The plain fact is that Superman didn't need a sequel; he needs a complete makeover. After the Batman franchise fell to pieces, Christopher Nolan gave that character a shot of adrenaline with his rebooted Batman Begins, totally clearing the slate of all past baggage and starting over from scratch to tell us the story from a fresh perspective. It worked wonders and was a deservedly huge hit. That's exactly what should have happened here, but Bryan Singer was apparently so in love with Richard Donner's 1978 Superman: The Movie (and at least somewhat smitten with its first sequel) that he couldn't let go of any part of it. What he's given us instead is less a new film than a rapturous love letter to an old one. Returns studiously mimics Donner's movie in every respect from its opening credits done in the same style, the score technically credited to John Ottman but blatantly recycled from John Williams' themes, to the dredging up of old Marlon Brando footage for the revival of Clark's Kryptonian father Jor-El. And of course there's the casting of Brandon Routh, who has a downright eerie resemblance to Christopher Reeve. Even the plot is basically the same. We're given a handy recap of Kal-El's origin, including his crashing to Earth on the Kent farm and his adolescence in Smallville, all depicted better in the original film. Then the story comes down to a face-off between Superman and his arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, who once again has a devious plan to create a natural disaster from which he can profit by buying up valuable real estate. Seriously, it's the same damned scheme he used the last time. Other than the CGI facelift for its visual effects, Superman Returns gives us absolutely nothing new or interesting that we didn't get 30 years ago.
But it's not just that the material is stale. This new movie is genuinely dull. Running a long 154 minutes, the picture has only two action scenes of any note with a lot of dreary filler in between. Sure, the major set-piece where Supes has to rescue Lois from a plane crash is visually exciting, and there's a really cool bit later on where a random criminal learns (in literally unblinking slow-motion) that bullets have no effect on the Man of Steel, but the big "Oh no, how did Lex get hold of Kryptonite?" climax is old hat. Every single story involving Superman ends with him being attacked by Kryptonite. It's the man's only weakness. We get it already. Can we move on yet?
As for all the supposed character development that takes up the rest of the movie's time, it's so very "Metropolis, 90210". Superman is broody because Lois doesn't love him anymore, and he turns into kind of a creepy stalker about it. Lois is still bitter that he left five years earlier without saying goodbye, so she has a new non-super boyfriend. And oh yeah, she's also got a kid who's about five years-old. Huh, I wonder who his daddy could be? There's an unsubtle subtext involving Superman facing up to the reality that he's a relic from a previous era and that the world has moved on during his absence. That certainly sounds dramatically meaty on paper but doesn't amount to much in the movie. Within five minutes of his return, the world is imperiled once again in a manner only Superman can rescue it from, and everyone (except Lois) is thrilled to have him back. We're right back at Square One.
For their parts, Routh is actually quite good as the nerdy Clark and predictably bland as Superman (the script calls for him to be a blank slate, and that's exactly what he is), Kate Bosworth is terribly miscast as Lois Lane but her performance is fine, and Kevin Spacey goes too far over the top as Lex Luthor but is really no worse in the role than Gene Hackman was (at least Spacey shaved his head). Parker Posey has a bit part as Luthor's ditzy moll and is absolutely terrible in every scene. I blame that more on the screenplay than the actress. The original movie had the same problem with its Miss Teschmacher character. You might hope that someone would learn from the mistakes of the past rather than repeat them, but that clearly wasn't on anyone's agenda with this movie.
Singer's direction is competent enough, though for a movie of its budget most of the CGI is far too cartoony (the flashback scenes in Smallville are particularly terrible). The picture just has no juice. It's a movie that exists only to remind people of a better movie that they saw already, and who needs that? Superman may have returned, but the world really doesn't need him.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
Rating the picture quality of a disc like this is a matter of weighing the technical specs of the digital transfer against the stylistic intentions of the movie's original photography. A proper review needs to balance those two aspects in equal measure. On the one hand, it's unfair to criticize the disc for faults of the movie itself. On the other hand, a dull and ugly picture is just a dull and ugly picture, and deserves to be scored accordingly. Thus we have Superman Returns, one of the least visually appealing big budget movies in recent years.
Shot entirely on High Definition video, the movie's photography has been digitally processed into a deliberately soft, flat, and lifeless mess. I assume that Bryan Singer was trying to emulate the hazy glow that permeated the original Richard Donner Superman film, but has simply failed to capture that movie's dreamlike textures. What we get instead is a misguided digital simulation of it that I personally found hideous. The picture has a weak sense of detail, poor black levels, and no depth at all. Colors are drab (especially the blasť new uniform), and flesh tones are a mushy beige that never looks natural. This is supposed to be a comic book movie. Where are the vibrant colors that leap off the screen? The Superman Returns picture just sits there and refuses to come to life, much like the movie itself. Ugh.
The movie is also surprisingly grainy in many scenes, despite being shot on studio soundstages under controlled lighting using digital cameras. I've read that Singer intentionally added an artificial film grain effect to make the picture look less "digital", but has here again failed. It looks digital and noisy, and just ugly.
As I said, it's unfair to lay the weaknesses of the movie on the disc transfer. But even to that end, the High-Def transfer has some severe color banding in several spots, worst during the underwater shots around the 105-minute mark. I haven't seen the HD DVD edition, but both come from the same VC-1 encoding and should be virtually identical.
Call it bias or personal preference, but I have to call things as I see them, and I wasn't much impressed with the way Superman Returns looks in High Definition.
The Superman Returns Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate Blu-ray picture quality.
I won't be quite that effusive in my praise for the Blu-ray's basic DD 5.1 track, but it sounds quite good indeed. Whatever qualms I may have with the movie's bizarrely flat and bland photography, it has a truly razzle dazzle sound design. The action scenes are incredibly immersive, with plenty of zippy surround effects and rolling waves of deep, gut-punching bass. Fidelity of the music and sound effects is excellent; there's a terrific metallic echo when young Clark leaps on top of a grain silo that reverbs nicely through the soundstage. The dialogue track sounds disappointingly low and flat, however, and makes me wish the Blu-ray had included a lossless sound option.
Subs & Dubs:
[Note: Although the deleted scenes are presented in High Definition video on the HD DVD edition of the movie, for some inexplicable reason the same footage on the Blu-ray has been downgraded to Standard Definition.]