As we continue our in-depth look at super-hero movies, Chris Sims and David Uzumeri take on the Superman film franchise.

Chris Sims: We can't put it off any longer, everyone. Today, David and I start in on the final movie in our in-depth examination of the Superman film franchise, 2006's Superman Returns. I'm just going to go ahead and get this out there now: This may in fact be the worst super-hero movie ever made, if only because it actually had the potential to be great.

David Uzumeri: In terms of prerelease information and Singer's track record? Because honestly, as soon as we got to "it picks up off of an unreleased cut of the second movie," I was pretty damn skeptical that this was going to be any good.Chris: That's a fair point, and one that really gets to the heart of the problem: Rewatching it for this article, I was struck by how much genuinely interesting and good stuff there actually is in here, and how much it's completely swallowed up by the fact that as a whole, the movie is wrongheaded and extremely masturbatory. It spends so much time paying homage to Richard Donner's vision (which, to be fair, neither of us liked anyway) that the character of Superman is barely recognizable, and almost completely non-heroic.

David: The biggest problem with Superman Returns -- and the reason everybody was excited about it -- is that its director is a complete and total fanboy.

Chris: You're right, but during the pre-release hype, that didn't really seem like a bad thing. Bryan Singer had just come off the first two X-Men movies, which had been regarded as two of the all-time best movies based on comics. Between that and the fact that he seemed like a dude who genuinely loved Superman, Warner Bros. luring him away from the X-Men franchise to helm a Superman reboot seemed like a great idea - especially following up on the success they'd had with Batman Begins.

David: It's funny. If he hadn't been taken from the X-franchise, we might have had one good X-Men 3. Instead, we got two really bad movies in the forms of Superman Returns and X-Men: The Last Stand.

Chris: And we got them one right after the other, too: X-Men 3 was released a month before Superman Returns. And the amazing thing is, they're both terrible in their own unique ways.

David: The thing is, Singer wanted to create a love letter to Richard Donner's version, and in that respect he absolutely, unquestionably succeeded. The problem with this movie, however, is that it's a love letter to Richard Donner's version.

Chris: Exactly. It's an homage almost to the point of parody. The same plot points and even lines are recycled, and Singer ends up wasting a cast that's actually pretty phenomenal by having Brandon Routh and Kevin Spacey play Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman instead of Superman and Lex Luthor.

David: Yeah, it is a perfect success at replicating all of the first films' flaws, which is amazing! That said, the first two movies had an excellent Lois Lane in the form of Margot Kidder, and these movies have ... Kate Bosworth.

Chris: I think Bosworth gets a bad rap - she's really not bad, she just happens to be playing the worst possible version of Lois Lane. And that's really what kills this movie: It's the worst of all possible worlds. Lois alternates between bland and shrewish, Superman is a creep who's actively trying to steal another man's girlfriend, Luthor's trying to pull off some weird land scheme because that' what he did in Donner's movie, and it's all treated with this reverence that it doesn't earn.

David: It even uses the same damn score. The ROI on the money they gave John Williams back in 1978 must be insane. They used it for four damn movies. Five, if you count the small bit of the theme playing in Supergirl.

Chris: I think what we're getting at here is that this is not a very good film, and that it's bad in a very frustrating way. You can see how good it might've been as it all plays out, but instead you get a movie so awful that when I started watching it on my phone this week, Siri wouldn't talk to me for an hour.

David: And the worst part is, there are individual parts that are great. But here we are. You ready to jump in?

Chris: Let's do it.

Chris: The first sign that things are about to go horribly wrong is that we open with a title card informing us that Superman decided to just leave Earth and f*** right off to space for five years. That's their explanation for calling the movie "Superman Returns." The second sign that things are about to go horribly wrong? A full five-minute credit sequence designed to look like Donner's, but with slightly better CG planets.

David: If you're watching at home, kids, you can safely fast forward the entire credits sequence. It is almost literally the Donner sequence except in CG. It's also worth pointing out that this a movie that came out in 2006, long since extended opening credit sequences became... well, years since out of date. So basically from minute one, you know you're in for a two-and-a-half-hour nostalgia circlejerk.

