Surprisingly, Superman Returns is a sequel. It is not a re-imagining or a re-telling of the Superman mythos as you might expect it to be.
It is not concerned with origins. What it is concerned with is maintaining the story and continuity established with the first two films released way back in 1978 and 1980. Superman Returns picks up after the events in Superman II.
As a result, it’s a film with an extensive back-story and while you might question this move by director Bryan Singer and his X-Men scriptwriters it provides audiences with an extremely meaty film that is driven by a rich history.
Superman Returns went through what must have been a frustrating period of development hell before its re-birth on screen. The tale of how it got made is a lengthy one starting in 1987 when producers wanted to make a fifth instalment using left over footage from the poorly conceived fourth instalment, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Thankfully the fourth film bombed and the sequel was canned for the time being. A number of years later a Superman remake would resurface only to be greeted with more troubles as various directors – Tim Burton, McG (he of Charlie’s Angels fame) and X-Men 3 director Brett Ratner – would attach themselves to the project and then drop out. Casting also proved to be a nightmare because no established actors would sign on to play the man of steel. In 2004, however, Bryan Singer took over and re-conceptualised the project. Superman would finally make his return to the big screen.
Singer proves that he is the ultimate fan boy by maintaining and staying truthful to elements that include production design, dialogue – he lifts several lines from the 1978 original and re-uses them – and even actors. The deceased Marlon Brando, who played Superman’s father Jor-El, was recreated using archive footage and his powerful, often spiritual, voice over from the original films is utilised throughout this new film. This process of using aspects from the previous films works beautifully because if you are familiar with them you are immediately rewarded when the film begins – two words: title sequence – and you continue to be rewarded as the film progresses. Superman Returns is a return not only for the title character but also for audiences. I would describe it like coming home.
But what about the most important new element brought to the film? Namely, Brandon Routh’s portrayal of Superman? Christopher Reeve was undoubtedly a great Superman; the skill he displays in the original films when switching between clumsy alter ego Clark Kent and the always-confident man of steel is impressive. The man could certainly act and, I’m happy to say, so can Routh. He slips into both characters perfectly and I was amazed at how well the young actor had been cast. If you had any concerns about an unknown being cast as DC Comics’ flagship character you have nothing to worry about. It is a refreshing performance.
Superman Returns’ other two pivotal characters, Lex Luthor and love interest Lois Lane, are somewhat problematic. Kevin Spacey plays Luthor superbly but the script lets him down somewhat. The campiness of the first two films is maintained in sporadic moments throughout the film and together with his girlfriend/assistant Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) provide great moments of humour. However, much like the first two films, as Superman Returns developed I began to realise what a non-villain Lex Luthor actually was. He is an evil businessman and that’s it. The threat he poses to Superman when he doesn’t have kryptonite is minimal and as the film neared its conclusion I knew I was going to be disappointed. Superman returns to the public eye with a – literally – goose bump inducing aerial rescue which sadly represents the climax in a way. Lex, because he is merely a human, can’t match the challenge of a plane falling out of the sky and the film never tops what we see in the opening scenes.
Kate Bosworth is possibly more visually appealing than Margot Kidder but she doesn’t have the spunk that the original Lois Lane has. This Lois Lane is domesticated and she comes off feeling extremely plain at times. Bosworth does a good job but amongst all the elements that have been maintained from the previous films this Lois Lane is markedly different.
Superman Returns is a film that had me in awe because of its faithfulness to the films before it but also because Bryan Singer was able to pull off the task of bringing the man of steel back to the cinema screen. It’s a fantastic film that is only let down by an anti-climatic ending and several scenes that could have been trimmed down. To truly appreciate it I highly recommend that you watch the first two films in the series; it will make the experience of this new Superman all the more rewarding. Bryan Singer you have done fan boys around the world proud!