19 years after Superman IV: The Quest for Peace crashed and burned, taking the Superman franchise with it, a fifth film was finally released, acting as a sequel to Superman II while completely ignoring the events of the third and fourth installments. On its release, Superman Returns divided the fanbase and continues to do so to this day. The amount of criticism it gets is unfair: while by no means as good as Superman: The Movie, it’s still a good film.
Five years before the film begins, Superman (Brandon Routh) disappeared from Earth to look for the exploded ruins of his home planet Krypton. In the meantime, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has grown disillusioned with him, winning a Pulitzer Prize for her article Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman, married Richard White (James Marsden), and had a child. When Superman finally does return, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) immediately returns to plotting to kill him, and steals Kryptonite from a museum for the purpose.
Sadly, the film’s biggest problem is with its lead actor, Brandon Routh. In fairness to him, this is more due to questionable direction by Bryan Singer than an actual problem with his acting: he essentially hasn’t been allowed to act, but rather been told to do his best Christopher Reeve impression and run with it. To his credit, it’s a very good impression, but he’s still not Christopher Reeve, and instead of a new take on Superman, we just get a rehash of a past one. In terms of continuity with the previous films it works rather well, but it just makes you wish you actually were watching the late, great Christopher Reeve.
Happily, the rest of the cast pick up the slack. James Marsden is extremely good in his role as Superman’s rival for Lois’ love, and is very convincing as a man who is every bit as willing to be a hero as Superman, despite lacking superpowers. Considering how faithful Superman Returns is to Richard Donner’s films, Kevin Spacey turns in a surprisingly different version of Lex Luthor from Gene Hackman’s: gone is the slightly bumbling, comic take on the character, to be replaced with a vicious, evil psychopath who wants nothing more than to see Superman dead. Spacey’s performance is fantastic, and he manages to make Lex into probably the film’s most interesting character; and, where Hackman’s Luthor wore a wig most of the time, he stays bald for the whole film too.
More than the cast, what makes Superman Returns worth watching is the big special effects set pieces. With effects having advanced immeasurably from the days when Christopher Reeve wore the cape, some truly stunning sequences have been put to film here: the early one in which Superman rescues a crashing plane is a particular highlight, as well as being a fun reference to the scene in the first film where Superman rescues a crashing helicopter. And there is a scene where Superman, weakened by kryptonite, is brutally beaten by Luthor’s minions; in the sheer wrongness of seeing the Big Blue Boy Scout being hurt, it’s genuinely moving and quite difficult to watch. Naturally, John Williams’ immortal main theme helps a great deal with these scenes’ impact, providing the emotional heft where the script sometimes fails to do so.
Superman: The Movie is a classic. Superman Returns is merely very good in comparison, but it’s still absolutely worth a watch. For fans of the comics, there are lots of little in-jokes such as a scene where Superman lifts a car which looks exactly like the cover of Action Comics #1, and there’s a lot here for fans of big-budget epics as well. It’s flawed, but it doesn’t have the irritating slapstick which Richard Lester put in Superman II, and so probably counts as the second best Superman film overall. If nothing else, it makes me grateful that Brandon Routh got to be Superman instead of, as was going to happen in one stage of development, Nicolas Cage. It doesn’t bear thinking about.