Superman Returns (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
At the end of Superman II, the producers promised "Coming Soon: Superman III." It has taken 26 years for that promise to be fulfilled. To be sure, there were movies in the 1980s called Superman III and Superman IV, but those were bad jokes masquerading as motion pictures, unimaginative stories cashing in on a pay-day. These many years later, Bryan Singer has gotten it right. In fact, Superman Returns is not only a credit to the first two Superman movies; it may be the best of the series. Its combination of romance and fantasy adventure is unparalleled in superhero comic book-to-movie sagas.

What differentiates Superman Returns from the average superhero movie is its focus on the love story between Superman (Brandon Routh) and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). If you think Mary Jane and Peter Parker are star crossed, they've got nothing on this couple. Of course, the Lois/Superman pairing has never been simple. Clark Kent has always been lurking around. Now, there are further complications. With Superman having been away from Earth for the better part of a half-decade, Lois has moved on in a big way. She has a son, Jason (Tristan Leabu), and a boyfriend, Richard (James Marsden), although she resolutely refuses to marry him. Maybe it has something to do with the man of her dreams. Some may not appreciate the amount of screen time devoted to these characters and their romantic interaction but, for me, it provides balance. Suddenly, Superman Returns has more to offer than a megalomaniac seeking world dominion -although it has that as well.

When last we saw Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), he was played by Gene Hackman and was off to prison. So, like Superman, he has been out of the spotlight for a while. He's "yesterday's news." Once free, however, he is more determined than ever to make his mark on the face of the globe. He visits Superman's Fortress of Solitude and pilfers all the crystals. With these, he intends to create a new continent and destroy a few of the old ones in the process. Superman, newly returned from a futile outer space search for other survivors from Krypton, will (of course) oppose his old nemesis, but this time Luthor is ready for him. Revenge is a dish served cold, with Kryptonite icing. Superman's return to once again aid mankind may be short-lived.

Gone are Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, and Gene Hackman. It's a credit to their replacements that they're not missed, at least within the context of the film. Brandon Routh channels his predecessor, although his version of Clark is a little less gawky. Kate Bosworth provides an altogether different take on Lois - a sexier, more modern view. She's prettier than Kidder, and there's more chemistry in her scenes with her co-star. Kevin Spacey's Luthor is cut from the same mold as Hackman's, except he's more cruel and less flippant. He has his share of one-liners but, when it comes down to it, he doesn't waste time with drawn-out monologues. That's when he's at his most brutal.

There are no miscasts to be found in the supporting cast, either. Parker Posey's Kitty fills the function of Miss Teschmacher - Luthor's female stooge who has a soft spot for the Man of Steel. James Marsden, following director Bryan Singer to Metropolis from Professor X's school, has the tricky role of playing the foil in Lois and Superman's romance without coming across as a jerk. Richard is a nice guy. Eva Marie Saint plays Clark's Earth mother, who gets to find her son and almost lose him again. The only returning cast member from the original Superman is Marlon Brando, with archival footage recreating his limited part as Jor-El, Superman's biological father.

For those who go to superhero movies for the action, rest assured there's plenty of that. While the extended climactic sequence is the movie's longest and most involved, I was partial to the rescue of a space shuttle and airplane, which heralds the Man of Steel's return to his adopted planet. It's a great moment, filled with tension, and topped off with top-notch special effects. Visually, Superman Returns offers the kind of upgrade one would expect after a quarter century layoff. This time, you really believe a man can fly.

Composer John Ottman puts his ego aside and gives John Williams' original music plenty of play. Singer provides us with a blast from the past with opening credits. Not only is the music 100% Williams, but the lettering nearly replicates that which was used in Superman and Superman II. There are other unobtrusive homages to the first two films, from Lois' spelling faux pas to Luthor's love of maps. Singer may not be a fan of the Superman comic books, but his affection for and knowledge of what Richard Donner brought to the screen is evident.

Superman Returns clocks in at a fat 157 minutes, but I hardly noticed the passage of time. The movie had me enthralled from opening to closing. One could easily argue that Singer used his time in the X-Men universe as an opportunity to hone his superhero movie skills. Superman Returns is near the top - if not at the top - of the superhero movie pile. It offers nearly everything: romance, action, humor, and plenty of goose bumps. For Superman, many happy returns.

Superman Returns (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 2:37
U.S. Release Date: 2006-06-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1