Superman Returns ***½
2006, PG-13, 154 mins.
Starring Brandon Routh (Clark Kent/Superman), Kate Bosworth (Lois Lane), Kevin Spacey (Lex Luthor), James Marsden (Richard White), Parker Posey (Kitty Kowalski), Frank Langella (Perry White), Sam Huntingdon (Jimmy Olsen), Eva Marie Saint (Ma Kent), Kal Penn (Stanford), Stephan Bender (Young Clark Kent), Tristian Lake Lebeau (Jason White) and Marlon Brando (Jor-El). Story by Bryan Singer, Dan Harris & Michael Dougherty. Written by Dan Harris & Michael Dougherty. Produced by Jon Peters, Bryan Singer, and Gilbert Adler. Directed by Bryan Singer. Based on the comic-book by Joel Schuster and Jerry Siegel.
The Man of Steel has evolved many incarnations in the entertainment industry, both film and television alike, each usually lending towards an individual interpretation, but one cannot argue that Richard Donner’s singular and brilliant vision of the legendary superhero archetype in 1978’s classic Superman: The Movie remains as close to the definitive interpretation of the character as there’s yet to come. So upon viewing Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, one can also not but tip the hat and shed much kudos to the 40 year-old filmmaker for realizing this. It takes great humility and Mr. Singer has put aside mere ego to make one of the most thrilling and satisfying movies in ages.
The film, unlike 2005’s stylish and ambitiously reinterpreted Batman Begins, is not a restart of the franchise nor a remake of Donner’s original. Instead it’s a loose continuation of Donner’s film and Richard Lester’s Superman II (and smartly so). It begins with Kal-El (Superman’s real name, but you knew that) returning to Earth after having inexplicably disappeared for five years.
Upon his arrival, Superman (played with stunning accuracy and poignancy by Brandon Routh, effortlessly emulating the late Christopher Reeve) uncovers that the world he once inhabited has altered significantly: the love of his life, Lois Lane (Bosworth, who portrays Lois as more adult and mature), has a child and is engaged to Richard White (Marsden, or ‘Cyclops’ from the X-Men films), a nephew of Daily Planet boss Perry White (Langella) who also helps co-manage the newspaper. She has written an article adeptly titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” (which earned her a Pulitzer) and is strongly hurt and emotionally conflicted upon Superman’s reemergence in her life.
Superman Returns is, above all things, a love story. But at its inner, deeper core lies an astoundingly sensitive and heart-wrenching character drama about alienation and fitting in into a world that you feel you don’t truly belong in. It speaks to everyone, the very thought of being an outsider, and the emotions that come with it. This Superman isn’t the Boy Scout of the Christopher Reeve films, but a hurt, but still hopeful, outsider with an undying sense of humanity. It makes the character all the most interesting, and furthermore all the more relatable. In the past Big Blue has been criticized (and perhaps rightfully so) of being too idealistic and cookie-cutter, but not here.
While Superman’s idealisms (“Does he still stand for truth, justice, all that stuff” asks curmudgeon Perry White) are still heartily intact, this is a different Superman; a Superman you can root for but simultaneously sympathize with.
It’s such an astonishing achievement that one cannot deny the brilliance of the film’s director, Bryan Singer, who has wrestled with such issues (albeit not to this extent, nor this magnitude) with his brilliant and genre-busting X-Men films. This is perhaps Singer’s most romantic, heartfelt and dramatic film yet. Whereas The Usual Suspects was more style over substance, and Apt Pupil was more good ideas over proper execution, Superman Returns is a mix-mash of all the right ingredients. It’s truly a memorable piece of film, equal to Donner’s first film and an impressive follow-up that doesn’t merely pay homage to Superman: The Movie but act as a bridge that builds upon a structure and formulates an even better final design.
But every good superhero is not without its equally good super villain, and Superman Returns supplies us with one in Lex Luthor. Inhabited this time by Singer’s Usual Suspects alumni Kevin Spacey, this Luthor is not the campy, scenery-chewing, mustache-twirling idiot of the first two Supermaninstallments. No, this Luthor, established in the very first scene, is a twisted and sadistic aging man with one thing on his mind: vengeance.
And that particular berserker rage stems from Luthor’s innate desire to exact punishment on The Man of Steel. And so he does, accompanied by dimwitted thug Stanford (a dialogue-less Kal Penn) and Luthor’s girlfriend Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey; yes, that Parker Posey in her second comic-book movie). While Luthor’s evil scheme is a duplicate of the Gene Hackman scheme from Superman: The Movie and has absolutely no logic, Spacey makes Luthor a convincingly conniving villain from start to finish.
The performances, all around the board, are fitted exactly for what the film demands. Brandon Routh makes an exceptional Superman, balancing the charming altruism of the caped wonder and the bumbling insecurity of Clark Kent with subtle, nuanced ease. Kate Bosworth adds surprising maturity to her performance, and given the fact of her young age, it solidifies her position as a growing, developing actress. The supporting roles are matched with comedic turns by Frank Langella as Perry White, lending the role a more experienced quality that jives with the character’s history.
Sam Huntingdon shines as the boisterous and lively Jimmy Olsen, and James Marsden crafts Richard White into a likeable, good-hearted character of substance; it also helps that the writing gives Marsden some meaty screen time (something he unfortunately wasn’t given in all three X-Menchapters) to formulate a character that fortunately doesn’t fit the archetypal jealous boyfriend of norm.
There are some noticeable ‘nitpicks’ in Superman Returns, as there are in any film. Predominantly, Singer heavily relies on a lot of Donner’s elements from the ’78 film (including John Williams’ musical leitmotifs, the opening credit design, and a lot of trivial homage’s to the first two flicks). While for me it didn’t really matter, as all of Singer’s included references aren’t substantially apparent to dissipate one’s enjoyment of the film, it does border on the unoriginal. Yes, this is a vague sequel but as faithful as Donner was to Superman, his film wasn’t the only interpretation to respectfully treat the character.
Others were more minuscule, including the pacing of the first 45-60 minutes (which feels a tad rushed and jarring) and the lack of utterly exciting action sequences, nitpicks still borderline on the mere quibble side. The film itself is an incredible achievement and one to be remembered for years to come. It adds depth to its genre, excitement to its action (at least the sequence in which Superman saves a crashing Boening 777 from imminent destruction) and credibility to its story. You believe these characters, you root for them, and you leave with the sense of acceptance yet hope. It doesn’t answer every question, but really, what film should? It leaves enough doors open to satisfy the imagination, and any person knows the better you leave the movie theater thinking, the better the movie probably was. Luckily for us, Superman Returns not only makes you think, but still allows you the option of flying up, up…and away.