The first voice you hear in Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" is the late Marlon Brando's Jor-el, recorded for Richard Donner's 1978 "Superman." The first music you hear is John Williams' triumphant Oscar-nominated theme from Donner's film. The credits, which roll soon after, are also inspired by Donner's main titles.
Singer's blockbuster owes much to Donner's generally beloved film, lifting dialogue and character grace notes at will. It's no wonder, then, that the film generates plenty of good faith and rewarding nostalgia.
Overlong and occasionally unfocused, it may have its flaws, but like its formerly unknown star Brandon Routh, it weathers its early uncertain steps by providing plenty of memorable moments of its own.
Picking up five or six years after the events of "Superman 2" (or so we're led to believe, not that the name "General Zod" is ever mentioned), "Superman Returns" begins not with Superman's return, but the return of megalomaniacal Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), freed after a brief jail stint and ready with a heck of an evil plan, involving the liberation of a few magical crystals from Superman's now-empty Fortress of Solitude and -- through some complicated machinations -- turning the gems into billions in real estate. Meanwhile, in a blaze of glory, Superman does indeed return, crashing into the field next to Martha Kent's (Eva Marie Saint) farm. In no time, he's back in Metropolis. Some things haven't changed, including the adoration of Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and the gruffness of editor Perry White (Frank Langella). But the person who has changed is Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). Suddenly a Pulitzer Prize-winner for an editorial titled "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman," the spunky reporter has pushed aside her love for the man in tights and found a new fiance, Perry White's nephew, Richard (James Marsden). Oh and she has a son, who must be about five or six. Can Superman make Lois and the world believe that he's necessary?
"Superman Returns" was a monumentally costly movie and most of the money is up on the screen. Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography, often bathed in a retro, gauzy haze, is stunning, perhaps the best example yet of the advances in digital photography. The production design and set decoration are also worthy of recognition, especially in the Daily Planet scenes. Singer concentrates most of his effects budget on several key scenes meant to display the latest advantages in computer-enhanced flight. Sometimes the action is loud and a bit chaotic, particularly toward the end, but Singer uses the effects -- which still aren't perfect, but which are much improved over Christopher Reeve and a green screen -- for contemplative purposes, like when we see Superman hovering above the Earth monitoring for disaster and when he takes Lois for a romantic flight. The movie's best scene comes early, though, when Superman takes to the air to stop a crashing airplane.
That's also the moment that Routh becomes a star. In his initial scenes, I was uncertain if his resemblance to Reeve was an asset or just vaguely creepy, but as his Superman first makes his return known to the world, Routh's confidence is captivating. Like Reeve, he develops a different voice and different body language for the Clark Kent persona and proves ably goofy and soft-spoken. Whatever doubt I had in this soap opera veteran was erased early.
For all its entertainment, "Superman Returns" feels sloppy at times, uncertain in many of its structural choices. It isn't just the noticeable character gaps -- Saint and Kal Penn as one of Luthor's henchmen, must have been shocked when they saw how little they were in the final cut -- but also certain storytelling choices by writers Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty.
One of the film's major problems is the writers' contention that in order to snare fans for a franchise reboot, it's necessary to utilize Luthor, despite the fact that Luthor was used in all four of the Reeve "Superman" films, while oodles of other fantastic adversaries for the Man of Steel remain untouched. Luthor is trotted out as a nearly secondary figure for most of the film's running time.
Because Spacey is so reliably entertaining when he goes into psycho territory, he makes the part seem far larger than it is. For at least the first hour, Luthor and his wacky get-rich plan are afterthoughts, distractions from the more interesting plotline involving Superman rediscovering his place in a world that somewhat learned to live without him and mostly collapsed. By the time Luthor's plot has to become the main story, the writers are faced with a larger issue -- if he doesn't resort to trickery, Luthor can't have a mano a mano confrontation with Superman. You're left, then, with the all-too familiar trope of Luthor resorting to green kryptonite, yada yada yada. The movie doesn't lack action, but the only worthy set-pieces are Superman battling his own limitations, rather than dealing with a rival in a fair fight. Either more time had to be dedicated to Spacey's performance and Luthor's story to make it worthy of Superman's attention, or else a secondary villain from the comics had to be the sacrificial lamb for "Superman Returns," leaving Luthor for "Superman Returns Again" in a few years (the way "Batman Begins" underserved Ra's Al Ghul and Scarecrow, but left the Joker for the sequel, when there'll be less exposition to bog things down).
Nor was I convinced by Bosworth's Lois, who comes across as too young and too slight to suggest any of the maturation that the script keeps mentioning. She's also hampered by some of the film's lesser lines of dialogue.
Overbilled in some early reviews as a stand-alone classic, "Superman Returns" is too indebted to Donner's first film to make the statement, "I am Bryan Singer's Superman." It's best approached as a decently satisfying introduction to a world I hope Singer intends to explore in more depth in the sequel.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times