Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” is pretty damn good, but it could have been pretty damn great. It is very much in the vein of what Singer did with the “X-men” franchise, and as such “Returns” feels like the Superman version of the first “X-Men” movie, before Singer unleashed the full fury of mutant power with “X-Men 2”. Since the last time we saw him, when Christopher Reeve was wearing the blue and red tights, the Man of Steel is still very much Godlike in his abilities, but he’s also much more human than we’ve ever seen him. Helicopter mini-gun rounds bounce off his chest and .45 caliber bullets fired at close range at his eyeball doesn’t even make him flinch, but a sharp retort from the love of his life hits him like a ton of bricks. Our God may be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but his emotions are still easy to prick by the right woman.
“Superman Returns” takes place after the events of “Superman 2” (with parts 3 and 4 in the franchise wiped clean from history). Superman (Brandon Routh) has just returned from 5 years in outer space, where he sought out and found what remained of his home planet Krypton. (We don’t actually see this voyage, but are told about it.) Now back on Earth, Superman finds things different — and yet, very much the same. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), released from prison after a 5-year stint (he would have stayed inside longer if the star witness, a certain Superman, had been around to testify against him at his parole hearing), is once again up to no good, and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has gotten engaged and birthed a rugrat, not to mention having won a Pulitzer Prize for her editorial, titled, “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman.”
Need him or not, the Man of Steel is back, and in no time he’s once again saving lives, shouldering the Godly responsibilities thrust upon him by his adopted world with diligence, all the while longing for the woman, and a life, he cannot have. Lois Lane is not thrilled by Superman’s return (justifiably so, it is eventually revealed), and his discovery of her Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial is hurtful to them both. Luthor, meanwhile, has re-discovered Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (remember, he was there in Part 2), but more importantly, the Kryptonian technology sealed within. What does the hairless arch villain plan to do with this newfound power? Well he is a megalomaniacal villain, so you figure it out. Needless to say, billions of lives hang in the balance.
I mentioned Singer’s “X-Men” at the top, and it’s an appropriate comparison. While “Superman Returns” is surely a superior piece of cinema, and in fact is quite a fantastic piece of comic book cinema, it still comes across like an Origins Movie, with a lot of time spent building up characterization. This is, after all, Singer’s reputation — he has the extraordinary ability to take outlandish situations (and what’s more outlandish than superheroes?) and turn them into familiar, everyday problems the Average Joe can relate to. With the exception of Kevin Spacey’s fiendish Lex Luthor, the men and women in “Superman Returns”, even those in tights, are very much relatable.
There is little doubt that a follow-up to “Superman Returns” will be chock full of superpowered fights, just as “X-Men 2” was. With the characters out of the way and the universe firmly established, there will be no need for Singer to commit to the same lingering scenes of Superman and Lois Lane ‘s restrained battle of emotions. At almost two hours and 30 minutes, “Superman Returns” is not afraid to dwell on the personalities of its characters, which is to its credit. After all this time, Lois is still the intrepid reporter, rushing headlong into danger; Clark Kent is still the clumsy small-town klutz; and Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) the amusing sidekick. The film is also filled with humor, such as when Clark utters the line, “Swell”, and receives shocked reactions from those around him.
Which is not to say that “Returns” lacks action, because with the budget he had to work with, Singer orchestrates some incredible, mind bending set pieces. Unfortunately many of them involves Superman saving civilians from imminent dangers such as falling buildings, planes, and the Daily Planet’s, well, planet. They’re all done with great competence and flair, and are indeed wow’ing in their flawlessness onscreen. Even so, it does get a tad repetitive after a while, and you begin to wish some costumed freak would come out of nowhere and blast Superman with some futuristic weapon or superpower. Having said that, the flying sequences are simply astounding. You will believe Superman is really flying. Routh must have spent months getting the right “look” of a flying and hovering Superman down just right.
But of course it takes more than a ginormous budget and cutting edge special effects to make a movie, and “Superman Returns” excels at its human elements. At least, when Lex Luthor isn’t around to remind us that we’re watching a comic book movie about a guy who can fly and shoot heat rays out of his eyes. The relationship between Lois Lane and Superman, with Richard White (James Marsden, Cyclops in the “X-Men” films) lost in the middle, are filled with electricity. Brandon Routh, in his first major motion picture starring role, pulls off the duo role of Clark Kent and Superman brilliantly. It may be sacrilegious to say so, but Routh does Christopher Reeve better than Christopher Reeve did in the four “Superman” movies.
“Superman Returns” is blessed with an amazing cast and crew, and a director who has so much respect for the Man of Steel that it shows in every loving frame featuring the Big Blue Boy Scout. For comic book fans, there’s even a tip of the hat to Superman’s original creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, involving a car and what Superman does to it. Kate Bosworth, who I was worried about playing Lois Lane 2.0, does well in the role, and the character of Richard White is nicely put together, providing the perfect balance of mortal heroics to Superman’s super heroics. I’m still not sure about the character of Lex Luthor, as although he’s amusing throughout, there is something to be said about being restrained when you’re talking about slaughtering billions of people for a buck. Kevin Spacey is clearly having a ball, but when Singer is at the helm, and your superhero movie is supposed to be grounded in reality, Spacey’s Lex feels…off.
Bryan Singer (director) / Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster (screenplay)
CAST: Brandon Routh …. Clark Kent/Superman
Kate Bosworth …. Lois Lane
Kevin Spacey …. Lex Luthor
James Marsden …. Richard White
Parker Posey …. Kitty Kowalski
Frank Langella …. Perry White
Sam Huntington …. Jimmy Olsen
Eva Marie Saint …. Martha Kent