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Superman Returns

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane…Well, You Know the Rest

After almost twenty years, the Big Blue Boy Scout (aka the Man of Steel, aka Kal-El, aka Superman) is finally back on the big screen in, you guessed it, Superman Returns. After more than a decade in development and multiple false starts, Warner Brothers turned the franchise and a reported $250-million dollar budget over to Bryan Singer, whose success with the first and second installments in the X-Men series made him a near-perfect fit for reviving Superman for contemporary audiences. That Superman Returns almost succeeds is either a credit to Singer’s efforts to modernize Superman’s appeal without losing hard core fans or, just as likely, the result of a filmmaker with a non-critical, over-reverent attitude toward an iconic character.

After five years in outer space searching for the remains of Krypton, Superman/Clark Kent (Brandon Routh) returns to Smallville, Kansas and his adopted mother, Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint). Clark soon returns to Metropolis and obtains his job as a reporter for the “Daily Planet.” Perry White (Frank Langella), is still running the paper, Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington), is still the ace photographer and the world’s biggest Superman fan, and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is still the woman Superman/Clark loves. However, Lois only has feelings for Superman (or rather she did). Lois is now engaged to Perry White’s nephew, Richard (James Marsden), and has a five-year old son.

Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is also back, plotting Superman’s ruin and world domination. Thanks to Superman’s prolonged absence, Luthor has managed to win his release from prison (something about Superman being unavailable to give testimony at a hearing), marry a wealthy, elderly woman and almost instantly become a rich widower. He acquires a mansion, a super-sized yacht, and a new girlfriend, Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey). Luthor’s plans for revenge involve a diabolic real estate scheme, crystals and, of course, Kryptonite.

As superheroes go, you can’t get more iconic (and more godlike) than Superman. His combination of super powers, inner goodness and moral righteousness has made him a longtime fan favorite (only Batman rivals Superman for longevity). Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the mid-30s, Superman hailed from a distant, doomed planet, his ship crash landing in Kansas. Over time, Superman’s abilities grew to include super strength, flying, x-ray vision, and near invulnerability, all thanks to a combination of alien DNA and the rays from our sun, minus the energy-zapping effects of Kryptonite, the radioactive remnants of Superman’s home world.

Singer envisioned Superman Returns as a reverent, respectful follow-up to Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, setting his film in more or less in the same universe. Some of that turns out for the good, e.g., Singer re-uses John William's main theme from the 1978 film, duplicates the original’s opening credit sequence, and models Superman’s crystal ship and Fortress of Solitude on those found in the original. Singer also uses a muted color palette, softened edges, and Art Deco-influenced production design to heighten a sense of timelessness and nostalgia to connect both films. In a move away from the original film, Singer has Superman take on the mantle of global protector or guardian. Superman’s discussion with Lois about the burdens of being a savior makes for one of the most poignant moments in the film.

Singer, and his screenwriters, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, though, make several miscues, some minor, some major, beginning with eyebrow-raising plot turns or plot points, e.g., how astronomers discovered and identified Krypton, Superman’s questionable decision to use his X-ray vision to spy on Lois and her son, and Superman’s inconsistent response to Kryptonite. The shots of Superman hovering high above the Earth, framed against the sun’s rays, or later, arms outstretched, while beautifully rendered, suggest Singer couldn’t help himself when it came to highlighting the similarities between Superman and Jesus Christ.

Although Brandon Routh won’t make anyone forget Christopher Reeve’s near-definitive portrayal of Superman, Routh gives an above-average believable performance. Kate Bosworth turns out to be most surprising performer in Superman Returns, giving the most grounded (sorry, couldn’t resist), credible performance in the film. As Lex Luthor, Kevin Spacey focuses more on Luthor the vengeful, turn-on-a-dime sociopath than the criminal mastermind familiar to fans of the comic books or Gene Hackman's campy interpretation of the character. As for the late Marlon Brando's much-hyped reprise of his role as Superman's father, Jor-El, it's nothing more than an extended cameo.

Ultimately, Superman Returns comes close, but doesn’t overcome its storytelling and pacing problems thanks to a lack of urgency in most scenes and a near-epic 157-minute running time, but the special effects (you’ll believe Superman can fly) are top notch, as are two of the major set pieces, especially the mid-air rescue that occurs around the 40-minute mark. With the Superman franchise active again, chances are Singer will rectify the problems he couldn’t solve here and direct a sequel that improves on its predecessor, as he did with X2: X-Men United.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars