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After 5 years away from Earth, searching the exploded remains of his home planet Krypton, Superman has returned. The only problem is that in his absence, the world has moved on. Lois Lane is engaged with a son, and has won a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman". But the depressed Kryptonian isn't the only man back in the limelight, Lex Luthor has rebuilt his empire, and thanks to the fact that Superman wasn't around to testify at his hearing, is free from prison.

Superman Returns: Special Edition
Superman Returns, in this humble man's opinion, should've been garbage. First of all, we live in a time where the character has become painfully quaint. A world where even Tim Burton's representation of Batman seems too childish. When it was released less than 20 years ago, audiences were shocked by its PG-13 nature. Batman can be coloured much darker than Burton represented him, but Superman? Superman's a boy scout, a relic, and boy scouts and relics belong in museums, not in modern cinemas.

I'll also mention the sad fact that I don't really like Richard Donner's original film, or films if you count the second movie, and I knew that director Bryan Singer wasn't planning on rebooting the series. Superman Returns is a semi-sequel to Superman II. Donner's films have aged poorly, and I honestly see them in the same campy light I see the old '60s Batman series. I appreciate their existence, and readily acknowledge that without the original film I wouldn't have Spiderman or Batman Begins, but I just don't like the film, and was not looking forward to a multi-million dollar direct follow-up, no matter who was behind the camera.

And who was behind the camera, but the man who ditched the X-Men franchise. X-Men 2 is most likely my favourite superhero film ever made, and it ended on one of the best cliff hangers a fan could possibly ask for, the reflection of the Dark Phoenix. I can't help but be "very disappointed" in Singer for his decision to leave the franchise in the hands of Brett Ratner and a series of Fox executives with only money on their minds. I blame Singer as much for the utter failure of X-Men 3 (which was released a little over a month before Superman Returns) as I do anyone else.

Watching the film in theaters this past summer, I was already expecting to be under whelmed and unimpressed, and shockingly enough I wasn't, not completely. The film opens with the same credit music and title graphics as the original. Everything's happy and silly, but as Bryan Singer's name faded, so did all those dated, warm-fuzzy feelings. Despite the production's assurances that Superman Returns would be a continuation of Donner's films, this is a much darker, and more modern film. It isn't dark in that bloodthirsty way most modern comic book films like Batman Begins or Blade tend to be, Superman Returns is a shockingly melancholy film. It's concerned with emotion and levity even more than spectacle or entertainment. It is this sad streak that was the film's ultimate downfall, but it's also the only thing that made the film at all memorable to me.

Superman Returns: Special Edition
Warner Bros. shouldn't have been surprised by the fact that their $270 million investment didn't show a return based on the returns and public opinion of Universal's 2003 comic book release, Hulk. Hulk was an artistically and emotionally ambitious film released to an audience that wanted to see smashing. It's a flawed film, but one that I adore, and one that cannot be accused of being unoriginal. The overall idea of Superman Returns, a superhero film featuring an infinitely powerful character feeling sorry for himself and lost in the world, is very similar to that of Ang Lee's giant green box-office flop. If Hulk was a superhero movie by way of a Chinese opera, Superman Returns is a superhero movie by way of a trashy romance novel as written by someone like Arthur Miller. Kind of.

I had to ask myself what Singer saw in the character, other than a fetishistic love for the original film. What was it about this superhero that made him willing to leave a series he built from the ground up in the incapable hands of a bunch of Fox bean counters? Well, Singer makes very personal films. X-men 2 (in my opinion his best film), is a pretty obvious metaphor for feeling out of step with the rest of the world. Singer seems to have an abundance of angst and alienation, and Freud would tell you this was due to the fact that he was adopted and is gay. Who could possibly be more alienated than a homosexual in America but a mutant. And who could possibly be more alienated than a mutant but an alien. And, of course, who could be more alienated than an average alien on earth? Why, an alien that is the last remaining member of his entire species.

