Superman Returns is a full-water baptism that finally and thoroughly washes away the reek and stench of the last two Superman movies while bringing the hero back to a pure, clean starting point.
Now, for the elucidation...
Finally caught Superman Returns today, in the good company of my wife Lisa, my friend Chad and his brother Brad. We saw it at the West End Cinema in Burlington: right next to where I went to college at, and the place where I once camped overnight for tickets to Star Wars Episode I. I'd seen everything from the Star Wars Special Editions to Titanic at the West End, and the last time we were there was to see the first Pirates of the Caribbean three years ago, so it was a neat thing to be back on old turf again for what I can only describe as the best movie I've seen so far this summer.
Let me reiterate that: Superman Returns is the best movie I've seen out of the 2006 summer season. And that comes despite some things about this film that I have problems with. But the good definitely surpasses what bad (or nonsensical) there is in the movie. It's definitely a flick I want to catch at least once more this summer.
The first thing that I believe needs to be addressed in this review is that the first two original Superman movies are not required viewing before watching Superman Returns, even though the 2006 film is constantly referencing those two in ways both blatant and subtle. And we were finding all kinds of those in Superman Returns, like the location that's on the nameplate of the meteorite, or that it's Ben Hubbard (mentioned but not shown in Superman: The Movie) who's leaving Martha's house at the beginning of the movie. You can watch Superman Returns without ever seeing Richard Donner's 1978 classic and still have a fresh sense of continuity, but if you've seen the first two movies (thankfully the last two are not touched on at all and in fact made thoroughly kaput by Returns) you'll have something of a "vague back-story" from which to draw upon.
(By the way, from this point on there are story spoilers, so skip reading this until after watching Superman Returns if you haven't done so already. Just trying to keep the surprises for y'all :-)
At the beginning of Superman Returns we are given a brief capsule of what’s already transpired: Superman being the last survivor of the planet Krypton, how he came to Earth and all that. Well, it turns out that astronomers believed they had located the place where Krypton once lay in the heavens, so five years ago Superman left Earth to investigate the remains of his birthworld. Meanwhile, life went on in a world without a Superman...
In the first true scene of the movie we see Lex Luthor (played by Kevin Spacey) swindling a dying woman out of her fortune (look for Noel Neill, the original Lois Lane from the 1950s TV series, in the role of Gertrude Vanderworth. Jack Larson – the TV series's Jimmy Olsen – also shows up later as Bo the bartender). Seems that Luthor was serving a double life sentence for whatever crime it was he committed earlier (you can make up your own mind whether or not this was the "Coasta Del Lex" scheme from Superman: The Movie or decide it was something else we just aren't told about) but when Supes flew the coop there was no star witness to testify so Luthor got paroled after five years in the slammer. Meanwhile, something is streaking out of the sky and lands in the cornfield on the Kent homestead in Kansas. Martha (Eva Marie Saint) comes running out of the house only to have her adopted son Clark – alias Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton and most especially Superman – collapse into her arms after falling out of his spaceship. It's not long afterward that the story is propelled toward other locales in the Superman mythos: the Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic, Metropolis, and especially the offices of the Daily Planet where Perry White (Frank Langella) is still in charge and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has earned a Pulitzer for an editorial titled "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman". Lois is eating those words a short while later after being rescued from certain death by the Man in Blue in a scene that is going to surely look hella cool if you're seeing it on a 3-D IMAX screen... yes ladies and gentlemen, Superman is back!
Bryan Singer gave up directing the third X-Men movie to do Superman Returns, and his presence behind the camera stands out sharply in contrast to what happened with X-Men: The Last Stand. I didn't want him to leave that series, but now after seeing what he did with Superman Returns, I can't fault him at all. There is now a three-way tie for what I think is the best comic book movie thus far: Spider-Man, Batman Begins, and now Superman Returns. This is as perfect a superhero movie as you're likely to find. EVERYTHING about it just works so darned well. Including the casting. Which yeah, part of me is thinking that an older actress might have been appropriate for Lois Lane, but Kate Bosworth brings exactly what's needed to the role, including the anger of being seemingly jilted and the angst that comes with being a single mother (to son Jason, played by Tristan Lake Leabu).
