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Superman Returns
Reviewed by Joe Crowe, © 2006

Format: Movie
By:   Bryan Singer (director)
Genre:   Superhero
Released:   June 28, 2006
Review Date:   June 28, 2006
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

First up: Is Superman Returns good? Yes. Thumbs up. The best part is it's not a brain-freezing blowout like certain other sci-fi blockbusters. The themes don't distract you from the amazingly cool stuff happening on screen.

This is the first movie in the reimagining era where anyone straight-up admitted that the originals were pretty good. This is a nostalgic reunion movie but with different people playing the parts. The swooping white opening credits are the same as in 1978 and 1980. And the theme music could not possibly be improved upon anyway. Nobody mentions General Zod or Ursa, but it's obvious down to Marlon Brando's cameo-from-beyond that this is a sequel to Christopher Reeve's first two Super-movies.

About the cast: Brandon Routh is great as Clark Kent/Superman. He has aw-shucks, smirk and stern resolve faces. Kate Bosworth grew on me after awhile. Kevin Spacey is hilarious.

James Marsden deserves his own superhero movie. He's had the thankless task of playing second fiddle, third wheel, and style-cramper to both Wolverine and Superman — in the same summer! His characters aren't who anyone roots for, yet he plays them with resolve and humor. Give this man Green Lantern. Or Red Tornado, even.

Clark Who?

Superman comics from the 1950s and 1960s were my gateway drug into every other comic. I consumed piles of them when I was age zero through 10 in the 1970s. They were silly, short stories with goofy hijinks involving pesky Lois trying to find out his secret identity or he changed into a super-turtle or a super-pirate or a super-plate of spaghetti thanks to red kryptonite. With all that goofiness, I found Marvel superheroes breaking buildings over each other more appealing. But then I saw Superman: The Movie in 1978 and Superman II in 1980, and I was flabbergasted. Wow — Superman is cool!

But the comics didn't back me up on that. Even though both of the Superman flicks were big movie blockbusters (we'll pretend Superman III and IV were never made), the Superman comics remained mostly goofy camp until 1985. Other comics had stories that fans hungered (or dreaded) to see adapted, like the Green Goblin or Dark Phoenix, but not Superman. His comics never had stirring come-from-behind victories or slam-bang action until 1985, when Crisis on Infinite Earths and John Byrne's Man of Steel rewired him. The 1978 and 1980 movies were the first superhero adaptation to be stronger than the source.

And I say all that to say this: In the years since 1985, Superman has become a different guy than the one in Superman Returns. In the Superman cartoons, Lois & Clark and Smallville, Superman is a cornfield-raised American boy who just happens to be from another planet. Krypton as an influence is diminished, and ol'-fashioned Ma and Pa's raisin' him right is his motivation. I had grown accustomed to that version.

Superman Returns gets back to what they did in Superman and Superman II, talking about Superman the godlike alien hero instead of Clark Kent in spandex, and I like it.

Man of Steel, Plot of Tin

Singer is not trying to load the viewer down with talk about Superman's feelings. He's trying to photograph a legend. The effects are spectacular. The action sequences show Superman the super-hero, super-fast and super-strong and taking care of business unlike anything before in movies, and I don't mean to gush.

Thanks to computer magic, Superman does more than lay on a train track. His flight into sunshine is exhilirating. Sure, the Hulk can fight dogs, Wolverine can cut things and hit guys in the junk, and Spidey can web up a runaway train like it was going out of style, but Superman is by-God all-caps SUPERMAN, and this movie shows it. He can bounce bullets off his eyeballs and that's a ton of fun.

When there's no action going down, though, the movie tries too hard to say things without actually saying them. Where movies like X-Men: The Last Stand drop a building on your head, Superman Returns has too light a touch. This works in his big reunion scene with Lois Lane — she doesn't make up a poem on the spot like in Superman: The Movie, at least. But I wanted Superman to discover that he needs Earth as much as they need him. I wanted Earthlings to learn that Superman can inspire them to do great things. And they all may have learned those things. Or not. At the end of the movie we just don't know. Sure the people cheer Superman on, but have they changed any? Has he? Maybe we'll find out in the sequels.

There are several floppy moments. Superman (and Clark, too) vanishes for long stretches. Luthor's plan is a good one but it takes a long time to get cooking. Perry White gets an odd moment when Superman returns but the movie doesn't revisit it. Jimmy sure is funny, but if it's been five years, what age was he when Superman left, nine?

The biggest buzz-killer is Parker Posey. I liked her in Best In Show and other movies. As Luthor's new girl, her character is tedious. She's no Miss Tessmacher, Luthor's girlfriend who turns good in Superman: The Movie. Posey has two good lines and about 78 Tessmacherian reaction shots that could have been cut, just stripped right out. She's a wet blanket on Kevin Spacey's cool Luthor.

The Moment

I was but a mere lad of age eight through ten when I first loved the first two Superman movies. Now I'm a daddy, and I see this movie differently. Superman Returns is a daddy's movie. Daddies are in it, and it's about daddies. To me. Single women may think it's about single women. Bald super-villains may think it's all about them.

The first two Superman movies had three, four, five moments where, even today, I get all tingly. ("I wish that man were here now," "General, would you care to step outside?") I wanted more of those here, but I only got one.

Fortunately, it's a big one. Superman's own eyes well up, and my goodness, there I went, too. Sue me.

RevolutionSF editor Joe Crowe wants one of those capes. And heat vision.

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