It’s impossible to judge a mythology like Superman and I almost feel unpatriotic for giving it an average grade. Seeing the caped iconoclast on the big screen after a 20 year lay-off should be a real treat, and it is at times, but overall it doesn’t feel particularly super. Unfortunately, like the past three Star Wars films when you look at this one intellectually it just leads to frustration. It’s the old heart vs. head argument. I’m sure you’d like a quick look at both so it’s up, up, and away! Okay, that’s ridiculous and I solemnly promise it won’t happen again.
The story of Superman Returns is straightforward. Lex Luthor (Spacey) has discovered Superman’s fortress of solitude and hatches an evil plan for world domination with the requisite financial gain for himself. We are given a moody and interesting early Lex scene but overall Spacey doesn’t add a ton. No, he doesn’t care that a lot of people will be hurt by his actions. Yes, he’d really like to take a few shots at Superman too. Perhaps it is a little encouraging to see that some evil masterminds never change given the current state of world affairs. An innovative foil in the Superman universe might be a little too much reality for a Friday night. Kate Bosworth plays unrequited love interest Lois Lane except for this time she has a child that was brought into the world during Superman’s five year absence. He was off searching for Krypton and the movie opens with him crashing back onto the planet (thus the Return part of the title). The Daily Planet office remains much the same, Perry still screams for stories and photos; Olsen still provides a laugh line. Life is just as you left it at the Daily Planet except for now a bunch of flat screen TV’s are all over the place in a gentle nod to the modern era.
The discouraging thing about this one is that the flaws are abundant if you pay too much attention. There isn’t enough action; Superman doesn’t spend too much time in the cape. The love story is also a bit stale and feels largely irrelevant. The plot develops exactly as you’d figure if you’ve seen a movie in the past decade or so. It seems like Batman Begins still has the monopoly on how to execute a superhero movie. Where Batman Begins is edgy and action packed X-Men: The Last Stand is mediocre and Superman Returns is a just guy looking impressive. The bad news continues with Kumar, of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (Kal Penn) who plays one of Luthor’s henchmen but he doesn’t talk or get his character developed in the slightest so you think of him as Kumar for the entire movie. Superman Returns is very rarely captivating; instead it relies pretty heavily on your automatic predisposition to liking and enjoying the Superman character.
With all that taken into account some of the images and moments are fun. Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects and the first two X-Men films) has given Superman a great new look with a toned down maroon cape and some sweet skull cracking boots. There are a few scenes of real imagination and beauty that remind you why you once found Superman so awe inspiring in the first place. Parker Posey, as Lex’s gal, is always good to see, especially given the fact that our little indy queen probably cashed a huge check for this dog and pony show. The mythos that Superman is somehow the best of us while always being better than all of us is explored and built upon. Like a few religious icons you may have heard of Superman is very often screwed over by the very humanity he’s trying to protect. Overall your enjoyment of the film will probably be directly proportional to your acceptance of the archetype in the first place. If you adored Supes growing up you’ll find some moderate entertainment. If you want a flick that stands on its own you might end up not fully feeling it.
So that’s the verdict. An average grade for an icon that seeks to be exceptional. There is some good and some bad here, much like the portrayal of humanity itself throughout Superman Returns. If you add up all these crazy and jumbled components the conclusion is you should probably catch Superman Returns on the big screen. Should you rush out with your cape and be first in line? I don’t think I can go that far. His return would have needed to be far more glorious and triumphant for that kind of adulation. The expectations of something super after eight years of production on this project were probably too lofty and this isn’t a movie that will stand up well against the test of time. Maybe that’s the problem with superhero movies in general, you tend to want them to actually be super.