Director: Bryan Singer
Of the multitude of characters dreamed up by comic book writers and artists since the medium came into prominence in the 1930s, one of the most important and influential has been the one and only Superman. The creation of Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster, the last son of Krypton made his first appearance on the cover of DC's "Action Comics #1" in 1938 and became a big fat hit. In the decades since his debut, Superman has become the de facto mascot for DC Comics as well as a cultural icon that defined the term "superhero." And with his popularity, one medium wouldn't be enough for the Man of Steel. The character has popped up on quite a bit of merchandise over the years, along with inspiring radio plays, movie serials, cartoons, and popular television shows. But perhaps the most famous depictions of the character were the four movies starring the late Christopher Reeve. Released between 1978 and 1987, the four movies varied between exceptional and abysmal, but Reeve's charismatic performances in all four cemented him in the minds of many as the definitive real-life face of the beloved hero.
But after the painful box office performance of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987, it appeared as if there might never be a fifth movie in the franchise. Franchise producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind proposed a movie pitting Superman against his noted foe Brainiac, but when the rights reverted back to DC Comics in 1992, things snowballed from there. Numerous writers, directors, and actors were attached to the project over the course of the next two decades, quite a few of them looking to do an adaptation of DC's famous story arc "The Death and Return of Superman." Big names like Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, Brett Ratner, Lost creator J.J. Abrams, Charlie's Angels director McG, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Keaton, and Nicolas Cage were all connected to the various projects in some capacity, but for one reason or another, the fifth Superman movie would repeatedly be put on the shelf before it could find its way out of pre-production. After three directors, nine writers, and fifty million dollars spent, X-Men director Bryan Singer was hired and the ball finally got rolling on what would be the first Superman film in nineteen years: 2006's Superman Returns.
Upon hearing that astronomers may have discovered the remnants of the planet Krypton, Superman (Brandon Routh) embarks on a long voyage into space to see the remains of his home for himself. Finding nothing, he returns to Earth and resumes his life in Metropolis as mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent. But five years have passed, and the world he knew as changed drastically. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), the woman who'd captured his heart, has moved on with her life. During Superman's half-decade absence, Lois has won a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial titled "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman"; gotten engaged to Richard White (James Marsden), the yuppie nephew of the Daily Planet's editor Perry White (Frank Langella); and given birth to a young son named Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). But in spite of Lois's disillusionment in regards to the big blue Boy Scout, Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) theorizes that she still might have some feelings for him after all.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from prison on a technicality, and he's managed to finagle his way into being the sole beneficiary of a wealthy old woman's money and possessions. Luthor gathers up his henchmen and his female companion Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey), and using his newfound financial resources, ventures into the Arctic to the abandoned Fortress of Solitude. He acquires a number of the Fortress's crystals, and through the holographic representation of Superman's father Jor-El (archival footage of Marlon Brando), Luthor learns that the crystals can be used to create anything from Kryptonian architecture to enormous landmasses. He tests this by placing a tiny speck of crystal into some water that was part of a model train set in the basement of his newly acquired mansion. In doing so, it causes a sizeable Kryptonian structure to form in the middle of the room.
But Luthor's little experiment also causes an electromagnetic pulse that briefly knocks out all of the electricity on the east coast. This temporary blackout also causes a serious malfunction on a space shuttle and the jetliner hauling it, and the shuttle threatens to drag the jet and everyone on it including Lois into outer space. Forced into action, Clark quickly changes into Superman and rescues the plane. He safely deposits the plane in the middle of a baseball stadium during a game, revealing Superman's return to the world. You know, the scene is cool and all, but afterwards, it left me wondering what happened to the wings of the plane. They came right off the plane, so they had to go somewhere, right? It's probably safe to say that they merely landed in the ocean, but what if they crashed onto an orphanage or the Special Olympics or a box full of kittens? Am I the only person that thinks about things like this?
