There is a lot familiar, good and well executed in "Superman Returns". But in some ways, this works against the film, adding to its many faults.
Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth after a five year journey to an asteroid containing the remnants of his planet, Krypton. Crash landing on the Kent farm, his mom (Eva Marie Saint) welcomes him back with open arms. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has also been busy during the last five years; romancing the rich elderly woman who helped him get out of prison, he gets her to sign over her fortune, just as she dies, despite the loud protests of her family. Using the old woman's yacht, Lex, Kitty (Parker Posey) and his henchmen travel to the Fortress of Solitude where Lex wants to learn more about crystals. Returning to Metropolis, ready to save the planet, Clark Kent learns a lot has changed at the Daily Planet as well. Perry White (Frank Langella) has brought in his nephew Richard (James Marsden) to help run the paper. Lois and Richard have been seeing each other and have a small son, Jason (Tristan Lake Lebeau). Clark learns Lois has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for an article entitled "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman?" But where is Lois (Kate Bosworth)? She is covering a new shuttle launch, riding the 747 which will launch the spacecraft. At that moment, Lex decides to experiment with a small shaving from one of the crystals he brought back from the Fortress of Solitude, releasing a burst of power and providing Superman with the perfect opportunity to reenter the public eye.
Directed by Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects", "X-Men"), "Superman Returns" is a well-produced film with a lot of baggage.
Frankly, I was expecting a better film from the director who brought us two great movies. This appears to be an example of a director who finally has the opportunity to direct his dream project and becomes so wrapped up in the details, they throw story and character development out the window, everything that made their previous films so good. No one even seems to think to ask where Kent/ Superman has been during the last five years, everyone just seems to except it. There are brief allusions to the reason for the trip during his reunion with his mom, but these scenes only make him seem a little heartless. How could he leave his mom, an elderly widow, alone for five years? She seems to accept this, so we go along with it. Really, the only person who seems to have taken the absence poorly is Lois Lane. Her relationship with Richard is more of a convenience. She was suddenly left alone and needed someone to confide in, so she started dating Richard. Yet, in five years, they have never married so where does their relationship stand? She doesn't seem to be in love with Richard, but because she has a son, she sticks with him. It is up to Singer to answer these questions and make these relationships interesting and believable, but he doesn't do that. Surely, they could have spent another couple of million to polish the screenplay a little more before going into production? With a reported budget of $200 million, what's another $2 million?
A side note: the addition of Richard (James Marsden) is a blatant attempt to help this role skew younger. In the sequels (Provided there are any. I don't see this film generating a lot of profit.) I'm sure Perry (Frank Langella) will be retired, vacationing or deceased and his younger, more attractive nephew will take over. But the character is so bland; it won't add anything except a pretty face. Richard needs a dark side, an alter ego, along the lines of James Franco's character in the "Spiderman" series.
Brandon Routh is the spitting image of Superman. But he is the spitting image of our recollection of Christopher Reeve's portrayal of the character. The two actors bear a remarkable resemblance. And that isn't a good thing, because it points to many deficiencies in the portrayal. Reeve had a goofy, sort of everyman quality which made the role of Clark Kent live. As Superman, he had the physique and good looks to pull that off as well. Routh certainly has all of that, but his remarkable resemblance to Reeve causes us to make comparisons we shouldn't have to make. Routh looks like a younger version of the deceased Reeve and his presence reminds us of the other actor's passing.
Pushing that aside for the moment, is Routh any good? Because of the remarkable resemblance, it is all but impossible not to compare them. He has a certain goofy quality which works well as Kent. But it doesn't seem as natural as his predecessor. At one point, his glasses slip down his nose, threatening to reveal his identity as Superman. He quickly pushes them back. Reeve did the exact same thing, but he seemed more flustered, more concerned and more real in a comic book, goofy kind of way.
As Superman, Routh certainly has the looks and physique to make him a super hero, but he doesn't do much with the character. As the Man of Steel, he almost never speaks and very little seems to cause him any significant problems.
Kate Bosworth is a complete void in the role of Lois Lane. She never seems able to build any chemistry with Kent, Superman or Richard. In her one extended sequence with the little boy playing her son, she seems to regard him as an obligation and little else.
