It was a couple years ago that director Bryan Singer, who brought deep and enriching allegorical underpinnings to the X-Men franchise, abandoned that series to rescue Warner Bros.’ foundering attempts to rejuvenate the character of Superman. His long-awaited efforts finally take to the screen in the form of Superman Returns, a movie that swings heartily for the epochal fences.
Set after a five-year absence from Earth during which he’s
traveled to the destroyed remains of his home planet, the film finds Superman
(newcomer Brandon Routh) returning to Metropolis and comfortable margins of his
meek alter ego, newspaperman Clark Kent, where it seems only cub photographer
Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) has really noticed Clark’s absence. Superman’s
one-time love, hard-charging reporter
After Superman boldly announces his return with the theatrical rescue of a compromised shuttle launch, he sets about zipping to and fro and taking care of some of the little stuff — pettier crimes like bank heists, and averted natural disasters and the like. Unfortunately, former nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, playing the less-is-more card until he’s truly required to chew scenery) was paroled since Superman failed to show up to testify at his trial (!), and his discovery of Superman’s “Fortress of Solitude” and its intergalactic crystals has given him the idea of drowning existent coastlines and creating a super-continent, all to drive up property value. Naturally Superman, unlike The Big Lebowski’s Dude, will not abide.
Routh acquits himself nicely in the title role, even if his characterization is for the most part an earnestly square, more finely groomed imitation of Christopher Reeve’s work. As Lex Luthor, Spacey is granted one deliciously maniacal scene, but otherwise works in tones of (relatively) muted archness, leaving most of the best lines to cohort Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey), who begins to entertain doubts about her complicity in the plot after meeting Superman in a contrived rescue. The work of Bosworth, however, is much more problematic. A serviceable actress in the right parts, she comes across here as too far young and over her head, and has none of the edge or convincing aplomb of Margot Kidder’s iteration of the character.
One of the things that made last summer’s Batman Begins so interesting — even if its action-fueled finale was a case of sludgy backsliding — was the manner in which it answered origin questions big and small, but also used these details to drive the story forward in a fresh and organic way. Superman Returns, by contrast, has little of this type of innovation going for it. Even for audiences who haven’t fetishistically revisited Richard Donner’s 1978 original, significant portions of this movie may feel like a fevered reset of the character’s mythology, and not just because swatches of the late Marlon Brando’s narration as Superman’s father Jor-El are used herein.
Screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris — working from a story devised with Singer, their boss on X-Men 2 — have at the center of their movie a suitably thorny interpersonal hurdle in the form of Lois’ romantic entanglement and son, but the eventuality of this strand is fairly obvious from its introduction, and not just because Richard, apropos of nothing, awkwardly intones to Clark upon first meeting him, “No matter how close I get to her, that woman is always a mystery to me.” Trading in the same sort of elegance and high-stakes emotionalism that made his work on the X-Men franchise so enthralling, everything here seems stretched like taffy. When a big interpersonal reveal comes, we’re still more than an hour away from the finish line; when disaster for Metropolis is averted, 50 minutes; when Superman plummets to the ground in a moment of sacrificial grace and glory, 20 minutes.
The film, too, is hamstrung by a few nagging incongruities, whether it’s Clark seeing Lois off in a cab, immediately donning his Superman get-up and arriving at her home after her commute, or Lois taking Jason with her when she decides to snoop around Lex’s hideout, a massive boat. Brass tacks: the film feels less essential than either of the first two Spider-Man and X-Men films, and even Batman Begins. For all its flash, Superman Returns is a great deal too long — particularly its first hour, which could stand to be thoroughly collapsed — and it feels all the more so because it comes off “merely” as a state-of-the-art re-up for a new generation rather than a vital contextualization or rebirth of the character.
What somewhat saves Superman Returns, of course, is its often dazzling technical proficiency. When you see a movie of this ilk you want to see some great action scenes and feats of derring-do, and those promises are for the most part delivered upon. From Guy Hendrix Dyas’ superlative production design and the smoothly integrated airborne sequences to John Williams’ stirringly iconic theme and composer John Ottman’s fine work as well, the film never for a moment comes across as less than a top-notch affair. Singer, meanwhile, can craft quiet scenes as well as energetic action bits, but it’s only the movie’s highly touted bullet-to-the-eye sequence — probably the finest and most instantly classic single CGI shot since the original bullet-time work of The Matrix — that really sticks with you.
In the end, Superman Returns’ success relates somewhat to one’s level of expectation. Measured against the relatively high bars of other recent superhero fare, it feels uncomfortably familiar. For those looking for a slice of high-flying entertainment, however, it certainly suffices. (Warner Bros., PG-13, 156 mins.)