Maybe I just missed the boat where Superman is concerned, but to me, the character's appeal was not that he was a super-heroic alien visitor who posed as an average schmo when he wasn't on the clock. No, to me the appeal of Superman was that the guy is, essentially, a god. A god in red & blue tights who protected humanity because his beloved dad told him that we could be great beings, given half a chance. Well, it's a whole new millennium and apparently we need an all-new Superman: a noble, crime-hating god who longs and yearns and aches and pines ... for a cutesy little wisp of a woman who, frankly, doesn't seem to be worth all the trouble.
Yes, Superman Returns, and his two new ingredients are Emotional Baggage and CGI Wizardry. X-Men creator Bryan Singer and his go-to screenwriters, Dan Harris & Michael Dougherty, were given carte blanche and a blank check with which to create an all-new Superman adventure ... and while they do succeed, it's only in extended fits and starts. Just when you think the movie's about to burst out with some dazzling set piece or action sequence -- we're treated to yet another dose of semi-maudlin and rather ill-fitting touchy-feelyism. That's not to say that Superman Returns isn't necessarily worth the $9.00 ticket ... but after almost two decades in development, the movie promised to be more than a slick and silly Super Soaper.
Apparently we pick up five years after Superman 2, and we find that both Clark Kent and Superman have gone missing. The world has moved on without its Kryptonian super-savior, and that includes the heartbroken Lois Lane, who now has a cute little boy and a square-jawed boyfriend. Supes makes his return by way of an unexplained Kryptonian spaceship, crash-lands near his mom's farmhouse, enjoys a few wistful flashbacks, and promptly heads back to Metropolis.
(That nobody employed by the Daily Planet, including a certain Pulitzer Prize winner, never realizes "Hey, Clark Kent AND Superman have both been gone for exactly five years!" is only one of the nagging issues that manage to pull a viewer right out of the plot, but I'm digressing and nitpicking.)
Also back, not surprisingly, is alleged "master criminal" Lex Luthor, a guy who always seems to plan these huge, expensive, and elaborate crimes -- only he's still not smart enough to hire henchmen who aren't stupid, clumsy, and/or big softies at heart. Luthor's scheme this time around is as eye-poppingly cool as it is really, really dumb. Especially for a guy who claims to be such a supah-genius.
I honestly can't remember the last movie that tore me right down the middle like Superman Returns does. On one hand there are wonderful special effects, a few truly juicy performances, and an infusion of sincere emotion that manages to elevate the film beyond simple escapism. On the other hand we have a bunch of distressingly convoluted plot holes, several cute-yet-pointless in-jokes, and long stretches of indulgent yip-yap that'll have you reaching for your watch. The "good stuff" (and I don't just mean the action bits) is really good, but the "in-between stuff" is pretty damn dire.
The problem stems from too much reverence and not enough ingenuity. Singer and company are clearly smitten with the Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman 2 (1980), which means that every other scene is stuffed with sights and sounds "borrowed" from the earlier films. (John Williams' original Superscore is used to flawless effect early on, and then recycled ad nauseum.) Unfortunately, it seems that Singer has taken his inspirations and turned them into crutches. By leaning too heavily on the first two films, Superman Returns leaves itself open to a lot of second-guessing. If, for example, Clark, Lois, and Jimmy Olsen simply do not age, regardless of how many years go by, then fine. They're iconic comic characters and they're supposed to stay the same age, OK. How, then, does one address the addition of Lois' 5-year-old boy? The kid's certainly not going to stay 5 forever, right? And how is it that all the main characters now look ... younger? (I know it all sounds like geeky nitpickery, but you lay down your rules and you stick to them. Singer should certainly know this by now.)
Frankly, the notion of bringing a potentially "Super" kid into the equation is a misstep of astronomical proportions. From The Brady Bunch to The Mummy Returns, one lesson remains clear: The addition of a "cute little kid" pretty much reeks of screenwriter desperation. In lieu of a new story with new conflicts, we get a very familiar story ... with a brand-new 5-year-old acting as a plot device. Plus the entire "little boy" subplot is handled in an exceedingly confused fashion. Either he IS Superman's kid, which opens up a whole can of worms that, frankly, the film's not all that interested in addressing -- or he's NOT Superman's kid, in which case he's just a doe-eyed piece of extra luggage.
But, and here's where I'm torn -- perhaps I'm being a bit too tough on what is essentially a very handsome, very sincere, and extremely warm-hearted adventure flick. (Then again, the "adventure" stuff is frequently being interrupted by stuff that's not all that compelling, story-wise.) The performances are fairly strong across the board, with newcomer Brandon Routh doing a very serviceable Christopher Reeve impersonation and professional hambone Kevin Spacey chuckling his way through a colorfully villainous performance.
Lovely little Kate Bosworth does the best she can with the Lois Lane role, but the gal's about a decade too young to play a hard-nosed, no-nonsense Pulitzer-winner. Lois should be plucky and a little world-weary, not shiny like a prom queen. Peppered across the background are solid-yet-forgettable performances by Frank Langella (as Perry White), Sam Huntington (Jimmy Olsen), and Parker Posey (Lex's soft-headed sidekick Kitty Kowalski). If there's one standout in the supporting cast, it's James Marsden as Lois Lane's new beau. The character is actually one of the flick's most interesting, because he's allowed to provide a "normal Joe hero" counterpoint to Superguy's non-stop derring-do. (Plus Marsden could have easily played the guy as petulant and scheming, when in fact the character turns out quite brave and admirable.)
Superman Returns is by no means a bad movie, but when you stop to consider how many years its taken to get this flick to the screen, it's pretty alarming to realize that this is the absolute best they could deliver. Gorgeous to look at, appreciably warm and sincere, and boasting at least two really dazzling set-pieces, Superman Returns wants to be a throwback AND a modernization at the same time -- and while it does succeed at being both things, one suspects it could have been a brilliant film if Singer had just stuck with one or the other. Instead, Superman Returns is just a case of "good, sometimes very good, but definitely not great," which is kind of a small-yet-nagging disappointment, considering the talent and passion that went into the thing.