When Kent returns to the Daily Planet, Bosworth's Lane seems to regard him as more of nuisance. Yes, Margot Kidder did the same thing, but she also managed to convey that there was the hint of a romantic interest there. Bosworth never seems to be even remotely interested in Richard (Marsden). It's maddening to see a performance like this. Didn't the director notice that Bosworth was unable to create any chemistry with either of her leading men? I would think it would be unavoidable, but perhaps he felt this was the best he was going to get.
Perhaps the only actress who could've done a worse job is Kate Beckinsale. Bosworth seems to be a living computer generated image, all looks and no feeling, merely going through the motions in service of the story. Character? What character?
Spacey owes a lot to the work of Gene Hackman, who played the role in the first series of films. As Lex Luthor, he has the swagger, the confidence and the mad scheme, but the scheme doesn't appear to have been fully plotted, Luthor doesn't actually know what the extent of his plan will be. This is not a good development, because it makes him seem less threatening. Even with all of the comical moments, the interactions with the Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), Hackman's Luthor always seemed threatening. He knew the warhead would destroy the West Coast and give him control of a large piece of `beachfront property'. Because he didn't care where the second warhead landed, his Luthor became even more diabolical. Spacey's Luthor doesn't know the full extent of what he is doing and too much of it takes him by surprise. Therefore, he seems more like comic relief. The one moment of threat comes late in the film, when Superman and Luthor finally meet on the little continent the villain has just created. Spacey's Luthor simply doesn't show both traits well; he has some amusing moments, but he never really appears threatening.
It also doesn't help that he is surrounded by the most forgettable crew of henchmen to appear in a film in some time. Honestly, I can't remember anyone's name except for Parker Posey's character and that is because I recognize the actress. As Kitty, Posey does an OK job of demonstrating her continued dismay with Lex, but she never fully develops as a character. Why is she with Luthor? Why does she start to cry when she learns of Luthor's plan? It is maddening that these questions arise. All of this should have been answered. Singer has let us down.
So what's good about "Superman Returns"? They use the familiar "Superman" theme composed by John Williams during the familiar credits sequence.
Okay. There is more. That's giving the film too little credit.
The film is well-designed and executed. Every frame of the film looks like it exists in the real world, even when Superman is trying to save a 747 plummeting to earth or when Lex and his henchman are cavorting over a new landmass. The technicians on the film went to great pains to make the Kent Farm look realistic, to recreate the Daily Planet building, to invest the old woman's home with a creepy opulence and to build a yacht fit for a lunatic. All of these beautifully designed locations help to make the world of Superman more believable. But without believable characters, it merely seems like window dressing.
There are also a few great action sequences. The first is the scene with the 747. As soon as we see Lois Lane among the press corps riding the 747, we know something bad will happen. Then, when they reveal a Space Shuttle will be launched from the top of the jet, we begin to get the idea. Luthor's experiments cause a power failure and threaten everyone on the plane. The sequence is terrific. From the moment, the shuttle ignites while malfunctioning and still attached to the plane and the press corps on the plane begin to travel at supersonic speed, to the moment Superman helps the plane come to a safe landing in the middle of a baseball diamond, everything looks real and scary and life threatening.
Unfortunately, this is the moment we are reintroduced to Lois Lane. And as she gets tossed around the cabin of the 747, we are there with her, but we don't really care about the threat to her life. Why? Because we don't care for this character yet. We haven't been with her long enough or learned anything new to make us care. This robs the sequence of a significant amount of suspense. Because one of the main characters is involved in the scene isn't enough, we have to know about that person, care about them, worry about their safety.
The other interesting scene involves Luthor's new continent. Watching the land mass grow, many of the consequences of this action pose a threat to innocent people in Metropolis and Superman has to rush off and correct a number of life threatening problems. It is a fun sequence, simply because we watch the Man of Steel solving many problems, quickly, neatly. These two sequences come the closest to creating the roller coaster type moments you would expect many times in a film running 2 hours and 40 minutes.
I do recommend "Superman Returns", but just barely. All of the great production design makes the film a feast for the eyes, too bad the actors are almost universally wrong, bad or uninteresting.