Superman Returns (2006)

Superman Returns to Memory Lane
Review by Richard Pulfer
Grade: B+

Perfectly embodied by Christopher Reeves, “Superman” was the first film to make us believe we could step off the ground and fly. Then Batman happened, or more accurately, Tim Burton happened. Soon, less capable scribes got it into their heads that dark and dreary was fashionable, while anything bright and soaring was naive and punishable. Its taken decades for Superman to return full circle, and with his return, the optimism that has made him an American icon.

Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” begins after a five-year absence for the Man of Steel. Sometime after his battle with General Zod in the second film, Superman (Brandon Routh) leaves on a five year odyssey to find Krypton, or what’s left of it. He returns to find Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) now has a fiancee (James Marsden), a kid named Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu) and a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need A Superman”. Overwhelmed by these changes, Superman struggles to re-discover his place in Metropolis, while Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) plots his downfall using crystals stolen from the Fortress of Solitude.

After a host of celebrity hopefuls, Singer did the film a service by casting relative unknown Brandon Routh as Clark Kent. He doesn’t fill the cape in the way Christopher Reeves did, but he comes very close regardless. Reeves had the physique of linebacker, yet he could blend seamlessly into Clark Kent’s genuine insecurities. Routh lacks Reeves’ impressive physique, but he is able to mirror Kent’s vulnerability effortlessly. He also manages to bring something new to the mantle, able to look like both Clark Kent and Superman in the same scene. With Routh at the helm, its becomes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

“Superman Returns” has one of the most exciting ensemble casts of recent memory, comparable only to last year’s superhero flick “Batman Begins”. Kevin Spacey hams it up like the best of them, taking much from his predecessor, Gene Hackman. The result is the more traditional supervillain of yester-year, a colorful megalomaniac who is not without brutal tendencies and obsessive drive.

Bosworth’s Lois Lane seems more world-weary than Margot Kidder. Bosworth lacks the fiery tenacity and quick-witted banter of her predecessor, but she makes up for this with consistently emotional performances which anchor the audience to her character in several powerful scenes. Lois Lane has been analyzed as being both one of the first feminist characters and simultaneously one of the first true damsels in distress. Fortunately, this film answers the conflict with surprising, yet fitting, role reversal.

The rest of cast is also filled with solid performances. James Marsden’s Richard White provides an effective foil for Superman, with facial expressions which extol deeper, heart-felt reactions to Lois’ reactions to Superman’s return. Frank Langella plays Richard’s uncle, Daily Planet editor Perry White, and brings a touch of relevance to the gruff editor. Sam Huntington’s fresh-faced Jimmy Olsen provides an amusing source of exposition for the film, and also briefly appears a hilariously immature counterpart to Leabeu’s Jason White.

Two minor additions to the cast which bear mentioning are Parker Posey and Eva Marie Saint. Posey plays Luthor’s flighty assistant, and much like her predecessor in the first film, Posey’s character is ditzy, sarcastic, and ultimately, good-natured. Saint has a small role as Clark’s aged adoptive mother Martha Kent. Her lines are few, but her delivery provides a solid anchor throughout the entire film. Saint’s appearance is also crucial, as we can see her beauty even through the lines of age and a life of farm work.

Despite a consummate cast and a solid direction from Bryan Singer, there are more than a few flaws to be revealed in the film’s flight. While the 158 minute running time makes for time and admission price well-spent, not a lot happens in terms of development between the characters. An immediate crisis is faced with some extremely surprising results, and every major character undergoes serious developments, but virtually no resolution is made spanning the gulfs between the characters. Unlike “Spider-Man” and “Batman Begins”, there’s also no pressing urgency for a sequel, causing a pace which likely suffocates the attention span instead of exciting it.

The film also has a hard time deciding exactly where to go as far as perspective. One of the most priceless moments of the original “Superman” has to be when Superman emerges from a revolving door for the first time, and a bystander exclaims “Man, that is a bad outfit!”. Moments like this simply don’t occur in “Superman Returns”. The street presence isn’t so much absent as misdirected.
There is, however, a simple and priceless moment that does occur in “Superman Returns”. Clumsy Clark Kent collides with Lois in the office, scattering both the contents of her purse, and his glasses, onto the floor. For a moment, Clark hesitates picking up his glasses, clearly considering the implications of Lois knowing the truth about his identity.

Moments like this show a deep respect of the conventions of Superman, no matter how dated or trivial they might appear in the 21st Century. It is precisely this respect which earns “Superman Returns” a place beside its predecessors twenty years of fifty years past. Superman is not limited to one writer, one actor, one artist or even one era. Superman is an American icon who in principle has remained unchanged for over sixty years and may remain so for sixty more.