You'd think the return of Superman would put a wrench in the gears of Luthor's grand scheme, but nope, he's got that taken care of. After robbing a museum of a chunk of Kryptonite, he sets his plan into motion. His scheme: to use one of the stolen crystals to create a brand new continent. The continent's growth is projected to wipe out most of North America and kill millions (if not billions) of people in the process. High body count or not, Luthor anticipates scores of people paying boatloads of cash for prime real estate and possible access to alien technology. And just to be on the safe side, he's managed to lace the new landmass with his stolen Kryptonite, just so Superman doesn't get any wise ideas. Kryptonite or not, Superman rushes to stop Luthor and rescue Lois, Jason, and Richard, who have gotten caught in the middle.
Although Superman Returns isn't a flawless movie, it's certainly very good. It has and will probably continue to draw comparisons to Christopher Reeve's films, but I think the movie holds up quite well on its own. It boasts superb direction, writing, and effects, as well as a cast that brings a lot of substance to the movie. While some have argued that perhaps the movie could have gone the way of Batman Begins and restarted the franchise with a clean slate, that wasn't really necessary. Because unlike Batman, Superman already had a perfectly good movie that told his origin story. Besides, making Superman Returns a vague sequel to the first two Reeve movies (while ignoring the existence of the third and fourth ones) brings a strong sense of familiarity to the movie that I feel that it benefits from.
Let's start with the screenplay first. Penned by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, the screenplay is solid in spite of a few plot holes and subplots that are left unresolved. The screenplay also hearkens back to the Reeve movies on numerous occasions with various dialogue cues and little moments, which I thought was really entertaining and brought a sort of continuity and familiarity that bridged the old and the new. Dougherty and Harris also crafted characters I thought to be extremely well-written, with the exception of one. I'm going to come right out and say it: This iteration of Lois Lane has absolutely nothing on the one portrayed by Margot Kidder. When Kidder played the role, Lois was strong, spunky, and fun. But instead of that, Lois is to Superman Returns what Lana Lang is to the Smallville television show. She's kinda dull and whiny; she treats Superman like dirt for not living up to whatever unobtainable standards she holds him to; she completely disregards Perry's requests to actually do her job; she has no problem with bringing her five-year-old son along as she breaks into supervillain's private property to get a scoop; she gets upset when anyone dares question her motives; and she generally doesn't serve a whole lot of purpose outside of being a damsel in distress. While Lois isn't as utterly useless and annoying as Lana, she's pushing it. But despite her cocky "how dare Superman save me from certain death?" attitude while blowing off Clark like he's some kind of second-class citizen, it's only made funnier when she has to keep being saved over and over by the men in her life whether it be Superman, Richard, or in one instance, Jason because she was too stubborn to swallow her pride and admit that she's just not all that.
Moving along, I found the acting the acting to be quite well done. Though the cast seems as if they were all trying to fit themselves into the molds created their predecessors, I must admit that I didn't find any particular performance standing out as anything less than good. Brandon Routh, only really known prior to Superman Returns for his year-long stint on the ABC soap opera One Life To Live, fills Christopher Reeve's shoes well. In spite of the many talented big-name actors that were up for the role during all those years of pre-production, I'm of the opinion that, in retrospect, Routh was the best one for the part. I believe it was a wise decision to follow in the footsteps of the 1978 movie and cast a virtual unknown in the lead role. If someone like Nicholas Cage or Ashton Kutcher or whoever had played Superman, it could have pulled the viewer completely out of the movie. But with Routh in the role, we don't view the title character as "[famous actor] as Superman," we see only Superman. And casting Routh proved to be a good move, as he really holds the movie together with his portrayal of Superman's strength, Clark's meekness, and Kal-El's internal struggle to rejoin a world that has left both of his Earth personas behind.