Chris: Once the credits are over, we get a scene that might actually fool you into thinking this movie's going to be fun, in which Lex Luthor stands at the bedside of a rich old woman (played by TV Lois Lane Noel Neill) talks about how he sexed her up so good that she's going to give him a fortune. I'm not kidding: This is Step One in Lex Luthor's plan in this movie.

David: I kind of loved this scene. If you accept the Hackman/Spacey Luthor as his own character, this is pretty hilariously perfect for him. It's unapologetically and thoroughly goofy, in a fun way. And Parker Posey wears a French maid outfit.

Chris: As weird as it is for Luthor - who once again describes himself as the Greatest Criminal Mind of the Age, because that's what Gene Hackman said - to try to wrangle himself a fortune legally rather than just stealing it, this part is highly enjoyable. And for her part, Parker Posey's consistently enjoyable whenever she's on the screen. That's why she's the cornerstone of at least three comic book film franchises.

David: The old woman's last name is also "Vanderworth." Seriously.

Chris: Eventually, right about the time you run out of popcorn, Superman finally crash-lands back in Kansas and tells Ma Kent that no, Krypton did in fact blow up for realsies, and that his trip out to space was therefore completely pointless. Which, I have to say... I almost respect Singer for having his characters sheepishly admit that something's a contrived plot device right there on the screen.

David: Yo, what kind of crappy low-rent Superman needs a spaceship to travel in space? I wish it'd had two gigantic fists on it, like the Supermobile.

Chris: See, now that's something that's worth being nostalgic for: A spaceship that can punch you in the face.

David: The whole thing is preceded by Clark thinking about being a kid and running through the cornfields, which is largely done to redo the same shots Donner did in the first Superman movie, but this time with better special effects and in HD. Also, I'd just like to point out that Ma Kent was really worried about Clark leaving for five years and she thought she'd never see him again, right? What about the twelve years he spent in Crystal Cave Space Dad University?

Chris: The scene of Young Clark just mystifies me to no end. It serves absolutely no purpose but to tell us that Superman has powers and grew up on a farm, two things that we already know. And honestly, the first time we see Superman using his powers in this movie is in a flashback where he's jumping around a farm? There couldn't be any other more exciting way to reintroduce this character's fantastic abilities to us?

David: To be fair, the first in-costume scene IS completely excellent, but yes. And it's for the same reason as every other part of this movie: Bryan Singer thoroughly misread how attached a modern-day audience is to the Donner movies.

Chris: Anyway, one of the reasons that Lex picked Gertrude Vanderworth to sex up was that she owned a boat, which he sails up to the Arctic so that he can visit the Fortress of Solitude. He then walks right in because neither Donner nor Singer is apparently familiar with that the word "Fortress" means. Here's a hint: It generally implies at least one door, and not just a crystal lean-to. I have never understood that thing, and why people want to insist that it's somehow less stupid than the Silver Age Fort Superman and its giant golden key.

David: Dude, let's be fair: they also pretty easily could have had a crystal key since the entire culture of Krypton is based on doing everything with crystals, apparently. I wonder how people on Krypton didn't constantly cut themselves on the things.

Chris: Due of this design oversight, Lex Luthor smooth rolls up into the Fortress and steals everything that isn't nailed down, namely all of the crystals containing Jor-El's Floating Head. Because what else are you going to use to build your new continent?

David: Did they not have water on Krypton? How did they not constantly activate these things? "Lax-Ar tragically died swimming this morning when he left his crystal cellphone in his pocket, forming a new continent."

Chris: Oh believe me, we'll be getting to that. It's probably this movie's most prominent example of Singer wanting to make everything Donner shot actually, literally true. There's no particular reason for the crystal to go nuts and form the Fortress of Solitude in Superman: The Movie, it just happens when Clark throws it into the snow. So rather than taking it as symbolic or being based on emotions, it's just something that happens whenever these things touch water. Which makes absolutely no sense. Shouldn't the Fortress have been expanding exponentially over the past five years? There's snow all around it!

David: Well, I'd assume these crystals are programmed to expand to a certain size and structure, which also makes the whole thing make no sense since how does Luthor know that he didn't pick up the crystal that creates, like, a bouncy castle?

Chris: It's best not to think too hard about Singer's Donnerian Fundamentalism. Even when you're being paid to do so. After chit-chatting with his mom, flashing back to being a teenager and being a jerk to his dog, Clark Kent returns to Metropolis, apparently using the cover that he's been off in Tibet studying with Lamas. This... is a pretty weird thing for Clark Kent to do.

