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 Superman Returns
 Critic's Rating
 Date Posted
   18th July, 2006
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Cast: Brandon Routh, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth
Director: Bryan Singer

"As my movies became more thoughtful, they were also less successful because I think movies aren't intellectual but emotional. Movies work on an emotional level. That's why I go to the movies. I want to cry or laugh and have a good time." John Carpenter, director

In movies what must appeal to us more intellectualism or emotionalism? How about both? There is no right or wrong answer because every opinion is different each viewpoint is subjective, anything is prone to unending justifications. Film criticism has never been about the search for absolute truth; it is a pursuit for relative truth because our experience of movies is personal. Movies resonate with our value system; they take shape from our core beliefs and the colour of our perspective on life or death. Understanding film as an art form means understanding that movies can and should engage both the mind and heart. I choose to highlight this point for what could have easily been a footnote because it can help us to appreciate our own verdict on "Superman Returns;" I have done this especially for those of you who may possibly misconstrue the basis of my disappointment with "Superman Returns," a film heavy on emotional intuition and but lacking in storytelling intuition. An important distinction since these two seemingly counteractive forces operate in isolation yet can be a vital force when harnessed together. Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest directors of all-time, was infamous for employing a plot device called MacGuffin, essentially something that motivates the characters and advances the story, but has little other relevance to the story itself. Hitchcock's method of making movies was focussed on storytelling using a rich texture of characterisation he knew how to unite realism with transcendental themes without alienating the casual viewer. Unlike auteur John Carpenter, Hitchcock, throughout his life, believed in both intellectualism and emotionalism. This conjecture is the foundation of my case against "Superman Returns."

When Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") signed on to direct "Superman Returns," he ended a twenty-year struggle to revive the Man of Steel for the big screen. Singer received unprecedented creative control and financial support from Warner Brothers which was eager to reload the Superman movie franchise (over US$ 200 million as production budget only, the biggest yet for a Hollywood film). The money and love and passion are right there on the screen: What seems to be missing in "Superman Returns" is storytelling intuition. Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris take the MacGuffin (here: to foil Lex Luthor's plan of sinking America into the ocean to make space for a new continent), and they build around it a flimsy thematic framework of archetypal heroes and villains, romance and heartbreak, life and death, religious and social allegories, bullets and tears. "Superman Returns" is an unabashedly emotional film that feels obliged to follow in the footsteps of Richard Donner's 1973 "Superman," an elegant, groundbreaking film that remains one of the best comic-book-to-screen adaptations to date. Instead of brio and wit "Superman Returns" relies exceedingly on the audience's empathy and charity to makes its point. Consider the character of Clark Kent/Superman played by newcomer Brandon Routh: Unlike the late Christopher Reeves in Donner's "Superman," there's little separation between Routh's dual role of the meek Kent and heroic Superman. Both personas are equally tragic; tortured man, tortured superhero. After five years of personal absence, Routh's Superman returns to Earth to discover that Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane has moved on with her life, she's even had a baby (aw, poor superhero!); having once again resumed his Clark Kent alter-ego at the Daily Planet, we then learn that the snooty Pulitzer-winning Lois Lane repeatedly dismisses Kent (aw, poor nerd!). You see Bryan Singer wants us to sympathise with both alter-egos, he believes that we should feel sorry for Superman and Clark Kent de-facto this undermines the integrity of the Kent/Superman relationship with the audience. Christopher Reeves' Clark Kent/Superman was not only more effable and endearing but there was clarity between his dual personalities. Both knew their place in the world through careful introspection and good ol' fashioned trial and error. The protagonists in "Returns," on the other hand, are all conflicted and disillusioned; their lives entangled in a fever of post-teen angst (the dour serious love triangle between Lois, her boyfriend Richard played by James Marsden and Clark Kent/Superman). This collective grief sits uncomfortably between what is supposed to be the film's narrative save the world from Lex Luthor, actually just North America, which, ironically, until the third act of "Superman Returns" is the lowest priority on our superhero's to-do list. As the plodding dialogues come thick and heavy, the film oscillates between sappy romance and comedy; it goes from special effects extravaganza to comic book movie to even Greek tragedy; fault lines of "Superman Returns'" content and form begin to bleed the screen for those of us not enamoured by the film's underhanded attempt at exaltation. I place the blame squarely on the director and screenwriters.

Yes, "Superman Returns" is a comic book adaptation. Yes, it's admirable and brave and humble of Bryan Singer to be respectful of the Superman mythology (the comics, the TV series, and especially Richard Donner's "Superman" movies). But should we allow ourselves to forget that reverence alone cannot compensate for poor storytelling? Singer prefers the past as a place of residence rather than a point of reference. At the same time, he wants his film to be ambivalent, to exist in a dreamy safe zone of contemporary socio-cultural familiarity. "Superman Returns" suggests a changed Superman who now stands for "truth, justice, and all that stuff." (The original line goes "truth, justice, and the American way" but the alteration is supposed to make Superman "everybody's superhero"). And here Singer makes another grave error there's a scene early in the film where Superman, who has just returned home from his hiatus, switches on the TV to see what's happening around the world: The news footage includes an image from the Middle East conflict. Instead of going 'up, up and away' Superman just sits there and sighs; he's probably wondering what colour underwear Lois Lane wears now. - Adnan Khan

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