After two abysmal franchise-killers, two filmmakers tried in the mid-2000s to restore the luster to America’s two greatest superheroes.
One filmmaker’s re-launch raised the status of comic book films for a new generation with a dynamic take that raised the genre to another level. His film kicked off a trilogy that set box office records and was hailed as cinematic experiences transcending the label of merely being a “comic book movie.”
The other filmmaker decided on a safer approach that looked back at the former series’ high point while adding little to the mythos he so clearly admired.
It makes you wonder had Bryan Singer taken a similar approach as Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in establishing a Superman film that wasn’t so completely beholden to Richard Donner’s Superman and Superman II if 2013 wouldn’t have marked the finale of Singer’s Superman trilogy instead of yet another relaunch with the Man of Steel?
Singer’s direction comes across like a child playing with an adult gadget too afraid to hold it long for fear of breaking it. He lovingly coddles Donner’s material so much that he suffocates any life from his own film.
In a lot of ways this is the most disappointing of the five Superman films. Superman III has a shaky first half, but gets better and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is so laughably bad it’s almost entertaining. Superman Returns is just dull.
Singer re-teams with his X2 screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris to pick up from Superman II. Superman (Brandon Routh) left Earth five years ago (was his super speed off for five years?) after learning that Krypton may have somehow survived the planet-destroying cataclysm and returns to find Earth a different place than he remembers.
Lois Lane (a terribly miscast Kate Bosworth) won a Pulitzer for an anti-Superman article and has a five-year-old son, Jason (Tristan Leabu), and adoring fiancé, Richard (James Marsden).
Some things are still consistent though. Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) is still overly helpful and Perry White (Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon) still wants The Daily Planet to be the definitive voice for Metropolis news. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has a new real-estate scheme hatching courtesy of some stolen crystals from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.
Routh deserved a better Superman movie as he practically channels Christopher Reeve’s perfect take on the Superman/Clark Kent dynamic and him not getting another chance to play the character is the film’s biggest crime.
Langella and Huntington are solid replacements. Spacey tries, but his Luthor lacks the charm of Gene Hackman’s take and Spacey’s decision to play Luthor as more of a one-note ruthless villain doesn’t help.
The usually tremendous Parker Posey is disappointing as Luthor’s moody eye candy Kitty and Bosworth’s stuff performance can’t overcome the weak material to actually make Lois likeable. In the film, she’s portrayed as much of a bad guy as Luthor for simply moving on with her life.Superman practically stalks Lois and Jason with his X-ray vision, eavesdrops on her conversations and occasionally stops some low-level criminals.
Richard comes across as more of a hero than Superman because he’s just as willing to do whatever to protect his family without the benefit of super powers. Was it any wonder why audiences didn’t want to see a sequel to Singer’s Superman?
Technically, the film is decent. Singer has a nice take on Superman’s super-hearing and there’s a better sense of flight, but it doesn’t really mean much when the most exciting action scenes feature Superman catching a crashing space shuttle and taking a bullet in the eye.
Instead of finding some bold new direction to take Superman, Superman Returns feels like a re-run and at 154 minutes, it’s a very long and uneventful re-run that would have benefited greatly from Singer trusting his talent and assembling a Superman movie that attempted to soar beyond the heights previously achieved decades ago.