Last year, it was Batman’s turn to be resurrected from the movie franchise dead. This year, it is the Man of Steel. Superman Returns, the much-anticipated fantasy epic from X-Men director Bryan Singer, picks up several years after the events of 1980s Superman II (Singer has wisely chosen to ignore the atrocious 1983 and 1987 installments). Superman (Brandon Routh) has left Earth behind and headed off into deep space to try and find what astronomers have claimed to be the remains of his home planet, Krypton.
While he’s been away, crime has been on the rise, the world’s troubles have not subsided and everyone has moved on without him. This includes Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), the love of Superman’s life, who has turned her pain into a Pulitzer-Prize winning article entitled “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman”. She also got engaged to Richard White (James Marsden), Daily Planet editor Perry White’s (Frank Langella) nephew, and is mother to a five-year boy, Jason (Tristan Leabu).
Now Superman is back and, for the sake of the planet, he’s returned not a moment too soon. His old nemesis, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), has been sprung from prison on a technicality (Superman failed to show up at Luthor’s trial to testify against him) and is now looking to use Krypton’s technology to launch another global threat and finish Superman off once and for all.
Superman returning to a different civilization is somewhat similar to the Superman film series returning to a radically altered film climate. Movie viewers today are far more cynical and demanding than they were back in the late 1970s and 80s, and the Man of Steel is also coming back to a genre no longer populated by foursquare protagonists. These days, if your hero doesn’t have some deep, dark moral and psychological issues to deal with while pounding the crap out of the bad guys, then you’d better stick to the funny pages and stay out of the cinema.
Do moviegoers need another Superman movie? With Bryan Singer leading a solid cast and crew, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Singer has wisely brought along many of his fellow X-Men collaborators to this project, including X2 writing team Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel and editor and music composer John Ottman, resulting in a film similar to his two accomplished Mutant sagas: an action extravaganza that has plenty of room for spectacle, emotion, heart and drama.
The richest aspects of the aforementioned trio lie not in plot mechanics, such as Lex’s Big Scheme (for me the weakest part of the screenplay), but in the relationship between Lois and Superman. For a being such as Superman, getting an entire planet to welcome you back should be easy – but getting the same from the love of your life is another matter altogether. The focus on loneliness and alienation is where the filmmakers succeed in getting the viewer to empathise with the Man of Steel’s internal struggle.
Given the impression that the late Christopher Reeve left on the role of Clark Kent and Superman, newcomer Brandon Routh acquits himself rather well. He may not have the comic agility or assertiveness that Reeve had when he played the role, but who working in Hollywood today does? The young actor does a nice job balancing Superman’s heroics and heartbreak, evoking the spirit of Reeve without turning his performance into a full-on impersonation.
Bosworth is also quite good as Lois, even if she lacks the edge (and is way too young to be the mother of a five-year old boy) that Margot Kidder had. Spacey is great fun as Luthor, displaying a fine balance of menace and comic timing with Parker Posey, who plays Lex’s girlfriend Kitty. Frank Langella makes for a credible Perry White, although his screen time is limited, while James Marsden is merely adequate as Richard. And yes, the late Marlon Brando does appear for a few moments in the beginning as Jor-El, but it’s not as big of an event as the studios have made it out to be.
Is Superman Returns as successful a franchise revival as last year’s Batman Begins? No. Had it been trimmed down a bit, I might have said otherwise. But is it a successful relaunch of a film series that many considered finished 26 years ago? Absolutely. In a summer of waterlogged remakes, mediocre mutants, evil albino monks and Tom Cruise, Superman Returns flies high.