Superman Returns ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

It's funny how one's perceptions of a film can be heavily influenced by external matters. When I saw Superman Returns in 2006, part of me thrilled at the connections to the earlier movies starring Christopher Reeve (I think this may have been the most excited I'd been to that point sitting through opening credits), but I felt that the film didn't go far enough in trying to do anything new...and that in the one key area where it did, it was a colossal mistake.

I stand by that overall assessment of the movie, but I found myself enjoying it a lot more seven years later as my final movie choice of 2013. I will freely admit to catching myself smiling at several parts, even throughout a couple entire passages, and that I teared up more than once. That entire section where Superman rescues the imperiled airplane/shuttle launch is precisely what I pay money hoping to see in a Superman movie. It's thrilling from start to finish, even though it's a foregone conclusion that he will save everyone. That's part of the appeal of Superman; we trust him to save everyone.

I've heard some people complain that Kevin Spacey was too hammy as Lex Luthor, but for my money, his performance is one of the best things about not just this movie, but the entire Superman movie franchise. Gene Hackman may have a more impressive overall filmography than Spacey, but I was never particularly enamored with Hackman's Luthor. Spacey has more compelling presence. I find myself thinking about him when he isn't on the screen, whereas I don't really give much thought at all to Hackman's Luthor's whereabouts.

Luthor's scheme and character arc are entirely recycled, though, which is disappointing. Having recently revisited the entire Reeve-era movies, including both Superman and the Richard Donner cut of Superman II earlier the same day, I can accept that they stayed true to Luthor's single-mindedness, but I still wish he'd had something new on his mind this time.

Almost universally panned was Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, bashed for having no charisma in the role. I'm now willing to acquit her of those charges on the basis that she actually nailed the nature of Lois as she was written in this story. It isn't that she has no chemistry with the amiable Brandon Routh. It's that her Lois has a hell of a chip on her shoulder toward Superman, and when you expect to see Lois and Superman as star-crossed lovers, it doesn't track for her to spurn him. For Lois Lane to reject Superman feels like the film rejecting its own heritage.

It actually is an interesting storytelling decision, but what simply does not work is Lois Lane being engaged to Richard White and having a son. I can appreciate that Bryan Singer's father/son theme was intended to connect directly with what Donner had done (or, at least, intended to do), and taken as a trilogy with his cut of Superman II, I'll concede that it does connect with, and even pay off, those earlier themes.

That doesn't change the fact that it's a terrible idea.

There's simply nowhere for Superman - or his relationship with Lois - to go. They can't be together without wronging Richard White, whom we're reminded is "a good man". Yet, they have to be connected to one another; they've got a son, for one thing, but more than that, they're Superman and Lois Lane.

In my observations about Donner's cut of Superman II, I posited that the film ought to have ended with the two of them confronting having to accept that they can't be a couple. I stand by that. Superman wanting and having to win back Lois after a cooling off period is rich storytelling ground. If Lois had not been saddled with the kid and the fiance, it could have been extremely gratifying to see them reach a point in their relationship where they decide to face things together. It worked in the comics for most of the last 20 years, Lois knowing that Clark was Superman, and them even getting married. It could easily work in a movie, or even a movie series.

It's Richard White himself who provides the perfect summary of the Superman/Lois relationship and why it has to exist. When bringing Lois to the hospital, he assuages her apprehensions that she may not even get to see him by stating, "You're Lois Lane. They'll let you in." I teared up at that. Take Richard White out of the story entirely and have Jimmy Olsen say that line, and I guarantee I weep for days.

My other predominant criticism of Superman Returns since I first saw it in 2006 is that I was really put off by its blatant Superman-is-Jesus content. I can't deny that the roots for that go back to Donner's first film, so blame for the thematic concept may not lie at Singer's feet, but I found the film's handling clumsy and ham-fisted just the same.

The most irksome moment is Crucified Superman falling in space, though I'll concede that it seemed to be over a lot more quickly this time on DVD than it felt seven years ago in a theater. Being a key image shown in promo trailers and on posters may have made that bit feel greater at the time than it really is in the film. I'll also concede that there is one actually great moment in the story to come from Superman-as-Jesus:

Superman: Listen. What do you hear?
Lois: Nothing.
Superman: I hear everything. You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior. But every day, I hear people crying for one.

That's a terrific summary of the case for the character (and, by extension, his movie franchise). It's one of several things that Superman Returns got right, which is why it's all the more maddening that those pros are so roundly blunted by its cons.

Earlier this year I saw Man of Steel, which has some satisfying elements but is largely dismal. Superman Returns is a mixed bag, but one thing it got entirely right is that Superman cares about humanity. Superman should want to try to be our savior...but he shouldn't be presented as Christlike in his attempt. That's the point of his Smallville upbringing, to keep him humble enough that he sees himself as "trying" to do good in the world.

There's enough Smallville in Superman Returns that this Superman can be trusted to rescue people instead of level half a city and write it off as collateral damage, but there wasn't enough Smallville in Singer as he presented Superman to us.

Superman Returns Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#996/1610)

Superman Returns > Shrek --> #805
Superman Returns < Barbershop --> #805
Superman Returns > The Hidden Fortress --> #603
Superman Returns < Superman II --> #603
Superman Returns > The Fox and the Hound --> #552
Superman Returns > Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me --> #527
Superman Returns > The Dark Knight Rises --> #515
Superman Returns > Dressed to Kill --> #508
Superman Returns < A Christmas Carol (1951) --> #508
Superman Returns > Despicable Me --> #506

Superman Returns was re-ranked on my Flickchart to #506/1610