Superman Returns  (2006)

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This is Jon Peters’ Superman movie. Fortunately, it’s a hell of a long way from how Jon Peters originally envisioned it.

If that name doesn’t ring a bell, or if you want some idea of just how fucked up this movie would have been if nobody had pushed back against the big producer, then you need to listen to Kevin Smith’s anecdote about working on a treatment for the film. You may perhaps know the punchline “Spiders are the fiercest killers in the insect kingdom”... but if you don’t know the rest, it’s worth listening to the whole thing.

You’ll note in that story that Peters has Smith read the treatment to him aloud. Peters is certainly not the first movie mogul who some have suggested might actually be illiterate, but he may be the first to eventually admit it publicly. But don’t take that as a sign that Peters is an honest man: plenty of the people mentioned in his memoir say otherwise. But one thing that doesn’t vary by whether you believe his version of events or those of the other people involved — either way, he comes across as a colossal dickhead. In other words, not the kind of guy who understands how to be a traditional upright square-jawed do-gooder.

With that kind of leadership, it’s perhaps not amazing that this movie went through something like eight years of development hell. This is the one which was originally going to be made in the nineties with none other than Nicolas Cage as Superman. Rumor has it that with the endless rewrites, redesigns, and recastings they went through, the project spent forty million dollars before doing a single bit of work that could be used in the finished film!

Fortunately, the version they finally went with threw out most of the obnoxious and stupid ideas they spent all that money on.

Superman has been away from Earth for five years, and when he comes back, he’s turned into a soap opera star, and Lex Luthor has turned into Kevin Spacey. Before seeing this, I’d taken to referring to it as “Soaperman”... and sadly, after seeing it the name still sticks. And once again, the attempt to make a DC Comics movie to match the quality of the Marvel films has fallen short.

The soap isn’t too dominant. Most of the running time is sufficiently occupied with superness instead of soapiness. But... the superness is mostly nothing very special or impressive. It’s generally familiar, expected Superman activities, and most of it shows little imagination or originality, relative to the previous Superman films. In fact, this movie hardly updates the older Superfilms at all; the conflict with Lex Luthor is almost more of a remake of the first film than it is a sequel.

Those hoping for this to be a superhero movie in the modern 21st century style — the kind of film that began with Bryan Singer’s X-Men — won’t get their wish; the style of this film is very retro, harking back to precisely the corny style of the original Superman films. Ironically, the movie was directed by the very same Bryan Singer who finally showed the way beyond the camp-infected comic book movies of the past.... You could almost read the old-fashioned style of this opus as a reaction against that modernism. But that might be quite a stretch. It’s much more plausible to read it as a marketing move by suits.

Even without counting the development hell wastage, they spent a fairly gargantuan amount of money on this film. And I have to say that not all that much of it is apparent on the screen. If they were going for a mind-blowing effects extravaganza, they didn’t get much of one.

The end result, ironically, is that the “soapy” elements are actually the most interesting part of the movie. They’re the one part where they give us something genuinely unexpected. (Which I will not reveal the details of, except to say that it follows from a certain event in Superman II.) But the basics can be discussed freely: Lois Lane, who once loved Superman, has moved on. She has married another man — the nephew of her editor (a plot point suspiciously similar to one used in Spider-Man 2), Richard White, played by James Marsden (Cyclops in X-Men), an actor who gets a lot of crap from fans in both of these roles but who I think does a creditable job.

And on one point I have to give Singer et al a lot of credit: it would have been so easy to write it so that Lois gradually grows dissatisfied with her husband and goes back where she “belongs” — in love-at-a-distance with the big guy. But they don’t. And there are scenes in this movie where Superman may be the savior, but Richard White is the hero. In time, you have to reconcile yourself to realizing that this marriage is not going away.

Unfortunately, soon after this the idea of Superman as “savior” gets taken way too literally, and he gets turned into Jesus-man. This definitely hurts an already dubious film. The attempt they make to get some Christ cool to rub off on the Man of Steel makes the Matrix movies seem covert and subtle in their hints of Jesusification. But, it does fit the corny, old fashioned tone of the piece as a whole. There’s no flavor of Iowa corn purer and sweeter than the kind they serve in Church.

So, how are the new actors? Kevin Spacey hams it up grandly as Luthor, to both charming and chilling effect. No complaints there. Kate Bosworth as Lois? I’m sorry, I’m with everyone else in judging her as miscast. And Brandon Routh as Clark Kent / Kal-El? I’m afraid he summed up his qualifications for the role pretty completely when he appeared on Letterman and mentioned that people had been telling him for years that he looked like Christopher Reeve. He can act, I guess, but he just ain’t super. (They had to pad his suit! Reeve just said “I can work out” and that settled the padding issue.) He comes off as just a pretty-boy... especially when equipped with an embarrassingly un-manly brylcreemed version of the Superman spit-curl on his forehead. (That one tiny detail — the fact that the spit-curl is carefully pomaded into place instead of flopping loose — undermines the credibility of this Superman far more severely than anything so small and insignificant should be able to.) And Routh’s soap-honed acting skillz completely fail to do what Reeve, for all his stagey woodenness, succeeded brilliantly at: playing Clark Kent so distinctly from Superman that you could actually believe no one would see through the disguise. Routh, and Singer, take a different approach: one that shows that Superman really is an old-fashioned, parochial farm kid at heart, no matter how much he has had to take on the role of a demigod; that his Clark Kent persona is no act. It’s a very reasonable way to treat the character... but given that, how could anyone fail to notice???

In sum, this movie provides some reasonably thrilling super action, some pathos, and some truly interesting and unexpected character developments (the kind likely to make many fans slap their scalps and go “wtf?!”), but none of it is done well enough to make a very deep impression, and I’m totally not surprised to learn that the film is failing to grow any box office legs. Indeed, seeing it just five days after release, I was in an emptier theater than I was when seeing X-Men: The Last Stand at an age of five weeks.