Last night I went to see Superman Returns by accident, sort of. (I went to see Cars but it wasn’t playing — curse you and your occasionally-inaccurate schedules, Yahoo! Movies!) Having slogged all the way out to the theater, and having expectations that I’d see this sooner or later, I bought a ticket to Bryan (“X-Men”) Singer’s attempt to revitalize the Superman mythos on the big screen. I am a fan of the comic book genre, so I had reasonably high hopes.
Be warned: There will likely be spoilers in here.
Superman Returns is not a bad movie. It’s also not a great movie. It’s more or less just a movie. (Hence the “meh” in my headline.) It becomes clear early on that this movie is set, sort of, in the same continuity as Superman: The Movie and Superman II (but, mercifully, not Superman III or IV). Mr. Singer wisely does not drag us through yet another telling of Superman’s origins, which almost anyone could recite for you.
So, what works? Kevin Spacy as Lex Luthor. Much like Gene Hackman’s portrayal of the supervillian, Mr. Spacey’s bad guy simply steals the show. He is the center of every scene he’s in, and his absence is felt in every scene in which he is not. He has both the cold selfishness and the sometimes-manic intensity down pat. Plus his plan — to create a new supercontinent using Kryptonian technology — is exactly the right kind of cartoon supervilliany needed. (It’s also a nice homage to the first Christopher Reeve movie, wherein Lex wanted to sink California so as to create beachfront property in Nevada.)
Jimmy Olsen and Perry White are both minor but excellent characters, fulfillling their standard roles much as they did in Lois & Clark. The special effects are, for the most part, excellent. I think Singer suffers here simply because we’ve seen it all before. There are no break-out spectacular graphics like in The Matrix. A couple of times, Superman (Brandon Routh) seems almost airbrushed, but it’s not the same effect as in A Scanner Darkly.
The bad? Well, the pacing is glacial. It takes forever to develop the plot, it takes forever to get Superman into action, and there is a long, drawn-out denoument that, in my opinion, neither goes anywhere nor solves anything. This is symbolized by a moment towards the end. Superman has received a fax(!) from Lois Lane and is racing out to sea to rescue her. Before reaching the yacht on which she is being held prisoner, Superman sees a seismic wave and zips back to Metropolis. As a relatively discerning viewer, I think I know what Mr. Singer is doing: Superman has to balance his commitments; the millions in the now-tectonically-threatened city outweigh his former girlfriend. Meanwhile Lois’ new beau can arrive in his convenient seaplane and save Lois and her young son, showing that we humans can do it, too, and that we’re all in this together. But really, for me, the moment just showed Superman as indecisive and wishy-washy.
Kate Bosworth is simply uninspiring as Lois Lane. She was trying to express all the contradictions wrapped up in the character — layered now by the fact that she has borne a son with Superman but doesn’t let anyone know who the father is. (And you should really read “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” to understand why that‘s a bad idea…) Ms. Bosworth doesn’t manage to make Lois’ emotional plight very compelling, however. She seems flat and almost adrift in the material.
To be fair to Mr. Singer and his crew, it would have taken a lot for me to love this movie. I think Superman is the least interesting of all the major superheroes. It’s hard to get invested in someone who is, by definition, the epitome of perfection. Although recent efforts have tried to make Superman “edgier”, they just can’t work because the character itself won’t allow it. Give me a brooding, borderline-psychotic Batman any day. Better still, give me a working-man’s hero, a poor schlub trying to make his way through a complex world without any real clue — give me Spiderman.