise of one of its usual strengths. But the storyline set-up for the sequel carries lots of potential. For my money curiously over-praised in the press. Maybe we do feel the need for a ‘saviour’ after all. Now that is scary.

(September 2006)

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