WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Returning to Earth after a long search to find traces of his home planet Krypton, Superman finds he is welcomed with open arms by everyone except Lois Lane, the woman he wanted to see above all others. Lois has another man – and a child – and they should all be concerned about recently-released criminal Lex Luthor’s plans for world domination.
2006: The time was right for another Superman film, with teen-Superman series Smallville going strong and Spiderman 2 having done great business (with half of Superman II’s plot at that). Of course, the time had been right for years, but Superman Returns is the film for which ‘Development Hell’ could have been, and possibly was, coined. At certain stages Nicolas Cage was heir apparent to be the Man of Steel, but eventually newcomer Brandon Routh was chosen with experienced comic-book adaptor Bryan Singer at the helm.
So, is it any good? Yes, it’s good. From the opening seconds, you get the feeling that Singer knows exactly what’s expected of him and he doesn’t muck about, delivering not only John Williams’ striking Superman theme but also a natty set of whooshing retro-titles. Superman’s re-appearance at the Kent farm also echoes his original arrival, though whether we need to see his teenage self sprinting through cornfields again is open to question. Once back at the Daily Planet, Brandon Routh’s Clark Kent is statuesque, floppy-fringed, and uncannily like Christopher Reeve.
Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor, however, feels new, played with humour and a nasty undercurrent of menace by Kevin Spacey. Although he is bald, he has a variety of disguises, and uses the wealth he has unpleasantly obtained to find Kal-El’s Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic and bring back its precious crystal rods. With these, he plans to create a continent of his own which will force other landmasses underwater, thereby holding the rest of the world to ransom. Luthor’s first experiment with the crystals causes a power outage, knocking out a plane carrying, wouldn’t you know it, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). Lois has become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist since (and because of) Superman’s departure, and she is disturbed by his re-appearance. Nobody at the Planet makes any sort of link between Clark’s return and Superman’s, but then again they never do.
The effects and stunts involved in the rescue of the plane (he lands it in a packed baseball stadium) are top-notch and done with style, as you would expect from Singer and a film of this budget. Throughout, Superman’s abilities are credibly brought to the screen, including the much-trailed shot of the bouncing off his eyeball. The trouble is, there’s not enough of them; instead, the story concerns itself with Superman’s love of Lois, making this the motivation for his actions rather than upholding truth and justice. As Superman’s personality is so basic – and Routh does nothing to build on it here – what he does is always more interesting than how he feels, and his reaction to Lois’s domestic situation and motherhood is given more than enough screen time. Lois, of course, is conflicted between the superhero and more conventional flier Richard (James Ramsden). She doesn’t find any answers, but then again she doesn’t know how many ‘f’s there are in ‘catastrophic.’
Lois’ curiosity naturally brings her and son Jason into peril on Luthor’s boat, and this is where the film really has a chance to do something new. Jason rescues his mother by throwing a grand piano at one of Luthor’s henchmen, the natural implication being that he is Supe’s son. Unfortunately, he is then unable to resist being thrown into a pantry, open its door afterwards, or display any further superpowers, so the plot strand completely loses steam. Also wasted is Luthor’s plot: his first landmass, shot through with Kryptonite, rises impressively from the sea, causing some (easily-solved) problems in Metropolis. And what does Lex Luthor do on it? Nothing, but watch his heavies play cards and his associate Kitty (a thoroughly miscast Parker Posey) pout.
The fact that not enough is made of Jason’s parentage or Luthor’s island wouldn’t be a problem if the film didn’t suffer from some of the ills of most modern blockbusters. Firstly, it suffers from crass product placement, for beer, cameras, phones, the usual; secondly, it is long – at nearly two and a half hours, you do want all concerned to get on with it, rather than waffling on about whether the world needs a saviour. On the other hand, the action is spaced out with some good in-jokes for fans – I particularly like the photograph of Supe holding up the car – and the will-he/won’t-he live question at the end is cleverly teased out with newspaper headlines.
So yes, Superman Returns is good, but too much effort has been put into Lois and Clark’s relationship, and not enough into making a big deal of son of Superman or Lex Luthor’s less than genius scheming. With the weight of expectation behind the film, good wasn’t good enough, and for better or worse the Man of Steel had to reinvent himself for his next big screen appearance.