Superman Returns (2006)

It’s been a total of 19 years since we saw Superman grace the silver screen in the mega-bomb Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The big question is… did we miss him at all? I know a lot of people that say they just can?t get into Superman as a character. He’s always been a do-gooder, someone with infinite power but too great a sense of nobility to abuse it. Does the Man of Steel still hold relevancy in today’s more erratic, cynical, fearful world? Is it possible to make an indestructible alien relatable or empathetic? Director Bryan Singer is interested in finding out, and he brought nearly his whole X-Men 2 team with him. Instead of retooling the franchise Singer has adopted the idea of starting shortly after the events of 1980’s Superman II. (Yes, I know Richard Lester is credited with directing Superman II but it’s still contentious that Richard Donner, who helmed the first super outing, directed a majority of the sequel. From here on out, Donner will cited as the director of Superman and Superman II).

Superman (Brandon Routh) has been absent for five years trying to look for pieces of his home world, Krypton. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) and his moll (a cheerfully batty Parker Posey) have got some big plans up their villainous sleeves. Using crystals from Superman’s home world, they plan on building a new continent of land to prosper with. He also has a nice supply of kryptonite to make his own fortress with. When Clark Kent does arrive back in town, coincidentally along the same time Superman rescues Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) in a plane crash, he’s shaken by the changes that have taken place in his absence. Lois is engaged to Richard (James Marsden), nephew of The Daily Planet‘s editor in chief, Perry White (Frank Langella). She’s also won a Pulitzer Prize for her article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” (a kiss-off letter to a lover if ever there was one). To top it all off she also has a five-year-old son, which would put him within the realm of having a super dad (Lois and Supes took a roll in the hay at the Fortress of Solitude in Superman II). The Man of Steel has a lot on his plate, obviously.

This is rumored to be the most expensive movie of all time, with budget predictions going as high as $260 million. If that?s true than Singer let’s you see every dollar onscreen. As a movie going experience, Superman Returns has little to no equals. The special effects are astounding and the imagery is simultaneously iconic and awe-inspiring. We now exist in a world where we can see a man in a red cape zoom through the sky and have it become believable. Singer, after two X-Men flicks, has a terrific eye for glistening visuals and boy does he know how to conduct Hollywood bombast with equal parts genuine character. His loss was considerably noticeable with X-Men 3, which wilts in direct comparison as unfair as it may be (it’s like the difference between a Van Gogh and a third grader’s imitation of a Van Gogh). The difference is that you can feel the respect the filmmakers had for superman; not so much with X-Men 3. But alas my countrymen, I come here to praise Superman not to bury X-Men 3. The sheer breathtaking visual artistry of Superman Returns demands to be seen on as big a screen as possible. Singer has crafted a wonderful tableau for the eyes and ears, filled with religious symbolism, opening the wonderful possibility of the movies just a little wider.

Singer’s film is a show-stopping pop spectacle, which is good, because the story itself, upon fresh perspective and distance, is good, but not great. The story doesn?t pursue character as strongly as last year?s fellow franchise reboot, Batman Begins, nor does it interlace themes as well. The characters in general are pained but left with little other expressions. Lex Luthor’s evil scheme is grand in cataclysmic scope but at the end of the day it’s still a real estate scam. It’s like if Donald Trump was human or less evil (he’s definitely got the same hair stylist as Luthor). How exactly is Luthor planning on keeping control of a new continent of land? I would think the world would have some way of establishing order. Once again a villain’s scheme is ruined by the less dastardly, more squeamish baddie in the entourage. In fact, the villains are on their own for a long while, embarking on their own tangential movie to play alongside the return of superman. The first hour is slower paced and the final climax could have used an additional boost, but these are quibbles. Superman Returns could have done a lot more with their characters, especially considering their take-off point is two films hence, but this movie is more about reassembling the pieces. To that end, Singer’s satisfying retread is forgivable for its shrift characterization.

Do not let any misgivings about character and story betray how awesomely entertaining Superman Returns is when it turns on the magic. Even at a bladder-unfriendly 2 hours and 40 minutes in length, the film has little drag and a great sense of confidence of a crowd pleaser that knows how to play to an audience while respecting their intelligence. The movie is self-indulgent (how many slow-mo shots do we need of Superman in the air?) but it never falls short on thrills. Between plane crashes, bank robberies, sudden explosions, and spontaneous, cavernous land masses, you’ll likely be glued to your seat waiting for the outcome, which even with a nigh indestructible being isn’t always a given.

The action is grand in scale but Superman Returns also has the unmistakable stripes of a chick flick. Lois is jilted, moves on to a good man, and suddenly the man of her dreams, the one she thought was gone for good, reenters her life. The film’s sharpest plot point is the complication of its love triangle with Richard and a child in tow. The romantic yearning and interplay give the film its biggest emotional involvement. Even though the filmmakers are deliberately vague, the answer of who’s the father should be rather easy to deduce. Still, the audience has an increasing desire to know the paternal truth.

Singer’s louder, brighter Superman is a loving tribute to the Richard Donner Superman films, you know, before Richard Pryor, evil twins, and the rather rash, though very effective, decision of hurling the world’s supply of nuclear weapons into the sun (the less said about The Quest for Peace the better). It even exists in the same universe so we don’t have to go the origin tale route, though we do get flashbacks to Clark’s past. Marlon Brando’s original performance as Jor-El, father of Superman, is reused and John Williams’ theme gets a new polish. Even the opening title graphics, so horribly dated like a “cutting-edge” Atari game, are the same from the Donner era. There’s such reverence for nostalgia and a fondness for what makes Supes Superman, and that’s why it gets closer than even the Donner flicks, which are good but have weathered with age and can come across as too silly or cheesy.

Even Routh looks uncannily like Chistopher Reeve. Routh is an interesting choice; he’s chiseled, handsome, and questionably appealing. He comes across more like a being finding his place, like a kid fresh out of college, than a being of incalculable power protecting our blue planet. At any rate, Reeve played the comedy better, being both suave hero and clumsy earthling. I wish Superman Returns would go further exploring the perils and expectations of being Superman, a life devoted to servitude and always being an outsider. There’s a small scene where he orbits the Earth listening to 1000 overlapping voices crying for help before zeroing in on one. Otherwise, the movie doesn’t pay much notice to the burdens of Superman, which may unfortunately keep many at a distance.

Bosworth is just too young for her role; she resembles Lois Lane’s baby sister, not the feisty Margot Kidder incarnation that left such an impression. This Lois Lane doesn’t so much bicker as she does harrumph. It’s like they took the role, dolled her up, muted her, and then told her to play Lois Lane as if she had stayed up all night binging on Sex and the City reruns. Bosworth is at the mercy of her character, a figure pressed into danger more than she is into emotion. There are some nice moments, like a midnight stroll through the atmosphere with her knight in blue tights. I just wish there were more.

But at least there’s two-time Oscar winner Spacey, who’s terrific as the infamous Lex Luthor. He’s got a funny quirkiness and a perfectly deadpan sarcasm. The opening that reveals how Luther earns back a sizeable fortune is hilarious and perfect to a T. Everyone else seems a bit dour but Spacey is having a ball; he’s even employed Kumar as part of his muscle (you’re a long way from White Castle, Kumar). However, Spacey’s spirited take is a lot more menacing than Gene Hackman’s version, which always came across as an oily used car salesman, more huckster than arch villain/evil genius. Spacey has a really strong disdain for the Man of Steel and his eyes sparkle at the opportunity to get vicious. I’m all for a darker, angrier, down-and-dirty villain to better torment Superman. Not to be out done, used car salesmen have their moments of intimidation.

The story may be good, not great, but Superman Returns is a first-rate cinematic spectacle. Singer and his X-Men 2 team have crafted a nostalgic, reverent movie that smartly addresses whether today’s world has outgrown a big blue Boy Scout. The action sequences and special effects are astounding, and, for the first time in a Superman movie, they are wholly believable. This helps when the main guy wears his underwear on the outside and shoots lasers from his bullet-proof eyeballs. The film stalls when it comes to characterization and the interplay of strong unified themes, but much is forgivable because Singer has worked his ass off getting a storied franchise back on its feet with dignity.

After three super hero films in a row, each with an escalating budget and running time, I’d say the man needs a break, perhaps a tiny independent movie to rejuvenate the batteries. But after watching Superman Returns, what I really want is for Singer to get right back to work as fast as possible. We’ve got this world back in order. Now it’s time for Superman to truly take flight.

Nate’s Grade: B+

About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on June 28, 2006, in 2006 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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