For nearly two decades after the disastrous Golan and Globus production of “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”, Superman lay dormant on film. Numerous sequels were attempted from the early 90’s well into the new millennium, which were aborted in increasingly disastrous ways. By the time Bryan Singer had come on board, over 50 million dollars had been spent with no film in sight.
Bryan Singer, who had formerly brought the X-Men franchise to film in two successful movies, seemed like an ideal choice to resurrect the troubled Superman film franchise. After all the only other director to be considered who had any serious comic book superhero credentials had been Tim Burton and Burton’s vision of Batman had been a dark and freakish one– leading to Burton’s dismissal from the project. Bryan Singer had by contrast produced two popular and family friendly X-Men films, that along with Sam Raimi’s work on Spider Man had turned Marvel into a movie powerhouse.
The original Superman movies had begun in 1978 as earnest and epic productions directed by Richard Donner. Donner, director of classic movies like Goonies, The Omen and the Lethal Weapon series– took the Superman mythology at face value and treated the character and his world with respect. However under the Salkinds, the productions quickly gave way to gimmicks and self-parody. Donner was fired from Superman II and replaced with Richard Lester. Lester finished Superman II and then helmed Superman III, more a collection of jokes and Richard Pryor routines than a movie.
Bryan Singer’s intention was to make Superman Returns into a sequel to Richard Donner’s Superman II. Thus Superman Returns begins with the return of Superman (Brandon Routh) from a voyage to the remains of his home planet– back to earth. In his absence Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has given birth to his son and won the Pulitzer Prize for a bitter editorial entitled, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman“.
Superman returns in style rescuing Lois Lane, who is a passenger on board an airplane, as well as the Space Shuttle the airplane was towing. Superman brings the airplane to a safe if spectacular landing on a baseball field and at the first sight of him Lois faints and passes out.
Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) meanwhile has been freed from prison because of Superman’s failure to testify against him. Having recovered the use of his fortune by seducing a rich old widow (played by Noel Neill who had portrayed Lois Lane in Saturday Morning serials and served as a replacement for the original Lois Lane on the George Reeves Superman TV show, as well as playing Lois Lane’s mother in the 1978 Superman movie) for her money– Lex Luthor sets out to seize control of Kryptonian technology by looting the Fortress of Solitude.
While he eavesdrops on Lois in his guise as Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet, Superman also attempts to set things right with her in a nighttime flight across Metropolis, recalling the original nighttime journey by Superman and Lois in the 1978 Superman film. But Lois has a fiance now, in the former of Perry White’s nephew (played by James Marsden who had worked as Cyclops on Bryan Singer’s X-Men) and a good deal of bitterness reserved for her former flame.
Circumstances intervene as Lois investigates the cause of the power failure which leads her along with her son to Lex Luthor’s ship where she is captured and held prisoner. Like Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor of the 1978 film, the current Luthor’s plan is to cause massive destruction while carving out a new point of land for himself. This time instead of employing nuclear missiles to cause a massive split in the tectonic plates in California, Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor intends to use hijacked Kryptonian technology looted from the Fortress of Solitude to create a new land— one which will be composed of Kryptonite, thus rendering Superman helpless there.
Lex Luthor’s plan appears to work. Superman is helpless in this new land and Lex Luthor and his minions beat and kick Superman and finally Lex Luthor stabs him with a chunk of Kryptonite. Drowning in the water Superman is rescued by Lois and her fiance and expels Luthor’s landmass from earth’s atmosphere. Superman is taken to the hospital where he remains in a coma from which he wakes and closes the circle with his son.
If there is one thing Superman Returns is- it’s certainly respectful. In fact worshipful might even be more accurate. Bryan Singer’s Superman is rendered as a deity, calm and patient, beaten and stabbed and still rising to save mankind. Where Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent seemed to conceal inner turmoil while his Superman was a majestic figure– as Superman or Clark Kent, Brandon Routh seems to be ill at ease in a role too big for him.
While Superman Returns was a fantastically expensive production and the second most expensive movie ever made at the time– it’s spectacular effects are mainly wasted and have little of a sense of suspense to them. Comparing Superman’s helicopter rooftop rescue of Lois Lane in the original Superman film with the far more complicated and visually spectacular shuttle and Boeing 777 sequence in Superman Returns– one can’t help but come to the conclusion that Richard Donner’s far simpler and cheaper scene had a richer human element and therefore more suspense to it, than all of the scenes of Superman flying after the out of control plane and shuttle. The latter is visually spectacular but so detached from reality that it has little impact, while the former might be simple but remained nail bitingly suspenseful.
Superman Returns is often visually gorgeous but full of weakly connecting scenes whose plot lacks any real drive. All the characters appear diminished, from a toned down Superman to a campy Lex Luthor lacking in any real menace to an embittered Lois Lane. Ultimately, Superman Returns betrays great ambition and love for the project, but little joy and less momentum. It is a fantastic showpiece but lacks the heart that drove Richard Donner’s Superman movies or even the Smallville television series. Special effects and set design simply can’t substitute for that.