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Published: 2006-06-28 - 01:13:00
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Superman Returns Review

By Joe Lozito

Hero Worship

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As he already proved by creating and then improving the first two "X-Men" films, Bryan Singer knows from comic book adaptations. And considering he wasn't even an X-Men fan before he took on that franchise, imagine what he could do with a comic book property he holds dear. "Superman Returns" is your answer. And it's the answer that legions of die-hard fans have been waiting for since the Man of Steel movies fizzled with the camp-tastic "Superman III" and the unforgivably awful "IV: The Quest for Peace". It's been 26 years since we knelt before Zod in "II" and at long last, with "Superman Returns", we finally have a third movie we can be proud of.

Everything you need to know about Mr. Singer's fabulous continuation of the "Superman" series you can learn from the opening credits. As the majestic John Williams score (Best. Superhero Theme. Ever) plays, the credits swoop in just as they did in Richard Donner's 1978 original. Except this time the credits seem to swoop faster and fancier. And the trip from Krypton to Earth over which the credits play is full of playful detours into comets and (I think) wormholes. In other words, everything old is new again. Really, really new.

But Mr. Singer never forgets his roots. "Superman Returns" takes place in an odd universe which co-exists with the original movie and its 1980 sequel. As the film opens, the Man of Steel (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth after a five year absence (though it's clearly not 1985). Although Mr. Routh is the same age Christopher Reeve was when he took on the role, Mr. Routh looks much younger - more like the teenage Superman from the original film. Comparisons to Mr. Reeve are, of course, inevitable. Initially, Mr. Routh's character appears to be a pale imitation of the one we remember. But then Mr. Routh makes a choice which Mr. Reeve never did. Mr. Reeve's Superman was always very human on screen. He was a Superman we could identify with and love. And, of course, we did. But Mr. Routh's Superman is an alien (as he should be). He is an outsider and, in that regard, he is always slightly at arms length. It's a bold choice and it's jarring at first because we remember Mr. Reeve so well. But it's a good choice for the character and, in the end, it works.

Like Mr. Routh's performance, it's only when "Returns" departs from its reverence of the original films that it shines. For the devotees, Mr. Singer throws in plenty of references. There are lines pulled verbatim ("You really shouldn't smoke, Ms. Lane" and "I hope this hasn't put you off flying" come to mind), cameos from the original Jimmy Olsen (Jack Larson) and Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and Marlon Brando posthumously reprising his role as super-dad Jor-El. My favorite reference might be the moment Lex Luthor tests his dastardly plan on a scale model which produces a small-scale disaster that appears to be an homage to the miniature special effects from the original films, complete with a mini-Mount Rushmore.

Interestingly, it's only when Mr. Singer stops referencing Mr. Donner's original and settles into its own story that "Returns" finds its groove; you can almost feel the film loosen up. In the five years that have passed, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has moved on. She has a kid, a boyfriend Richard (a surprisingly animated James Marsden) and a Pulitzer on the way. There are certainly some huge action setpieces, but the love triangle between Lois, Richard and Superman forms the heart of Mr. Singer's film. Mr. Singer and his writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (who also wrote "X2: X-Men United") add some of their own smirking touches for the fans, like an Atlas reference, a full-on re-staging of Action Comics #1 and, perhaps, one too many Jesus Christ poses.

Kevin Spacey has been attached to the "Superman Returns" project since long before his "Usual Suspects" helmer took it on. Mr. Spacey, it seems, is just the perfect choice for Lex Luthor. I don't disagree, but be warned: this isn't your grandfather's Lex. Or, more to the point, this isn't Gene Hackman's Lex. Gone are the hammy chuckles and the nitwitted sidekicks. Mr. Spacey's Lex is evil through and through. And, while the script doesn't give him many opportunities to shine, Mr. Spacey takes every chance he gets. Just listen to the way he delivers the line "Are you sure?" as though it were covered in relish. Lex is given one fun sidekick in Parker Posey's Kitty Kowalski. She's no Ms. Teschmacher, but who is?

Sure "Returns" has its flaws - Ms. Bosworth's Lois is so timid I missed Margot Kidder unpredictable feistiness - but you're not going to get a much better "Superman" movie. The best I can say is, whether you're a die-hard "Superman" fan or a newbie wondering what all the fuss is about, you're in good hands with Bryan Singer. So ignore the hype, ignore the budget, ignore the expectations, sit back, relax and let "Superman" return.

What did you think?

Movie title Superman Returns
Release year 2006
MPAA Rating PG
Our rating
Summary The Man of Steel is back and in fine form thanks to the master of comic book adaptations Bryan Singer.
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