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Superman Returns   B+

Warner Bros. Pictures / Legendary Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Bryan Singer
Writers: Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris
Cast: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Eva Marie Saint.

Review by Rob Vaux

"Twenty million die by fire if I am weak."
--Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns

Superman can't ever have a bad day. Superman can't get up and not feel like going to work. Superman can't miss a trick, Superman can't drop the ball, Superman can't be off his game for a single instant. If he is, really horrible things will happen. That enormous burden of responsibility -- and the way it sets him apart from the rest of us in ways beyond just being able to fly -- forms the best parts of Superman Returns. How hard must it be to have all those people depending on you? What does it take to give up everything you want in order to be what everyone else needs? Richard Lester's Superman II made beautiful use of that dilemma, and now Bryan Singer takes it one step further, asking what might happen if the Man of Steel really did take a powder, and how he would handle the changes when he came back. The remainder of the film is a solid (if overly long) summer action film, but during those moments, it brings a proud and touching new chapter to the Superman legacy.

After two X-Men films, Singer certainly knows what he's doing in the cape-and-tights department. He approaches this project with absolute reverence for the character -- more specifically, for Christopher Reeve's iconic incarnation. It's a wise decision. Reeve is to Superman what Sean Connery is to James Bond: others may play the role, and play it well, but they're really just keeping it warm for him. Superman Returns openly flaunts that influence and those of the first two films (directed by Richard Donner and Lester, respectively), positing itself as the Superman III that should have been.

It starts with the Man of Steel himself, played by unknown Brandon Routh, whose fine performance here directly emulates Reeve's tics and mannerisms. From there, the production springboards into a plethora of direct inspirations, from the crystal technology of the Fortress of Solitude right down to the whooshing blue credits in the opening crawl. It even includes some old shots of Marlon Brando as Superman's father Jor-El, and sharp eyes can spot pictures of Glenn Ford's Pa Kent on the mantle of Clark's boyhood home. There are a few references to other versions of the character (Noel Neill and Jack Larson, who played Lois and Jimmy to George Reeves' Superman of the 1950s, both have cameos here), but by and large, Superman Returns plants itself solely in the realm of the 1978 version.

The policy pays big dividends, though it's not entirely problem-free. There are times when Singer's vision is totally submerged beneath Donner's, and when enthusiastic homage slides into lazy regurgitation. The length, too, proves troublesome, as the drawn-out climax and 150-minute running time start to weigh on one's patience. And yet, there's not a single scene that feels unnecessary. There's no section that you can readily say should be dropped, or that doesn't bring some wonderful piece of fun to the proceedings. The strength of Superman Returns comes not from simply reproducing the earlier films, but from developing their notions in new and interesting ways (something that Superman III and IV could never manage).

It starts with that central question: what would happen if Superman packed up his bags and left one day? Well, the world would go to pot for starters. Crime would rise, disasters would rage unabated, and foes like Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) would be sprung from prison because their superpowered nemesis never showed up to testify against them. But at the same time, humanity would learn to cope with the burden... especially ace reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who not only has a son by another man, but pens an award-winning article entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." Then, five years later, Kal-El reappears over his old home in Kansas, having visited the graveyard of his native Krypton in hopes of finding some trace of survivors. Soon enough, he's back in the blue-and-red saddle again, pulling doomed planes out of the sky, foiling bank robberies by the score, and prepping for another face-off with Luthor, who has some nasty plans for that nifty crystal technology lying around the Fortress of Solitude.

The comic-book action is handled with plenty of sizzle, as Singer uses improved special-effects technology to put a new wrinkle on some of Superman's old routines. The bold centerpiece involving a plummeting 777 (with Lois aboard, natch) has all the hallmarks of first-rate summer entertainment, while adding some little touches that retain a human soul amid all the CGI. Spacey gives his most engaging turn in years, keeping Luthor's charm and comedic aspects intact while adding a touch of genuinely frightening psychosis. For her part, Bosworth makes a properly assertive Lois, though her youth becomes distracting at times (When did you win that Pulitzer, sweetie? Home room?), and Singer's steady hand delivers the expected Superman tropes (faster than a speeding bullet and whatnot) with just enough of a wink to keep them light and bubbly.

All of it would be par for the course, but every now and then, Superman Returns goes back to that notion of responsibility and what it must be like to walk as a god among men. The film's most memorable moment comes not with a rush of speed or a display of strength, or even with the well-played romantic tension between Lois and Clark, but a quiet scene in which Superman floats above the planet he now calls home. With his powerful hearing, he listens to every sound and noise on Earth -- every voice, every utterance, every fart and burp and hiccup -- and then slowly filters out the desperate cries for help amid all the chatter. So many people need him, so many problems need solving... and he can't ignore a single one of them. Singer develops that concept beautifully, while retaining the character's essential hope and optimism. While Superman's brooding aspects give him some needed weight, the film never compromises his essentially upbeat core for the sake of making him cool. It takes some doing to keep it all together; moody loners like Batman and Wolverine are much easier to pull off in this cynical age. But Superman Returns faces the challenge like a true hero, and responds with a bright and fun-filled revival of a long-defunct franchise. Emulating Donner may not be the most innovative path, but it's certainly the smartest... and the Man of Steel is all the better for it.

Review published 06.25.2006.

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