The adoption angle is key, as everyone knows (or at least everyone with a general knowledge of the character) that Superman himself was adopted. This is magnified by one of the film's most maligned plot points, one that I cannot go into without a bit of spoilage. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the film. I am speaking of the inclusion of Superman's son by Lois (which must be disturbing to Lois, as she had her mind erased at the end of Superman II, and must not remember ever having sexual intercourse with the Man of Steel), which at first seems like a cheap ploy for drama, but by the end of the film actually makes sense. As Superman stood over his sleeping child, willing to let his child be raised by mortals as he was, I finally got that the character was suppose to bring about an emotional circle for our hero. It does create a problem for the possible sequel though.

Superman Returns: Special Edition
The majority of average people (i.e.: not critics) I've spoken to complained about the lack of action in the film. I have to agree. I really could've done with a fistfight between Superman and someone like Zod, or Braniac, but we only get a few scenes of the Man of Steel saving people from large-scale disasters. There is one ingenious sequence at about the 40-minute mark where Superman saves a falling jet full of reporters, and sets it down in a baseball field. The ingenious part comes in not with the actual action of saving the plane, which is nice, but in the fact that Superman makes his reappearance to the world in the most public way possible. It's funny, and humour is lacking in the rest of the film. The whole thing is rather down hill from this point.

But the problem isn't so much the lack of action, but the lack of normal superhero intrigue. Somehow, with more millions of dollars at their disposal than any film in history (allegedly), Singer and company forgot to write an interesting overall story. X-men seemed like an unfinished film due to Fox's budget and time restraints, but despite the brief run time Singer managed to introduce characters and conceive of a threat for them to quash. With Superman the writers had a chance to really open up the canvas with a pre-existing character that was already part of the public zeitgeist, and they have Lex Luthor concoct another real-estate scam? Don't get me wrong, it's a really great scam, but we've seen that already.

Luthor is still an intriguing character, thanks in no small part to Kevin Spacey who strikes a nice balance between funny and frightening. This isn't the harmlessly wicked Luthor of the Donner films, but a very angry Luthor bent on revenge. Well, revenge and a real estate scam. It's too bad the character is so neglected by the writing staff. I would've pushed the opposing nature of the hero and villain a little more.

Superman Returns: Special Edition
With a runtime of two and a half hours, it's maddening that almost nothing really happens. The theme of alienation and solitude is a nice one, but when the film meanders like a Kabuki show on downers it's all a bit too much. By the time Luthor's plans finally come to fruition the 90% of the theatrical audience was checking their watches. A long movie isn't a problem so long as there's still a bunch of plot to plough through, but here it's indulgent. I understand that the importance of Lois and her fiancé’s relationship is important, but sticking by them during two elongated, Superman-less action scenes is unnecessary (not to mention a waste of a massive budget). I would've cut these scenes, which would be unfortunate because it would mean cutting James Marsden, a good actor, from another superhero movie (the guy was royally screwed on X-3).

Cinematically, this is a freaking gorgeous film, from cinematography to costume design (I like the new look, the old suit looked like a Halloween costume). I wish that Metropolis itself was more stylized, as only the Daily Planet set looks like anything special. I'd heard somewhere that Singer was looking to create an Art Deco look to the film to set it in the same sort of non-existent, style-bending timeline, like the Batman animated series, or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I see a bit of this in the finished film, but not as much as I'd really like. Despite this, the look of the film is striking, just in a slightly less overtly stylized way, and I'm happy to say that it looks a Hell of a lot classier than the Donner films.

I can't wrap this rather lengthy little review up without mentioning Superman himself, Brandon Routh. Routh had some huge shoes to fill, as Christopher Reeves' rendition of the character is one of the most popular and enduring film characters of all time. Even I liked him in the role. Singer was smart to cast an unknown, and his choice paid off in spades. I can't imagine Nic Cage, or any of the other name actors once attached to role holding a candle to Routh, who embodies both the Man of Steel and his bumbling alter ego positively perfectly. He's a joy all around, and I hope he has a successful career in the future. He deserves it. Between Routh and Hugh Jackman, Singer is officially 2 for 2 in the field of casting unknowns as popular comic book characters. I'll also give some quick props to Parker Posey, who's adorable and hilarious in her supporting role. Another great choice.

Superman Returns: Special Edition

Video


Big budget blockbusters are filmed in digital HD more frequently these days thanks to George Lucas (even if you hate the man's films, you have to acknowledge his contributions to modern film). Superman Returns is no exception. Unfortunately, the fact that I know it was meant for an HD presentation means I'm less willing to let video quality inadequacies slide.

