I'll openly admit that I'm a total fanboy when it comes to Superman,
but it's for that reason that I dreaded the release of this film. It
was too long in the planning, there were too many fingers in the pie
during its making, and how can you trust any filmmakers who once
considered Nic Cage for the lead role? And who okayed that awful
redesign of Superman's costume? Things did not bode well for the return
of the greatest of all superheroes, leading me to fear another waste of
celluloid on par with CATWOMAN or THE FANTASTIC FOUR.
I've never been so delighted to be so wrong. SUPERMAN RETURNS is not only a great Superman film, it is totally respectful to the legend and the characters, even as it explores both at a deeper level. Director Bryan Singer has received the credit for the inspired notion to create a sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve-Superman films, while pretending as if parts III and IV never existed. Taking this approach eliminates the need for yet another retelling of Superman's origins, while providing a context of established characters that can be fleshed out to a greater degree. It's not a perfect film by any means (see below), but the overall excellence of the final product reduces even a few major continuity problems to the level of nit-picks.
We know we are back in happily familiar territory as the film opens with John Williams' classic theme, played over "whooshing" credits in the style of the Reeve films. The territory becomes even more familiar in that, in many ways, SUPERMAN RETURNS is something of a remake of the original Donner film, with a very similar storyline and several parallel scenes. We learn that the Man of Steel has been missing from Earth for five years as he explored the remains of the planet Krypton (an acceptable premise, I suppose, but couldn't they have given him a better rationale than "I just had to check it out for myself"?). The first chapter of the film again take place on the Kent farm, and once again Supes announces his arrival by crashing into the Earth at the end of his voyage from his home planet. Clark/Superman reminisces about his boyhood in flashback scenes that show him discovering his super powers as he races and leaps through the cornfields at lightning speed. His first encounter with Lois Lane again has him saving her (and several others this time) from a doomed aircraft. Lex Luthor's evil plan for world domination is also much the same as in the first film: to destroy a large portion of the United States, create his own artificial land mass in its place, and make a killing from the real estate. Part of his plan again involves the theft of Kryptonite, which he hopes will render Superman powerless as his scheme unfolds. Luthor is assisted by a bubble-headed moll in the manner of Miss Tessmacher, and again it's she who helps thwart his evil intentions in the end. There is also the moment when Superman re-enters Lois's life by quietly appearing on her balcony with the words, "You know, you really shouldn't smoke, Miss Lane." This is followed by a romantic flight over Metropolis that is more breathtaking, and filled with more unspoken passion, than the similar scene in the first film. Yet despite such recycling of material, there is enough room for originality, and enough respect for the legend, so that such parallels come off more as homage than ripoff.
Of all the parallel elements between films, however, it is the allegorical subtext that is most fully explored. If Donner's film had Biblical overtones, Singer's is practically a retelling of the New Testament. The Father sends the Son to Earth to redeem mankind; the Son is torn between his human desires and his sacred duty; he is killed (or rendered comatose, as the case may be) by his enemies, only to be resurrected in the film's closing scenes, in which Lois plays Mary Magdalene just before he's discovered missing from his hospital room "tomb." Supes is also beaten and pummeled by Luthor's minions after being rendered helpless by Kryptonite, and he's even pierced in the side with a Kryptonite "spear." There is also the matter of Lois's "redemption," in which the convictions revealed in her Pulitzer Prize-winning article "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman" (no doubt a manifestation of her own heartbreak, written during Superman's five-year absence) reverse themselves by the end of the film as she comes to appreciate the necessity of a world (and personal) Savior. As if all of this weren't obvious enough, there is the sight of Superman falling back to Earth in a crucifixion pose after a final act of heroism that nearly kills him.
