Having recently watched 1978's "Superman" and 1981's "Superman II" for the first time in preparation for the Man of Steel's long-awaited cinematic return, they were none too impressive. Granted, a little leeway must be given to the antiquated special effects and Styrofoam sets because of the era in which they were made, but that doesn't make them any less dated. Audiences who grew up with these movies may understandably feel a glint of fond nostalgia when seeing them in 2006, but as a person viewing them fresh in today's times, "Superman" and "Superman II" are more cheesy than sweeping, the dialogue and endlessly glaring plot holes wavering between lightly preposterous to downright laughable. There was an earnestness to the productions, and Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder made for agreeable romantic foils as Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane, but the films as a whole were done in by restrictive technology and an overall uncomplicated childishness that left them lacking any real threat.
Directed with grandiose ambition by Bryan Singer (2003's "X2
"), "Superman Returns" wisely pretends 1983's "Superman III" and 1987's "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" never existed and picks up five years after "Superman II" ended. This choice in continuing the story rather than reinventing the franchise and starting from scratch is something of a gamble; after all, twenty-five years is an awfully long time between faithful sequels, and at least half of the potential viewers won't be familiar with the predecessors. Nonetheless, director Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (also of "X2
") do a satisfying job of quickly getting the uninitiated up to speed. They also make good on correcting most of the wrongs set by the older entries, introducing a newfound maturity and lyricism to the mythology of the DC Comics superhero.
After five years of scouring outer space in vain for surviving life from his home planet of Kypton, Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth and discovers, much to his dismay, that an awful lot has changed. As bespectacled alias Clark Kent, he is graciously rehired as a journalist for the city of Metropolis' newspaper The Daily Planet
, and hopes to rekindle his romance with intrepid reporter Lois Lane. What he finds, instead, is a woman with a longtime boyfriend in Richard White (James Marsden) and a five-year-old son, Jason (Tristan Leabu). To make matters worse, her bitter feelings of abandonment has led to her winning a Pulitzer Prize for the article, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." Put face to face with Superman once more after he saves her from a near-fatal airplane crash, Lois' enduring love for him puts her life into a confused tailspin.
It wouldn't be a proper "Superman" without cataclysmic trouble afoot. Bald archenemy Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from prison on a technicality (witness Superman never showed up for the hearing), and has stolen the inheritance of a wealthy, just-deceased old woman from under her extended family's noses. With dizzy dame Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) by his side, Lex travels to the Fortress of SolitudeSuperman's North Pole hideoutand snatches up the sacred crystals needed to wipe out the United States and build an entirely new continent on the Atlantic Ocean. When Lois and Jason stumble onto Lex's plan, they are kidnapped. Naturally, Superman is their only savior, but is he any match for a megalomaniac carrying the Kryptonite necessary to kill the otherwise unstoppable caped superhero?
Reportedly budgeted at $200-million (and it shows), "Superman Returns" is a majestic and exhilarating blockbuster that captures for the first time in the series the sheer awe-inspiring feeling of what it might be like to fly. This is no more evident than in the film's best and most magical sequence, as Superman takes Lois Lane on a journey through the city in the night sky, the two of them all the while reexperiencing the chemistry and connection they once had. Other special effects-intensive sequences are also marvelously alive with wonder and scope, including a flashback to a 15-year-old Clark Kent grasping the full scale of his abilities; an early airplane rescue; and an extended climax depicting the destruction of Metropolis and the simultaneous watery construction of Lex's intended new continent.
As exciting as these action set-pieces are, they compliment rather than overshadow the human stories of Superman and Lois Lane, both of whom are wrestling with complicated emotions and faced with difficult decisions. Superman is visualized as a tragic figure, susceptible to ruminations on the choices he has made in his life, always feeling like an outsider without a home, and, in a welcome change of pace, achingly vulnerable. One image, as Superman floats through space, his life force having taken a major hit and his arms outstretched, is unmistakably evocative of Jesus Christ's own sacrifice for the people. For Lois Lane, she is torn between a devoted relationship with the good Richard and daydreams of a perfect life with Supermanquite possibly her son's biological fatherthat she might never be able to have.