Overall the image is very pretty, and so long as sequences are well lit they look great. Colours are bright, and edges are crisp and solid. Problems arise in darkness. Dark backgrounds are wrought with noise and blocking. Shadowed skin tones suffer from some cross-colouration, and even digital blocking in some of the more severe cases. I'm very curious about the Blu-ray and HD DVD releases. Did Warner Bros. put all there effort into the next gen formats and dump on those of us still unable, or unwilling to shell out the cash for a next gen player, or do all the transfers suffer from these problems? This is a top tier presentation on some levels, but it's nothing as stunning as other filmed in HD (not HD-DVD) releases like Revenge of the Sith, or even Wolf Creek.

Superman Returns: Special Edition

Audio


DTS fans will be bummed by the lack of a DTS track, as the only track available is an old fashion 5.1 Dolby Digital one. Perhaps a DTS track could've been even more spectacular, but I find complaints very hard to come by here. This is an equally aggressive and subtle track that strikes an amazing balance at even high volume levels. The LFE track is almost too much at times, but it rarely overpowers the rest of the track. Dialogue is clear and centered, and discernable even during louder sequences. The immersing quality of the mix is best displayed during the sequences on New Krypton, where one can hear the sound of the ground creaking with growth and the sky rocked with thunder.

Extras


There is no doubt in my mind that there will be a double dip on this DVD. Every extra here points to more available, and the possibility of a sequel is looking more and more realistic. This 2-disc set isn't a complete disappointment, but is lacking nonetheless.

The first disc is completely barebones. The second disc starts with almost 3 hours of behind the scenes production diaries. It's very, very obvious that there was a lot more of this stuff, and the editing choices here seem random and curious. There is a whole bunch of good info, and viewers do get a first hand view of the filmmaking process, but there is something definitely lacking. The footage is best when it shows us a bit of Singer's dark side. According to several accounts from the set of X-Men 2 the director can be very hard to work with. Alan Cumming, Halle Barry, and other cast members have stated unspecific problems on several occasions since the film's release. Only notoriously nice Hugh Jackman has kept his mouth shut, though apparently his relationship with Singer was also rocky.

Superman Returns: Special Edition
I'm also happy so much attention is paid to Spacey and Routh. Spacey seems to have become a bit of a diva over the years, but his stand-up comic roots make him ever entertaining to watch work. Routh appears to be the nicest guy in the world. He's always warm to the behind the scenes crew, almost painfully modest, and one can really see the reasoning behind Singer's selection. Surprisingly, Kate Bosworth, who played Lois Lane, is somewhat ignored in the footage. I'm curious about this, as I thought she was the one weak link in the cast. Perhaps there were some problems being saved for another DVD release.

The deleted scenes are incomplete and consist mostly of quiet moments on the Kent family farm. Singer has spoken publicly about a trashed scene of Kal-El visiting the remains of Krypton, and the production diaries feature another deleted scene between Superman and Daily Planet boss Mr. White. My guess is that there's at least another hour of deleted footage, which may explain the extraneous budget. The best of the included scenes is one where Clark realizes his mother is dating an old family friend. He deals with the revelation in a surprisingly selfish fashion, adding to his selfless final act arch.

The features are finished off with a brief featurette about the compositing process made on old footage of Marlon Brando. The fact that this is the closest we get to an in depth look at the digital effects of the film (there's some footage of the mo-cap process on the production diaries) is another clue pointing to a deluxe release in our future. There's also a small collection of trailers for Superman Returns and various video games featuring the character.

Super Jesus

Overall


A flawed film, no doubt, Superman Returns is better on a second viewing. It's melancholy nature may turn off most viewers, but those willing to take such a sad journey are lucky enough to enjoy some top notch performances and a striking visual look. It isn't quite the overwhelming romantic tear-jerking Singer wanted it to be, but it also doesn't deserve the mediocre fate it seems to have inherited. The DVD has a flawed video transfer, but a great audio presentation, and some decent special features. I've no doubt that a double dip is in our future, but I think at least a rental is in order. Super-fans really should give it a second chance.


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