There was a lot of buzz surrounding this one. Not only was Superman returning to theaters after a twenty year absence, but the iconic role, played for nearly a decade by Christopher Reeve, was being recast.
There were many false starts in between Superman IV and Superman Returns, most notoriously was the Tim Burton-helmed Superman Lives starring Nicholas Cage as the Man of Steel (which, I think we’re all glad never got off the ground). Brett Ratner was also slated to direct at one point as was McG, who would have been working from a bizarre J. J. Abrams script which completely reworked the character’s mythology, making Superman an exiled Kryptonian prince, Lex Luthor a Kryptonian posing as a CIA agent, and Lois Lane Clark’s high school sweetheart. Bryan Singer was then approached while he was working on the first two X-Men films, the first of which raked in not only impressive box office grosses but decent critical acclaim. He developed the story with the writers, choosing to maintain a rough continuity with Richard Donner’s first film and Richard Lester’s second film, and the studio accepted it.
The critics felt it was a decent effort, praising the music (which maintained John Williams’ iconic themes), the effects, and the casting, but audiences were just not impressed, and I can see why. Singer does a great job of maintaining a tonal continuity with the first two films and, to some extent, the third and fourth films as well, but in focusing so much on the emotional core of the characters, especially Clark and Lois, the film is not rife with action sequences. Compared to X-Men and X-2, it comes across as a laid-back, poetic tribute to the character rather than a blockbuster action film. The few action pieces that are used are fantastic (I love the plane/shuttle rescue as well as the sequence near the end when Supes is saving Metropolis as it’s falling apart) but audiences felt they were too few and far between.
At this time, the buzzword that was creeping into the film industry was “gritty.” The Bourne Identity (2002) changed the tone of spy thrillers forever. Batman Begins (2005) offered up a more realistic reaction to the more lighthearted X-Men movies from a few years previous. The Harry Potter films moved from the more lighthearted Chris Columbus films to the highly praised darker tone of the third film onward. Superman Returns was too sedate to really grab anyone’s attention. Ang Lee’s psychological Jekyll/Hyde-inspired Hulk also received similar criticism. It was too poetic and not action-y enough.
But the film has its high points that make it worth keeping around. Brandon Routh is a fantastic Superman. The script doesn’t dig into his head very much, and, if the proposed sequel had gone ahead, I think we would have gotten to accept Routh’s take on the character a lot more completely (as Superman II did for Christopher Reeve). His Clark isn’t quite as awkward as Reeve’s Clark, but he’s still convincing in the role.
Kevin Spacey is a wonderful Lex Luthor. He takes cues from Gene Hackman (especially his more restrained performance in Superman II) but adds in enough of his own quirks to keep the character fresh. He’s funny (with just the right amount of camp) but is also a convincing villain. His scheme is ridiculous, but it’s right in line with what the character has done in previous movies.
Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane is not quite a misstep, since she does a good job with what she’s given, but I don’t feel that it’s really an iconic performance the way Margot Kidder’s was. She’s not quite bold and brassy enough. She’s got the romantic tenderness aspect down pat, but she doesn’t have the bluster that Margot gave the character.
Overall, it’s a decent film, but it’s not quite the genre-redefining event film that Batman Begins was for the Dark Knight. But it’s not terrible. Bryan Singer really knew the source material well and made an intelligent homage to the iconic originals.
So watch it for what it is. It’s not huge and explosive, but it gets the characters right.
After this, we reboot the franchise again and things get very different. So enjoy this last entry in the original franchise.