This is a tough post for me to write, because I really wanted to like SUPERMAN RETURNS. I like the character, I like the visual element of it, and on that level, the movie delivers -- it cost a ton, and it's on the screen.
And for those of you who dug it, all power to you.
But too much of the movie really didn't work for me. I'm a guy who needs his plot to make a certain amount of sense; I can forgive some things, and even enjoyed MI3 and X-MEN 3 despite some real story flaws.
But there was just too much in SUPERMAN RETURNS that was underwhelming to me. Opportunities missed, inherent problems not overcome, story fixes that were just lame.
So now I'm going to tear it apart. Because it deserves it.
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
THE SET-UP IS FLAT. Talk about a vague, draggy first 30 minutes. It's unclear why it takes Superman five years to go looking for his planet, while we don't get the answer to the question of why the kryptonite on his planet wouldn't hurt him (I'm sure there's a mythos, but it wasn't acknowledged here, which I'll get back to in the Kryptonite musings later). I guess he flies there in some sort of crystal ship, which crashlands on Earth later, though why it crashlands (and so accurately, exactly where he crashlanded as a baby) is unclear, or why he couldn't have bailed out on the way down, and simply placed the ship in the field.
SUPERMAN IS FLAT. There really isn't any edge or ambiguity to this character at all -- he doesn't have a dark side, like Batman, he isn't figuring out how to make the most of his powers, like Spiderman. Superman just does good stuff, and does it well, which makes the whole idea of Lois' editorial "Why the World is Better Without Superman" inane -- all he does is go around saving people, without any negative connotations. There's no downside to Superman, no sense that you wouldn't want him around, and indeed, all we see him do throughout is selfless, heroic things.
In Peter Travers' positive review of the movie in Rolling Stone, he says "Bryan Singer tarnishes his hero's halo with enough sexual longing and self-doubt to make him rivetting and relatable". But the sexual longing stuff here all felt generic and familiar, while I don't think the self-doubt thing comes across at all.
Plus Brandon Routh just isn't a very charismatic actor; he seemed like he was trying to do Christopher Reeve, but was missing the twinkle that Reeve brought to the role.
SUPERMAN ISN'T HONESTLY CHALLENGED. The problem with Superman is that he really is extremely powerful, and fast, and almost psychic in his ability to save people in the nick of time. But we never get the sense that he's struggling to do it. Even the sequence where he saves the shuttle and the plane, though visually impressive, lacks suspense, because there's no doubt that Superman will catch the plane and stop it before it hits the ground. As indeed happens.
Compare this to SPIDERMAN 2, with the great sequence in which Spiderman has to stop the runaway subway train. There's the real sense throughout the scene that Spiderman is trying to figure out simply how to do it, while he realistically struggles so much doing so (and brings himself physical pain doing so) that we are with him every step of the way. It's dramatic, and it shows someone stretching their powers, going beyond what they usually do to accomplish something.
I never once got that sense during Superman Returns. There's never a moment when I thought "How's Superman going to get out of this one?", or in which Superman has to make a real choice in saving some people at the expense of others. He's just Superman, which I guess is fine for people on a certain level, but which really doesn't push the character in nearly enough interesting directions.
LEX LUTHER IS FUN, BUT TOOTHLESS, AND HIS EVIL PLOT IS STUPID. Let's get this straight. He's going to make this new land mass out of crystal, and kill a billion people, because then he thinks people are going to pay him for the new land. Ummm.... What?
Plus the new land mass is desolate, and ugly (aside from the waterfalls, which won't last long anyway, because there's no actual river/melting snow feeding the water flow). There are plenty of desolate, ugly places in North America already that no one wants to buy or live on, that don't even come with the baggage of having been created by a mass-murdering psychopath.
I know, I know, he's crazy. Not good enough.
Kevin Spacey adds some humor, but this character worked best in Superman 2, when he actually had people on his side who were a match for Superman, who gave Superman a challenge. Here, he's just a crazy villain, and not even a particularly smart one; he's too dumb even to have anyone guarding his boat, while he leaves Lois Lane with a working fax machine and the heavy-handed mention of exactly where they are located (don't get me started).
How weak is the villain? He's so weak, that the movie can't even have a climactic showdown between him and Superman.
THE WHOLE KRYPTONITE THING. The only thing Lex Luther has going for him is Kryponite, but again the whole Kryptonite thing is vague and largely illogical.
The idea is that Lex Luther has created this new land partially out of Kryptonite, so that as soon as Superman lands on it, it saps his strength, and the bad guys can kick his ass (in a painfully unimaginative sequence). To cap it off, Lex Luther then stabs him with the Kryptonite blade.
