Superman Returns: 2-Disc Special Edition

Superman Returns: 2-Disc Special Edition (2006)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Brandon Routh, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, James Marsden, Frank Langella
Extras: Documentary, Featurette, Deleted Scenes, Trailers

With more false starts than an American-made vehicle, the Man of Steel's prolonged absence from movie screens finally ended during the summer of 2006. After soaring back into the skies with some fairly respectable box office receipts, Warner Bros. has heralded his comeback with the "Superman Returns: 2-Disc Special Edition" DVD. Does anybody remember Tim Burton's involvement? When Nicolas Cage was going to slip on the blue tights? Or when Wolfgang Peterson signed on for a Batman vs. Superman team-up? Or when the studio hired McG and Brett Ratner to helm the film? How about the numerous drafts that were written (like the infamous Kevin Smith script and the much reviled J.J. Abrams revisioning)? Wisely, the studio eventually came to their senses and wrestled director Bryan Singer away from the "X-Men" franchise, enlisting his talents for Superman's re-introduction to cinema screens.

Instead of a complete reboot a'la "Batman Begins," Singer has chosen to re-introduce Superman by continuing the storyline presented in Richard Donner's "Superman" and "Superman II" (thankfully forgoing the inferior "Superman III" and "Superman IV" sequels). Was this the right choice in tackling the enduring icon? Either way you cut it, you're inevitably going to court comparisons to the Christopher Reeve films (maybe moreso in this case). Regardless, those expecting an origin explanation or a radical re-imagining of the hero are going to be disappointed. Singer strictly adheres to Donner's vision; bringing forth a classy, respectful version of the Man of Steel.

When astronomers think they've found the remains of Krypton, Superman (Brandon Routh, who looks like a chiseled, beefed-up Jason Schwartzman) takes flight on a search for his home world. During Superman's absence, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) finds himself freed from prison; Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is living with her son Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu) and fiancé Richard (James Marsden) and has won a Pulitzer Prize for her article entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman" (she's a tad bitter over Superman's unannounced disappearance). Crash landing five years later at his adoptive Smallville homestead, Superman soon reclaims his job at the Daily Planet (under the guise of the clumsy, bumbling and seemingly clueless Clark Kent). Struggling with the knowledge that Lois has found another love, Superman immediately finds himself in the life-saving business once again when Lois ends up on a plane that is spiraling towards earth. Audiences all over catch Superman's heroics (his return is truly awe-inspiring) and it soon becomes clear that the world does indeed need his services. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor has swindled an old, dying woman out of her money and has embarked on a mission to create land (after hopefully sinking North America) by combining crystals from the Fortress of Solitude with a stolen chunk of kryptonite. Yep, another inane money-making scheme. Amidst all this chaos, Superman has to contend with losing the love of his life and rediscovering his purpose on planet earth.

"Superman Returns" successfully brings the iconic hero back to life in grand style. Melding breathtaking action sequences with touching significance, director Bryan Singer has created a film filled with heart and ultimately, optimism. While the situations presented are over-the-top, Singer chooses to ground the performances in reality. This tactic works well with the Superman character, giving him a humanity and emotional foundation that elicits our sympathy and understanding. This is a character that is lost, feeling alienated in a world (and universe) where he is the last of his kind. There's an interesting plot development that plays on his search that could have easily turned saccharine, but luckily, it achieves a poignancy that is rare in a comic book adaptation. Unfortunately though, this realism doesn't translate well beyond the main character. Maybe I'm too married to Gene Hackman's take on Lex Luthor (which was campy and comical), but Kevin Spacey's interpretation comes off as dull and lifeless. Spacey struggles to portray a maniacally imposing Luthor and his role starts off promisingly (during an atmospheric introduction that is stylishly mired in shadows and thunder) but problems soon occur. Spacey's characterization suffers when he doesn't have Singer's bombastic theatrics at his disposal and especially when he finds himself at the mercy of an illogical plan that wouldn't even make sense in a James Bond film. It also doesn't help that his villain status is never earned. Just exactly how are we supposed to feel threatened when he exhibits no psychotic tendencies? Kate Bosworth fares even worse, especially after Margot Kidder's quirky and spunky take on Lois Lane. Frankly, Bosworth seems too young and inexperienced to be a wisened, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and in half her scenes she looks as though she's on the verge of yawning. Thankfully, newcomer Routh saves his fellow actors by balancing the purposeful ineptitude of Clark Kent with the strident heroics of Superman, leaving us with a deeply emotional performance. With Routh ably donning the cape and tights, Singer is able to gloss over the shortcomings of his supporting cast. Despite these drawbacks, there is a sense of danger achieved, mainly through Routh's humanizing portrayal. We actually feel for Superman and the characters that are important to him. Swirling with personal drama, the action set-pieces resonant equally on emotional and visceral levels.

