Reviewing Superman Returns

I was invited to a screening of Superman III last night and enjoyed the experience. First, it was terrific seeing friends and former co-workers, playing catch-up and all that. Second, I got to see Jeff Rovin, my new boss, since he left his personal Fortress of Solitude to come for the screening. Third, the Loews AMC on 34th Street is a nice theatre so was very comfortable.


Superman III isn’t as much a remake of the Robert Vaughn/Richard Pryor misfire as it was a reimagining of Superman the Movie. Director Bryan Singer was clearly channeling Richard Donner’s interpretation of the classic super-hero and there were many terrific touches throughout the film that brought a smile to my face.

On the other hand, for every nice subtle nod to the past, there were whole chunks of the first feature reshot for the new film. For example, it was wonderful seeing the photo of Glen Ford on the Kent mantle place. But the number of lines lifted from the first film got to be too much. We get it, it’s the same world from the first two features, it’s just five years later and really, not too much has changed.

The Kent Farm is gorgeous when the sun is on the horizon. Check.

Lois is endangered in an aircraft. Check.

Lex Luthor wants to recreate real estate so he can own it and gain power. Check.

The story had all the right themes, good doses of action and a final threat directly tied to the title character. What is lacked though was the necessary internally consistent logic to keep us from scratching our heads. How the Kryptonian crystals are used, how the kryptonite hurts and weakens Superman, and the entire threat to the Eastern seaboard comes and goes at the writers’ whim. From a pacing point of view, the half hour finally the action-packed climax, sags and people start to look at their watches. There’s really no final moment; it sort of just ends.

(And now I’ll talk about the key spoiler moment that has been given away elsewhere and is not really a spoiler to those who know anything about the movie.)

Lois has a child and it’s implied at one point that Superman is the father. Then we’re teased for the next hour as to whether or not it’s true. At no point is it stated so on camera. At no point are we given an explanation for the one super-powered moment attributed to the kid (nicely played, by the way). But let me be clear: this fundamental change to the Superman mythos, the one original addition to what came before, doesn’t work. Not because it’s a child out-of-wedlock or Kate Bosworth looks too young to be a mom, but simply because it’s off to the side. More of the film should have been about this rather significant plot point. Lois doesn’t address how she intends to raise a potentially super-powered child, Clark/Superman doesn’t offer emotional, financial or other support, nor does he even seem to consider sharing the news with his mother, who knows something about raising a child just learning to use his powers.

Towards the end, in a film filled with people repeating their own lines from previous films or repeating lines from other character, Singer and the writers missed a sure bet. As Superman stands over the sleeping child, he repeats lines from Jor-El. What should have happened was his mixing lines from Jor-El as well as Jonathan Kent, an indication of the influence both men had on the man Kal-El has grown to be. “The son becomes the father and the father the son” could have been beside “You’re here for a reason” and audiences would have been more satisfied. Or at least this audience of one.

What worked for me were the powers. I believed. I thought the flying was the best movie flying of all time, casual and effortless. Superman’s use of multiple powers such as flying and heat vision showed a man experienced and confident in his skills. Even his frequent use of speed was well handled, especially showing the heat friction as he gained speed, breaking the sound barrier (nice visual touch and amazing it hadn’t been done on screen before).

What didn’t work for me were several characters and the casting. No, I don’t mean the lovely cameos by Noel Neill and Jack Larson, a nod to the rich heritage of the character. But Parker Posey either looked grim or sad and was given absolutely nothing to do. Her character was entirely unnecessary to the film so one wonders why the indie star even bothered.

Kate Bosworth was not Lois Lane. Lois is driven, career before all else, gutsy and determined. Kate was too young to be a successful career reporter who happened to have a 5 year old son. She looked too young on her own and looked too young when paired with both James Marsden and Brandon Routh.

Routh made for a convincing Superman and Clark Kent. Like Singer channeled Donner, Routh clearly played it like Christopher Reeve. He was leaner and perhaps not as handsome, but pulled off the dual identity quite well.

Kevin Spacey surpassed Gene Hackman as Luthor because Donner had Hackman play the character comically while Spacey used some of that to shade his villain. He had the right dose of rage against the “alien” and their fight was everything you wanted to see between the two.

Frank Langella had the right gravitas, if not the right amount of bluster, as Perry White and Eva Marie Saint didn’t have enough to do (her entire sub-plot with James Karen will have to wait for the DVD). Sam Huntington’s Jimmy Olsen is fun and James Marsden reminds us he can act after being criminally neglected in X-Men 3.

