Officially, director Bryan Singer has a new movie out this weekend. The reality is a little more complicated, but it’s a reasonable enough prompt to dig out this old review, especially since it’s looking like there might be a sizable stretch before the next attempt at a live action Superman film.
Let’s start with Lois Lane.
When it was announced that Kate Bosworth would play the intrepid reporter that holds Superman’s heart in the long-gestating attempt to restart the film franchise of the first superhero, it seemed like a dangerous bit of miscasting. Certainly, it’s not the most egregiously wrongheaded choice in the annals of comic book movies, but it still represented a move that could torpedo the whole film. Maybe there’s a gem of a performance buried in some neglected nook of her modest filmography, something that demonstrated her ability to hold the screen with some command, some presence, some inner spirit that would make her believable as a star reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, much less a women who could captivate the most powerful being on the planet.
I’m not trying to protect the sanctity of the original character with this recounted observation. I have no real sense of who the character is in her four-color adventures, though there’s ample evidence of the character being especially mired in the silliest of the silliness in the history of the medium. My concern lies with what will be effective in this one place, this one film, and Bosworth didn’t inspire a lot of confidence that we’d get much more than pretty accessory in the leading female role.
Truth is, Bosworth is fine. It’s the film that lets her down in a way that’s representative of the problems that run throughout. There are moments in Superman Returns where you get a fleeting look at what a compelling character Lois could be. We see tenacity, stubbornness, self-regard, assurance, and intensity. At times, she comes across as a more glamorous version of Jane Craig from Broadcast News, complete with the distracted intelligence and anxious impatience. There’s an all-too-brief montage of Lois actually being a reporter. She works the phones, sometimes pleading with the person on the other end, sometimes charming them, making notes and scrawling on maps as she goes. There’s something oddly riveting about the scene, watching someone in command of a realistic situation in this fantastical world, and Bosworth works hard to try and tell us who Lois is in these fragmented moments. (There’s another nice detail when Lois is sneaking on to villain Lex Luthor’s yacht with her young, precocious son in tow. He asks if they’re trespassing, and Lois promptly answers “no,” and then instantly revises her answer to tell him “yes.” You learn a lot about her in that quick exchange.) Unfortunately, all these complimentary words don’t accurately assess the character as a whole as depicted in the film. Who Lois is changes throughout the film, veering wildly depending on the needs of the story at any given moment.
The filmmakers haven’t taken a group of characters, established their identities and built the plot and picture around them. Instead, they’ve assembled actors, assigned them famous names from nearly seventy years of comic book adventures and cooked up a big adventure, tweaking and twisting personalities so that there’s little consistency to the roles as the movie unspools. Sometimes Superman’s chief nemesis Lex Luthor is a cool, controlled force of malevolent calculation, and sometimes he’s a sputtering, raving, grandiose preacher of backwards justice. Kevin Spacey does just fine with each version of the character. Imagine what he could have done if he could have concentrated on just playing one of them. Poor Parker Posey, forever trapped in a big studio miasma of utter bafflement over how to utilize her rare gifts, may fare the worst in this regard. Her character, a nondescript moll and criminal partner to Lex, begins with some flashes of the sardonic wit that is usually Posey’s stock-in-trade, progresses to a sort of empty-headed state of constant reaction, and spends the final third of the movie doing little more than quivering in teary-eyed confusion at the nefarious machinations playing out before her. We see little of this character and yet the transformation from her first scene to her last scene is so drastic that it may be advisable to scan the Deleted Scenes section of the eventual triple disc Super Edition DVD to find the exact moment when Posey’s character undergoes invasive brain surgery.
After the tight control of the first two X-Men films, director Bryan Singer has returned to the disjointed confusion of 1998’s disastrous Apt Pupil, his last film before plunging into perpetual employment filming superheroics. It’s as if Singer approached this outing equally intimidated and excited by the iconic nature of the lead character. For all the fealty he shows to the storied history, recreating famous comic images and verbally and visually quoting from the prior films, he never manages to personally discover or convey what makes the character inspiring. The scenes of Superman in action largely feel cursory, obligatory — achievements in special effects rather than in staging. There’s a hint of how the stirring emotion that character can inspire when the filmmakers cook up a way to have Superman’s first act of heroism after a long absence conclude in front of a stadium full of cheering people. When the only way you can make the man seem truly super is by having 30,000 people scream in soaring gratitude at his appearance, there’s something missing.
We started with Lois, so let’s end with the man of steel himself. Despite the fact that the character has some freshly established inner conflicts in this film, Brandon Routh is given a weakly-drawn character. By the design of the character and the construction of the film, duplicating the work of Christopher Reeve seems to be the main goal of the assembled filmmakers, another example of devotion to preceding efforts undermining the fresh direction necessary to reignite the film franchise. Clark Kent is so under-realized in the film that there’s nothing much to be said, but Routh does bring something a little different to Superman. There’s a newfound gentle nature and a politeness to the character that seems very Midwestern. It seems that by casting Iowa native Routh they’ve stumbled upon some facets that seem wholly appropriate for a superhero bred in Kansas. It’s a small achievement, to be sure, but in the underwhelming Superman Returns you take the good elements where you can get them.