Since the 1930s, Superman has stood for truth, justice and the American way. However, it was Christopher Reeve’s portrayal in 1978’s Superman: The Movie that firmly secured the Man of Steel’s place as a pop culture icon. Although the original film and 1981’s Superman II have become classics, the film series quickly lost steam as Superman retreated to television in series such as Superboy, Smallville and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Now, after nearly two decades away from the big screen, Superman Returns attempts to resurrect the franchise.
The film, starring newcomer Brandon Routh as the eponymous hero, acts as a loose sequel to Superman II. After five years searching for survivors from his home planet of Krypton, Superman returns to Metropolis to reclaim his place in the world as well as the heart of true love, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). Stunned to find that Lois is now engaged and has a young son, Superman soon confronts an even bigger problem, as self-proclaimed criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) devises a scheme to utilize Kryptonian technology in yet another attempt to gain control of the world’s real estate market.
Now in conventional theaters as well as a special 3D presentation exclusive to IMAX, Superman Returns makes a great effort to seamlessly match the style and story elements of the earlier films. Director Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2: X-Men United), an admirer of the original Richard Donner film, does all he can to connect the two films. In addition to casting an actor who clearly resembles Reeve, Singer employs the use of archive footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Superman’s father, in order to provide viewers with some sense of continuity. Repeated lines of dialogue and similar opening and closing sequences ensure that every chance to allude to the classic films is exploited. However, despite his best efforts, Singer – who dropped out of X-Men: The Last Stand for the chance to helm this project – fails to deliver a satisfying film.
The use of John Williams’ masterful theme music from the original film gives Superman Returns a strong start, but it quickly deteriorates into a mishmash of action set pieces and failed attempts at capturing on-screen chemistry. In fact, the entire production feels somewhat contrived. Like a broken record, the film is emotionally stagnant, content to simply reiterate the same points over and over again until the film’s climax suddenly arrives. The characters fail to change throughout the course of the film, and as a result, Superman Returns fails to fly.
Forced to deal with a weak script that places little emphasis on character relationships, the performances are all fairly wooden. Routh, while he certainly looks the part, lacks the charisma and presence needed to play Superman effectively, and Bosworth sleepily walks through the part of Lois Lane, failing to capture the spunk and tenacity of The Daily Planet’s esteemed reporter. The two of them have virtually no chemistry, and the film’s revelation regarding their relationship seems out of place and essentially dooms the series. Spacey infuses Lex Luthor with a darker side previously unseen in the films, but his best scenes are revealed in the trailers and subsequently lose their impact in the film.
Much of the plot, including Luthor’s grand scheme, lacks plausibility, even for a superhero film. Where X-Men: The Last Stand failed because it attempted to balance far too much story for 104 minutes, Superman Returns disappoints because its simplistic and bland plot does not warrant two and a half hours. The result is a film that feels overextended and never really delves into the personalities of any of its characters. The audience never truly comprehends their motivations, and the events that transpire seem overly staged, lacking any sense of natural wonder.
All in all, the film lacks the imagination and emotional resonance of other recent superhero films. The marketing hype would have audiences believe that Superman Returns continues the string of brilliant comic book epics such as Batman Begins and Spiderman 2, but in reality it cannot even surpass Donner’s film as a fun and engaging adventure. Superman Returns is not an awful film – merely a mediocre one – but after a 19-year hiatus, the Man of Steel deserved far better.
Running time: 154 mins.