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Superman Returns

DC Comics'

Superman Returns

was set to open on June 30 but pushed its debut to June 28 after rival Marvel Comics'

X-Men 3

pulled in a record setting $120 million on its opening weekend. DC is hoping that by opening two days earlier and laying claim to the extended Fourth of July weekend, it will be able to set its own summer record. And why is that so important? Well, aside from the fact that Marvel and DC are longtime comic industry rivals is the fact that the directors of the two films have something of a rivalry going as well. Bryan Singer carefully guided the first two

X-Men

films to the screen, taking care to cater to the comic book's fan base. He was set to direct the third film,

Last Stand

but about a year ago he was lured over to Warner Brothers by the opportunity to take over their floundering

Superman

project. Singer still wanted to direct the third

X-Men

if the studio, Fox, would have been willing to wait for him to finish

Superman

first.

But Fox couldn't wait for the final installment of its popular franchise so it turned to Brett Ratner (a man without a comic book track record but with box office clout as the director of the Rush Hour films). Ratner, though, had been working on Superman over at Warner Brothers, and left when no one could decide on casting. He soon found himself taking the over the reins of the abandoned X-Men .

Last year, Bryan Singer came to Comic-Con in part to allay fears of fans regarding the troubled history of the whole Superman franchise. The popular comic (which was a cartoon and a TV series) was made into a successful movie franchise in 1978 when Richard Donner directed Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie . That film was followed by three sequels and a Supergir/ spin-off. Then the film rights changed hands, and in 1997 Kevin Smith began work on what was to be Superman Reborn . Nicolas Cage was in talks to play the Man of Steel, and Tim Burton was to direct. That project fell apart and in 2002, Ratner was set to direct.

Meanwhile, Singer was unwittingly laying the groundwork for a Superman movie when he met up with Richard Donner in Texas. Singer confessed that he had always loved 1978's Superman and that he harbored a desire to make his own Superman film. So Donner asked him what his idea was. Singer's response: "I'd put your film [Donner's Superman: The Movie ] in a kind of vague history, and I'd have Superman gone for a period of time and return. Donner responded really well to it and that's what gave me the blessing that I felt I needed to pursue it if it were ever available."

And it did become available and Singer leapt at the chance. Singer's idea was to make the film a kind of continuation of 1978's Superman: The Movie and 1981's Superman II . The premise became that Superman (now played by newcomer Brandon Routh) has been away from earth for about five years, apparently off on a visit to the ruins of his home planet Krypton. When he returns to earth, he finds that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has moved in with editor Perry White's nephew Richard (James Marsden who has the distinction of also being in the rival X-Men movie) and has a young son named Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). She's also picked up a Pulitzer for a feature entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." So when Superman flies back into Metropolis, he's got a little explaining to do. Fortunately for him, his first encounter with Lois occurs as he's preventing the plane she's on from crashing. I guess you could say that's a superhero's way of saying, "Honey, I'm back."

Once back on earth, Superman realizes that there's a lot of work to be done -- around the globe. While his alter ego Clark Kent tries to settle back into his reporting job at the Daily Planet, Superman makes headline news all over the world and does his best to prove that the world does need Superman. Along the way he also runs into his old nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey re-teaming with Singer after winning an Oscar for his work in Singer's The Usual Suspects ).

As the story plays out, Superman ultimately receives a warm welcome back to earth. But the big question is will ticket-buying audiences be as enthusiastic about his return to the screen? In the movie, Superman?s only been gone for five years. On the big screen, he's been a no show for the past seventeen (although he has made small screen appearances on TV's Lois and Clark and Smallville ). To make matters worse, his last appearance was in a wretched sequel -- Superman IV: The Quest for Peace -- which was lethal enough to kill any superhero. Bryan Singer, however, proves to be the perfect person to resurrect the action hero for a new millennium.

Singer approaches the material like a dutiful son trying to prove he's worthy of the trust that's been placed in him. He's respectful of the previous films, and plays affectionately off them. He employs John Williams' theme from the Richard Donner film and even uses snippets of Marlon Brando's performance as Jor-El, Superman's father. By paying homage to the past movies, Singer smartly allows his film to spin off of that legacy and tap into that fan base without offending them. But he brings enough freshness to the material to also engage a new generation of younger fans.

Singer, a comic book fan himself, told Comic-Con attendees last year that he identifies with Superman in particular. For one, both he and Superman were raised by adoptive parents.

"Superman is an adopted child. And he is the ultimate immigrant in some ways," Singer stated at the Warners panel last summer, "his value system is very idealistic. Sometimes he has pitfalls and flaws, and he fights his urge to be cynical in the world of the film; it's hard because a lot of the world has moved on. But that's where I identify with Superman. I'm trying not to lose his idealism. There's also a spiritual quality to saviors and messiahs, what happens when people become reliant upon them and then they go away and then come back -- they come back at all -- and maybe it had been better if they had never come at all. That's what interests me about the character and my personal identification with the character."

In contrast to the X-Men that had a large cast, Superman affords Singer a chance to narrow his focus to a smaller circle of characters. The X-Men 's multitude of heroes and villains made it impossible to get to know any of them in any depth. With Superman, I think Singer enjoys the opportunity to develop characters more fully to deliver a story that does have a heart and can touch emotions. And as his comments at the Comic-Con reveal, he also sees a spiritual side to the Superman story, which he plays up to mostly successful ends.

Singer's identification with Superman helps give this film version a little more emotional weight than its predecessors. Singer's Superman seems more isolated from humanity than previous ones and more aware of his status as an outsider, even if he proves to be a well liked one. In a nice twist, Singer has humans come to Superman's rescue and prove that even the Man of Steel is vulnerable and can use mortal help. This also brings the main characters -- Superman, Lois, Richard and young Jason --into an unexpected kind of family, and proving that he does have a place on earth. Another nice touch of humanity comes from the graceful presence of Eva Marie Saint as Ma Kent, Seeing her, you can understand how Superman grow up to be so nice and polite.

Superman has always been at some level a love story, and in some respects a love triangle between Lois, Superman and Clark Kent. In Superman Returns the triangle expands as Richard is added to the romantic and emotional geometry. What's refreshing is that Singer and his writers Michael Doughtery and Dan Harris don't make Richard a dolt. Usually the heroine's rebound choice is made out to be so obviously wrong that we know from the start that she'll have to dump him. But Singer complicates the romantic formula of Superman Returns by suggesting that Richard is a genuinely nice guy and that Lois might not be willing to leave him for Superman who remains somewhat unattainable.

Brandon Routh has a big cape to fill coming into the role of Superman/Clark Kent after Christopher Reeve's perfect embodiment of the superhero. Reeve could fly and walk around in tights as if they were the most natural things to do. He had a self-effacing quality that brought the superhero down to earth and he could say, "swell" without sounding stupid (that's harder to pull off than you think). But Routh, while not equaling or surpassing Reeve, does deliver a sweetly appealing performance. He has the earnestness and sincerity needed to pull off the part.

Bosworth, however, fares less well. Her Lois lacks the spunk, independent spirit and daredevil impulses that Margot Kidder brought to the role in the 1978 film and its sequels. Bosworth seems too young to be a seasoned reporter and a mother of a five year old. She's also a little too soft and needs to develop a hardened edge to be believable as a top reporter who knows the ropes of the newsroom and the city beat. Plus it doesn't help that Parker Posey appears as Lex Luthor's babe Kitty and makes us wonder what the film would have been like if she had been cast as Lois -- now she would have given the character some sass and spark. Spacey has fun with Lex Luthor but his villain is not given a very interesting scheme to pursue (it involves a Kryptonic real estate deal). Plus there's not enough interaction between his Luthor and Routh's Superman to make their rivalry pay off in the end. Also look for Noel Neill (the Lois Lane of TV's Superman ) in a brief cameo as Lex Luthor's sugar mommy. (Neill also made a cameo appearance in Superman: The Movie as Lois Lane's mom.)

In terms of effects and eye candy, Superman Returns delivers the goods. There's a spectacular airline rescue that ends fittingly in a baseball stadium where fans give Superman a standing ovation. Superman himself also takes flight in a new kind of stealth mode that allows him to move silently, swiftly and effortlessly through Metropolis. There's also a stunner of a scene where he stops a bullet with his eye. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas give the film and Metropolis a nice balance of modern flair and retro charm.

As for the showdown between Superman and the X-Men? Well DC and Marvel have always come from different ends of the comic universes. DC heroes (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman) tend to be more square while the Marvel heroes (X-Men, Spider-Man, Silver Surfer, etc) seem hipper, cooler and edgier. That difference manifests itself in the two films currently out. The X-Men crack wise and constantly do a nudge-nudge-wink-wink with the audience. X-Men 3 is more stylish in terms of costumes (lots of black leather and accessories that kids can pick up on) and hipper in terms of the smart-ass dialogue and attitude of its mutant characters. Superman, with his blue eyes, square jaw, and commitment to always telling the truth comes across more as the teacher's pet who always does the right thing. Superman's an all out good guy; the X-Men are good guys with attitude. Superman you could bring home to meet your parents; Wolverine you'd have to sneak out to meet. For many comic book fans, there's a place for both. In terms of the films, Superman Returns is the superior work, and it possesses a sweetness and sincerity that X-Men can't even approach.

Superman Returns (rated PG-13 for some intense action violence) returns the Man of Steel to the big screen in style. It stumbles occasionally (Lois is too young, the kid seems too old, and Krypton should have more of an effect on Superman) but for the most part Superman Returns a delightful summer treat.

Companion viewing: Superman: The Movie, Superman II -----

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