I will just come out and say it: I was not a big fan of the original "Superman" movies. No, I'm not just talking about the two latter sequels, but rather the original two. That's not to say I don't enjoy them, but I intend to prefer serious and the original "Superman" films were anything but. Christopher Reeves was a good Superman, but Margot Kidder as Lois Lane was one of the worst casting decisions ever. Annoying and not at all attractive, she was a screeching bother throughout the films. On top of that, the movies were a tad too goofy for me - and when you think about the scene where Superman somehow manages to reverse the rotation of the Earth to reverse time... well, I turn it off at about that point (yes, so I can pretend Margot Kidder died in the earthquake).
So, it was with bated breath that I entered the theater to watch "Superman Returns," which through interviews Bryan Singer had said was a faithful sequel to "Superman II." Would "Superman Returns" be just as goofy and lack the hardcore excitement that comic book fans have come to expect from such films as "X-Men" and "Batman Begins?"
Thankfully, "Superman Returns" is a near masterpiece. It isn't perfect, but it is one of the few films I have watched this year that has kept me on the edge of my seat, even when there's no action, and wishing that the film would never end. Few films truly have me craving more, but this latest rendition of "Superman" is one of them.
The story picks up at some point after "Superman II," and immediately tells us that astronomers located the planet of Krypton and Superman left Earth to go looking for his homeworld. Five years later, Earth has gone on without him - or Clark Kent. The return of Clark is met with excitement only by young Jimmy Olsen, while Clark is looking for the attention of his abandoned and secret love Lois Lane. But Lois has moved on - she is engaged and has a son. She has won a Pulitzer for a story called "Why the world doesn't need Superman," even though she still loves the colorful alien. And then there is Lex Luthor, who has discovered Superman's Fortress of Solitude and has figured out a way to use Krypton's alien technology to kill billions of people on the planet.
Brandon Routh takes over the difficult role of Superman, not difficult because of the demands of the acting but because he follows the late Christopher Reeves, who to most will always be Superman. Amazingly, Routh looks, sounds and acts like Reeves, which serves as a perfect hand-off of capes, and yet brings a new level of intensity to the role. Is Routh spectacular in the role? No, not really, but he is pretty good, and that is more than anyone could ask for.
Kevin Spacey plays Superman's arch nemesis, and, to tread on even more toes, I must say that he blows the original Lex Luthor, Gene Hackman, out of the water. Hackman was good, but again his version was always too comical for my liking. I always viewed Luthor as the perfect, intelligent, evil man, and Hackman's Luthor was as clumsy and cowardly as he was diabolical. Spacey, staying in line with the character, still brings a dry sarcasm to the role, but the goofiness is toned down in a way that makes his humor almost creepy.
Stealing the show, however, is Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. Absolutely beautiful no matter what her hair color, she is the most charismatic and three dimensional character of the bunch. She seems to run circles even around Spacey, and is fully devoted to the role.
James Marsden, who played Cyclops in the three "X-Men" movies, also delivers a surprisingly good performance in a supporting role. I've never been a huge fan, but he works well here.
Okay, so who cares about the acting when there is so much more to talk about? Let's focus on Bryan Singer, the man who reinvented the comic book genre with the first two "X-Men" movies. He is a man who knows how to do comic book flicks, and he works his magic here. He manages to maintain a high level of suspense, excitement and drama throughout the flick, even though it is certainly different than the "X-Men" movies. The "X-Men" movies are some of my favorite action films, but "Superman Returns" feels so much more real. Ranging in at two and a half hours, Singer takes his time exploring the characters and developing them, and the result is a more cohesive movie. It also helps that he only has to focus on one hero instead of a dozen.
The most impressive part about Singer, however, is that he managed to make a sequel that both paid homage to the original while at the same time turning it into his own, modern film. The first half hour is more like the original, and there are a few goofy moments here and there. Even the opening credits look like they are twenty years old. But slowly he transitions into an intense drama-action flick that feels more like a modern movie and less like the action-comedy that the original films were. You don't realize the transition until the film is over.
While the movie has plenty of sequences that are not action-packed, "Superman Returns" has several money scenes that are worth watching over and over again. Superman's introductory scene, where he saves Lois Lane from a plane crash, is one of the most exciting sequences I've seen in a long time. The confrontation between Luthor and Superman is brutal to save the least; you won't breath, unless you are the guy sitting next to me who fell asleep ten minutes into the movie.
"Superman Returns" is not without its flaws. The movie is not without its overly cheesy moments, though most of those are near the beginning and quite intentional. The graphics, while generally excellent, have a few weak moments - but these too are also near the beginning. Most importantly, I would have liked to have seen more exchanges between Lex Luthor and Superman; they only get one scene together, and ultimately it is not satisfying. I did not like at all the "final" fate of Lex Luthor; I would have preferred to have seen an exciting climax to cap the movie off.
There is also one surprising twist that I was not especially fond of, though, at the same time, it didn't bother me nearly as much as I would have expected.
Still, despite a few minor flaws, "Superman Returns" far exceeds expectations. The movie is exciting and serious, yet at times funny, and keeps you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. As with "Batman Begins," the movie is not for everyone, but for people who are looking for more than just your standard action flick, "Superman Returns" is the film of the summer.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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