"Superman Returns" is a hummingbird in reverse. The tiny beast shouldn't be able to fly but does, while the massive movie should soar but only sporadically gets off the ground.
Though "Superman Returns" is the first motion picture about the Man of Steel in 17 years, Warner Bros. didn't simply sit back and count on audience anticipation. The studio made a number of smart moves that should have led to something better than this unwieldy sprawl of a movie about how close personal friend Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) and the other citizens of Metropolis react when Superman flies into town after being AWOL for five years.
Filmmaker Bryan Singer would seem to be an ideal choice to direct. He's said in interviews that being raised by adoptive parents has always given him an emotional connection with the space orphan protagonist, and he's already made "X-Men" and "X2: X-Men United," two of the best and most successful of the modern superhero films.
An equally shrewd choice was picking 6-foot-3, Iowa-raised Brandon Routh, whose career has been exclusively on TV, for the title role. As both Superman and awkward alter ego Clark Kent, the drudge of the Daily Planet newsroom, Routh brings the right note of appealing earnestness to a man who stands for what the film calls "truth, justice, all that stuff." (It's probably best not to ask what happened to "the American way.")
Also, as might be expected, the film's $200-million-plus budget has bought some nifty "able to leap tall buildings at a single bound" special effects, including an especially involving rescue of a crippled airliner. "Superman Returns" is definitely at its best when its protagonist gracefully flies over, around and through Metropolis.
There are far too many situations, however, in this two-hour and 40-minute epic, when the big guy is not in the air, and, unfortunately, this cumbersome, overly long film doesn't quite know what to do with itself the rest of the time. It's not that "Superman Returns" doesn't have any ideas, it's got too many; this is a film that tries too hard and wants too much. Absent the acting or the script resources to do all it would like, the picture's multiple agendas conflict with each other instead of cohering. And a rolling series of miscalculations cripple even its best intentions.
As written by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris, "Superman Returns" brings the hero home from an extended walkabout. Without telling anyone he was leaving, he went off to visit the ruins of Krypton. His returning rocket crashes into the backyard of adoptive mother Martha Kent (a lovely cameo by Eva Marie Saint) and after a no-doubt-restorative night's sleep in his boyhood bed, Mr. S goes back to Metropolis and the serious business of being Clark Kent.
A lot has changed at the Daily Planet in the five years Clark has been gone. Newsroom star Lois Lane has not only won a Pulitzer Prize for a column headlined "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman," she also has a live-in boyfriend (James Marsden) and a winsome young son (Tristan Lake Leabu).
The wrench of having an emotionally important person coming back into your changed life is one of the things "Superman Returns" would like to deal with, but the film can't manage it convincingly. One problem is the choice of Kate Bosworth (who co-starred with Spacey in "Beyond the Sea") to play Lane. Bosworth is a game actress (as the surfing movie "Blue Crush" proved) but not noticeably more, and even superhero movies need performers with depth if they are to make emotional connections.
The film's good-versus-evil subplot also lacks conviction. The nefarious scheme Lex Luthor has in the works is a long time coming into focus and is not particularly interesting once it does. "Superman Returns' " biggest miscalculation, it turns out, is having Spacey play the nominal villain. The actor and the director have an illustrious history (Spacey won his first Oscar for Singer's superb "The Usual Suspects") but giving him this role was simply a bad idea, especially when the results are compared with "Spider-Man 2's" Doc Ock or how brilliantly Ian McKellen created the villain in the "X-Men" films.
Unable to decide if Luthor is an amusing character (à la Gene Hackman, who played him in the 1978 "Superman") or one we should take seriously, Spacey tries to split the difference, with unhappy results. For most of the film, his half-jokey Luthor is more of a smug irritant than a menace, a choice that fatally limits Parker Posey's options as sidekick Kitty Kowalski.
That choice also makes it difficult to take Luthor seriously in the film's late stages when the story line insists we do. It's not till that point that "Superman Returns" works up any real tension or jeopardy for its title character, and even then the situation is so sadistic in tone its hard to take any pleasure in it.
Insufficient acting is a weakness throughout the film; when the ghost of Marlon Brando (as father Jor-El in a vintage hologram) gives one of your most memorable performances, you're in trouble. With so many agendas and the lack of a consistent tone, scenes of Superman actually rescuing people is a smaller part of this movie than it should be. Star Routh's presence and the joys of flight keep "Superman Returns" alive, but all those missteps dog its heels, holding it back like little touches of Kryptonite in the night.