David: Did they say Tibet? I figured he went to South America and hung out with llamas.

Chris: Honestly, it could be either. I do think they make a reference to Clark searching for enlightenment, though.

David: I'm not sure what i make of Routh's Clark. He's not as goofy as Reeve's, and it makes for a less convincing cover.

Chris: You're right: It's not as convincing as Reeve's, which is really notable because they're trying so hard to make a direct reference to him. That said, I actually do think Routh does a really nice job as Clark. I think he generally does a nice job as Superman, too, but as Clark, he's not trying to simultaneously steal a dude's girlfriend and be a Christ figure.

David: Honestly, Routh could have been a fantastic Superman in a non-terrible movie. But like everyone else here, he's brought down by the script.

Chris: One of Clark (and Superman)'s major flaws is that he's completely shocked when he comes back after five years and some things have changed! He is genuinely that dumb.

David: I wonder if he even knew how long he was gone. Not only is he surprised things have changed, he seems totally shocked that people are pissed at him for running off for five years with no explanation.

Chris: The major change, of course, is that Lois has a child and is engaged to another man, Richard White. But, for the purposes of this movie, all that pales in comparison to the fact that she also wrote an article for an article called "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman." Which is pretty much just played off as something she wrote because she was mad Superman left without saying goodbye.

Chris: So that's two characters undermined in one scene! Three, if you count Jimmy Olsen being a jerk and eating Clark's Welcome Back cake.

David: This movie is amazing in that the only sympathetic characters are the ones we aren't supposed to sympathize with. We're supposed to think Lois is just mad about Superman leaving, but she seems to have a better point than anyone else at the Planet, especially when Perry keeps trying to shut down her blackout story. Richard White, on the other hand, actually embodies basically everything Superman is supposed to stand for.

Chris: Exactly. I have no idea why we're supposed to root for Superman to win Lois back in this movie, other than that we all already know that's going to happen. There's no real reason to think they should be together, or to think that Superman is doing a good job of getting her back. Superman is seriously just Lois's Evil Ex-Boyfriend, which is probably how Routh landed his role in Scott Pilgrim.

David: The dude left for five years and we're supposed to think he's capable of emotional intimacy on par Not-An-A**hole Hal Jordan as played by Cyclops?

Chris: Dude: Not only did Superman leave the planet for five years, but Richard has literally been raising Superman's kid for that entire time! How is he not the hero of this movie? Aside from the fact that he's only on screen for about twenty minutes, total, I mean. But again, we keep getting ahead of ourselves. So much awfulness builds on each scene of this movie that it's hard to stay focused. For right now, what's important is that Superman is so upset by the fact that his girlfriend had a baby during his five-year absence that he and his pal Jimmy Olsen go to a bar to get drunk in the middle of the day on his first day back at work.


David: Yo, I don't know if you're aware of this, but going out at lunch to have a beer is an insanely common thing. Or maybe that's just me. Also, Clark and Jimmy have terrible taste in beer.

Chris: "Having a beer at lunch," yes. "Going to an otherwise empty bar in the middle of the day to drink away your heartbreak on your first day back at work," probably less socially acceptable. Even I don't do that, and I work from home in my pajamas.

David: I figured they were just catching up! But yeah, that's a fair point. Jimmy's also being a terrible enabler here. But meanwhile, Lex Luthor's spent the past five years building model trains!


Chris: We should be glad that he had some kind of hobby to take his mind off of earning his keep by getting tantric with an octogenarian. Oh, Lex. You don't have to put on the red light.

David: Yeah, Lex Luthor seriously did prostitute him for a boat, didn't he? That happened?

Chris: That definitely happened. But now he has moved on to Science, and by that I mean having Kal Penn dropping a little piece of crystal into a pool of water in his basement. We mentioned before that this movie actually does have a really solid cast, and long before it came out, I was really excited when I heard Kal Penn was going to be in it, because I just assumed he was going to be Jimmy Olsen - which I still maintain would've been awesome. Instead, he's the guy who drops the crystal in the water, and I don't think he has a single actual line in the entire movie. Such a waste.