That's all fine, and it's the closest that this movie comes to a "Wow, how is Superman going to get out of this?" moment.
But then the movie cheats. Superman gets saved, in a frankly very unconvincing sequence (involving a seaplane and Lois Lane swimming down what should have been a large distance to pull him to safety, despite the fact that she was just unconscious and thus should be more than a little shaky). Lois pulls the Kryptonite out, enabling Superman to recover. Okay. Maybe.
But how is Superman able to lift this whole Kryptonite-based land mass -- this huge, Kryptonite-crystals-really-close-to-his-face landmass -- without getting as weak as he got when he was standing on it? Especially since, as we learn later, he STILL HAS A CHUNK OF KRYPTONITE IN HIS BACK?
If you are going to have Kryptonite -- and even proximity to Kryptonite -- be this dangerous to Superman, then you need to get out of it honestly. There needs to be the real sense that Superman needs to do something credible to get out of the situation. Here, it felt like they were just sort of winging it, and not well.
CONTRIVANCE. There are some incredibly contrived bits here, story problems that beg for better fixes than they get here.
I can imagine the story conference. "We need to have Lois Lane go to Lex Luther's hangout". "Okay, let's have her make some calls, and find out where the power went out first?"
It seems incredibly unlikely that this info (power outage down to the second) would even be findable, or that a public utility dealing with all the problems from a blackout, would have someone able to actually determine this for her, when efficiency isn't their bailiwick, and hell, if they did care so much, why wouldn't they send their own people out, to see if it's a power problem that won't flare up again?
But that's the least of the contrivances.
"How do we get the kid with her?" 'Ummm... She picks him up? And then takes him with her? And then sneaks him aboard a ship (James Bond never found a villain's lair that was this easy to get into), even though she has no idea whose ship it is, and she's at the site of something that could be dangerous and almost brought down a plane she was on?" (though even the pulse happening when she was on the plane at the same time was extremely contrived too... and, umm, wouldn't there have been other planes in the sky as well?)
Because I guess something as simple as her driving the kid to the site, and Lex Luther seeing her and snatching her, would have been too easy.
Also, what happens to the big crystal thing he grows in the basement? There's not even the requisite sight of where the top of it even goes; it would have been easy enough to have Lois spot it and then get snatched.
And then there's the clunky mention of the location where they are, and Lois' faxing it to the news office (instead of just texting it on her phone to her boyfriend.... oh yeah, she's a reporter, sneaking onto a boat with a kid, but she LEAVES HER PHONE IN THE CAR. Ugh.) and her boyfriend having a seaplane that gets him to the site incredibly, unrealistically quickly.
These are bad fixes. Bad. Anything that makes your brain stop in the middle of a movie, and say "Wait a minute...", things that clearly only happen because they serve the needs of the story, need to be reworked and made much much more credible.
LOIS LANE'S KID. I liked this character, but wow do I wish they had done more with him. Instead, they have to play a dumb game, where it's clear that Lois is hiding the fact that it is Superman's, though no one here seems able to do the math (one wonders when her new boyfriend came into her life; you have to figure she would have waited for Superman for a little while).
Meanwhile, there's great potential with this kid, because he's obviously going to be a mix of Superman's strength and Lois' human frailties, and he has his heroic moment, when he saves his mother with the piano. And then they go in the room, and he doesn't even try to get them out. Instead, he says he's sorry, which doesn't seem to pay off anything.
It begs the question over whether Lois has already told him not to use his powers, which would be interesting, but use it -- have her tell the kid that she knows she said that, but there are times when he needs to, and now try to get them out of the room. Maybe he can, and maybe he can't, but at least deal with it. Instead... nothing.
Maybe they are saving it for the next one. But they still could have done much more with the kid here.
THE ENDING DRAGS. Everything with the main plot has already been resolved, but the movie goes on for 10 more minutes, in which we get slow scene after slow scene in which pretty much everything happens that we expect, in underwhelming fashion.
GOOD/BAD. The bullet clunking off his eye was great, because not only is it visually interesting, but it perfectly answers the nagging question of why bad guys wouldn't stop bouncing bullets off his chest and shoot him in the head. Less great is the constant winking at the fact that no one notices that Clark and Superman are the same person, even though now, on top of everything else, they have both just returned after being mysteriously missing for at least five years. All the attempts to explain it away here by having Lois and her boyfriend musing about it just makes it seem even more inane -- as an elephant in the room, it works better if the characters aren't constantly saying "hey, is that a trunk?"
THE GOOD NEWS. Pirates of the Caribbean 2 opens on Friday. Early word is good.