Superman Returns (2006) / Action-Sci Fi

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, some language and some mild sexual references
Running Time: 154 min.

Cast: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Tristan Lake Leabu, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Eva Marie Saint, Kal Penn, David Fabrizio, Marlon Brando (footage), Peta Wilson, Noel Neill (cameo)
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris (based on characters created in the original DC comic books by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster)
Review published June 28, 2006

After nearly twenty years, Superman finally returns to the big screen, in a sequel (of sorts) of the events and characters as portrayed in Superman and Superman II.  It's a film that has been a long time in coming, with many independent drafts being written up and subsequently discarded over the years, while several big name directors (Tim Burton, Brett Ratner, McG) have come and gone.  All things considered, despite the multitudinous changes in direction (literally and figuratively), Superman Returns proves to be a resounding success in generating new audience interest, as well as re-establishing the appeal of the pop culture icon for fans of old.  Much like Christopher Nolan was able to do with resurrecting the ice-cold popularity of Batman in Batman Begins, Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2) brings a sense of respect and emphasis on character motivations to the forefront of the story, resulting in a complexity and maturity befitting the world's most popular and beloved superhero.   

The film starts off with Superman (Routh) returning back to Earth after taking time out to find what remains, if anything, of his birth world of Krypton, after scientists claimed to find potential evidence that it still exists.  The return of Superman also means the return of Clark Kent, who resumes his job as reporter for the Daily Planet, only to find that his longtime crush, fellow reporter Lois Lane (Bosworth, Beyond the Sea), is now a mother and engaged to be married to editor Perry White's nephew, Richard (Marsden, X-Men: The Last Stand).  Another harmful emotional blow: in his absence, she has won the vaunted Pulitzer Prize for writing an article on why the world doesn't need Superman after all.

Superman isn't the only one to return, as his arch nemesis, the maniacal genius Lex Luthor (Spacey, Edison Force), has been set free from a technicality because Superman failed to show up to testify at his trial.  Lex makes a quick fortune marrying a wealthy, ailing woman (played by TV's original Lois Lane, Noel Neill), and launches his nightmarish vision to steal the powerful crystal shards from Superman's Fortress of Solitude to use for his own diabolical schemes to, according to his plans, change the physical make-up of the world to his own design, killing billions in the process.

As with all long-dormant projects, an entirely new set of actors have been cast into the well-known roles (save for Marlon Brando's digitally-renedered cameo as Jor-El, Superman's father), and the main question at hand is how they stack up.  As with the makers of the original Superman films, Singer and company decide on choosing an unknown actor to play the role in 26-year-old Brandon Routh.  It's my pleasure to say that from the first scene he appears in, Routh owns the part in every way, completely capturing the heroism and bravado of Superman, while also filling in Christopher Reeves' shoes as Clark Kent in a manner that I can't imagine any other actor, no matter how well-known, could have bested. 

For Lois Lane, Singer continues to have an eye to potential future sequels by casting youth with 22-year old Kate Bosworth. Perhaps she's a bit too young to play the part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, mother of a boy about five or six years in age, and be a prior love interest and long-term friend of Superman/Clark Kent.  She also doesn't quite fit the mold in terms of meeting the certain look generally given to Lois, although one might argue that as long as she's an attractive, reasonably bright, Caucasian brunette, she can play the role.  It's initially difficult to buy her in the part, but as the story progresses and we become more interested in the developments, our fears are allayed, and we accept her, despite knowing that she isn't what anyone would call the most logical choice.

While Routh is a fantastic find and Bosworth is adequate enough, where the film really raises the bar is in Kevin Spacey's darker portrayal of Lex Luthor.  While Gene Hackman is an excellent actor, his delivery of Luthor in the original film series showed him as a mad genius (if a bit bumbling), but somehow still comical and likeable.  Spacey retains all of Hackman's quirky mannerisms and style, but delivers a great deal of serious depth and sheer menace to the role, making Lex Luthor a man truly to be feared among men.  Even in scenes that play for laughs, Spacey delivers a cold, calculating performance underneath that says that none of his ostensibly crazy ideas are truly half-baked, with a loathsome evil and utter hatred for Superman that makes his scenes work splendidly when it comes time for him to actually try to defeat the Man of Steel.  You actually do come to detest Luthor in a way that might actually make you outwardly boo and hiss from your seat.

Perhaps the only thing I'm not keen on, despite the fact that I respect its delivery, is the main plot hatched by Luthor to effectively destroy North America and form a new continent of his making and design. While it is certainly a scheme of monumental scope, and also intelligently conceived, it isn't altogether interesting as a main plot, while taking a very long time to show developing.  It is also somewhat reminiscent of the plot of the original Superman, with Lex Luthor, once again, hatching a land-grab strategy that seeks to change the geographical make-up of North America to suit his megalomaniacal needs.  While I suppose this is in keeping with a theme in Luthor's mind, as it is realistic to expect that a villain would try again in different ways to come up with the same basic plan, in neither film is it terribly engrossing for us as viewers.  One of the reasons that I don't watch the first Superman as much as many other superhero films is because I know where it's going, and it takes a great deal of time and energy to develop. I'm going to guess it will be the same with Superman Returns, although with today's DVD technology, skipping chapters will make this a more tolerable experience for multiple viewings.

While it is grand scale entertainment on an emotional and intellectual level, Superman Returns is, at its core, a reinvention of a dormant franchise, and as such, an inordinate amount of time is spent establishing just where the story stands before being able to progress to its main plot.  Although it certainly must have been a bit of a chore to cater to fans of the original series of movies while still drawing in a new, unfamiliar audience, credit Singer, as well as X2 screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, for getting us up to speed fully, while setting us up for more, and potentially better, Superman adventures in the future.   By removing the high camp of the original film sequels and adding new breadth to already well-known characters, Superman can now rejoin the ranks of the comic book hero elite, joining the Spider-Man and Batman franchises as la crème de la crème of superheroes, not only in the comic book world, but once again on the silver screen.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2006 Vince Leo