David: He says "Hey, Lex" a few times. At least he isn't air drumming with a bad haircut, I guess? But yeah, Kal Penn is a legitimately interesting actor and dude, and I really have to wonder how they conned him into this stupid movie. I guess the same way they conned everyone else: great idea on paper...

Chris: The crystal gets dropped into the water, and to be fair, the long wait before something happens is actually pretty well-done. Parker Posey's deadpan "Wow, that's really something, Lex. Frickin' Gone with the Wind" is really fun. Eventually, though, things get to bubbling and a giant crystal forms in the water. This also sends an EMP out to the entire East Coast, because hey, why not?

David: At exactly the same time as the test drive of a new experimental plane that will make intercontinental travel affordable to the regular person, apparently. (Regular people seem to do intercontinental travel all the time anyway, though, so I have no idea what this is about?)

Chris: Lois does say something about trans-continental flights, which makes no sense, but it's definitely a space shuttle launch.

David: Maybe this is supposed to be affordable transcontinental travel... using a non-reusable plane or something? God, I have no idea. Anyway. I saw this when it came out in IMAX 3D, and I'm pretty sure this scene was the first time the movie used the 3D technology, which was totally pointless. But then Superman saves the plane, and honestly, this is a pretty incredible sequence.


Chris: If you ask a lot of people, even the ones who absolutely hated this movie like we did, the rescue of the plane is always cited as a high point. Even the direct references to the Donner films (Superman's line about airplanes being the safest way to travel is close to a direct quote) work really well in context, and the whole thing is well done. It's got a great use of Superman's powers, Lois's reaction is great, and like you said, for our first look at Superman in costume, it's a great reintroduction.

David: As much is wrong with everything else in this movie - and as much as Superman's last line in this scene drives me insane with the cute, winky fanwank nature - this is an incredibly well-shot, well-directed... seriously, I don't usually really love action scenes, but I still get chills every time he starts grabbing the plane by its nosecone, and you see the metal ripple and the shockwave go inside? That's so incredibly smart and well-done. But then Bryan Singer has to have Superman open his big mouth and say the exact same thing he said in the Donner Superman movie about public transportation, except this time about airplanes.

Chris: It really is. I even like the way that he walks in the plane and Lois stands up and he asks her - just her - if she's okay. He's confident enough to know that he just saved everyone, but he has that extra bit of concern for her because they're in love. It's a beautiful moment and a great action scene, but it's swamped by everything around it.

David: It's unquestionably the best moment of the movie, other than one Kevin Spacey line later. And speaking of Spacey, this is the point where his Luthor starts to take center stage in the movie. And honestly, he does a pretty good Gene Hackman impression.

Chris: Spacey is an unquestionable high point of the film, to the point where he almost manages to sell the doofy land-grab stuff that he's saddled with. And on another positive note, I really like the way that Singer uses the model train set to show these crazy scenes of death and destruction, but with what are essentially toys.

Chris: It's a really clever way of showing how bad things will be if Lex wins that's also kind of charmingly silly.

David: Again, just like with the Donner movies, so many individual parts are so great. It's like a $500 Lego set put together by a one-year-old. All the individual pieces rule, and there are plans and instructions that could get you to a good movie, but instead they're all thrown together in the wrong configuration.

Chris: Back at the Daily Planet, Lois wants to know how many F's there are in "catastrophic," because remember how in the Donner movies she was bad at spelling? Remember that? That somehow survived to the 21st Century. Perry forbids his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from pursuing the story of a massive EMP blackout on the entire East Coast to focus on Superman, and Clark Kent meets Jason, Lois's adorable young asthmatic son.


Chris: Her five year-old son.

David: Four years and three months! This entire scene makes no sense. Why is Perry not trusting Lois's instincts on this? She WON A PULITZER for s***-talking Superman. Wouldn't he even be excited that Lois is going after this big story while the other papers are all distracted by the shiny thing known as Superman?

Chris: Singer justifies it by having him talk about how Superman sells papers, and that's understandable. If Superman was real, he'd be the biggest single news story of all time, and returning after a five-year absence would be a huge story. But, you know, a giant blackout on the entire coast would probably be pretty big too.

David: It's also kind of - I mean, Perry must know Lois, right? And his nephew is dating her, so he should have some level of personal concern for her, and probably knows how much Superman messed up her life five years ago. Because, I mean, they are family.

