"Superman Returns" will be condemned by some for audaciously cribbing from the immortal 1978 Richard Donner feature film (the production says they're using it as a "vague history") that took the Man of Steel to the next level of worldwide popularity. I look at "Returns" as the sequel Donner's film so richly deserved but was consistently denied. Director Bryan Singer has proven himself confident and steadfast with his recent superhero adventures ("X-Men" and the flawless "X2"), but here he's made a unapologetic valentine to the picture that helped shape his sensibilities as an emerging filmmaker, and he's given spectacular new purpose to a character and franchise the silver screen has missed for decades now. It's nothing short of a superhero masterpiece.
The Donner tributes are sprinkled throughout the film (even the deceased Marlon Brando is resurrected briefly as Jor-El, Superman's dad), starting with opening titles that streak across the screen in the same 3-D design they did back in 1978, scored to composer John Ottman's celebratory reworking of John Williams's timeless theme. Ottman intermixes Williams's score in several essential places, but instead of sensing bitter thievery has taken place, Singer uses these callbacks as an emotional touchstone; shrewdly using the older music to instantly put the audience right back into the soaring feeling of flight and unabashed heroism.
Also disarming is newcomer Brandon Routh, who has the regrettable challenge of filling the beloved red boots of Christopher Reeve while also embodying a Superman for a younger generation who might not know the enchantment of Donner's film. Physically a perfect match for Reeve (sometimes unsettlingly so), Routh is given a wide berth by Singer to find his own voice for the character, and the young actor couldn't be better in the role. He captures every iconic Superman trait from bullet-swatting brawn to Smallville corn field simplicity with the same effortlessness that made Reeve a rightful legend in the genre.
The same could be said of Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor. Miles away from Gene Hackman's habitually comedic reading of the role, Spacey turns Lex into an exasperated madman, blood-thirsty for revenge and seething with real-estate greed. Softened slightly by his girlfriend Kitty (Parker Posey, doing dimwit delightfully), "Returns" puts the menace back into Lex, and his final showdown with Superman is a frightful one that bangs horrifically with five long years of pent up fury. This isn't camp acting from Spacey; this is comic book villainy at its most cunning and cocksure.
Much like the "X-Men" series, Singer doesn't merely take the idea of superheroes seriously; he's willing to plunge to the depths of their darkest fears and profound human yearnings. "Returns" is surely chock full of jaw-dropping special effect set-pieces (one doozy features Supes trying to save a plummeting jet with Lois aboard from crashing into a baseball stadium), but while all the pricey eye candy fills the belly with tremendous satisfaction (the towering CGI and time warp production design here are the cat's meow), Superman's heartbreaking character arc is what ultimately drives the film.
Singer and his screenwriters (Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris) take special care fleshing out Superman/Clark Kent. He's a man who took off without a goodbye to find himself, only to discover his adopted home makes him feel even more alien when he returns. The outsider theme is touched on throughout the film as Superman comes to terms with the love he lost and the world that has figured out how to live without his helpful watch.
Routh plays these difficult beats extraordinarily well, imparting Clark with a humbling deep-seated regret and Superman a critical emotional vulnerability: he can stop bullets and save millions in the blink of an eye, but the sight of Lois with a human life he's unable participate in is an emotional barrier he's powerless to overcome. Singer isn't worried about showing the pure balletic grace of Superman's bravery, especially with a hefty technological upgrade from the 1978 film that's used to dazzling effect, but the moments that penetrate are the ones probing the isolation that matures gradually around Superman during the course of the picture.
Blessed with an epic length of 150 minutes, "Returns" balances the various storylines with consideration, cutting back and forth between Lex's murderous ambitions and Superman's rocky reentry. It builds to a gargantuan boil for the climax, but Singer is sure to sustain the silent moments between the characters in the eye of the action hurricane, and unexpectedly saves the final 20 minutes of the film not for explosions and speaker-rattling victory, but for tender plot twists that take Superman further into his desire to live among human beings, and also offers a satisfying bookend to Donner's movie.
I treasured the experience of watching "Superman Returns," both as a rabid fan of Richard Donner's initial gamble and as a filmgoer starving to witness filmmakers with an actual grasp on the idea of an epic cinematic vision. Singer has struck gold here, crossing dangerous terrain to bring Superman back to life, and his efforts to remain true to the heart and to the rippling red cape have provided the overwhelming, goose bump-inducing exhilaration of watching one of the greatest films of 2006.
After viewing both the standard screen and IMAX 3-D versions of "Superman Returns," I heartily recommend a first-time viewing at your local neighborhood multiplex. The IMAX presentation is an expectedly robust, slap-yo-momma, monster screen experience that brings incredible depth to certain scenes and locations. But only 20 minutes of the film have been converted to 3-D, and after an appealing start, the selections tend to get annoyingly random. It's also a bit of a frustration to hurriedly put on your glasses during critical, dramatically taut sequences that deserve undivided attention. The IMAX 3-D experience certainly delivers on spectacle, but save it for a more forgiving second viewing.