Richard Donner's original big-screen Superman (1978) remains one of the best comic book adaptations of the blockbuster age, fueled by a game cast who were as interested in the human aspects of its story as its elaborate action sequences (which now look hopelessly dated, but in an endearing way). Its three sequels were much less effective, none more so than the series' lame finale, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987).
Director Bryan Singer grew up on these films (with a special place in his blockbuster-bred heart for the original), and it's obvious from the outset of his Superman Returns that he holds the iconic character in high esteem. In contrast to the wholly re-imagined Batman Begins of last summer, Singer revels in the opportunity to pick up where the first two Superman films left off — even employing a similar opening credit sequence and, of course, John Williams' ubiquitous theme — yielding an oddly low-key film that delivers what he does best: big, effects-laden entertainments with storylines underpinned by sexual tension and shifting identities.
The story (courtesy of screenwriters Michael Daughtery and Dan Harris) opens with Marlon Brando's visage as Superman's father Jor-El, a bit of archival necrophilia that sets an eerie, familiar tone. Singer then cuts to Superman's (Brandon Routh) return to earth, a fiery crash landing on his mother's (Eva Marie Saint) rural Kansas farm. Back after an apparent five-year jaunt amid the galaxy to search for his Krypton roots, it's not long before he (as alter-ego Clark Kent) returns to The Daily Planet. He's eager to pick up where he left off, both as a reporter and with his beloved Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth).
But there's one problem — she's shacked up with a kid and a fiancé (James Marsden). Yes, Lois has moved on.
Deeply stung by Superman's absence — he didn't even say goodbye — she's now a Pulitzer Prize winner (for a piece called "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman") and closet smoker. (The newly brunette Bosworth is no match for Margot Kidder's Lois, a vulnerable yet feisty creation that went a long way to humanizing the original.)
After reintroducing us to the main characters — including Superman's arch nemesis, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), and his new girl, Kitty Kowalski (a deliciously tart Parker Posey) — Singer jacks up the tension with the film's first big action set piece, a rousing sequence that has Superman rescue a falling jet — with Lois on board — which he sets down in the middle of a crowded baseball stadium. Lois, exasperated by her man's return, is left speechless as the stadium roars in approval. It's a visceral ride — aided by the crosscutting of Metropolis' enraptured citizens who watch the near-disaster unfold on live TV — the perfect entrance for a seemingly AWOL superhero.
It's a high point Singer has trouble replicating in the film's often dour final two hours, most of which has to do with Superman winning back the affection of Lois while simultaneously fighting off Luthor, whose intention it is to create a new continent that will result in the death of "billions." In fact, Singer doesn't really try to match his signature sequence, as the film becomes more interested in the story's emotional elements, most intriguingly the possibility that Lois' son might also be Superman's.
Routh has the physical tools to step into Christopher Reeve's boots, but he lacks the emotional range to capture this new Superman's brooding, borderline depressive, self-doubting disposition. Spacey is more fun than he's been in years, delivering a performance that plays on his naturally devious nature. But he's not given much to do here, a fact that should correct itself in the doubtless sequel(s).
Logistical questions abound in a picture like Superman Returns (c'mon, they actually don't recognize Clark's real identity) but that's not the point. Despite its flaws, Singer's heartfelt ode smacks of undeniable nostalgia. I defy anyone who came of age during the initial series to not be swept up every time Williams' Superman theme swells in the background.
Coming off his grandiose yet emotionally grounded X-Men films, Singer uses the contemporary tools at his disposal but never forgets that technical wizardry is no substitute for a compelling narrative. And while the exquisite execution of his breakthrough, The Usual Suspects, now seems more a result of Christopher McQuarrie's ingenious/infuriating screenplay, Singer clearly has a knack for guiding nuanced summer popcorn films, a quality that's hard to come by in this age of the carefully marketed blockbuster. Grade: B-