In addition to such symbolism, SUPERMAN RETURNS benefits from a well-developed examination of the Superman-Lois relationship. Never before have the two characters been afforded such dimension and nobility, never was their unspoken love for one another so charged with visceral passion. Just before Supes takes her for their flight over the city, Lois kicks off her shoes and puts her arms around him for the first time in five years. "I'd forgotten how warm you are," she mutters awkwardly in what is perhaps the most romantic moment in the entire Superman canon, rendered all the more powerful and electric by its understatement. In a film loaded with action sequences and CGI effects, it's the small moments such as these that linger in the mind for days. (And for all the magnificently rendered effects, it is the five-second bit when a Metropolis city street subtly morphs into Lois's apartment that impressed me most.)
Despite the film's many virtues, the main thing that keeps me from awarding it a full five stars is the cast. Not that anyone comes off poorly or less than credible--they're all good actors who do well in their roles. It's that most of them fail to leave their individual mark on the characters, in the manner of past Superman incarnations. Brandon Routh makes for a fine and commanding Man of Steel, but comes up short in comparison to Chris Reeve's brilliant portrayal. (To be fair, Routh is afforded surprisingly little dialogue and therefore has little chance to strut his acting chops. He conveys a great deal with his expressive face, however, and he's superb in that respect.) Kevin Spacey (who, with shaved head, bears an uncanny resemblance to Gene Hackman) is the most menacing and evil incarnation of Lex Luthor, but he seems reserved throughout. He mostly (but not entirely) avoids the temptation to ham it up and play it for laughs, which could have been a wise acting choice, but he also fails to milk the serious side of the character for all its worth. He gets the job done, but that's about it. My personal favorite among the cast was Kate Bosworth, who rivals Teri Hatcher as the most beautiful Lois Lane and Margot Kidder as the toughest. Yet there is also a delicate vulnerability to her portrayal, a sensitive side that she does her damnedest to keep hidden--but, as with Routh, it's her face that tells the true story.
Also problematic are a few plot holes and continuity problems, some unique to the film and others that contradict elements of the Donner/Lester films. I can't go into much detail about any of this without revealing some major spoilers, but I'll try to be oblique about the one that bugged me the most. If Superman's Magical Memory-Wiping Kiss at the end of Part II was truly effective, then Lois must be totally confounded by a major event in her life that occurred during his five-year absence. Those who've seen the film will know what I mean.
But again, these are all minor flaws in the grand scheme of things. SUPERMAN RETURNS is an enthralling and engrossing experience from start to finish and seems much shorter than its 157-minute running time. It may well be the best of all superhero films (but give me a few years before I make a final decision on that matter). It delivers all the goods expected in such films--action, thrills, laughs, and romance--and it never cheats in terms of character and subtext. It's my theory that the disappointing box-office returns during the film's opening weeks are largely due to poor word-of-mouth from filmgoers weaned on eye-candy summer blockbusters that demand little intellectual involvement. But I predict that the depth of SUPERMAN RETURNS is what will render it an enduring classic in years to come. - JL
SUPERMAN RETURNS is a much better movie than I expected it to be and is
certainly closer to the spirit of the first two Christopher Reeve
Superman films than were the dismal third and fourth (films wisely
ignored by this sequel). As another Superman fanboy, I can
guarantee that this DVD will someday be sitting on my shelf, next to
SUPERMAN, SUPERMAN II and my Lois and Clark collection. A
deal of silly, dark and downright stupid re-imaginings of the Superman
story went by the boards in the past two decades before everybody
realized what should have been obvious - you don't tug on Superman's
cape. We've got enough dark, jaded and angst-filled fantasy
figures these days; there is no reason to turn Superman, the ultimate
Mr. Nice Guy, into one of them. So Brian Singer and company
played it straight. SUPERMAN RETURNS is less wondrous than
average Harry Potter film, lacks the psychological depth of some other
recent superhero films, and could use a little of of the screwball
humor of the Richard Donner and Dick Lester films, but as an earnest,
heartfelt and intelligent retelling of the Second Greatest Story Ever
Told, SUPERMAN RETURNS works just fine.
