A fan of the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films will find Superman Returns to be a fun, affectionate follow-up. A fan of the other two Christopher Reeve Superman films does not, so far as I am aware, exist—so this will be the last mention of them.
One might think this film to have been a general failure, considering that this film came out only seven years before yet another reboot (Man of Steel, which I'll be waiting for home video to see). While it's pretty evident why Superman Returns failed to spawn a franchise, on its own merits, it's actually fairly competent. Some sequences are truly cool, the effects are weak only once or twice, and it lacked a lot of the sorts of cliches we've gotten so used to that we don't even complain about them anymore. (Well, it had one big one: a female lead too young to be believable as her character. When did Lois start working at the Daily Planet? When she was twelve?)
And one thing Superman Returns does better than its predecessors is those occasional moments where you sense just how dangerous Superman could be. Credit Brandon Routh, whose performance is otherwise "meh" (more on that "meh" below), with conveying a tinge of threat in a way Reeve never did. Superman shouldn't be an antihero, but when you think about the concept of this character for a while, you realize how scary he is.
Speaking of scary, Kevin Spacey is the villain. That fact alone was what almost persuaded me to see this in the theater when it came out. I don't regret waiting, but Spacey's performance doesn't disappoint. He nails both the comic and scary aspects of Luthor, more so than even Gene Hackman did. And he looks good bald. I would have liked to see this character evolve in (what would presumably have been deeper, more serious) sequels.
Those plusses aside, Superman Returns had a lot of things working against it.
1 - It came out after Batman Begins.
The Reeve films had an aw-shucks quality that Superman Returns apes through most of its running time. I knew this would be noticeable enough to cause problems as soon as Parker Posey's character appeared.
Now I'm not saying superhero movies can't be like that. I actually found it refreshing, perhaps owing to Grim-Man fatigue after The Dark Knight Rises (about which I complained more fully here). But 2006 would seem to have been poor timing, in terms of mass appeal.
2 - It leans too heavily on its predecessors.
In its reverent tone, heavy backstory, and frequent Brando voiceovers, this feels very much like a movie by and for superfans, and I'll bet this alienated some viewers. Mrs. Fraught remembered almost nothing from the Reeve installments, and, as she also lacks even the remedial comic-book awareness that I get by with, I had to periodically pause the DVD and explain "This is why this is happening" and "This is the aspect of Superman's history/powers/personality they're dealing with here." The script itself provides only occasional and insufficient background of this sort.
3 - Brandon Routh's performance hits only a few targets.
This is a challenging character in many ways (and not just for the studio!). For an actor to really BE Superman, he's got to strike a delicate balance on multiple fronts. Superman has to be likeable, but not approachable; imposing, but not unsettling; tough, but not thuggish; smart, but not Batman; different, but not weird. Judging from its trailers, Man of Steel elected to embrace the "alien demigod" angle, and I could see that working if you want a Nolanesque Superman.
And while Routh has the visage of a Greek deity, his charisma level is not quite up to it—to seem godlike, an actor needs a certain undefinable something, "gravitas" to be simplistic about it, and Routh hasn't got it. I was actually familiar with Routh from his stint as Seth on One Life to Live during the few years Mrs. Fraught was watching it (ergo, we referred to this movie as Super-Seth). It says something about his acting chops at that stage in his career that, when we learned he was the next Superman, we were mutually incredulous.
To be fair, he did okay here. His best moments are those that show Superman's emotional vulnerability—at times he looks like he's about ready to go on an Emo-Anakin rampage, and I mean that as a compliment, more or less. But when he's called upon to seem remote and larger-than-life, he seems wooden or stoned instead, and in Clark Kent mode? He's basically doing a Reeve impression. It's a good one—but it's an impression.
4 - It's too long and slow.
In this way, and possibly on purpose, it resembles the 1978 Superman. I don't have a problem with that—again, it was refreshing in this case: the rare modern movie that's willing to take its time, especially when it isn't also stuffed with too many characters and plot points (but enough about The Dark Knight Rises). Sometimes, though, Superman Returns is paced too languorously, almost indulgently, and I can imagine word-of-mouth suffering as a result.
5 - Its ending is weak.
I can accept that Supe's super-strength is super enough to lift an island and throw it into orbit. I can't accept that he could do this when the island is largely made of kryptonite. And then, after he ends up in the hospital for doing just that, there's an eye-rollingly lame "Superman's dead!" fake-out. I suppose they figured they had to include a resurrection, what with all the Christ symbolism.
All that said, I expected it to be lamer all around than it was. I could imagine kids really liking Superman Returns, and maybe that was the point. Maybe they knew they couldn't out-Nolan Nolan. I'm glad they decided not to try, even if it meant this reboot had to be re-rebooted. Hence the decision to sign on Nolan for Man of Steel—which seems to portend a ceaseless regime of too-serious superhero movies, unless all this scuttlebutt about Guardians of the Galaxy is meant to suggest that that movie's actually gonna get made.
Star Score: 3 out of 5