Superman Returns 

At the sneak preview of Superman Returns I attended, it appeared that most of the audience had a great time. A check of the Internet shows that the majority of critics also enjoyed themselves. As of this writing, 42 of the 54 reviews collected at rottentomatoes.com are positive, which is impressive, as critics tend to be especially rough on superhero movies.

I wish I liked it as much as they did. There were parts of it that I liked — some of them a lot — but I left the theater disappointed. Overall, Superman Returns underwhelms. At over two and a half hours, the movie is too long by at least 30 minutes. The story is ill-conceived and poorly structured. Not to mention anticlimactic and surprisingly bland.

When Superman hit the movie screens in 1978, I was there for the first showing. The ads promised that “You will believe a man can fly,” and after a childhood watching the barely-special effects of the lovably clunky super-low-budget Superman TV series, I was ready.

So was young Bryan Singer, who was so enamored with the movie that he decided that he would become a filmmaker when he became an adult. After doing a bang-up job as director of the first two X-Men movies, he ended up with a dream job: reviving the Superman franchise.

Most fans loved the first two Superman movies and wished the last two had never existed. Singer decided to pretend that was true. Superman Returns behaves as if it’s the sequel to the first two films. It even includes footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Superman’s pappy.

Incidentally, I didn’t like the first two Superman movies nearly as much as Singer did. Christopher Reeve was a dandy Superman, even if he got a bit too cutesy with the faux-bumbling Clark Kent shtick. The big rescue scenes were very cool and the battles between the Man of Steel and the Kryptonian baddies in the second movie were thrilling.

But the Superman-as-Christ-figure motif was pretentious and annoying. Krypton looked horrible — any fan of the comic knew that Krypton was a planet full of colorfully-garbed people living in futuristic cities, so what was up with all the grim talking heads and the crisscross crystal architecture and, by the way, where was the furniture? Don’t people on Krypton ever sit down?

I could go on — about the embarrassing attempts at comedy with Lex Luthor’s buffoonish henchman, the idiotic decision to have Superman travel to the past and change time (bogus!) — but you get the idea. 

Superman Returns picks up roughly five years after Superman II. After spending time in space checking out the ruins of his birth planet, Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth. He visits Ma Kent (Eva Marie Saint), then heads for Metropolis to get his job back at the Daily Planet and pick up where he left off. Editor Perry White (Frank Langella) continues barking at Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington), but there have been some changes with Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth).

Lois is a Pulitzer Prize winner now, for a piece called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Yikes. She also has a fiancé, nice guy Richard (James Marsden), not to mention a son, Jason (Tristan Leabu), who is roughly 5 years old.

Uh oh.

Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is fresh out of prison and harboring a huge grudge at the Man of Steel. He has a new sidekick, Kitty (Parker Posey), and another plan for world domination. Using Kryptonian crystals from the wreckage of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (he went there with the super-baddies in Superman II), he will create a new country off the Atlantic coast of America, flooding the East Coast of the USA and leaving him in charge of a massive piece of incredibly valuable real estate.

Luthor’s master plan is dopey, even by comic book megalomaniac standards. The crisscross crystal landscapes of Krypton were barren, uninviting and dull, and so is Luthor’s new wanna-be country. The least interesting parts of the movie take place there, which includes what passes for the climax of the movie.

Granted, Luthor’s master plan in the original Superman movie was also stupid, but at least it set up a climax full of spectacular rescues. The best rescue in Superman Returns happens early in the film (and it’s a lulu). Sure, there are some great saves in Metropolis towards the end, but they happen too quickly, with Superman snagging people and objects quickly, then speeding off to a big, boring rock.

How badly handled is the grand finale? I won’t give away details, but I can tell you this. Luthor kicks the living shit out of a Kryptonite-weakened Superman, just like the first movie, only meaner and without a speech. He departs shortly after and — get ready for this — that is the last he and Superman see of each other. No grand face-off. No big capture. Bleh.

But that’s the way it is with this Superman. Big effects, big music, muted payoffs. Brandon Routh, who looks like a hybrid of Christopher Reeve and Jason Schwartzman, seems comfortable playing Superman as the ultimate Boy Scout or as Jesus-figure (yes, they do it again), but when the emotional moments come around, he mostly looks earnest and blank. There is no heat between him and Kate Bosworth’s too-nice Lois Lane.

Incidentally, what’s up with Superman using his super-hearing and X-ray vision to watch Lois and her family at home? I think Singer meant those scenes to be sad and romantic, but they looked like super stalking to me.

One last complaint. There are a few swell flying scenes in the movie, but Superman spends too much time levitating. It defies logic, but any kid who ever ran around the house using a towel as a cape can tell you that Superman should fly as if rockets are propelling him. When he starts hovering, he comes off more like a magician than a superhero.

As an adventure film, Superman Returns peaks early and goes into a long fade. As a romance, it is mealy-mouthed and unconvincing. When Bryan Singer does the sequel, hopefully he will focus less on being faithful to the old movies and more on basic story structure.

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