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Review: Superman Returns (2006)

Superman Returns (2006)

Directed by: Bryan Singer

Premise: After being absent for five years, Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth to find that humanity has gotten along without him, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a son, and Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is planning another terrible scheme.

What Works: After the failure of 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace the series lay dormant for nearly two decades before it was resurrected with Superman Returns. This film has a novel approach in that it exists in continuity with the Christopher Reeve movies but ignores both Superman III and IV, playing as a direct sequel to Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie from 1978 and Richard Lester’s Superman II from 1980. In some ways the movie is similar to Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong in that the movie is a tribute by contemporary filmmakers to a picture that was important to them. Superman Returns includes lots of deliberate references to the first two movies as well as many familiar scenarios and bits of dialogue while also replicating the style of the opening title sequence and retaining John Williams’ Superman theme. The way in which director Bryan Singer and his crew successfully grafted a movie of 2006 onto a movie from 1980 is very impressive. It isn’t flawless but those who grew up watching the Christopher Reeve movies will find a lot of nostalgic joy in Superman Returns. That audience, who came of age in the late 1970s and early 80s, is apparently the intended viewership for Superman Returns and that explains the more pensive and dramatic approach that the movie takes. The previous Superman movies were very youthful in that they were romantic and idealistic. Superman Returns is a middle-aged superhero movie as the character collides with the realities of life and copes with disillusionment. Director Bryan Singer, along with screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, deserve credit for aiming higher than stunts and explosions and making a thoughtful film about Superman’s value as a symbol of American ideals. Aside from the nostalgic appeals and thematic strengths, Superman Returns benefits from some very good casting choices. Brandon Routh takes over the role of Superman and he is a good casting pick. Routh shares a great resemblance to Christopher Reeve and like Reeve he is able to do both the heroism of Superman and the comedy of Clark Kent equally well. Superman Returns casts Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor and Spacey brings a much more sinister dimension to this character than his other incarnations. Adding some comic relief is Parker Posey as Luthor’s assistant and Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olson. The filmmakers of Superman Returns should also be praised for the technical and aesthetic accomplishment of this movie. Superman Returns is, bar none, the best looking Superman film and like the 1978 picture it has that perfect tone of fantastical realism.

What Doesn’t: Although Superman Returns plays as a sequel to the first two movies, it actually borrows too much. The basic storyline, especially Lex Luthor’s plot, is lifted right out of the first movie. The allusions to earlier Superman movies, as well as to other Superman media, are fun but after a while it seems as though the movie is almost entirely made of cultural cross references instead of new material. This is a frequent problem for movies built on nostalgic appeal; everything in it is so familiar that the necessity of the new movie is called into question. Superman Returns’ heavy emphasis on its mature themes tends to drag the movie down. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that they’ve made a movie this thoughtful but viewers go to a Superman movie to experience the joy of all that Superman represents, including the thrill of heroism and the buzz of optimism. Superman Returns does not deliver that and so it potentially alienates a large chunk of the audience. But the filmmakers also come up short with their loftier goals. The middle-aged issues that Superman Returns deals with are not linked to Superman’s heroism. The action is disconnected from the main dramatic thrust of the movie and so the story alternates between action and drama but the consequences of one don’t impact the other and by the end very little is actually resolved. Superman Returns asks whether the world needs a savior but it never sufficiently answers that question.

DVD extras: The Blu-ray edition includes a documentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Superman Returns is an intelligent and beautifully made movie but it’s probably not the picture that moviegoers were looking for, especially those who were under the age of twenty-five as of 2006. Bryan Singer and his crew made a thoughtful movie, but it’s an incomplete thought and one that isn’t borne out in the action of the film.

Episode: #102 (July 2, 2006); Revised: #440 (June 23, 2013)