I was smiling a lot through the film, cheered at times and grimaced at others. I liked it but wanted to love it and as a result, am ultimately disappointed by what could have been.

8 comments

  • Ross

    You brought up so many points. One thing that bothered me- ok, two things- were Superman’s almost stalker like status when he spies on Lois and the family. “Gee, I have super powers; let’s go see what my Ex-girlfriend is doing.”

    And second, when Superman was in the room at the end, with the child, that REALLY bothered me. I even expressed it outloud during the film (“Now that’s creepy”). I realize why they did it, but still, it could have been something he did from afar, instead of having to be IN THE ROOM.

  • Alan Kistler

    You know, I didn’t think about that bit of adding Jonathan’s lines with Jor-El’s, but now that you’ve brought it up I have to say you’re absolutely right. They should have done that. Jor-El gave Kal his purpose, but Jonathan gave Clark his soul.

    The boy’s one moment of super-abilities made sense to me in that this is a human/Kryptonian hybrid. I imagine his body will not immediately adjust to storing enough solar energy to give him continual powers, so for many years he’ll just have a spurt here and a spurt there. Also, I wasn’t too bothered by the lack of Superman offering support or anything becuase 1, he just found out at the end, so I figured we’d get to that in the next movie and 2, it didn’t look to me like Lois was going to leave Richard, so I’m guessing that Superman’s basically going to let Jason have his human family and watch him from afar for a while, waiting for the time to come when the kid’s ready to learn about his heritage.

    But you’re right about that ending speech. Dammit. Now the movie is less than perfect for me. ARGH! 😛

  • SupermanFan001

    Super Spoiler Ahead for those who didn’t see the film. Don’t read this if you didn’t see the film!

    Superman Returns was better than the original. In this version Superman leaves earth for five years to explore the remains of Krypton. In that time 9/11 occurs. Lois writes a Pulitzer Prize winning article “Why We don’t need a Superman.” She eventually develops a relationship with Perry White’s son. We get the impression the offspring is from her bond with her new man. Although after the first hour we get to see who the son’s father really is.

    There are scenes that make this movie better than the first version. We don’t have Superman changing the course of time to save Lois Lane. Kevin Spacy plays a much darker and sinister Luther. Frank Langella portrays the newpaper mogul in a less cartoony fashion that Jackie Cooper did in 78′. I have to credit the director Bryan Singer for casting a better Lois Lane. At least this one bears a resemblance to the one in the comics. Unlike the Lois in Superman: The Movie with Christopher Reeve.

    There was a controversy behind the 78′ version. The original creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were living in poverty with little or no money to live. It would have been an embarrassment to Warner Brothers and DC comics if there wasn’t a settlement to resolve the matter.

    DC artist, Neal Adams helped Siegel and Shuster obtain a legal defense to fight the case. Until recently the son of one of the creators passed away. There is a documentary being produced about how the characters were taken away from the creators. Back in the 1930s there was little known about copyright law. Siegel and Shuster sold the rights only to regret that for the rest of their lives. The recent article about the creators was a sad one. The family has little or no financial benefit from an icon in American Comics. Till this day the family is still struggling against DC Comics and Warner Brothers to get some sort of financial restitution after over 60 years.

    There are those who could say that the family is being greedy in asking for some type of financial gain. I’d like to see the new documentary reveal the fact that the creators had been robbed of recognition and financial security.

    I don’t know if the same is true in Canada and other countries marketing the new Superman movie; but look at all the merchandise! I remember long ago when the first film appeared there was no where near the amount of cups, T-shirts and anything that could fit the Super logo on it.

    I do remember purchasing a $2.25 novel written by E. Nelson Bridewell (from DC Comics). It was an unrelated story that took place in the Superman universe. I never got the chance to read it. From what I’ve read the novel was one of the better ones. I was surprised there weren’t more. At the time Marvel was releasing their own versions of prose novels. The books were written by the popular names of the era; Marv Wolfman, Len (Wolverine CO-creator) Wein, and a few others.

    One of the commercial tie-in products I purchased were the Justice League Unlimited DVDs. I wondered why the cartoons were played so late in the evening. Well, the content is adult and is for older kids. In one of the episodes Superman is under the influence of a flower alien parasite that controls his mind. The first scene in his dream state shows his bedroom; with wife Lois Lane. Nothing inappropriate in the way of dialogue, but something I didn’t expect to see in what is supposedly a kid cartoon. In the story by comics legend Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons of “Watchmen” fame”; Superman sees what his life might have been. The parasite also gets a chance at Wonder Woman and Batman, but the parasite ends up on the black hat of this episode. Seeing the villain looked so much like Darkside, I couldn’t remember his name. Perhaps it was Mongul or Mogul.