Despite my beef with the way her character is written, I have to admit that I did enjoy Kate Bosworth's performance. If the character hadn't been as poor as I found it to be, I think her performance would have been even better. Bosworth and Routh have a great chemistry together, but due to Lois being written less than satisfactory, I felt that it bogged down Bosworth's performance and made it good, but not great. I also thought that James Marsden did about as good as could be expected. His character is painted as a perpetual second-banana to Superman in the minds of both Lois and the viewer, but I thought he made a good romantic foil for Superman. You can see through Marsden's performance that Richard wants to be there for Lois and Jason even though he knows Ms. Lane would leave him for Superman in a heartbeat. And how about Tristan Lake Leabu as Jason? Not a whole lot is asked of him aside from standing there and looking cute, but he pulls it off like a pro. Frank Langella and Sam Huntington are also quite good, despite being super-minor roles. Both of them are well-suited for the roles, and both are quite entertaining.
Parker Posey is great as well. The character of Kitty Kowalski is essentially a clone of Miss Tessmacher from the first two Reeve movies, but Posey plays the role with a passion and humor that's needed for the role to work. As I said, Kitty is a modernized version of Miss Tessmacher, which raises the question, "Why does Lex Luthor surround himself with such ditzy women?" And I think the answer is simple. Luthor's intelligence and narcissism are vast, and keeping a dim-witted woman by his side makes him look even smarter by comparison. It's totally within the realm of the character. And last but not least is Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. The role could not have been better cast, because Spacey is nothing short of excellent. Spacey plays the role with just a touch of the humor Gene Hackman's Luthor had, but there is more menace than silliness to be found here. His Luthor is megalomaniacal, vicious, egocentric, and sarcastic, everything one would expect from the Man of Steel's archenemy.
Perhaps the most spectacular things about the movie, however, is its music and direction. The previously mentioned sense of familiarity brought by the screenplay is greatly enhanced by John Ottman's wondrous score, which borrows memorable motifs from the brilliant music composed by John Williams for the first two Reeve movies (including the legendary theme song). This, along with Ottman's impressive original music, gives Superman Returns a sound that is as grand and epic as the rest of the movie. And I must admit that Bryan Singer's direction is outstanding. Singer is no stranger to superhero movies, and he uses that experience to craft a movie that can please fans of the old movies and wow a new generation of moviegoers who didn't grow up with them. His affection for the original movies is readily seen, evidenced by his use of the same style of opening credits from the originals, and his use of the same shot that closed all four previous movies. He delicately balances the drama with the humor and action, and I think he succeeded. And with a little help from cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and a team of special effects wizards, Singer's also given the movie a tremendous visual upgrade. The special effects are, without a doubt, astounding. Though we know that quite a few of the effects are computer-generated, they're not distracting, but quite believable and enjoyable.
As I said above, Singer balances the humor, drama, and action effectively. But what he also does is use the movie as an intriguing religious allegory. Superman is a metaphorical Christ figure, his father's only son sent to Earth to grow into a hero for millions. This comparison is noted on numerous occasions in the film, with moments such as Jor-El's opening monologue, Superman snatching a large sign that reads "grace" and catching an enormous globe as it falls from the roof of the Daily Planet (essentially holding the whole world in his hands, like the song kids sing in Sunday School), and pretty much the entire climax and epilogue. Superman even says to Lois at one point, "You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one." The comparisons come close to hitting us over the head at times, but they do make for an interesting subtext that isn't usually explored in the various depictions of Superman.
Superman Returns may or may not be remembered thirty years from now as a classic along the lines the first two Reeve movies, but I found it to be an impressive, high-quality film. I thought it was everything that it should have been. Sure, it has its flaws, but what movie doesn't? However, the movie does excel in spite of its imperfections, and breathes new life into a franchise that at one time looked like it was headed nowhere fast. And thanks to that, I'll gladly give Superman Returns four stars. Even if the movie sucked, it certainly couldn't be any worse than Superman III or Superman IV, could it?
Final Rating: ****