You are bound to leave Superman Returns buzzing about "the scene." It's our first real glimpse in the film of the Man of Steel in action, the first genuine indication that the spandex-clad savior has, indeed, returned.
Here's setting for the scene: Intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth
), now a Pulitzer Prize winner, is covering a groundbreaking, mid-air shuttle launch. The spacecraft is poised to detach from a jumbo jet miles over the East coast and continue its jaunt through the stratosphere. But a massive power outage caused by Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey
) prevents a smooth transition, so Superman (newcomer Brandon Routh
) must quickly separate the speeding crafts, catapult the rocket through the stars, then rush back to earth to catch the now-burning airliner before it lands on the pitcher's mound of a populated baseball diamond. Article continues below
The sequence is mindblowing. It's the sole reason some will pay extra to see Superman Returns on an IMAX screen. And it's the culmination of a brilliant first act, which begins with John Williams' triumphant score blasting behind imaginative opening credits and reintroduces a universe created in vintage comic books and best realized by the first two Superman movies in 1978 and 1980.
It also occurs way too early – roughly 30 minutes into this 157-minute marathon – and the picture basically levels off to a steady jog from that point forward. There's a reason roller-coaster designers don't put the biggest drops in the opening stretch of track. Gaining momentum seems easy for Superman Returns. Sustaining it is another story.
The movie still soars, mainly because director Bryan Singer
shows immense respect for his source material, a dedication that elevated his two X-Men movies. He follows a blueprint established by the earlier Superman films, Richard Donner
's masterful origin story and Richard Lester's adventurous sequel. In the character's cinematic timeline, Singer's story occurs after Superman II but wisely pretends the ill-conceived third and fourth films never happened.
After a five year absence, Superman and his alter-ego Clark Kent have come back to Metropolis to find that the world has moved on. In a sense, everything has changed. Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint
) is widowed. Lane has a steady beau (James Marsden
) and a five-year-old son (Tristan Lake Laebu
). And yet, some things never change: Free from prison, Luthor recruits another bumbling crew to hatch a land-grab scheme that could sink a massive chunk of North America.
Singer thinks big, and his creative team delivers. The director's budget reportedly ballooned, but it is, for the most part, money well spent. The production design is exquisite. Singer catches breathless aerial shots of Superman soaring through sun-drenched clouds and coal-black space. Metropolis is a fully realized location, not a chintzy cityscape in a studio back lot. Equal attention is paid to the Kent farm, the Fortress of Solitude, and the inner bowels of the Daily Planet.
Top talk revolves around the effects, mainly because they're more important than the cast. Routh is a find, a ringer for Christopher Reeve who has a light comedic touch that's evident in his Clark scenes. Bosworth isn't right for her role. She's squeaky clean in places Lois is programmed to be conniving and career-oriented. Frank Langella
is underused as Perry White, Parker Posey
is overused as Luthor's right-hand lady, and Marsden is more personable than I can ever remember.
Singer's reverence for Donner's vision damages Returns in one crucial manner – no matter how he is performed (and it's usually for comic relief), Luthor always makes for a terrible on-screen villain. It's wasn't Gene Hackman's fault, and it isn't Spacey's. The actor plays the criminal mastermind with sinister confidence. But Luthor's grand plan sets up an anti-climactic finale that forces the picture to fade out instead of ending on a bang. In between, Superman skips through minor action scenes that fail to measure up with the almighty shuttle rescue.
Yes, this keeps in line with Superman's wholesome legacy. Regular readers of D.C. Comics understand that Kal-El's commitment to truth, justice, and the American way made him a muscular Boy Scout, particularly when compared to Batman
, his unofficial counterpart. Despite an ability to bend steel, Superman typically bends to the will of his love interest, Lois. And with a dollop of Kryptonite, enemies can ensure he'll be as tough as a toddler in no time. In this aspect, Returns is extremely faithful to the hero's roots. But after five feature-length films, I think fans are ready to see Superman at full strength. Singer and his crew must be saving it for their sequels.