Available this week on video and DVD, Superman Returns wants to be an update of the hoary hero's long and familiar epic. It refers to the earlier movies, both directly and obliquely. Those old enough to remember not only Christopher Reeve (to whom, along with his wife, Dana, the film is dedicated) but George Reeves, the first TV Superman, will appreciate the allusions. Director and co-author Bryan Singer somewhat undercuts the tradition, even as he pays his respects. For instance, the editor of the Daily Planet connects our hero with "truth, justice, and"¦all that stuff."¯
That worthy, Perry White (played gruffly by Frank Langella), gives Clark Kent (Brandon Routhe) his job back after a five-year hiatus. See, Superman has been off searching unsuccessfully for his home planet, Krypton. In the meantime, lots has transpired. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has had a son (father unknown but heavy-handedly implied) and won a Pulitzer Prize for her editorial, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman."¯ This stretches our credulity a tad when she later asks her editor for some spelling help, but why quibble?
The article was sort of a follow-up to another Lois wrote: "I Spent the Night with Superman."¯ So one of the tensions in the story is between the two lovers, er, friends, er, colleagues. The other is between Superman and Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), who has somehow figured out the location of the Man of Steel's Arctic hideaway, stolen some powerful crystals, and figured out that he can create a new continent by chucking one into the ocean. (How he found this out is left to the imagination, but, again, we're in comic book land.) You might guess who wins this confrontation, which does involve kryptonite, though Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris manage to wring considerable tension"”and not a little humor!"”out of the Battle between Good and Evil.
Routhe makes a decent new hero, Bosworth is OK, if a bit overmatched. But Spacey makes one of the best villains imaginable. Lex loves wealth and power, sure, but he also likes opera and has a keen sense of irony. Most comic bad guys have less than one dimension, but Spacey gives Luthor at least two. He's a pleasure to watch, every minute.
Likewise, the special effects are up to New Millenium snuff. When Superman saves Lois from airplane crash, we get not only the standard screaming but passengers rolling around the fuselage and even experiencing brief weightlessness. Or, as they hover above the city, he asks Lois what she hears. She says she can't hear anything; he replies, "I hear everything."¯
And that's part of the problem, too. Instead of staying with the two plots, Singer et al keep him hastening off to foil bank robberies, car crashes, etc. This makes for some nice visuals and the odd bit of nostalgia, but it slows the film's pace. And at well over two hours' length, it needed more judicious editing, not additional eye candy.
There's lots to enjoy about Superman Returns, even if there's too much of it. Oh, yeah, there's a heckuva lot of Christian symbolism involved in this one, again to no advantage for the film's appeal. And there's some pretty sadistic violence that makes the "PG-13"¯ rating appropriate, along with a little innuendo that, again, the film didn't need.