The Good: Moments of homage to Christopher Reeve, Kevin Spacey's acting
The Bad: Lack of plot, Strained character development, Unremarkable acting
The Basics: When Superman returns to Metropolis, Lex Luthor's latest plan for world domination yields big special effects without a story, character or superlative acting.
The world is not split into two camps: people are not Batman fans or Superman fans. We are not defined simply by whether we like our superheroes as ambiguous anti-heroes or if we prefer wholly good, almost flawless . . . well, supermen. If we were, I'd definitely fall into the Batman camp; I choose Star Trek Deep Space Nine any day of the week over Star Trek The Next Generation, Babylon 5 over Alias, Blackadder over, well, there is no antithesis to Blackadder, but perhaps you get the picture. We can't all be Jedi Knights, so it's refreshing to watch a Boba Fett. Superman Returns is no The Usual Suspects.
Following a pretty incredible opening title sequence, Lex Luthor, now freed from prison, swindles an incredibly rich woman out of her fortune in order to finance his latest scheme, which appears to involve crystals. Shortly after he breaks into Superman's Fortress of Solitude, Clark Kent returns to the Daily Planet and into the lives of Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. Lois is engaged to be married, soon to accept her Pulitzer Prize and caring for a child that looks suspiciously like Lex Luthor. Luthor's new plan is diabolic and can only seem to be stopped by Superman himself and thus, Superman returns.
This is not The Usual Suspects. I LOVED The Usual Suspects. It's smart, it's occasionally funny, it's clever and it holds up over multiple viewings because excellent actors are portraying intriguing characters, doing interesting things. Superman Returns is none of those things. Well, almost.
Brandon Routh is decent as Clark Kent, but wooden as Superman. There are moments where he acts as Christopher Reeve's Superman or Clark Kent and those moments are sweet and poignant. Conversely, Kate Bosworth has none of the charm or screen appeal of Margot Kidder's Lois Lane. Bosworth's time on screen is time taken up with someone who just seems so . . . young. Never does Bosworth bring any gravitas to the role, no true sense of loss over Superman's time away from her, never actually delving into anything true or real.
James Marsden is wooden as ever as Richard White, Lois' fiance. It's sad when the blurred images of a man years dead - Marlon Brando, in this case - has more on-screen charisma than a real actor, but Brando's performances do trump Marsden. Parker Posey plays the fairly generic sidekick/love interest for Spacey's Luthor and while she's believable, perhaps it was seeing her play such a similar role in the last few episodes of Boston Legal that made me feel she was underutilizing her acting talents.
Kevin Spacey is the only one who owns his role in this movie. Spacey reinvents Lex Luthor, without playing to the previously established notions of who the character is. Unfortunately for him, he is not able to develop the character and the portrayal is thus flawed. After all, Luthor inherits an incredible fortune. So why, truly, does he want more? What drives him toward world domination?
It is the failure to address this problem that leads to one of the two critical flaws of this movie. Without having a character reason, the answer is simply, "it needs to be big." And in that way, everything in the movie is answered in the same way. Luthor's plan is big, Superman is forced to lift something exceptionally gigantic, Superman falls a tremendous distance, EVERYTHING is big. It leaves nowhere for this franchise to go. When Superman flies a continent off the planet, where do you go from there?
And thus, everything is big, except the story. What happens in Superman Returns? Well, Superman returns. And some crystals grow real big and Superman is forced to deal with them. That's it. That's the plot of the movie. Wow, watch crystals grow. Sigh.
Bryan Singer never gets the chance to do anything truly daring in this story, save create a thread with Superman and Lois that is questionable in its wisdom. And when Singer and the writers of the piece introduce the element, the movie is over. Nothing incredible happens. Instead, it's all mediocre.
But it's hugely mediocre. And that is, I suppose, all a summer blockbuster truly needs.
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© 2011, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.