My expectations for Superman Returns were incredibly high (especially since everything Bryan Singer’s done since The Usual Suspects with the exception of the “House” pilot has been dreck). Three stars. I don’t bother putting star ratings on The Stop Button, since whenever I see them in reviews, I look at them and then at not the review. Also, the New York Times doesn’t do it. Watching the previews for Superman Returns, I realized Singer wasn’t just making a sequel to the originals, he was structurally remaking the first Superman. That prediction proves true, but it’s not a bad thing. The first Superman film has a fine structure and it isn’t as though Returns was ever going to be as good as the first film. For moments during the film, it seemed like Superman Returns might get up to that three star level. The film runs two and a half hours, so there’s a lot of time for it to make up for early faults. During the first hour and a half, Singer cuts between Superman and company and Lex Luthor and company, which doesn’t work particularly well and there are major dips because of the pacing–and it takes a long time for Superman and Luthor to seem like they’re in the same film. The Luthor scenes have a comical, winking with the audience feel, while the rest doesn’t.
On an episode of “Boston Legal,” there was a line about winning a case in the closing testimony–going on and on and on until you’ve won the jury over. Singer implements that practice in Superman Returns. It doesn’t exactly have multiple endings–in fact, it doesn’t really have one–but he goes on and on until he’s gotten the film to where he can let it go. Singer obviously loves the film he’s made and there’s a lot to love about Superman Returns. While it never achieves the wonderment of the original film, the flying scenes in this film are breathtaking. Green screen special effects and computer compositing have finally gotten to good spot. But that ending trouble, it isn’t something inherent in the film, it’s all because of Singer’s structuring. Superman Returns has some great scenes, but whenever–with one exception I’ll get to–Singer deviates from that appropriated Superman structure, the film gets long.
As for the cast… Brandon Routh is fine. He’s good as Clark Kent and fine as Superman. Here’s the problem. Not enough Superman–and when there is Superman, Singer doesn’t let Routh do much. I wonder if there was a trust factor involved–I’m sure Singer wasn’t willing to let Routh end his career. Kate Bosworth is adequate as Lois Lane, but Superman Returns reconfigures her character so much, she’s not really Lois Lane anymore. She’s been domesticated. Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane never had long hair because she would have thought it too much of a fuss. Bosworth looks like she spends as much time combing hers as Marcia Brady. James Marsden plays Lois Lane’s fiancé, one of Superman Returns’s best innovations, and he’s actually really good. His action scenes are the exception I talked about before, where he shows human heroism, which nicely offsets the guy who can lift continents. I’d only seen Marsden in X-Men and thought he was the pits, but he gives the second best performance in Superman Returns. The first is Parker Posey. She’s great (she’s also been on “Boston Legal,” though not in the episode I was talking about). Kevin Spacey occasionally has fun as Lex Luthor, but he never embraces it like Gene Hackman did. I kept waiting for him to do it and it kept seeming like he would, but it never gets there. The rest of the supporting cast is fine, but not worth name-checking.
While my fiancée has no interest in ever seeing Superman Returns again–as she told me in no uncertain terms–I’m curious how a rewatch might affect the experience. I imagine it would have a positive effect, but I’m not sure how much (no matter how many times I watch it, for example, John Ottman’s score will never get better). For this entire post, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to lambaste Singer’s Ripley into the lava shot, which might have been all right, if the music weren’t so overbearing, but I’m having trouble–but now I think it’s the music’s fault. The music stops working at a certain point in the film. It stops relying on the John Williams score and it starts to sound cheap. Leaving the Williams score behind is a bad idea, given Superman Returns’s agreement with the audience is solely based on the images the score conjures and breaking that agreement is what gets Superman Returns into the most trouble. And the little kid. The little kid gets real annoying.
While the film didn’t earn the three I wanted, it did get two and a half, which isn’t bad–even with all the problems, it’s still Superman.