Superman Returns Review

(2.5 STARS)

It took 19 long years to get Superman back to the big screen after the epic awfulness that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Superman Returns, from director Bryan Singer, is the first in the series without Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, and while it has a number of problems, the most obvious is poor casting. An unknown, Brandon Routh, was brought on to play our hero, perhaps in an effort to mimic the casting of Christopher Reeve. Alas, lightning didn’t strike twice, and we’re left with a Superman (and a Lois…sorry, Kate Bosworth) who’s less than exciting. If the film around them was better, it might be easier to forgive their lack of screen presence. If they were better, it might be easier to forgive the film’s unimaginative, often nonsensical screenplay. But mediocrity, it seems, was the name of the game, and $200 million later, it was back to the drawing board, once again, for the Man of Steel.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In Superman Returns, the filmmakers smartly sidestep everything that happened in Superman III and IV, and we find ourselves at Ma Kent’s (Eva Marie Saint) farm in Smallville where something has just fallen from the sky. It’s her long-lost son, Clark (Routh), who, it seems, left Earth a number of years ago.

Once he’s back to full strength, he resumes his duties at The Daily Planet in Metropolis, but a lot has changed. Lois Lane (Bosworth) has a son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu), and a boyfriend, Richard (James Marsden), who she, for some reason, refuses to marry. A lot has changed for Superman’s arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), as well. Because the key witness (Superman) never showed up for Luthor’s hearing, he was released from prison. He ends up marrying an old, rich woman, and when she passes, he’s suddenly loaded. He travels to the Fortress of Solitude and swipes Superman’s crystals for a wicked plan that will kill millions and make him the most powerful man on Earth.

There’s nothing inherently awful about Superman Returns, which automatically makes it at least the third-best film in the franchise. But what does it do well? Luthor’s plot is ridiculously silly. The love triangle feels half-baked. Earth’s need for Superman is called into question more than once, but nothing ever comes of this.

Singer (fresh off two great X-Men films) directs the hell out of the Superman Returns, but everything is choreographed to death. The action sequences are soulless, and the film’s ending (really, its final 45 minutes) is ludicrous for so many reasons. The “Superman rules” that should be so cut and dry are rewritten on the fly as screenwriters Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, and Singer himself go out of their way to make Superman as fallible as possible. But this is Superman. Stuff isn’t heavy. He doesn’t get tired. And kryptonite is kind of a problem for him. As long as it serves the plot, however, these character details don’t much matter to Singer and crew.

The same goes for Lex Luthor, who, honestly, has never been a great character on film. Superman II was his shining hour because he was allowed to take a backseat to Zod, Ursa, and Non. Here, he’s the main villain again, and both his evil scheme and his motivations in general are murky at best. Early in the film, he remarks that it’s horribly selfish for Superman to horde his powers and not share his knowledge with the rest of planet Earth. Later, he wishes to kill Superman and millions of men, women, and children in order to make a buck. The two competing viewpoints don’t really click, and Kevin Spacey’s bland performance doesn’t help much.

In the blandness department, however, Spacey has nothing on Routh. As Clark, he doesn’t have half the charm Reeve did. As Superman, he’s just there. Bosworth, meanwhile, has a bit more spunk than her costar, but she never convinces you that she’s truly had her heart broken by the guy who up and left without notice five years ago.

The film features two standout scenes. One is a near plane crash which signals the official return of Superman. The other is a very romantic flight around Metropolis that Superman shares with Lois. Beyond these sequences, Superman Returns is an almost instantly forgettable exercise that was doomed to fail from the moment someone told Brandon Routh “You’re hired!”

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