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Movie Review: Superman Returns

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I can’t say I went to see Superman Returns with great expectations. Cautious optimism would probably be the best way to describe my frame of mind on entering the cinema.

The film starts with the familiar strains of John Williams rousing score and credits in the style of the 1978 Superman film and we’re informed that Superman’s destroyed home planet had been discovered by astronomers and that Sups had left Earth in an attempt to find his roots (a bit dumb considering he’d been told by his father, Jor-El, that the planet had been destroyed, but then he never was that bright.)

We get introduced to Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor and find out how he got out of prison, then we’re off to Smallville and the main man’s spectacular return to Earth. He spends the night with his ‘Ma,’ played by Eva Marie Saint (who gets nothing to do), and does a spot of reminiscing about how he learned to fly before heading for Metropolis. So far so good.

Then we get to Metropolis and the Daily Planet building and it becomes clear just how big a fan Bryan Singer is of Richard Donner’s original film. Superman may have been gone five years but walking into the Planet takes us back almost 30 to 1978: nothing has changed. It’s soon clear that Singer is not a fan of Superman the character but rather Superman the movie and it’s this slavish devotion to the original that lets the film down. It’s Brandon Routh who comes off the worst. Spacey and Bosworth aren’t trying to be Hackman and Kidder but it's clear Routh is not playing Superman, he’s playing Reeve playing Superman. You can almost picture the casting sessions. "No, not enough like Chris. Next!" or Singer’s on set pep talks: "Great, Brandon but can you give me a bit more Reeve?" and it does a disservice to a good actor. And he is a good actor, he does a pretty good job of imitating Reeve but how much better would he have been if he’d been allowed to make the part his own? We’ll sadly never know.

But it’s not all Singer's fault; the script writers deserve some of the blame for the film's problems. We discover that Lois has had a baby in Clark’s absence, and is living with boyfriend Richard White (X Men’s James Marsden) and this makes Superman come across as something of a home wrecker. He’s been gone five years and left without telling anyone – that doesn’t exactly make him a sympathetic character. It’s made even worse because Marsden’s character is so likable, he’s probably the nicest guy in the film. When he discovers that Lois and the kid are being held on Luthor’s boat after being captured while sneaking around (she’s not going to win any good parenting awards) he hops in his sea plane and heads off to rescue her. It’s this simple human heroism that’s more heart-warming than any of Superman’s super powered daring-do to the extent that, when Sups finally arrives to save the day I actually resented it, I wanted Marsden to be the hero. Then there’s Luthor, whose evil plan is basically the same as the first film. He’s not a supervillain, he’s a land developer.

From an acting point of view Spacey is the biggest letdown. While the trailer gave the impression he was going to be much too over the top, the opposite is true. He underplays far too much, he’s neither as funny nor as menacing as Hackman was (it’s hard to do both in the same part but Mr H pulled it off). Bosworth does a reasonable job as Lois Lane but then she’s only up against Margot Kidder and I’ve always thought her the weakest link in the Superman films. Frank Langella could do the Perry White part in his sleep, Sam Huntington wins the award for most annoying character for his portrayal of Jimmy Olson and Parker Posey manages to be less obnoxious than normal and even pulls off a couple of funny moments. The stand out though is James Marsden who turns a nothing part into a likable guy almost on charisma alone. And then of course there’s the blink and you’ll miss it Marlon Brando appearance that just shows again how fixated Singer is on Donner’s film.

Don’t get the impression it's a total loss however, the action scenes are truly spectacular (if perhaps a little sparse) and watched as a sequel it’s an ok film, not as good as Superman II but better than 3 and 4. It’s a shame though that with almost 70 years of history to choose from we keep getting Lex Luthor as the villain. At over two and a half hours it’s also a little long, it’s as if Singer wants you to believe you’re watching a real epic not just a fun action movie.

The film has done fairly well at the box office but it may struggle to match X Men: The Last Stand the film Singer abandoned in order to make this one, and X Men cost $50 million less to make. X Men provided people with what they want from a big budget superhero movie – superheroes fighting super villains. Singer has apparently said there will be a sequel and hopefully he’ll have learned from this one and next time we’ll get something new and fresh, not a sequel that’s past it’s sell by date.

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About Ian Woolstencroft

  • I have to agree with you there, 70 years of history and all they can find is Lex Luthor? Whatever happened to Brainiac or The Toyman?

    And Singer has said that in the next movie there ewill be more action. Hopefully yes 🙂

    But looking at his works on X-men 1 and 2 , the second movie really will be the real movie while Part 1 was just a build up.

  • I’m not sure if there will be a sequel to be honest and if there is I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new director at the helm.

    At least with the first X-Men film he got the basics right and built on that for the second (one of the best comic based movies ever made, up there with Donner’s Superman.) Here he got more wrong than right.

  • There was confirmation from WB that that were going to be a Superman returns sequel in 2009.

    I am not sure where I read it anymore though.

    The X-men series was great ’til The Last Stand.