It takes a while - nearly half an hour - to reach the first truly wonderful scene in Superman Returns. In it, a group of reporters (including Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane) are on an airborne jet's P.R. junket when the electronics suddenly fail, causing the plane to hurtle toward the earth. Thankfully, Superman (Brandon Routh), who has been M.I.A. for the past five years, is there to save the day, which he does by catching the jet and gently guiding it to the middle of a major-league ballpark (during game play, no less). He checks on the passengers, makes a comment (echoing a similar line in Richard Donner's 1978 Superman) about how air flight is "still the safest way to travel," and exits the plane to the deafening cheers of the baseball fans in the stands, and the rousing Americana of it all - baseball and Superman! - produces an extraordinary, joyful rush; you're hard-pressed not to cheer along.
Director Bryan Singer has pulled off something incredibly tricky with Superman Returns. He's made a film that pays direct homage to its source material - particularly Donner's film, but with several nods to Richard Lester's Superman II - yet takes on a spectacular life of its own. The movie may be flawed, oftentimes deeply flawed, but it succeeds in a way that Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins didn't; Superman Returns doesn't try to erase our memories of its predecessors, and it doesn't push its subtext or insist on its seriousness. While never ignoring the series' forbears, Singer has re-imagined both the Superman series and the Superman character with something akin to grace, and it's filled with moments - such as the near-crash of the plane - that are both legitimately magical and almost achingly sincere.
The film's first half hour, though, may have you doubting Singer's ability to pull this off. The pacing is rather slack, the introduction of Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, bringing little freshness to his cartoon malevolence) is confusing, and the establishing scenes - particularly at the Daily Planet, where the Man of Steel disguises himself as mild-mannered Clark Kent - are a little lumpy; we can't help comparing them to similar sequences in the Donner and Lester works. For those with fond recollections of Superman I and II, it's hard to shake off memories of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder (especially when composer John Williams' familiar melodies kick in), and Superman Returns' "five years later" storyline frequently pulls us out of the film entirely - if Lois, who (now) doesn't look a day over 25, has a five-year-old son, just how old was she when Superman first romanced her?
The early missteps, however, wind up inconsequential. After its opening 30 minutes, the film - like its audience - seems newly invigorated, and suddenly everything starts working, often more magnificently than you may have hoped. The Daily Planet sequences, with Frank Langella's Perry White an inspired substitute for Jackie Cooper, develop a lively comic hum, and Superman's acts of derring-do, buoyed by rather extraordinary effects, hit exactly the right note of gee-whiz comic-book charm. And for the first time on-screen, the character of Superman actually seems other-worldly, which Singer makes clear not just through Routh's cleverly detached portrayal, but through a series of memorable images, as when Superman floats in the ether, seemingly asleep, but with his super-hearing alert to the sounds of human peril below.
Singer, it seems, is the first director of a Superman film to really think his material through visually, which he does most exquisitely in regard to the film's central romance; there are moments between Superman/Clark and Lois so thrillingly right that they threaten to take your breath away. When Lois gets in an elevator, the enamored Clark uses Superman's X-ray vision to continue watching her - floor by floor - as the elevator ascends. When Superman and Lois fly together, they glide inches over the river, and stare at their reflections on the water with muted heartbreak. Without skimping on the delirious action sequences, Singer's movie feels true, and haunted me long after it ended. Superman Returns is the most unexpected type of summer blockbuster - an honest one.
POSEIDON: THE IMAX EXPERIENCE
I barely have the time - or, to be honest, much inclination - to see the movies I like at the theatre more than once. So what, you may ask, possessed me to make a return trip to Poseidon?
Well, a friend of mine had never before been to the Putnam/IMAX, and as the venue's presentation of Wolfgang Petersen's disaster flick was the only current release I hadn't yet seen, Poseidon seemed like a harmless enough way for us to pass a couple of hours. But beyond that, I must admit to a twinge of remorse regarding my original analysis of the film, especially in light of its dismal box-office intake. Was the movie truly the stinker we all thought it was, or were we all just sick to death of unnecessary remakes?
Either way, it seemed that Poseidon was certainly worth more than the scant 100 words I initially devoted to it. (And let's not forget the IMAX motto: You haven't seen it 'til you've seen it in IMAX.) So I gave the film another shot.
There's plenty to laugh at in Petersen's movie. The ridiculously overheated score routinely goes into overdrive at the slightest provocation, unintentionally making us giggle at moments we should be taking seriously. The convoluted plotting allows Josh Lucas' professional gambler to know more about the ship's interiors than the crew members do, and explains the heroics of Kurt Russell's former New York City mayor by having him bark, "I used to be a firefighter." (Yeah, we think. In Backdraft.) The half-hearted character drama, ladled atop the action-flick drama, is eye-rollingly banal; doesn't Russell's character have anything better to focus on than getting daughter Emmy Rossum to button her blouse? And the film is mired in clichés so flagrant they're almost beyond cliché. It's wonderful seeing André Braugher and Freddy Rodriguez in roles that went to white actors in 1972's Poseidon Adventure. Was it really necessary to kill them off first?
Yet amazingly, on this viewing of Poseidon, I didn't hate the film. It's so thoroughly inept that it actually becomes kind of sweet. Petersen's movie is big and obvious and dumb, but the fact that the mass audience didn't embrace it the way they embraced Armageddon or the Star Wars prequels or just about anything starring Will Smith makes my heart go out to Poseidon a bit; certainly, it's no worse than those movies. (And in terms of pacing and editing, it's actually quite a bit better.) I can't necessarily recommend Poseidon, of course, yet if you must see it, see it at the Putnam, where the sound and visual clarity at least give the film the illusion of grandness. IMAX can't transform bad movies into good ones, but if you're gonna submerge yourself in a hopelessly dumb-ass Hollywood spectacle, you may as well go in deep.