The doomed love story at the center of "Superman Returns" is reminiscent of the one between Peter Parker and Mary Jane in 2002's "Spider-Man
" and 2004's "Spider-Man 2
," as is the film's preference for characters and story over empty razzle-dazzle. The romance in "Spider-Man" is superior, however, because of one key difference; Mary Jane loves both Spider-Man and alter-ego Peter Parker, while Lois Lane hardly gives a second thought to the nerdier Clark Kent. Because of this, it always seems as if Lois only loves half of a manthe sexier, tougher, more studly sidemaking her very attraction to Superman rather shallow. Director Bryan Singer does what he can to try and deepen their bond beyond surface-level, but only sporadically achieves this feat.
There was a bit of hesitancy walking into "Superman Returns" knowing that the title role was being played by a 26-year-old actor whose biggest previous credit to date was on the soap opera, "One Life to Live," but Brandon Routh dispels these concerns quickly. Newcomer Routh, who has similar physical features to the late Christopher Reeve, isn't necessarily a better Superman, but he does bless the part with an appropriate underlying sadness to counterweight his bravery and brawn. There isn't a hint of pretension in Routh's work, which makes his performance fresh and sincere. As Lois Lane, Kate Bosworth (2005's "Beyond the Sea
") is a congenial presence, but, to be fair, doesn't have the feisty energy of Margot Kidder. Kidder was always an odd casting choicethe actress was not classically beautiful, and at times rather homelybut she made the role of Lois her own in a way that Bosworth never is able to.
In contrast, Kevin Spacey's (2003's "The Life of David Gale
") take on Lex Luthor is leagues better than Gene Hackman's unassuming, jokey portrayal. Villains are supposed to be menacing and seemingly capable of doing terrible things, which Spacey understands and Hackman didn't. This time, Lex Luthor is seen as a believable and sinister bad guy, paving the way for a battle of detectably higher risk. As hesitant henchwoman Kitty Kowolski, Parker Posey (2004's "Blade: Trinity
") plays up her character's daffy side while smartly shading her as a gal who stands by Lex's side out of fear rather than belief that what he is doing is the right thing. The remaining secondary actors are either blandi.e. James Marsden (2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand
"), again playing second fiddle and as dull as everor don't have enough to do to stand outi.e. Sam Huntington (2004's "Sleepover
"), as newspaper co-worker Jimmy Olsen, and Eva Marie Saint (2005's "Because of Winn-Dixie
"), as Clark's adoptive mom Martha. Finally, Marlon Brando (2001's "The Score
") makes a posthumous cameo appearance via archive footage as Superman's Kryptonian birth father Jor-El.
A visual spectacle as well as a humane and intimate one, "Superman Returns" dodges the majority of the holes in logic and ham-fisted writing that "Superman" and "Superman II" fell victim to. It's also a far better motion picturethoughtful, compassionate and well-crafted, without ever losing its sense of fun or the powerful strings of John Williams' famous theme music. And, at a robust running time of 157 minutes, there isn't a moment of wasteful or excessive material. In the annals of comic book adaptations, the film narrowly misses the watermark set by "Spider-Man
" and 1992's "Batman Returns," but is a step above the merely good "X-Men" trilogy and a full staircase superior to bombs like 2005's "Fantastic Four
" and 2004's "Catwoman
." As a character, Superman isn't as richly interesting and flawed as the best superheroes, nor is his star-crossed romance as vivid and three-dimensional as the one in "Spider-Man
." With that said, director Bryan Singer has come inches away from achieving greatness with "Superman Returns," proving without a doubt that there is far more to the Man of Steel, both as a person and an iconic figure, than just blue tights, a cape and the power to soar.