The fourth Superman movie, 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, was so awful that the Man of Steel took a near 20-year hiatus from the big screen. He was relegated, instead, to some television shows and American Express commercials with Jerry Seinfeld. Warner Brothers has made some efforts to bring him back to cinemas over the years, with the likes of Tim Burton, Nicolas Cage, Kevin Smith and Brett Ratner all associated with doomed Supes projects.
Bryan Singer said goodbye to the X-Men franchise (his absence is felt in this summer’s so-so X-Men: The Last Stand) and hello to Superman, resulting in Superman Returns, a worthy addition to the character’s history. With this film, Singer asks us to forget Superman III and IV (Hey, I can do that!) and remember the greatness of the first two installments in the franchise. He retains the John Williams score and those cool swooshing opening credits. He even retains the now dead Marlon Brando, who makes a return as Superman’s daddy.
Honoring the mythos of those first films has resulted in the casting of Brandon Routh, a dead ringer for Christopher Reeve. While Routh’s resemblance to Reeve is uncanny (especially in the first shot of him as Clark Kent), he does plenty to distinguish himself worthy of inheriting the part. The guy was born to play Superman.
After the events of Superman II, Superman has left the planet to explore the outer reaches of the universe in search of his native Krypton. He returns to Earth after a five-year absence to discover Lois Lane has a child and a new boyfriend (James Marsden). Lex Luthor has managed to get himself released from prison (Superman, essentially the arresting officer, wasn’t around to testify), and he’s hatching some new schemes involving world domination and Kryptonite.
Stepping into the role of Lex Luthor is Kevin Spacey, maintaining some of the humor Gene Hackman brought to the role while injecting a lot more evil. This Luthor is far more sinister, continuing his quest for mass real estate by using Krypton crystals to create a new continent he can call his own. This is a Luthor who would rather stab Superman in the back with a Kryptonite dagger than hang a chunk of the stuff around his neck and drop him in a pool.
Singer jumps all over the chance to give Superman his due, and it’s evident on screen. The movie looks fantastic. It was beautifully shot by Newton Thomas Sigel (Three Kings) and consists of some nice set work, including a stunning Daily Planet rooftop. As with most big action films today, some of the CGI work is not up to snuff and looks a little fake, but not enough to really hurt the picture.
Kate Bosworth adequately replaces Margot Kidder as a frustrated Lois Lane, justifiably angry after her boyfriend took off without a trace for five years (Remember Margot Kidder’s strange morning food cravings in Superman II? Singer and friends do). Frank Langella is decent as Perry White, although he is no Jackie Cooper.
The standout action-set piece involves a space shuttle launch gone bad, where Superman must save two aircrafts at the same time (the shuttle and the plane it’s piggybacking on). It will probably stand as this summer’s best action sequence and could even take that crown for the year.
So, where does it rank in the pantheon of superhero films? Some small pacing problems and the aforementioned visual-effects quibbles keep it from being the best ever, but it is certainly in the top five. My personal ranking: 1) Batman Begins (Though some argue that Batman is not, technically, a superhero.) 2) Superman (1978) 3) Superman Returns 4) Spider-Man 2 and 5) Superman II. As you might be able to tell from that list, I’m a big Superman fan, and Superman Returns has made this fan very happy.