This attempt by director Bryan Singer to revive the Man of Steel for a new generation is honorable and often entertaining, but it falls short of BATMAN BEGINS, not to mention Singer’s own previous comic book adaptations, X-MEN and X-MEN UNITED. SUPERMAN RETURNS feels eager to please, and it frequently succeeds, but despite its best intentions, it seldom soars to the height of 1978’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. Perhaps the new film is too slavish to its predecessor; instead of standing on its own, it is the cinematic equivalent of a cover band, faithfully recreating the hits of yesteryear while adding little original of its own.
The set-up is that Superman (Brandon Routh) has been gone for years, on an interplanetary quest to find his dead home world, the planet Krypton. He returns to find Earth has moved on without him, particularly Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who is now a single mom in a relationship with Richard White (James Marsden), son of Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella). Superman’s embarks on a dual quest: to prove he is still relevant and to rekindle his relationship with Lois. The former proves relatively easy when Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), paroled from prison, embarks on a new scheme of villainy that involves trying to rob Superman of his powers. The later proves more difficult: What good are superpowers when it turns out that the new man in Lois’ life is a decent guy who treats her well and can be there for her in a way that Superman cannot?
The early portions of the film, reintroducing the familiar elements (Ma Kent in Smallville, the Daily Planet in Metropolis), are a bit too leisurely. The action finally kicks off when Clark Kent first dons the Superman outfit to save a 747 carrying a space shuttle on its back. A power outage (inadvertently caused by Luthor) has disabled the locking mechanism, and the shuttles rockets fire while it is still attached. Superman uses his heat vision to separate the two vehicles, and the shuttle speeds into space, but the badly damaged jet plane careens out of the sky. The special effects are astounding and the action puts the audience on the edge of their seat, because it’s a situation in which super strength may not be enough (even as Superman gets his hands on the wing, trying to stabilize the flight, the stress rips the wing off in his hands). It’s one of the greatest sequences in any Superman movie – or any comic book superhero movie, period.
Sadly, the rest of the film fails to live up to this sequence, perhaps because it feels slightly rehashed. Kevin Spacey has a lot of fun as Luthor, but too often the attempts at humor fall slightly flat, and his plot to rob Superman of his powers is too reminiscent of the action in SUPERMAN II. There is an interesting attempt to push the Man of Steel as a Christ figure (he sacrifices himself, then “resurrects,” his hospital bed found empty like the tomb on Easter morning), but the rest of the film does not carry the dramatic weight to make this ending resonate strongly enough. For example, the jokey ending, with Luthor and his female assistant (the amusing Parker Posey) stranded on an island, undercuts the attempt at serious drama – and it hardly seems an appropriate come-uppance for the criminal mastermind.
Brandon Routh turns out to be a more than adequate replacement for the late Christopher Reeve; he slips into the dual personas of Clark Kent and Superman with ease. Kate Bosworth is less successful, turning Lois Lane into a relatively anonymous presence who makes little impact on the screen. She simply seems too young to be a single mom who has built up years of resentment of Superman’s absence from her life.
Despite its failings SUPERMAN RETURNS remains mostly enjoyable, if a bit heavy-handed at times. The message seems to be that being a superhero can ruin your personal life – which is basically the same message we’ve been hearing from the X-MEN and SPIDER-MEN sequels. It’s nice that SUPERMAN RETURNS tries to recapture the human pathos of the first two SUPERMAN films starring Christopher Reeve, but it would have been even nicer if it had further advanced the story, instead of simply re-applying what worked before.
Footage of Marlon Brando, shot for but cut out of SUPERMAN II, was used in SUPERMAN RETURNS for the scenes of Superman speaking with his dead father Jor-El’s virtual image in the Fortress of Solitude.
SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006). Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris, story by Dougherty, Harris & Singer, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Cast: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Eva Marie Saint, Marlon Brando (archive footage).
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