For about the first forty minutes, Superman Returns looks and feels like a worthy successor to the 1978 classic, right up until the point Superman actually returns, then things start to go wrong.
The opening rescue, involving a space shuttle and airliner full of press (including Lois Lane, of course), is exactly what you expect and want from a Superman movie. If only you could say that about the rest of this film.
It’s not that it’s bad in any technical or a single artistic sense, but the film suffers in comparison to the 1978 original with Christopher Reeve for one very basic reason. The Reeve Superman was, for lack of a better word, jaunty. There was a spark in his eye that gave that version a real sense of fun. While Brandon Routh fills out the blue suit nicely, his Superman is a lovesick mope, pining after a now-married Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth).
For her part Bosworth is fine in the role and some may argue that her more serious, competent, less flighty interpretation is an improvement over the occasionally grating Margot Kidder.
Kevin Spacey is one of the few actors today who could step fearlessly into Gene Hackman’s shoes. His is a noticeably more threatening, less joke-y interpretation of the character. He probably stays more true to the vision that comic books fans have always had of the character, but you still have to fight to keep Hackman’s performance out of your head to appreciate what Spacey is doing here.
The real failing is that the movie simply spends far too much time on Superman’s agonizing over his girl troubles. I paid to watch a superhero movie, not Kramer vs. Kramer.
The film does raise an interesting issue that, unfortunately, gets neglected in favor of Supe’s “relationship issues.” During Superman’s five-year absence before the movie starts, Lois Lane has won a Pulitzer for a magazine essay entitled “Why the world doesn’t need Superman.” If the movie had been about the blue-suited wonder boy proving his relevance in a more cynical time, they might have had something.
And about this five-year absence… Superman disappears for five years. Clark Kent disappears for five years. Superman returns and who comes back to his old job, but Clark Kent, and no one makes the connection?! Jeez Louise, how dense are these people?
Again, Superman Returns is not a bad movie, just a barely competent one that’s still better than the third and fourth Christopher Reeve films. It suffers badly in comparison with what went before that, however, and the filmmakers invited that comparison by reusing parts of Marlon Brando’s performance from the original.
Of course, it could have been (much, much) worse and Warner Brother’s could have gone producer Jon Peters’ vision a decade ago. For a hilarious (and horrifying) account of what that would have been like, see An Evening with Kevin Smith.