I must concede from the get-go that I think Superman may be the least cool superhero ever. His story has never grabbed me the way Batman or Wolverine do, not to mention the whole “all-powerful unless too close to a rock” thing never ceases to annoy me. For that reason alone “Superman Returns” was not a profound disappointment for me. It was just a normal sized disappointment.
One of my first thoughts after watching “Superman Returns” was to be even more frustrated and confused with director Bryan Singer. I was blown away by Singer’s choice to bail from his position as eminent captain of the bushel full of bad-asses over at the X-Men franchise and take on the lame horse that is Superman. As a result though, I really did expect that Singer had something new to say with the character of Superman. Singer has proven himself an extraordinary director with steady vision. The first two “X-Men” films are phenomenal and my picks for best comic hero movie adaptations to date. To leave a legacy like X-Men before completing the trilogy, I believed he must have had something far more spectacular up his sleeve.
“X3” director Brett Ratner did a fine job preserving what Singer started with the X-Men franchise and if he had directed “Superman Returns” I’m positive I wouldn’t be as apt to swing the heavy hammer in my critique of the film. But we aren’t dealing with a lesser director here, this is Bryan Singer, and I absolutely think we should expect more from the Bryan Singers and the Peter Jacksons than we do of hungry young directors without modern classics under their belts.
The up-to-date CGI in “Superman Returns” is the most obvious improvement on the previous big-screen Superman outings. Singer knows action as well as anyone in Hollywood and makes the most of the bag of tricks at his disposal. This is by far the best Superman we have seen from a visual only standpoint. Take out all the dialogue and you would be left with an entertaining thrill-ride of incredible action sequences. This is most evident in a gripping scene where Superman guides an out of control airplane to a gentle stop in the middle of a major-league baseball stadium.
Despite my high-hopes for Singer’s secret new twists, “Superman Returns” is chalked full of retreaded material. Although the story takes place five years after “Superman II,” we have already seen most of the action and circumstances in “Returns” in the earlier movies and various television incarnations. Back to haunt the credibility of the piece are several totally unnecessary origin story moments and the inexcusable Clark Kent alter ego, which even as a child I found hokey – glasses and the inability to find a sentence does not a disguise make. Throughout the course of the film, as we have many times before, we watch Superman lose his powers, Clark Kent pine transparently for Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) and Lex Luthor’s lady friend (Parker Posey) show some teeth at the beginning but suddenly turn cuddly just in time to help out Luthor’s (Kevin Spacey) mortal enemy. Lex, you’ve gotta start hanging out with ladies with an ounce of conviction.
The only things that have changed in five years while Superman was away searching the universe for remnants of his home-world, are that Lois Lane has a steady boyfriend (James Marsden) and a child and she has just won a Pulitzer Prize for an article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” “Superman Returns” suffers from a similar poor casting choice that brought Katie Holmes to “Batman Returns.” Both Holmes and Bosworth seem less than age appropriate and lack the gravitas of an older more commanding presence…who doesn’t look like a teenager. Someone like Jennifer Aniston or Rachel McAdams could have made the familiar interactions between Lois and Clark/Superman more authentic.
Newcomer and first-time Superman Brandon Routh does an admirable job impersonating his predecessor Christopher Reeve. His boyish good-looks could have scored him a gig on daytime TV, but this turn as the Man of Steel will surely lead to better work. Kevin Spacey is also in the business of impressions here, doing a bang-up Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor with the occasional Keyser Soze thrown in for good measure. “X-Men” alum James Marsden (Cyclops) is the movie’s only acting standout as well as being the only new principle character in the storyline, as Lois Lane’s fiancé Richard White.
Superman Returns” hints at broader adult themes, at times showing Superman to be a home-wrecking peeping-tom, but the Superman character itself and the movie are definitely geared for kids. Ask George Lucas about how the combination of adult themes and movies made for kids works out. As is the case of the first two “Star Wars” prequels -they may make a great deal of money, but they don’t make good films. Movies like “Spider-man” and the Harry Potter series seem more focused and put the audience, the characters and the thematic center all in the same space.
“In the end, “Superman Returns” and that’s about it. He’s back with all the same tricks, the same paper-thin plots, the same shortcomings and the same cronies from previous encounters. If that sounds appealing to you, then by all means hurry to the theater. For the rest of us who will have to see Brandon Routh’s super-mug on Wheaties boxes and Dixie Cups for the remainder of the year (the merchandising onslaught is coming our way regardless), it’s a real shame “Superman Returns” isn’t a better film.