Chris: See, David, you're forgetting that everyone in this movie is a weird selfish jerk. Either way, Superman's too dumb to put the math together and realize he totally made a baby in his tinfoil love nest, but that might just be because Smallville High School went with abstinence-only sex ed.

David: "But... Lois, babies come from the Crystal Thought-Stork of Rao!"

Chris: I'm sure we'll be getting into this as we go on, but man, I cannot even fathom how someone would arrive at a conclusion like "hey, let's relaunch Superman into movies by giving him a son that he doesn't know about that some other dude raises for five years." At the very least, it's pretty awful for Lois, because either she knows or suspects that it's Superman's and is both lying to Richard and writing articles about how the world doesn't need people like her son, or she doesn't know because Superman erased her memory after they had sex, which is F***ING HORRIFYING.

David: The latter is utterly terrifying. It really says a lot about what a Big Deal Bryan Singer was after those first two X-Men flicks that he got this movie made. And the only movie Singer's made since this was Valkyrie.

Chris: But it's also not unprecedented - in fact, in a lot of ways, it's the natural logical consequence of Superman II (and especially Superman IV, which as we mentioned was also an overly reverent throwback to Donner's films). If you take those movies as gospel, this makes perfect sense, and that is the problem. But you're right in that it blows my mind that anyone signed off on this, even with the worship of Donner's film in place.

David: That's the thing, this makes perfect sense in-character for the Donner Superman, right down to the snooping on Lois, Cyclops and Super-Baby at home. He's a creepy dude with serious self-esteem issues and a need to control people.

Chris: And this movie pretty much proves that if you're even slightly less charming than Christopher Reeve, it's impossible to pull it off. Case in point: The first time he meets Richard, Clark gives him this absolute death-stare.

David: "How DARE you fall in love with the woman I abandoned and become a positive paternal figure to my abandoned son?!" And hey, if Superman was changed at the molecular level like Superman II said, how the Hell did his kid end up with superpowers? Wasn't he just fully human?

Chris: There's a lot of questions about this whole weird setup, including how Richard had to have been Lois's immediate rebound to make any of this work, but what it boils down to is that Bryan Singer wanted to make a movie about a father and son, just like Donner did when he put so much emphasis on Jor-El and his dumb floating head, and it does not work.

David: This just isn't what Superman is about, man. I don't like the creepy paternal nature to Superman that shows up sometimes. He's not humanity's gentle dad. But as we'll see later, that's absolutely the direction Singer goes here. It's funny - you know how Zod joked back in Superman II that Superman sees humans as pets? It feels like Singer took that literally.

Chris: You know, I'd be way more into a movie about the actual super-pets. If you're going to make a movie about the Superman Family, the least you could do is throw in Krypto and Comet the Super-Horse.

David: Instead, we just get two Pomeranian, one of whom eats the other. (I think we already hit that scene, but I do love Kitty's "didn't there used to be two of them?" when we see one of them eating the remains of the other.)

Chris: And just to put the exclamation point on it, all of this is followed by Superman following Lois home and hovering outside her house, watching her with his X-Ray vision. It's weird and creepy, and while I'm sure Singer was going for "he loves her and wants to make sure she's happy," he's ended up at "he's stalking and spying on her without her knowledge."

David: Did you ever read Rick Veitch's Question mini that was part of Superstorm? It had a lot of flaws, but there was this great bit where all Metropolis drug deals and stuff took place in bathrooms, since Superman is too good a guy to ever look. It's like moral lead. This is not that Superman.

Chris: While Superman's a-creeping, Richard is worried that Lois has been acting kind of weird ever since Superman came back, which is understandable since she, you know, fainted orgasmically on live television. At the same time, who could blame her? Point is, their conversation is completely overshadowed by the fact that they're being watched for the whole time by the guy they're talking about

David: It's astonishing. This is a widely mocked scene from this flick, and with very good reason. Superman spies on a family that includes his ex girlfriend, who he dumped and abandoned. This happened.

Chris: After that, Superman flies out to space and listens to things for a little bit, and I'm not sure if this is intentional on Singer's part or if we're just reading into it, but he definitely hears sirens and gunfire and babies crying, but doesn't move an inch until he hears the alarm from someone robbing a bank. Superman is all about the 1%, y'all.

