Superman Returns – Movie Review (***1/2)

(Originally posted on 06-30-06)

If I could, without having to rewrite the whole review, I would go back and change the rating I gave to Batman Begins from four stars to 3 and a half. Not because I think any less of it now, on the contrary, I still think it is a great reboot of a lost and struggling franchise/property (man, when did we start referring to fictional characters and stories as franchises and properties – how sad and cynical is that? …or is it just me?).

Everything else I said in that review I still stand by, I just no longer think I should have given it the top most rating that I did and that is mainly because I firmly believe Superman Returns is a better movie – but as I write this review I just do not feel comfortable giving it the full four stars.

In my book, the original 1978 Superman is probably the best superhero adaptation of all. Yeah, yeah, I know, it hasn’t held up terribly well – the special effects are dated and Margot Kidder comes across as a bit early stage bat-eyed nuts, but its heart was in absolutely the right place and it totally captured what I loved about the character. It was a movie that completely understood its own history and stayed as true to it as possible. There were no hidden (or even overt) agendas in it. It just took great joy in what it was and had no pretensions to being anything more than that – which is cool… and rare… I mean I am pretentious as hell, so I admire anyone or anything that can avoid that whole trap, especially in a big-budget movie.

I wasn’t as big a fan of Superman 2, though. The effects suffered more in the flying battles over Metropolis, and the camp factor was turned up more than in the first one, and Margot Kidder was looking even more bat-eyed nuts than previously.

I am sure it is obvious that the original Superman was an important film to me in my youth. It spoke to the “me” that I was then. And I think that is why I like Superman Returns so much. It speaks to the “me” that I am now – which still includes a pretty big chunk of that “me” from then (at least that is the message I get when I am told I need to start acting like an adult). It is still the same Superman and Clark Kent (played wonderfully close to the Christopher Reeve interpretations without being flat out impersonations by Brandon Routh) that I stared up at on the big screen when I was a kid. It has basically grown up with me, with all of those building blocks from the first one still in place.

All of the other characters are still pretty much there, too, the only one that seems drastically different being Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth doesn’t come across as nearly nuts as Margot Kidder did, but in the same instance she doesn’t really make the role her own, either). Kevin Spacey has a little sharper edge as Lex Luthor than Gene Hackman had and Parker Posey was great in a way too small role as Luthor’s girl friend Kitty Kawalski.

The story picks up approximately six years after the events of Superman 2. Superman has gone across the galaxy to search out his home planet of Krypton only to find it destroyed. Upon his return to Earth he tries to pick his life back up where he had left it off only to find that it has moved on without him – Lois has a child and is engaged to get married.

And there is some silliness with Lex Luthor stealing some crystals from the Fortress of Solitude and a plan to grow a new continent in the Atlantic ocean threatening Metropolis and the world.

The beauty of this movie, to me, is that it isn’t so much about Superman saving the day and rescuing the world (which he does admirably, of course) as it is about a man coming to grips with how he really fits into the lives of those he loves and learning to accept that.

Yeah, I understand that it wasn’t packed full to the brim with action; it’s just… mindless action is easy – you can get it on a budget from the SciFi channel (not nearly as pretty as what you can get on the big screen with a budget, granted…). A grown up story from the heart is difficult. There is nothing in Bryan Singer’s resume (Usual Suspects, X-men 1 and 2, Apt Pupil) that has indicated that he had it in him to pull something like this off. But he did it. And that makes me happy that I completely underestimated him.

Why not four full stars? Selfish reasons, purely. I think I want to start saving the four stars for movies that come out of nowhere and are as close to perfect as possible. Movies that I don’t find myself second guessing (like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Shaun of the Dead).

Still, even though I am not giving it four stars and it may not be everyone’s ideal for his return to the silver screen, it worked for me. It goes at the top of my list of Superhero movies. Up there with the original Superman, and in front of Batman Begins. Now I am going to start chewing my fingernails expecting the worst from the sequel if ever there is one.

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