Superhero Month: "Superman Returns" Review

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The fifth and final installment of the superhero-themed motion picture series, Superman Returns tells the story of the title character (played by Brandon Routh) returning to Earth after a five year absence. He finds that his love interest, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), has moved on with her life, and that his archenemy Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is plotting a scheme that will destroy the world, starting with the United States. Also playing key supporting roles in the 2006 film are actors James Marsden, Frank Langella & Parker Posey.
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Superhero Month: "Superman Returns" Review

-- Rating: PG-13 (for some intense action and violence)
Length: 154 minutes
Release Date: June 28, 2006
Directed by: Brian Singer
Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Cast: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, and Kevin Spacey

Since 1936, Superman has been the king of comic-book heroes. Hardly a person alive in the world today doesn't know by heart that he's "faster than a speeding locomotive [and] able to leap tall buildings in a single bound." It is therefore fitting that the Man of Steel was the first comic-book hero to get his own feature-length movie. The first effort was brought to screen in 1978 and starred everyone who mattered at the time, including Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, and Christopher Reeve in the role that defined his career from then on. This was followed by a string of increasingly regrettable movies that culminated in 1987's "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" and a long silence at the box office.

In time, the franchise would revive. Indeed, it was the 1996 "Superman" series that taught the world how to say "gritty reboot." As with so much else about "Superman," this idea was novel and innovative at the time, and it breathed new life into the movies. The year 1996 was a good choice for the reboot, as it coincided with the rise in filmgoers' interest in seeing big-budget action films based on the comic books that so many of them had grown up with. In the years to come, literally dozens of such films would find warm welcomes in theaters and DVD players across the country and around the world. The graphic novel had arrived as Hollywood gold, and it has proved to be the gift that hasn't stopped giving. Ultimately, "Superman" is to thank for this, and it is "Superman Returns" that has most recently taken up the mantle of the franchise and, with it, that of the genre.

As befits a film with such a storied background, the plot of "Superman Returns" is rather involved. Superman has defeated his fellow Kryptonians Zed, Ursa, and Non and decides to slip away for a bit to see if there's anything left of his old homeworld. There isn't, so Superman heads back to what he knows for sure is his only home: Earth. Unfortunately, a tangled web awaits him when he finds not only that Lois Lane has become engaged to a relative of their boss at the Daily Planet but that Lex Luthor is once again up to his old tricks and is conning an old woman out of her fortune. All of this pales, however, as it comes to light that Luthor is still sore over the way Superman kept him from blowing up California that one time and now intends to embark on a scheme to destroy all of North America in a plot that's truly worthy of a supervillain such as himself.

Obviously, after thirty-five years, the "Superman" movies aren't going to be starring the same classic cast of actors who defined the roles in the first few films. In "Superman Returns," the role of Superman is played by Brandon Routh, who had previously been known for his roles in "Gilmour Girls" and "Will & Grace." This kind of background doesn't exactly cry out for a role as the title character in one of the most successful fantasy franchises in human history, but to everyone's great relief, Routh was able to pull it off without a hitch. Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey are memorable as Lois Lane and Lex Luthor, respectively. The existing tension between these two supporting characters has gone totally unremarked since the late 1930s, but the lucky stroke of casting the two veterans of "Beyond the Sea" put together two actors with a history and serious affinity for each other, not to mention an intimate understanding of each other's styles and pacing. Their onscreen chemistry provides an interesting new twist to a very old franchise, and one feels the loss of a certain opportunity for the way "Superman Returns" passed up the chance to further develop it.

"Superman Returns" was directed by Bryan Singer, who was fresh from a series of dramatic triumphs as a director and producer and was on his way to further triumphs with such films as "X2." Singer's greatest asset as a director has been his producer's eye for the big picture, which has always allowed him to organize his shoots with a deep understanding of the scene's place, not just in the movie at large, but in the overarching sweep of the entire franchise. A franchise as large as "Superman" may have proved a challenge for this approach, but it isn't apparent from Singer's direction.

"Superman Returns" came out at a critical point in the history of comic hero movies. Hollywood had learned the profit-making potential of such films, but they hadn't yet come to totally dominate the summer releases. "Superman Returns" helped to push the genre to the next level.

Rating: 3 out of 5