Imagine that Supermans III and IV never happened, and that in Superman II Lois Lane never realized that Clark Kent was really the Man of Steel disguised in a pair of dorky glasses. (The part about Lois and Superman knocking boots, however, still stands). Now you're up to speed on Superman Returns, whose title reflects the film's story — after a five-year outer space sojourn, Superman (Brandon Routh) heads back to Metropolis, to the consternation of ex-sweetie Lois (Kate Bosworth) and supervillain Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) — as well as the film itself, which like Batman Begins heralds a return to cinematic form for its title character. The result may not be as giddily triumphant as Spider-Man 2, but all told, the 21st century is officially a damn good time to be a superhero.
Director Bryan Singer (X-Men) is clearly a huge Superman fan; Superman Returns takes its subject very seriously. With two and a half hours to fill, all the cool super-shit you want to see (X-ray vision, bulletproof body parts, swooping around with one fist extended, etc.) is in there, plus plenty of iconic moments. (Marlon Brando's Jor-El makes multiple from-beyond-the-grave appearances — and has the cry of "Great Caesar's ghost!" ever before inspired audience applause?) Needless to say, Superman Returns' superbudget (imdb.com estimates it at $260 million) spells jaw-dropping special effects. Sure, you'll believe a man can fly, but you'll also believe a man can stop a fiery airplane from smashing into a baseball stadium.
The effects can get out of control, though — the climax, which takes place partially underwater, drags a bit despite looking great. At least by the time we get there, all of Superman Returns' hard work building sympathetic characters pretty much pays off. The film's intertwining story lines follow Superman as he dons Clark Kent garb at the Daily Planet and wistfully yearns for Lois, who's semi-happily settled down with nice guy Richard (perennial third wheel James Marsden). Oh yeah, and she has a scraggly-haired five-year-old who may or may not be half-Kryptonian. Meanwhile, bald baddie Luthor is out of jail, ridiculously well funded, and as set on world domination as he is on knocking Superman out of the sky.
The Luthor stuff inevitably supplies the film's comic relief, thanks to Spacey's manic performance and certain weird touches (like sidekick Parker Posey's time-warp wardrobe and a running gag about a Pomeranian). And if you're looking for correlations between Superman Returns and current events, try Luthor's plan to destroy the United States — eagerly reported on by Metropolis's version of cable news. (In the 21st century, the Daily Planet stays afloat thanks to this editorial mission: "There are three things that sell papers: tragedy, sex, and Superman.")
Of course, the main conflict in Superman Returns doesn't even involve Luthor: It's whether or not Lois will forgive her super soulmate for abruptly skipping town. (You know how all that tension between Spider-Man and Mary Jane kind of overshadowed the Doctor Octopus shenanigans? Yeah, it's like that.) The film's overriding theme, though, is of fathers and sons. Not for nothing does Brando keep popping up, reinforcing the idea that Superman (Jor-El's "only son") was sent to Earth to save humankind — a concept that everyone on earth pretty much buys, including, eventually, the bitter Lois (author of a Pulitzer-winning editorial titled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman"). But even if you ignore the religious metaphors and check your watch during the mushy relationship bits, it's hard not to get summer movie thrill-chills when John Williams's familiar theme (recycled here as part of John Ottman's score) plays under the swooshing title credits. Absolute perfection, maybe not — but super'll do. SFBG
Opens Wed/28 in Bay Area theaters
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