It took twenty six years after Superman II, but the trilogy is finally complete; we now have a movie that is worthy of the title “Superman III.” Of course, it doesn’t have the same cast — save for archival footage of Marlon Brando — and it’s called “Superman Returns,” but for all intents and purposes, this is the film that should have followed the second feature-length Superman film. Thankfully, the actual third and fourth films have been completely ignored, effectively being removed from the continuity. It’s for the best. Neither was really worth watching, anyway.
We begin five years after the conclusion to Superman II. Our titular hero, Superman (Brandon Routh taking over for Christopher Reeve), has left Earth in pursuit of tracking down any remains of his home planet, Krypton. He returns in one of the film’s first scenes, resulting in a touching reunion with his adoptive mother (Eve Marie Saint). He decides to return to the Daily Planet, the main newspaper, to begin working as a reporter under his alter ego, Clark Kent, and in an attempt to re-establish a relationship with a co-worker, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who herself now has a fiancé, Richard (James Marsden) and a son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu).
Of course, in the five years Superman has been absent, Lex Luthor (now played by Kevin Spacey), has escaped from prison and has begun to cook up a new scheme. Along with Kitty (Parker Posey, essentially playing the role Valerie Perrine did as Eve Teschmacher), he reclaims his spot as sole villain. Superman eventually has to face Lex, just like he did in the old days. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
The plot sounds like it’s right out of the first film, isn’t it? Once Superman returns back to our planet, it’s very similar. It’s quite the throwback, really. The good guy is clearly the good guy, the bad guy is clearly the bad guy, and after some build up, we get to see them go at one another. The first two Superman films had a lot of time building up to this climax, with only a few small incidents during that time. Superman Returns plays out exactly like that.
There are a couple of subplots, one twist that you’ll see coming — and even mentioning that there’s a twist would be spoiling — and a surprising amount of time dedicated to the characters. The film runs for 154 minutes, and while I was never bored — near-perfect pacing is another thing returning from the earlier installments — I can see some people coming away from it hoping for more action.
For me, the amount of downtime we spend with these characters means that whatever action we do get means a lot more. It’s hard not to feel something near the climax of this film, even if the way we get there is a little bit contrived. Director Bryan Singer did make me do something that had never previously happened: he made me care about Superman. He made this character into someone more vulnerable — at least, emotionally, if not physically — in large part because the tone of this movie is so downtrodden; that’s the one difference from the earlier films.
There isn’t a lot of joy in Superman Returns. The sky is cloudy and rainy for much of the picture, and we don’t get many jokes. Are we overcompensating for the slapstick and campy films that were Superman III and Superman IV? It’s possible, but I think it’s fitting given that this film slots in as the finale to a trilogy. Making it darker works because everything is at stake, and because the characters need to be taken in this direction. Characters have been hurt, and that’s portrayed to us by the film’s tone.
Much of the joy, from an audiences standpoint, at least, will come from the action scenes. I mentioned that there aren’t many of them, but what we do get look spectacular. The earlier Superman films haven’t aged terribly, but this takes it to a new level. You can really believe that the Man of Steel can fly. Warner Bros. spent a lot of money in the production of Superman Returns, and you can tell when looking at it. It has great special effects, and a very large scale.
It has good acting, too, even if I wasn’t sold on either Brandon Routh or Kate Bosworth. Routh is barely given any lines of dialogue, and while he looks the part, he and Bosworth have little chemistry together. Bosworth wasn’t bad in the role, but she’s a good decade younger than Margot Kidder was in Superman II, despite this film taking place five years later. It’s a bit of a miscasting, just in terms of trying to keep everyone looking similar. Kevin Spacey picks up wonderfully from where Gene Hackman left off as Lex Luthor, portraying the villain as even darker and more sinister.
Superman Returns, assuming you can see it as such, works as a fantastic finale to a trilogy of films. It is an effective drama, an enjoyable action movie, a showcase for special effects, and an appreciated return to form for the franchise. It’s more emotionally engaging, even if it might not have enough action to please everyone. I really enjoyed this film, and I definitely recommend it for fans of the first two installments of the franchise.