David: I never picked up on that. Oh my God, he really has truly messed up priorities. This is another good action scene, though!

Chris: It is! The robbers are using a Gatling gun to hold off the cops while they escape via helicopter, until Superman shows up and we get another nicely done sequence of bullets just bouncing off his chest. The scene of the guy pulling out a handgun and shooting Superman, and the bullet bouncing off of his eye was in the trailer and I remember a lot of people really responding to it in the theater.

Chris: I just like that it's kind of the amped-up version of the old cliché of guys emptying a gun at Superman and then throwing the gun at him, as though that's going to somehow get him when the bullets didn't. I like that this guy's response to Superman walking through a ton of machine gun fire is to pull out a smaller gun to see if that works.

David: Yeah, but it's a targeted shot. It seems like he's being clever, but it doesn't quite work out -- those Kryptonian rods and cones can take some punishment. It's clever, like most of the movie, but unlike most of it it's clever in a way that isn't just Donner hero worship. It's almost like a scene from Morrison's Action Comics, honestly, or even the original Siegel/Shuster stuff.

Chris: Unfortunately, everything that's good in this movie must be balanced out with 50 other things that are mired in worshiping Donner, and this is no exception: While Superman's off helping people, Luthor and his crew go to steal not just a chunk of Kryptonite, but the Addis Ababa fragment, the exact same chunk of Kryptonite that Luthor stole in Superman: The Movie. It's at this point that I think I officially gave up on seeing anything new or interesting for the duration.

David: Oh my God, that's so unnecessary. I guess it explains why Lex was able to find it so quickly by looking in a book, because Lex for some reason never heard of the Internet during his 26, I mean, 5 years in prison.

Chris: In order to keep Superman distracted, Kitty (Parker Posey) is driving around in a car with no brakes. He eventually rescues her and we get an homage to Action Comics #1, and this is the exact moment that perfectly sums up this movie for me. On the cover to Action #1, Superman is holding a car over his head and smashing it, and people are flipping out about it. It's exciting, it's something you've never seen before, and in the context, it's even a little frightening. You don't know who this dude is or why he's smashing up cars. In Superman Returns, the same shot is Superman gently setting the car down. There's no excitement. It's just there to be something that you've seen before, completely divorced from its original intent and meaning. That's this movie.

David: I was more baffled by Superman's reaction to this entire scene, including not even attempting to find out why this random lady had her brakes cut and now is trying to bang him. But your comment is dead on and a pretty great thesis statement.

Chris: On the bright side, it does lead to a pretty amazing scene between Kitty and Lex where she slaps him for really cutting the brake lines instead of just faking it.

David: I love how he's worried about Kitty giving it away, and not Superman just checking with X-ray vision to see if the brakes are actually cut.

Chris: Yeah, Superman does kind of lack follow-through on that one. But I guess that's to be expected, he's pretty distracted with trying to get Richard to let him be alone with Lois, which Richard is obliging enough to do. While they're all working late one night, Richard takes Jimmy and Jason downstairs to get some food, leaving Lois to go up to the roof for a quick smoke. There's no end to her bad habits.

David: I love how Clark saw the cigarettes earlier, too, when she dropped her purse, and then watched her go up with her X-ray vision. He flew up there with the express purpose of stopping her from smoking. You see what I mean about him being creepy and paternalistic?

Chris: He shows up and, after a long and ultimately pointless conversation about their relationship that casts Lois's Pulitzer-winning article as personally vindictive over being spurned for the chance to see if Krypton was still hanging around (not that I blame her), he asks her to fly. What follows is the third-worst Superman Flies With Lois scene in movie history, featuring both the "Can You Read My Mind" score - though thankfully not the actual poem - and Superman referring to himself as "savior" in one of the movie's more subtle attempts at Christ imagery.

David: Is it just me, or is his "people crying out for a savior" speech creepily similar to Rorschach's from Watchmen? "And I'll say - no."

Chris: Well, except that Superman says yes at the end. But man, he is straight up trying to seduce Lois here, and it's... it's so damn creepy, especially since she has a fiancee with whom she is raising a child. And then, just to make it a little bit weirder, she ends up lying to Richard about it while totally looking like she just had sex.

Chris: And with that, the first half of Superman Returns comes to a close. Join us next week as we finish up the Superman franchise!

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