The following review begins with a spoiler. I’m not one to divulge such secrets about a movie, but I feel I cannot review Superman Returns without addressing this particular one.
Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns commits the deadliest of Superman sins amidst a torrent of outstanding visual effects. The mysticism surrounding Clark Kent’s transformation into the Man of Steel has always been open to debate, so too has his fortunate human appearance. But how, in all matters pertaining to logic and biology, can an alien being produce a child with a human? Imagine the ramifications if Jabba the Hutt had gone through with his secret plan and mated with Princess Leia aboard his sail barge. In fact, forget ramifications. Imagine the sin.
Superman Returns addresses this issue, but in a PG-13 sort of way. After all, Superman is a PG-13 hero. He always has been. It’s tough to take an American legend — one that’s revered not just by the general adult population but by children as well — and turn him into a salacious fiend. Singer, quite smartly, refuses to show us the good stuff. As the movie begins, we learn through text that Superman (Brandon Routh) has just returned from a mission to the remnants of his home world of Krypton. And then, some time later we discover that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a son and that the son’s father is none other than the great Superman himself. What was their sex like? Did Superman get tired after a while? It couldn’t have been very memorable if Lois and Superman are reduced to awkward small talk in this film. And what can this kid do? He can toss a piano pretty good. He can also stare a hole into your chest if he so desired, since staring and pointing is about all he ever does. But more importantly, what’s his DNA like? Is he more Lois, or more Superman? Is he aware of how blessed he is that his mum’s and dad’s DNA can actually coexist?
The other characters that compose Superman Returns don’t fare that much better. Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington), brash and spunky in the original movies, loses all his energy here, and shouldn’t attempt baking if his life depended on it. Lois Lane has never been a character of real consequence. Since time immemorial, she has existed to be saved by Superman. She’s an incompetent reporter and, in this film, an incompetent mother. She has a husband named Richard (James Marsden), who is a pilot. We can be sure that at some point he will fly head-first into that Hollywood cliché where a plane drops below the horizon and we think it’s doomed, and then at the last second it emerges from the depths, glorious and triumphant (is Richard aware that his son is not really his son?).
Then there’s Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) and his band of cronies, whose jobs could be performed by The Three Stooges. Spacey is a villain veteran. It’s the role easiest for him, and yet he overplays Lex and underplays him at the same time. A slight miscalculation. His inspiration no doubt is Gene Hackman, who played Lex in the earlier pictures, but he has none of Hackman’s charismatic joy. Lex becomes a chore for him, a slimy curmudgeon whose plans for world domination are still a priority despite his numerous failings. And what a hokey plan Superman Returns gives him. Like the first film, Lex wants to control real estate. He steals a Kryptonian crystal and uses it to create a giant land mass off the coast of New York (Metropolis!). The land looks like offcuts of a craggy mountain, and while Lex is dividing it among himself and his friends, I’m sure he must be thinking “Damn, I didn’t think it would look like this”.
Bryan Singer intended Superman Returns to be a spiritual successor to the earlier films of Richard Donner and Richard Lester, but he succeeds only in fashioning his star after the late Christopher Reeve. The mood of his film is sombre. It looks dreary even in the radiance of daylight. His characters seem aware of this gloomy world they inhabit, and reciprocate by being equally gloomy. Yes, there are spectacular effects sequences, as when Superman saves a plane from ruining a home run, but they are only effects sequences. Since the time of the first Reeve movie, Superman has been about as alluring as a flame to a moth, in that eventually the moth will die.
Best Moment | Superman repelling large rounds of ammunition on the roof of a bank, or him rescuing Lois and her family at the last second by lifting half a yacht into the air.
Worst Moment | The lacklustre climax.