Originally published at Do Or Do Not.. You can comment here or there.
There’s a scene early on in Superman Returns which beautifully establishes director Bryan Singer’s priorities for his latest superhero epic: the Kryptonian rocket which Superman has apparently been using during his mysterious time off Earth crashes in a cornfield near his mother’s farm in Kansas. We don’t see the ship land, however, not directly; we see Martha Kent’s face and reaction as she watches the crash and explosion through the window in her kitchen. We see what she sees only as a reflection in a windowpane. From the outset of the movie, Singer tells us he’s more interested in the characters and the emotions of his story than he is in the special effects; he’s ultimately more concerned with the man than with the super.
Speaking of that man: as difficult as it was, I tried very hard not to hold the fact that he’s not Christopher Reeve against new Superman Brandon Routh.  I thought Routh was just fine, but clearly Routh was no Reeve, a man I’m firmly convinced was genetically engineered to play Superman. Routh mostly aped Reeve’s performances, especially his bumbling Clark Kent, and he made a decent go of it. And I certainly don’t blame Routh for mimicking Reeve here; I’m sure he was instructed to do so by Singer. Since this movie was lifting the aesthetic of the first two Superman movies whole-cloth, Routh’s performance actually would have been out of place had he not tried to copy Reeve. And while Routh might not have the screen presence that Reeve did, his Superman still captures the easy grace and charm of the character.
Even if I didn’t like Routh’s Superman as much as I did Reeve’s (and to be truthful, that’s not even a fair fight), I far preferred Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane to Margot Kidder’s. I never liked Kidder’s Lois as I didn’t find her at all attractive, appealing or charming — I couldn’t understand why Superman would fall so heavily in love with this woman who was more annoying than anything else. Bosworth, on the other hand, has plenty of the appeal and charm Kidder lacked. Her Lois, while still being younger than I might have liked, also had enough of the flinty edge underneath I expect from Lois Lane. Bosworth did a wonderful job of conveying the heartache and confusion Lois felt when Superman disappeared and the internal fight when he returns. (As much as I liked Bosworth, though, I will have to admit to a few quibbles with some of Lois’ parenting choices: the intrepid journalist endangering herself is one thing; putting her five-year-old son in harm’s way certainly wasn’t her brightest move.)
Kevin Spacey brought much more menace to the role of Lex Luthor than Gene Hackman did, and I appreciated this more evil Lex: to me, Lex Luthor’s not supposed to be the buffoon Hackman portrayed him to be. I was afraid from the previews that Spacey was going to camp up the part, but luckily all of the campiest bits were used in the trailers; past that, Luthor was the hyper-intellectual follicularly-challenged menace he’s supposed to be. Roger Ebert said he didn’t think Spacey was having any fun with his role, and I can see thinking that if one is using Hackman’s Luthor as the measuring stick — Hackman clearly looked like he was having a better time with his Luthor, but that doesn’t make his a better performance. I don’t believe Luthor is supposed to be a fun character. This is a man willing to kill billions of people; what should be fun about that?
You might be asking yourself at this point: “Hey, all of this stuff about the characters is cool and all, but what about the action, man?” Yes, the action sequences were every bit what I expected them to be. Every penny of that rumored $200 million budget was on that screen. Singer’s Superman does the sorts of things you expect Superman to be doing, and the special effects have advanced to the point where not only can he do the impossible, but he can look damn good doing it. The plane/shuttle rescue in particular was breathtaking to behold, exactly the kind of thing done regularly in the comic books but formerly impossible to pull off in the movies, and the Superman Saves Metropolis sequence made me wish Metropolis would be in such peril more often. My only problem with the action sequences was that there weren’t enough of them, but as noted above, Singer was emphasizing the man over the super, so the action took something of a backseat to the characters.
My one major complaint with Superman Returns — and it’s a complaint serious enough to knock my overall grade for the movie down a half a notch — was with the Beatdown of Superman sequence. (I don’t feel it’s a spoiler to mention that this scene occurs since it’s featured prominently in the most recent trailers, but you might want to skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens.) A depowered Superman gets thoroughly whipped by Luthor’s goons. That much I can deal with, even if I don’t like it — the problem I had was with the fact that Superman doesn’t fight back at all, save for a feeble grab at Luthor’s legs. He didn’t as much as take a swing at his attackers, and that’s not true to the spirit of the character. Superman does not crawl away from a fight on his hands and knees, even if he’s in pain and has lost his powers — it’s not his powers that make him Superman, but rather his willingness to fight for, as Daily Planet editor Perry White says in this movie, “truth, justice, all that stuff.” Superman’s mission is traditionally called the “never-ending battle,” not the “as long as I have super-strength and invulnerability battle.” Seeing a battered Superman crawl through the mud in pain and humiliaton struck a very wrong chord with me; I don’t see why the scene would have lost any power or resonance had he fought back against his attackers yet still been overwhelmed by their greater numbers.
Still, Superman Returns was a glorious “welcome home” to a character who hasn’t graced the big screen in far too long. Superman is the iconic superhero, and it’s good to see him finally get the super treatment he deserves.
 I normally don’t advocate writing reviews by comparing different movies or different intrepreations of a character, but Singer invited us to do exactly that by so closely following the vision Richard Donner put forth in 1978. Not comparing the two would both feel dishonest and like the review was incomplete. Singer took the exact opposite tack with Superman Returns from the one Christopher Nolan took with his masterful reimagination Batman Begins: while Begins completely repudiated the four previous films in the series, Returns is slavishly faithful to Superman and Superman II. Nearly every memorable moment from the first movie was either recycled, updated or knowingly echoed with a wink in the new movie. I certainly appreciate wanting to ground the audience who grew up with the originals to feel like this newest entry in the franchise was still part of the same universe, but it almost felt like too much on occasion.