Superman Returns

3 stars


17th July 2006

And it's about bloody time. Considering the fact that Superman is perhaps the most iconic movie character of all time, bringing him back sure did prove to be something of a clusterfuck. Names like Brett Ratner, Tim Burton, McG, Michael Bay and Kevin Smith were all attached to the project at one point, with an absolute horrorshow of possible candidates lined up to appear underneath the cape - Paul Walker, Ashton Kutchner, Josh Hartnett and even Nicolas Cage were at one point due to fill those big red boots. But Superman deserved his redemption, and with comic-book movies proving to be a major money-spinner, who better to revive him than the man who kick-started the trend? Abandoning his mutant babies, Singer turned his attention to the Man of Steel - a dream project for the geek's geek - but while it's undeniably spectacular in places and an obvious labour of love for the director, it's overlong, unfocused and simply not super enough.

After a five-year absence investigating the charred remains of his home planet Krypton, Kal-El (newcomer Routh) gets on the first asteroid back to Earth only to find that Metropolis is doing quite alright without him. His former love Lois Lane (Bosworth) has moved on, found a partner in Richard White (James Marsden) and even dropped a sprog. Some things never change, however, as folically-challenged criminal Lex Luthor (Spacey) has conned his way out of jail and into a fortune, and is planning yet another ludicrous scheme to rid the world of Superman and make him a pretty penny into the bargain, this time using the alien crystals swiped from the big man's Fortress of Solitude. This means half of the movie is spent thwarting Luthor's plans, while the other half is Superman coming to terms with the love of his life's new affections - as you can imagine, the two plot threads don't stay separate for long.

Why do people love Superman so? The answer is obvious: because he's super, and he can do super things. His love for Lois Lane is not what drives the fans crazy, and in choosing to focus so heavily on the relationship between the two, Singer crafts a melodramatic atmosphere that isn't always welcome - though the serious approach is much more appreciated than any Batman & Robin-style campness, there's far too much moping and not nearly enough theatrics. The action scenes that are included certainly do hit the spot (the botched shuttle launch is an exhilarating highlight) and range from the vastness of space to the depths of the ocean - one thing you can't accuse Singer of is a lack of ambition. However, they're simply too few and far between, and whenever we're forced to watch Clark/Superman pine over his unrequited love, the movie drags like a cape that doesn't fit its owner. In the Spider-Man movies, you believe that Peter Parker and Mary-Jane need each other, the lovesick teenagers that they are. In Superman Returns, the one thing that kept going through my mind was "Dude... of all the ass you could tap on the entire planet? Why her?"

Although the movie rests on the bulky shoulders of the entirely competent newbie Brandon Routh, it's the character of Lane that will rankle with most. Bosworth is simply too young to portray a hard-nosed reporter and single mother, and considering the often uncanny resemblance between Routh and the deceased Christopher Reeve, it feels like we're being introduced to a different Lois rather than the one Margot Kidder played in the original Richard Donner movies. No such casting trouble with Spacey, however, who brings a real comic-book lunacy to Luthor, playing him as devious as ever but suggesting that there are more than a few screws loose underneath that bald pate. He does suffer from 'monologue syndrome' occasionally and falls foul of the classic baddie traits i.e. complete and abject failure to orchestrate and witness the successful death of ones' nemesis, but he's still a highly entertaining villain and injects some much needed energy into the film when onscreen.

For all of its heart, Superman Returns is still difficult to take seriously. Are we honestly to believe that no one even bats an eyelid when Kent and Superman both return after five years? And that a pair of spectacles is still enough to hide the Man of Steel's identity? Old questions, but also ones worth answering, surely? Superman's strengths and weakness are terribly inconsistent - as deadly as Kryptonite is supposed to be to him, apparently if he just bites his lip and frowns, it's no worse than a hayfever allergy. After a heroic act in the third reel, a comatose Supes is taken to hospital, where men in coats holding clipboards pontificate over his chances, like we're supposed to believe he might pop his clogs overnight because of a dodgy ticker. News flash, assholes: he's fucking Superman. You never ever really feel like he's in danger, and with that, the movie loses a lot of its edge. This is time wasted, and together with superfluous romantic exchanges and pointless childhood flashbacks, that's a hell of a long running time to keep from sagging.

As a superhero movie, it's a fine example of how to handle a much-loved character with care, and Singer shows the same level of humility and dedication in bringing Kal-El back to the big screen as he did with the X-Men. However, it's telling that the only time you'll feel the hairs raise on the back of your neck is during the legendary John Williams theme tune, which unfortunately is only present over the opening and closing credits. The first time you hear it, you'll be overcome with emotion, goosebumps covering your arms in anticipation - the second time you hear it, it simply evokes a feeling of glories past and opportunities missed. Perhaps given what could have been we should be grateful (Smith's script, online here, is genuinely awful), but you can't shake the feeling that, given the iconic status of the scarlet-panted one, Superman Returns should be flying head and shoulders above the competition.

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