    The other episodes featured Booster Gold. Booster is a man who traveled in the past with current inventions and posed them as his own. To tell you the truth, I stopped reading the comics so long ago, I haven’t kept up with the characters anymore. I just don’t have the time. I do see that the books are oriented to specific age groups more than my generation. Back in the seventies you’d be lucky if you saw at least three titles with the same hero. Today there are four, five and even more with the X-Men and Superman.

    There was a special features section that featured the actors. The actor who portrayed the Green Lantern, John Stewart was from MAD TV. It was hard to believe that this fellow had such a deep voice. And here I thought the actor who played the part was a large guy. There were other mini features that showed the physics behind Superman’s powers. Superman supposedly flies faster than the speed of sound. That means video cameras couldn’t catch him. The whole idea of Superman changing in a phone booth is out of date today. Not in the cell phone era at least.

    Superman is not the wimpy type that the comics often portrayed him as. That is one of the aspects the new film touched upon. Superman was modernized a bit so new audiences could appreciate him. You could argue that he didn’t fight enough for Lois Lane. However in this film he stood his ground and wasn’t a sap in front of Lois. I did notice how the other actor who portrayed Lois’s new beau was Cyclops of X-Men fame. It looks like he was a contender for the Superman role.

    The days of skilled pen and ink rendering is gone. It’s created in a computer. Comics have lost a lot of the nickel, dime charm and technology has taken over. I like new things, but comics have lost their innocence. Especially when the books are $2.99 apiece. It looks like the video games are replacing the regular comics story. That is why I have purchased the DVD collections of some of the old Marvel Comics. So far I purchased the first 500 issues of the FF and Spidey and Mad on DVD and CD ROM. That’s enough reading for me for the next 10 years. I do hope this catches on because I don’t have the room to store all those in hard copy.

    If you like the Super hero cartoons your in for a treat this month. I just picked up Superman the Animated Series Season 3. It has 18 episodes with three accompanying directors commentaries. Bruce Timm has a lot to say about the creation of each show and why decisions were made to streamline them for audiences. I’d like to see more comics related animation from him. Each project he’s associated with has respect for it’s source material. When Batman: The animated series premiered all those years ago I was expecting a big letdown. I was glad to be wrong. Comics were part of my childhood long ago and it’s good to see that the classic ones are still around. Although comics are no where near as popular as they used to be, they still have an audience.

  • I went to see Superman Returns last night. It doesn’t open here until Friday so it was a press screening. I have to say that I was pretty disappointed. I loved the first two films as a kid but this left me cold. There were a number of problems with the film, which you mention in your review. It was badly paced and could have had at least 40 mins chopped off its running time and the script was filled with inconsistencies. Routh was excellent but the rest of the cast had nothing to do: Langella was wasted, Spacey’s camp Luthor didn’t work and I agree what you say about Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. There were some nice visual flourishes but mostly it was a truly soulless and empty affair. Routh was very good though so maybe they can redeem themselves in a sequel or a director’s cut on DVD.

  • I went to see Superman Returns last night. It doesn’t open here until Friday so it was a press screening. I have to say that I was pretty disappointed. I loved the first two films as a kid but this left me cold. There were a number of problems with the film, which you mention in your review. It was badly paced and could have had at least 40 mins chopped off its running time and the script was filled with inconsistencies. Routh was excellent but the rest of the cast had nothing to do: Langella was wasted, Spacey’s camp Luthor didn’t work and I agree what you say about Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. There were some nice visual flourishes but mostly it was a truly soulless and empty affair. Routh was very good though so maybe they can redeem themselves in a sequel or a director’s cut on DVD.

  • Sorry the browser I’ve been using must have gone mad. I didn’t mean to post the same comment three times 😉

    please feel free to delete all but one of them…

    sorry.

    Isn’t technology wonderful?

  • I have not seen this movie yet, i’d like to. My friend and I have been so exicited about all the comic related movies like xmen, spiderman and superman! A true geek’s dream come true heh. I’m curious what u thought of the latest xmen.. i’ll have to look around, i’m sure you made a post about it. I have not read your blog for a good while so i have a lot to catch up on.