Speaking of set-pieces (like the exhilarating plane sequence and the earthquake that tears through Metropolis), Singer highlights Superman's powers in clever, subtle ways. There's never a point where they appear arbitrary or forced (the scenes involving his acute hearing are particularly well-done). The proliferation of CGI during these sequences is quite impressive, never appearing intrusive or overly fake. This extends to the art-deco style that adorns every inch of Metropolis, which is beautifully conceived and rendered, providing a rich world that is alternately fresh and nostalgic. It's also nice how the film honors the past by featuring sly nods to Superman lore. We get to hear John William's iconic score and see the almost-identical opening credit sequence from the previous films. Then there's Marlon Brando's distinct voice and visage popping up as Superman's father Jor-El (courtesy of computer manipulation), as well as cameos from the original Jimmy Olsen (Jack Larson) and Lois Lane (Noel Neill, both from the "Adventures of Superman" television show) and a recreation of the famous Action Comics #1 cover. These little touches certainly add to the fun of the film and will prove rewarding for Superman fans.

Overall, "Superman Returns" is a solid, well-made film that is a satisfying cinematic experience. Sometimes Singer's respect for the material is too limiting and, as such, he leaves little room for risk taking. This may disappoint those looking for a bolder take on the icon, but who wants a drastically different Superman anyway? As long as you're not bothered by a more emotionally damaged hero, some overt Christ-like imagery and a somber, melancholy ending, then "Superman Returns" should please even the most cynical film viewers. I, for one, am glad to see the Man of Steel back on the screen and this installment is a promising start to what will hopefully be another strong comic book franchise.

Warner Home Video presents "Superman Returns: 2-Disc Special Edition" in an anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Overall, the transfer is sub-par. I found that the film was riddled with compression artifacts, especially during darker sequences. Likewise, the dark scenes sported significant amounts of grain. Also, edge enhancement occurred every now and again. Despite these problems, the brighter scenes came across well (although those same pesky artifacts re-appeared during the plane sequence) and images, for the most part, were clear with vibrant colors. I'm actually quite surprised by the lackluster presentation, especially for a film of this caliber and age. I'm guessing that maybe the long running time is at fault for the compression problems.

Even though the transfer is fairly weak, the English and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is exceptional. The rear channels are nicely utilized, creating aggressive directional effects and stunning atmospherics. Watch out during the action sequences, since the overpowering soundtrack might rattle your walls. Dialogue appears clear and there were no problems with hiss or distortion. Honestly, I can't find any faults or flaws with this mix. Subtitle options include English, Spanish and French.

"Superman Returns: 2-Disc Special Edition" contains all the Special Features on Disc 2, with the film comprising Disc 1. The bulk of the extras comes via the "Requiem For Krypton: Making Superman Returns" (2 hrs. 53mins.) documentary. One of the better behind-the-scenes docs I've seen in quite awhile, this exhaustive examination of the film is comprehensive to say the least. We're given all-inclusive access to the production, from Bryan Singer's initial interest in the film (before he even got hired for the job), to Brandon Routh's screen test, to the everyday trials and tribulations of the daunting project. Every aspect is covered; with extensive attention paid to the production designers, costume designers, set designers and make-up/hair designers. Pre-production, all the way to the end of production, is highlighted. Even a blooper reel appears during the end credits (concluding with a humorous Marlon Brando screw-up from Donner's film). This documentary alone is worth the price of the DVD. Good stuff.

Next is the "Resurrecting Jor-El" (4 mins.) featurette. This is an interesting, animated look at the manipulation of Marlon Brando's performance from the original "Superman" film. We see the evolution of computer modeling and the amount of work it takes to construct a new "performance" from old footage.

Then we have a series of eleven "Deleted Scenes" (15 mins.). For the most part, these reveal small character details and flesh out some of their motivations. I found a couple of these interesting, like the "Old Newspapers" scene, where Clark surveys a stack of newspapers in the basement of his barn, utilizing his X-Ray vision in a unique way. This is another emotional sequence, as Clark scrolls through years of dire headlines, finally landing on Lois's heartbreaking article. Then there's "I'm Always Right," which features Lex and his henchmen traversing through the snow on their way to the Fortress of Solitude. This gives a brief explanation as to why Lex keeps Kitty (Parker Posey) around and also features the only line of dialogue spoken by Kal Penn, who plays one of Lex's goons.

Lastly, we have a collection of Trailers. These include the "Teaser Trailer," "Theatrical Trailer," "Justice League Heroes Video Game Trailer," "Christopher Reeve Superman Collection" and the "EA Superman Returns Game Trailer."

Incidentally, since this edition is lacking a commentary of any sort, I can only assume that there will be another double-dip somewhere down the line.

"Superman Returns: 2-Disc Special Edition" is quite a treat for fans of the Man of Steel. Director Bryan Singer has created a classy, respectful adventure that is driven by emotions involving the loss of love and the search for purpose. Newcomer Brandon Routh portrays Superman with the perfect amount of heroism and pathos, anchoring the film with a quiet authority. While some might find the reverential interpretation too safe and the supporting cast lacking in emotional weight, Singer is able to pump the film with enough heart and spectacle to satiate most critics. Picking up this 2-Disc edition should be a no-brainer, especially when it boasts such an amazingly thorough documentary. It's good to have the old guy back.