Despite the passage of almost three decades, the recycled John Williams theme music not only took me back, but it begged comparisons between Superman Returns and the 1978 Christopher Reeve classic Superman. How does this one match up against its predecessor? How does Brandon Routh do against Reeve? What about Kate Bosworth vs. Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, or Kevin Spacey vs. Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor? In fact, there were so many echoes of the ’78 movie (Marlon Brando’s original footage as the holographic spectre of super-father Jor-el is also reused) that you might even consider it a remake in spirit. In Superman Returns, the nostalgia-factor really captured my interest at the start, but without a good, strong story, it really couldn’t hold on to it.
Back to the comparisons: Routh is actually pretty good as Clark/Superman. It’s obvious that he’s kind of doing an imitation of Christopher Reeve’s performance, but it’s a good imitation. On the other hand, Kate Bosworth was a tepid Lois—too serious and too stiff. I really missed the spunk and humour of Margot Kidder. Kevin Spacey took a typically Spacey spin on Luthor, playing him more heartlessly sarcastic than Hackman did, but the flaw in his character really comes from the script which paradoxically made him into a clever-tongued, evil genius whose plan was both ridiculous and poorly-executed (it involved geology and real estate for Kal-el’s sake!).
Overall, the movie’s plot was disjointed and meandering, going from Luthor and his henchmen to a pointless love triangle between Superman, Lois, and her new boyfriend, to Superman saving people from various disasters. The movie attempts to address a more philosophical question: Does the world need Superman? i.e. Does the world need heroes and saviours? But it doesn’t really spend much time exploring in any depth. Superman has been away for five years and we’re meant to assume that the world has moved on, but when he comes back and saves a plane from crashing, the people cheer and we’re meant to understand that, yes, the world does need him after all. It’s just such a trivial treatment of the question. It makes me wonder not so much why did Superman return, but why was Superman remade?
Though the effects in 1978 were alright, the one area where this new movie is miles above is in the visuals and effects. There are a number of set pieces where Superman saves people from plane crashes, falling buildings, and armed robbery that are just thrilling to watch. Even the images of Superman flying are incredibly realistic and cool. I even liked the way they kept showing him floating high in the upper atmosphere looking down on the earth (Plus I got to watch them in IMAX 3D—Ooo!). This film added a few realistic touches to the super-heroics, such as when Superman holds up a plane to keep it from crashing, the shockwave ripples along the body of the plane and eventually the nose of the plane crushes in against his grip. I appreciated the extra thought that went into those details. (Too bad the realism also made me skeptical of his ability to get to all the simultaneous crimes and catastrophes that may have been occurring. Whenever he’d stop for a breather or to chat with Lois, I kept thinking, Shouldn’t you be off already? I’m sure someone needs your help at this moment.)
Suffice it to say, Superman Returns was not very satisfying. I was disappointed that for a character that can literally move mountains, his movie should be so lightweight. (3.5 out of 5)