But the two standouts that made this movie work so well for me were Brandon Routh as Superman and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Now, there will not now, or ever be, replacing Christopher Reeve as the one who made us believe that a man can fly. But Routh definitely makes us believe that a man can fly again. He brings to Superman a... how can I say this? Okay, Routh makes Superman his own in the way that Reeve made the character his own in 1978: more than being the product of special effects, Superman is a model of virtue and humility. Anyone can be made to look like they're flying, if you have enough money and the right equipment. But to pull off Superman means tapping into something that can't be purchased with even the biggest of blockbuster budgets. It means finding what can be the best of human nature in all of us and projecting that as pure persona. Yes, Superman Returns... to a world that needs the kind of hero he represents, and now more than ever. As much as Christopher Reeve made us believe a man can fly, Routh reminds us that a man can be good... and still matter in this world.
And as for Kevin Spacey... well, what else can I say? He is the big screen's most pure incarnation of Lex Luthor ever. Even in the moments when he's ever-so-slightly campy or hatching a plot that makes no sense whatsoever (see below). Casting Spacey as Luthor was frickin' GENIUS!!
The special effects are incredible (Marlon Brando's "return" to the silver screen is especially haunting). The camera work is beautiful. The acting and directing: stupendous. Yup, this movie has just about everything going for it. Almost...
How the heck does Clark Kent get his old job back? Unless he was one helluva good writer (and who knows maybe he is) you can't just leave a reporting gig at a newspaper on par with The New York Times and expect to come back after five years as if nothing's happened. Sorry, I don't buy that bit about how some other reporter died and there was suddenly a convenient opening for Clark to take. At the very least there should have been a scene where Perry White gives Clark a good chewing-out before screaming "Well what the hell are you doing just standing there, there's a city to cover out there!"
But that's nothing compared to what must be the DUMBEST criminal plot in the history of comic-book movies: using several crystals he's stolen from the Fortress of Solitude, Lex Luthor is going to grow an entire new continent. Seems that in the movies at least, Luthor can't stop it with the land-swindling schemes. With the crystals, Luthor is going to make them generate a Kryptonite-laced landscape off the coast of Metropolis that will eventually engulf the entire eastern half of the United States.
Now, there's several problems with this plan. For openers, Luthor-Land is plum-assed UGLY. Who in their right mind is going to want to live in a place that looks like industrial waste?! Second, Luthor doesn't care that "Billions!" of people are going to die before his plan reaches full fruition... so who the heck is going to populate this new countryside of his?! And when you throw in that the entire world economy is going to be toppled after New York City and Washington and Metropolis and Gotham City are wiped out... well, what's going to be the allure of visiting a "new continent" anyway? For someone who calls himself "the greatest criminal mastermind of our time" Luthor obviously didn't think this all the way through.
Yeah, it's a hokey plot. But it didn't take away one bit from my enjoying Superman Returns. If anything it makes me enjoy it that much more, because it made this movie a great thing to escape into and get away from all the problems that life throws at us... if only for a little while. But isn't that much what makes life worth living anyway?
Flaws and all – what little there are in this movie – I felt leaving Superman Returns that it was time well spent, and something that I really enjoyed sharing with a few people who are very special with me: my wife and two good friends. I really can't think of many other movies that left me feeling this satisfied as the credits rolled.
Superman Returns is everything that a summer movie is supposed to be. And I can't wait to make my own return to the theater to see it again.
EDIT 10:56 PM EST: Can't believe I didn't mention the awesome musical score in this movie, composed by John Ottman. It's so good that I just came back (after attempting to see some fireworks tonight) from getting the Superman Returns soundtrack CD. Ottman's score uses a lot of the familiar themes from John Williams's work in Superman: The Movie (especially the triumphant Superman fanfare and the "love theme"). But there's also plenty of "newer"-sounding stuff too to add to the Superman music mythos. This is gonna be one sweet soundtrack to add to my MP3 player :-)