Brandon Routh may have based his performance on Christopher Reeve's interpretation of the character, but it is not a slavish imitation and he puts enough of himself into the character to make me think that, should they make a sequel, he will grow into the role. If he is a tad too young, so be it - it just gives him more time and room to evolve. He has a way to go to reach the level of Christopher Reeve's Superman or Dean Cain's Clark Kent, but Routh makes for a a strong, silent Superman with an almost diffident attitude that is as appealing.
Kate Bosworth may also grow into her role, but her age is more of a problem. Bosworth, lovely as she is, is too young to be a completely believable Lois Lane. It wouldn't matter at all if this were a reboot of the legend, but it is not - it is a continuation of the Reeve series. The story is supposed to take place five years after SUPERMAN II, but Bosworth looks as if five years ago, she would have been worrying who was going to take her to her high school's Sophomore Fling. She may capture Lane's toughness and vulnerability, but lacks the sassiness that Noel Neill brought to role, Margot Kidder expanded upon and Teri Hatcher turned into a personal art form. Nevertheless, if we consider this as the first entry of a new Superman series, Bosworth may yet prove herself worthy to be included in that above-mentioned club (a club which would also include the icy but sexy Phyllis Coates).
Unfortunately, what John L says about the rest of the cast is true. When cameos by a previous Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen team and a dead Marlon Brando are more memorable than the work of half the cast, that is a problem. We're talking classic iconic characters here - Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, Perry White - and everybody seems to walk around on eggshells attempting not to step on the toes of the actors that previously filled these roles. As Jimmy Olsen, Sam Huntington has the easiest time (Jimmy is not that much of a character) and comes up with the bubbliest performance. Otherwise, there is no sense of fun in the cast. I expected a much more memorable Lex Luthor from the usually super Kevin Spacey. I've read reviews that extol Spacey's excellence, but what I see is a guy who is afraid to be compared to Gene Hackman and so refuses to punch up any of his lines, even the funny ones. Parker Posey, as Luthor's moll Kitty, tries her best to bring her part alive but Spacey gives her almost nothing to work with. And Frank Langella, as Perry White, could have learned something from Jackie Cooper or Lane Smith - it's not what you say, it's how you say it. Perry White is the one part that indisputably needs over the top energy, and Langella sleepwalks through it. With more energetic performances, SUPERMAN RETURN would be equal to or even better than the two films it sequelizes. As it is, it just falls short. There is a saying in baseball: Babe Ruth is dead, throw strikes. Here is my suggestion to the cast of SUPERMAN RETURNS: We all loved Christopher Reeve, but he's gone and the Superman legend is in your hands, at least for now. Next time, stop worrying and just go out and have a ball. ½ - JB
ADDENDUM : Since I wrote this review, the Powers That Be have been talking about the Superman franchise needs another reboot, and a "darker" one at that. Sigh. What we need is a fun film, with this cast, not THE DARK TIGHTS.
Also: Upon rewatching SUPERMAN RETURNS several years after first reviewing it, I find it is much easier to like without the false expectations of a first viewing. It still lacks a sense of fun, but I think that is more director Bryan Singer's choice and not really the fault of the actors. Also, as a guy who is always wary of CGI effects because of how many times they've let me down, I have to say that the effects in this film are outstanding. Hardly a false note in the entire film. Bravo!
THIS IS THE
STORY OF JACK AND NOEL
Noel Neill, who has a small but important role in SUPERMAN RETURNS and is the first person we see on screen in the film, played Lois Lane in the 1940s movie serial version of SUPERMAN (starring Kirk Allyn) and on TV's The Adventures of Superman (starring George Reeves). She also played Lois Lane's mother in the first Christopher Reeve film and appeared in one episode of the short-lived series Superboy.
Jack Larson, who plays Bo the Bartender in SUPERMAN RETURNS, played Jimmy Olsen in The Adventures of Superman and a rapidly aging Jimmy Olsen in an episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. He also appeared in Superboy, in the same episode as Noel Neill.