After a 19 year absence and several aborted attempts we finally get a new Superman movie. Originally everyone from Tim Burton to McG was going to direct from a script by everyone from Kevin Smith to J.J. Abrams and starring everyone from Nicolas Cage to Brendan Fraser. At the last minute director Brett Ratner jumped ship to direct X-Men 3, and swapped places with Bryan (X-Men 1 and 2) Singer. Singer finally took the helm with newcomer Brandon Routh filling in for Christopher Reeve's hefty red boots. Routh adopts many of Reeve's mannerisms and fares okay in the role but unfortunately the script doesn’t give him a whole lot to do and because of this, he just can’t carry the movie. Ultimately, he’s more Dean Cain than Christopher Reeve.
The story picks up after the events of Superman 2 (Singer basically ignores the events of the third and fourth movie. How can you deny Richard Pryor like that? How can you discount the impact of Nuclear Man?) and has Superman returning to Earth after a five year absence while looking for the missing remains of his home world of Krypton. (Singer actually keeps in chronological order with Supergirl here since in that movie he was away on a “mission in outer space.”) He comes back to find his true love Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is engaged and a mommy (!) and that his arch nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is masterminding a scheme to create a new continent using Krytonian technology that will flood most of America.
Unless you are a complete idiot you can figure out who the father of Lois’ baby is, but of course that opens up a complete can of worms that just doesn’t work. (See Mallrats why it would be impossible for Lois to carry Superman’s baby.)
The whole Krypton kid subplot is only the first of several missteps Singer makes that the movie never recovers from. If Superman truly did have a son, why not explore that possibility to the fullest and not make it some cheap plot device that’s never fully developed? And why make the kid super strong (he hurls a piano at a goon to save his momma) in one scene then have him totally revert back to the usual kid in jeopardy moments later? As Lex would say, “WRONG!” And what about the almost unforgivable scene in which Lois has to save Superman’s life, TWICE! Also the effects run the gamut from bad to passable. Routh at all times has an airbrushed look to him that makes me wonder if that was done on purpose so he would match the awfully plasticy flying sequences (the Fleischer cartoons were better animated) or if he just always looks that way.
Singer also fails when trying to link this nightmare with the first two Superman flicks. He incorporates John Williams stunning score (reworked by John Ottman) and resurrects (via CGI) Marlon Brando from Superman 1 as Jor-El, Supes’ dad for a few scenes and they work, but every original Singer touch falls flat in comparison to Richard Donner’s original. The casting, with the exception of Spacey (though even he seems to be possessed by Gene Hackman at times) pails next to the superlative cast of it’s predecessors, the fancy CGI effects feel wooden and fake next to the glorious effects from ’78 and even lines of dialogue are directly lifted from the original and only makes you yearn for Donner’s 1978 film.
This has been referred by some as a “reboot” of the franchise, like Batman Begins, but Singer should have just scrapped all his homages to the original and started from scratch. That’s not to say there isn’t some good stuff sprinkled here and there. There is one great scene (which looks inspired by Alex Ross’ art) where Supes hovers above the Earth and uses his super hearing to pinpoint people in peril as well as one scene where Superman puts out an underground fire. The scene where Supes is shot in the eye is pretty cool too, but if you saw it in the trailer, well you’ve seen it. (Though none of them were as cool as the dog eating dog scene. I’m sorry but something is really wrong when I pay $10 to see a Superman movie and the most memorable thing in it is canine cannibalism.)
There were other moments I liked in the film, like when Lex fleeces a rich widow out of her millions, the way Lois’ finds out she’s on Lex’s yacht by seeing his collection of wigs, and the when the kid realizes who Clark actually is. But a 157 minute movie can’t get by on moments alone, especially one with this kind of expectations behind it. Spacey is excellent as Lex and the movie fitfully threatens to come to life whenever he’s on screen. Parker Posey as Luthor’s sidekick Kittie was also pretty great and actually made me wish she had been cast as Lois. James Marsden (Cyclops in Singer’s X-Men movies) handles the thankless job of Lois’ fiancée with more depth and nuance (he’s a great guy, he just isn’t Superman) than you would expect.
Unfortunately Bosworth fails to register as a resourceful journalist, a concerned mother or a jilted ex. Frank Langella plays Daily Planet editor Perry White is pretty muted and like the rest of the movie doesn’t have much of a personality. The movie also doesn’t address the biggest plot hole of them all. If Krypton exploded and became radioactive (which is why Kryptonite is lethal to Superman) wouldn’t Superman die from exposure to whatever remained of Krypton? And why would it take him five years to come back? With his super speed, you’d think he’d be able to knock out that trip in no time. And I know you really have to suspend your disbelief to buy the fact that no one knows Superman is really Clark Kent in glasses, but c’mon NOBODY notices that both Clark Kent AND Superman return to Metropolis on the same day?
This might be the first “reboot” in movie history that needs an immediate reboot of it’s own. As comic book movies go, it’s still only marginally better than Hulk. You know it’s bad when you walk out of the theater longing for Nuclear Man.
Look down at your watch! It’s a bore! It’s a snooze! It’s Super Bad!
WHILE WATCHING SUPERMAN RETURNS YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN TROUBLE WHEN…
1. You pay $10 to see a Superman movie and the most memorable thing that happens is a dog eating another dog. Canine Cannibalism has it's place, just not in a Superman movie.
2. Lois has Superman's son, yet all you can think about is Brodie's speech in Mallrats and why this cannot be feasible.
3. You read James Karen's name in the credits and when the movie's over you wonder out loud "Just where the hell was James Karen?"
4. Not one solitary moment of the movie lives up to the Clark vs. Evil Superman fight in the junkyard in Superman 3.
5. Not one solitary moment of the movie lives up to fight between Superman and Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) on the Great Wall of China in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
6. You wonder out loud what the hell happened to Mark Pillow.
7. You start wishing Parker Posey had played Lois Lane instead of Kate Blandsworth (I mean Bosworth).
8. You wonder out loud what happened to Mark Pillow.
9. You look at this movie's acting and start appreciating the subtle nuances of Robert Vaughn in Superman 3 "I ask you to kill Superman and you can't even do that one simple thing!"
10. You wonder out loud if Krypton blew up and became radioactive (making Superman vulnerable to Kryptonite), wouldn't he be harmed by ANY traces of Krypton floating out in space?
11. You start thinking Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was a touching masterfully crafted film next to this nightmare.
12. You remind your date after the movie to look up Mark Pillow on IMDB.