Superman returns to the big screen for the first time in twenty years. What better way to celebrate than by leaping onto even bigger screens? Superman Returns is not only showing in regular theaters, but also on IMAX screens, with twenty minutes of the film converted into an immersive 3-D presentation. Is the added dimension just a gimmick or does it really add something to the Man of Steel’s return? Let’s just say what was already spectacular is made even more so, but not necessarily for the reasons you’d think.
For the few of you living in a cave with your hands over your eyes and your fingers in your ears, allow me to recap the Superman Returns concept. The Last Son of Krypton disappeared five years ago without even a word goodbye. His return finds changes in the lives of those who were close to him, from his nearly mourning mother to former flame Lois Lane, who now has a child and fiancé. Superman’s return coincides with the first major action from his nemesis Lex Luthor as well, who is up to his old tricks attempting to grab hold of the most valuable asset of all: land.
Luthor is not Superman’s biggest problem though. It’s rebuilding the relationships with those he betrayed with his disappearance. That’s what Bryan Singer brings to the table with his self-declared sequel to Superman and Superman II: relationships. After those two movies (and the two others nobody wants to talk about) we’ve seen Superman save the world. Now it’s time to see him connect with those closest to him. That’s not to say Singer doesn’t bring some great action to the screen along with some absolutely iconic images, but relationships are the bigger focus of the film.
Singer creates another sequel to Richard Donner’s take on the Man of Steel with Superman Returns so, while comparisons to the other Superman movies are unfair, they’re almost begged for. So how does the Superman film of the twenty-first century stand up? It’s more than adequate, building upon the Donner foundation to make a very good story. If I have any one complaint it’s that it almost builds too soundly upon the previous films. Images, dialogue, and characters are so indebted to what was done in the 1970s that they almost didn’t need a new script since half the ideas presented here are in honor of what was done before. It’s a minor complaint, but an honest one. If Singer had decided to make an original film instead of a sequel, this sort of thing would have been looked upon as more of a rip off than homage.
The cast competes well with their predecessors, filling big shoes in some cases and outdoing what was done before in others. Brandon Routh is no Christopher Reeve. What Reeve brought to the role was a one of a kind performance, giving both Clark and Superman distinct, different characters that could quickly be switched by removing those famous glasses and simply standing up straight. Reeve made it crystal clear to audiences why Superman and Clark Kent could hold dual identities without anyone seeing through a silly disguise. Routh doesn’t quite capture that, but he does an admirable job creating his own character that is part impression of Reeve and part his own. The separation between Clark and Superman isn’t as great, but it’s still distinct enough. Routh’s Superman is his strong point, making even fans who aren’t all that endeared to the Man of Steel wish such a hero existed. Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane and Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor both blow away the previous ideas of the characters. Bosworth brings a charm to her character straight out of the Golden-Age comics and makes her character more endearing than Margot Kidder ever did. Spacey builds on the more comedic take on Lex Luthor created by Gene Hackman, but adds a nefariousness that finally shows audiences (instead of constantly telling them) why Luthor is one of the greatest criminal masterminds of all time. Also of note are performances by Parker Posey as Lex’s latest moll and James Marsden as Lois’s fiance, who help breathe new life into those established characters by giving them an added dimension to work with.
But enough about the regular movie. By now you’ve seen review after review about the film itself. What you want to know is how the IMAX experience is. In a word, it is incredible, but be warned: it’s not going to add anything extra that will make you fall more in love with the movie; it just puts an extra “umph” in the presentation.
The 3-D effects are amazing, although far too short. The movie uses a polarized 3-D process, which means no annoying magenta/cyan colored glasses that rob the movie of glorious colors. Unfortunately only four scenes in the movie are presented in 3-D (the flashback of Clark as a younger boy, the plane rescue, the boat rescue, and Superman’s final flight). While incredibly immersive, the disruption going in and out of 3-D mode, requiring the viewer put on and remove their IMAX 3-D glasses, is a bit distracting. If the whole movie had been presented in 3-D, the concept would have been a completely different movie. Instead it’s just a gimmick being used to sell the movie on a larger screen, a screen the film doesn’t completely take advantage of (although presented in a larger aspect ratio, the image doesn’t fill the 5 story IMAX screen). I almost would have rather had the film released later on IMAX in a complete 3-D presentation than coincide with the theatrical release and only get a few scenes. That would have been a legendary movie presentation. This is pure razzle-dazzle, impressive but only for a limited time.
What makes the movie worth the IMAX theater experience, however, is the sound. I thought my local theater did a good job optimizing their Dolby Digital sound system. That’s nothing compared to the sound presentation in an IMAX theater. To see the movie in the two different presentations is like the difference between vinyl records and CDs. The complete range of sound is much more full, resulting in a clearer, more invigorating sound experience. Explosions rock your seat, and John Williams’ original Superman compositions has never sounded as good as it does here. You’ll never get your home system sounding this good, so if an IMAX theater is available to you, I highly recommend it just for the sound difference alone.
Superman Returns is a return to the screen worthy of the title hero. Although it isn’t without its flaws, it is probably the most solid Superman movie to date. If Bryan Singer can capture what he did here in a future sequel and reduce his tributes to what has been done before, he’ll have a good formula for success. If he can capitalize on the IMAX 3-D format for the entire picture, future Superman movies could become as legendary as the hero himself.