Superman Returns (PG-13) ★★★

Review Date: September 15th, 2006

Is Superman still able to soar on the big screen? With some elegant direction from Bryan Singer, state-of-the-art special effects and a winning performance from the latest Man of Steel, Brandon Routh, the answer is a resounding yes. But little doses of kryptonite weaken the powerhouse film as well.


The original Superman films were the first superhero franchise to take its lead character’s emotional story as seriously as his amazing adventures--a tack the best of the comic book films have followed. Superman Returns wisely builds its two-tiered story around the hero a) journeying back to Metropolis after a five-year absence to try to find his place in a world that may have moved beyond the need for a super-powered savior and b) hoping to find a place in the heart of his former paramour Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who now has entanglements--namely a child and a fiancé--that even his mighty abilities may not be able to overcome. It’s a potent set-up. Of course, lurking around the corner, as always, is his ever-nefhavarious and even nastier nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), who plots to use a little piece of Superman’s birthplace Krypton to wreak havoc here on Earth. The film falters in this aspect, and there are almost too many references to the original Superman. Still, like its title character, the film’s powerful combo of spectacle and heart win the day in the end.


Sure, Brandon Routh won’t make you forget Christopher Reeve. Indeed, the casting of the look-a-like newcomer is clearly intended to evoke the iconic actor. His Superman is not as majestic and commanding as Reeve’s, nor is his Clark Kent as absurdly awkward--but these are good things. Both of Kal-El’s personas move closer to the center, and the end result makes for a more human and vulnerable hero. Bosworth is more effective as the conflicted Lois than expected, but her extreme youth and slight frame still make it difficult to buy her as a seasoned, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Nevertheless, she and Routh share a palpable, if not combustible, chemistry. As anticipated, Spacey unleashes unctuous charm and chilling menace in equal parts--but that’s not always a good thing. The threadbare Luthor plot consumes far more screen time than it merits, and too often Spacey resorts valiantly to filling up the screen with his personal pyrotechnics in the absence of strong scenes. Frank Langella provides punchy panache as Perry White and Eva Marie Saint is a soulful Ma Kent. Props in particular go out to James Marsden in the thankless role of Lois’ new love for providing a believably acceptable romantic alternative to the Man of Steel. But the usual sparkplug Parker Posey disappoints, going through the uninspired motions as Luthor’s moll Kitty, while Sam Huntington’s Jimmy Olsen grates rather than acts as supposed comic relief.


Nearly two decades after star Christopher Reeve and director Richard Donner made audience believe a man could fly, director Bryan Singer, as he did with the first two X-Men films, brings an elegant, emotion-tinged touch to the super-heroic proceedings. Things get off to a rocky start in the first half hour, which feels bloated, choppy and a touch directionless, as Singer and the screenwriters reveal surprisingly tin ears when it comes to what (barely) passes as comedy in the film. But then, with Superman in action and Lois wrestling with her feelings for him, there is strong stuff indeed, with the third act full of ripe, intriguing emotional beats that fortunately overpower the director’s distracting, over-reliant reverence for the Reeve-Donner films. While many of the nods to the original films work marvelously--the use of Marlon Brando footage, the Kryptonian production design and the original John Williams score among them--others feel like rote, even slavish attempts to recapture the original magic. The whole is less of a fully formed film, but Superman Returns is a great kick start to a potentially knockout new franchise, which ultimately leaves the audience, like the people of Metropolis when its greatest hero returns to the skies, brimming with hope.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.