REVIEW: The Man of Steel is back, but should we care?

super05_006Warning: This review contains major plot spoilers.

In our universe, Superman II was released a quarter of a century ago, appearing to take place in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s.

In the universe of Superman Returns, however, Superman II took place only five years ago. And the events of Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace never took place at all.

Don’t spend too much time thinking about that. Just accept it, and move on. For what is old is new again, and Superman is back.

And by Superman, I mean Superman in his full John-Williams-themed glory. Superman, where just watching the opening credits is part of the fun, part of the experience. Superman, with his massive fortress of solitude built from Kryptonian crystals. The movie Superman. A Superman once thought gone forever.

Surprisingly, Superman Returns manages the impossible. It feels like a true continuation of Superman II, like a sequel that never was but should have been. Sure, there was a Superman III and even a IV, but those movies were sequels in name and characters only.

Superman Returns is actually a sequel to the storyline laid out in Superman and Superman II, a logical continuation. Writer/director Bryan Singer sets this tone early. The opening credits wisely mirror Superman and Superman II, but with updated effects.

Singer keeps the “old is new” tone throughout. He peppers the visuals and dialog with references to the original Superman movies. Flying is still the safest form of travel, Superman (Brandon Routh) reminds us. And Clark is still comfortable using the word “swell.” John Ottman appropriately uses the John Williams Superman themes early and often, along with complementary new music.

Since 1978, the shadow of Christopher Reeve has loomed over the role of Superman. He was so ideal that he defined the role, becoming a generation’s idealized image of the character.

There are at least two ways to approach the inevitable Reeve comparisons in a Superman production.

The 1990’s Lois & Clark television series tried to avoid the issue by making Clark the central character and relegating Superman to a supporting role. This decade’s Smallville television series takes this approach one step farther by focusing entirely on Clark, eliminating the Superman angle all together.

Superman Returns wisely takes the Christopher Reeve issue head on. Rather than try to avoid comparisons, Superman Returns welcomes them. And out of Reeve’s shadow flies Brandon Routh.

Routh seems a natural for both Superman and Clark. Is he Christopher Reeve? No. Is Routh Superman? Superman Returns proves that he is.

Routh’s convincing performance leaves no doubt that this is the same character once played by Reeve. The transition is seamless. The movie’s tallest hurdle and biggest question mark becomes its highest accomplishment. Routh is the key to Superman Returns, and his performance carries the movie. He brings new strength to Clark and a new sensitivity to Superman.

super05_056The main plot, involving Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) trying to use the power of Kryptonian crystals to create his own continent while killing billions in the process, is somewhat reminiscent of the first Superman movie’s plot—even down to Luthor’s female sidekick feeling compassion towards Superman and helping to thwart Luthor in the end.

Although the crystal aspect of the plot is a clever use of the Superman movie continuity, Superman Returns suffers a tiny bit from an issue that also affected the first Superman movie. It is a bit too long and would have benefited from more trimming in the editing room.

Subplots, involving a fiancé (Richard White, played by James Marsden) and a five-year-old child (Jason White, played by Tristan Lake Leabu) for Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) offer interesting new twists to the Superman mythos. While it brings a certain vulnerability to Superman, hopefully screen time will not dramatically increase for Lois and Superman’s son should there be a sixth movie.

For many, Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor is just as definitive as Reeve’s portrayal of Superman. Spacey does a decent job here of portraying a darker Luthor, hardened by prison time, but unlike Routh, Spacey’s performance often feels more like an imitation.

Bosworth is effective as Lois Lane, but does not leave a memorable stamp on the role. Perhaps this Lois seems a bit timid compared to ones portrayed by Margot Kidder and Teri Hatcher, but she is also at a different point in her life having had to deal with the unexpected departure of Superman and arrival of motherhood. Bosworth also gets to play one of the best Lois scenes ever, where she saves Superman for a change.

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To set up potential sequels, Superman Returns leaves many unresolved threads:

· How will Lois choose between Richard and Superman?
· What are the ramifications if Superman is unable to recover the Kryptonian crystals?
· Given that he knows Jason’s heritage, what will Luthor do when he escapes the island?
· What will Lois find out about her “forgotten” Superman II memories when she confronts Superman about how Jason could be his son?
· Does kryptonite strengthen Jason rather than weaken him?
· Does Jason know that Clark is Superman?

The concluding moment of the movie is a Superman fly-by in space over Earth, a direct homage to how each of the four Reeve movies ended. After the cast credits, a tasteful dedication to Christopher and Dana Reeve appears. These reminders that this was the first modern Superman movie without Reeve brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. Superman Returns both embraces Reeve and bids him farewell with style.

Superman Returns makes me care that the Man of Steel is back.

Story: 8 (out of 10)
Performances: 9
Visual Style: 10
Effects: 10
Music: 10
Overall: 9