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Category:    Home > Reviews > Super Hero > Superman Returns (Theatrical Film Review)

Superman Returns (Theatrical Film Review)


Stars: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Parker Posey, James Marsden

Director: Bryan Singer

Critic's rating: 4 out of 10


Review by Chuck O'Leary


Superman returns to the big screen for the first time in 19 years, but he should have stayed lost.  With the abundance of superhero movies in subsequent years, and the over-reliance of such films on CGI, the magic is long gone.


Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer's highly-anticipated revival of the franchise, is drab looking, underwhelming in almost every respect and inferior to all four of the Superman films that starred the late Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel.  Yes, that's right. Singer's film is even a step below the poorly-conceived Superman III (1983) and the cheesy Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987).  But hey, at least it's better than Supergirl (1984).


The problems here are many, but I think Singer's biggest mistake was the decision not to shoot on regular 35mm film negative with Panavision anamorphic lenses.  Instead, Singer and his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, decided to shoot it digitally with the new Panavision Genesis digital-HD camera with widescreen lenses.  The result is a darker, uglier film that sorely lacks the vivid color of Geoffrey Unsworth's cinematography on the first two Superman's, which were shot simultaneously in 1977-78, but released a couple years apart.  You know something’s wrong in the new one when Superman's outfit constantly looks like it's in need of a good washing.


Even though Singer had the advantage of filmmaking technology that's light years ahead of where it was when the Reeve films were made, and a budget that some report as being $250 million, his Superman Returns fails to take flight due to a subpar screenplay, inconsistent pacing and too-dark photography that would be more appropriate for a Batman film than a Superman adventure.  Singer and Sigel can rationalize the decision to shoot this digitally all they want, but for a production this big, the finished product just doesn't look very good.  Whether the actual production budget was $150 million or $250 million, all the money they spent simply doesn't look like it's up on the screen.


While Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1981) captured just the right mixture of camp and high adventure, Superman Returns takes itself too seriously and drags throughout for much of its 154 minutes.  While Reeve look-alike Brandon Routh is about as good of a replacement for Reeve as you're likely to find, he's not given enough to do.  As Clark Kent, he's not allowed to do enough stumbling and bumbling and as Superman there's not enough scenes of him being heroic.  It also doesn't help that he's paired with a Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) who lacks the spunky, quirky appeal of Margot Kidder.  In fact, none of this movie has the personality, charm and vibrancy of the earlier films.


As chrome-domed megalomaniac Lex Luthor and his ditsy girlfriend Kitty Kowalski, Kevin Spacey and Parker Posey have their moments, and the film is liveliest when they're on screen, but they're not nearly as much fun as Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine were as Luthor and his sidekicks, the hilariously incompetent Otis and the sexy Miss Teschmacher.  And when the talking head of Jor-El (Marlon Brando) appears via archive footage for a few minutes in Superman Returns, it only stands as a reminder of how much better and how much better cast the 1978 film was -- too high of a price tag is the only plausible explanation for why Bruce Willis wasn't cast as Lex Luthor.


Just compare the scenes in Superman: The Movie and Superman Returns where the Man of Steel takes Lois for a fly.  In the '78 film it was a sequence filled with wonder and awe.  In Singer's film, like everything else, this sequence is comparatively flat.


Superman Returns has our hero returning to Metropolis after a five-year absence, just in time to again battle Luthor, who's out of prison and once again bent on world domination, only this time with the help of some powerful crystals he stole from the remains of Krypton.  But the big story for Superman this time is that Lois Lane got married during his absence, to Perry White's nephew, Richard (James Marsden), and has a 5-year-old son.  Could the kid really be Superman's biological son?  You do the math, and consider what's likely to keep the franchise going and going, and will give Warner Bros. an immediate excuse to replace Routh in the unlikely case this bombs.


Singer showed great promise with the first two major films he directed (The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil) before selling out to become a hack specializing in CGI-heavy comic-book fare.  Part of the problem here is Warner Bros. entrusted this revival of Superman to the creative team behind a bad, albeit profitable, movie, X-2: X-Men United.  But Singer, Sigel and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris don't even come close to matching the pedigree of talent producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind assembled for Superman 1 & 2, from the higher-powered cast to director Donner (who also helmed at least two-thirds of II even though Richard Lester gets sole directing credit) to cinematographer Unsworth to a legion of writers that included Mario Puzo, Robert Benton, David Newman and Tom Mankiewicz.


Very telling is that the best thing about Superman Returns is the recycled part of the musical score where John Ottman simply reuses many of the memorable themes John Williams originally composed all those years ago for Superman: The Movie


It's also very telling when Superman comes back and Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella) asks, "Does he still stand for truth, justice and all that other stuff?"  "All that other stuff?"  Superman always stood for "truth, justice and the American way."  Suddenly, what's so wrong with saying "the American way?"  Has modern-day Hollywood really become this unpatriotic or are they overly concerned about the sensitivities of the increasingly important international market?  Either way, the fact that they're either too chicken or embarrassed to say "the American way" is insulting.


There are enough predisposed-to-love-it, fantasy-loving fanboys out there to almost guarantee a good to great box-office gross for Superman Returns.  But is there one part of this movie people will be still talking about 8 weeks from now, let alone 28 years from now?  I think not.


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