Since the turn of the twenty-first century, as comic book movies have once again become big business, reverence has been the order of the day. The major flops of the late 1990s demonstrated that audiences were no longer content to see a hollow facsimile of their favourite comic book characters, and indeed that some of these characters were far more entrenched in the collective consciousness than many studios and producers had realised. Consequently, films of lasting quality with equal mixes of action, brains and heart, such as Batman Begins, Spider-Man and X2, have become the standard rather than the exception for this increasingly successful genre. And one shared attribute of all the successful superhero films - and one that many of the unsuccessful ones, like Fantastic Four, do not share - is the respect, faith and reverence they show to their source material.
Such dedication to the source is as blatantly on show in Superman Returns as has ever been seen - but the curiosity here is that the inspiration that Bryan Singer has turned to is not, as one might expect, seventy-odd years worth of published Superman comics, but instead Richard Donner's 1978 Superman : The Movie, still for many (this reviewer included) the true benchmark against which all comic book movies should be judged. Singer's affection for the original movie is plastered up onscreen for all to see, from the widely-reported confirmation that the film is indeed a narrative - rather than thematic - sequel to Superman II, to the reuse of certain gags and dialogue (one particularly notable instance, at the end of the film's first big set piece, can't fail to raise a smile). And then, of course, there's those opening titles.
It may sound strange to be devoting a specific portion of a review - or indeed of a discussion in general - of a film to its opening title sequence, but that's testament to how absolutely stunning the ones in Superman Returns are. Inherently, they're quite simple - a direct retread of the ones from the original film, same font and all, showcasing a trip through galaxies from Krypton to Earth. Yet somehow, they're actually quite breathtaking. It's due in part, of course, to that magnificent John Williams theme, arguably the greatest (certainly the most inspiring) movie theme ever created; and the pouring-in of a 2006-era budget and quality of CGI makes for some truly beautiful planets and starscapes. Mission accomplished in terms of putting the audience in a good mood for the rest of the film, anyway.
But the adherence to everything that made the original film what it was is both Returns' strongest attribute and its Achilles heel. So much time is spent establishing the little shared details, homaging moments and dropping in plot connections that there's actually very little new that's established. Some have called Returns little more than a remake of the original, which I think is unfair - it is a new story, it's just not much of one. I've no objection, of course, to the idea of a two-and-a-half hour superhero film, nor one that takes plenty of time establishing an emotional heart and character depth - but not one in which said time is punctuated by the action, rather than vice versa. The plot, from start to finish, could be neatly summarised in about a paragraph - there are no real twists and turns to speak of, and nothing that's particularly unpredictable.
Which is a shame, because when stuff does happen, it's absolutely gobsmacking. The plane rescue sequence, while it could perhaps be said to come a little early in the film, is an utter triumph. It's massive, it's tense, it's spectacular - and it's the sort of thing you could only do in a Superman film, and only with today's technology. But it's one of only a couple of really major setpieces that top and tail the film, and all it really does, therefore, is make you wish there were more bits like it. Similarly, there's a great scene involving Superman stopping a bank robbery - although you'll have already seen its best moment in the trailer, it involves eyes - that's strongly reminiscent of the wonderful "first night on the job" sequence from the original film. Yet it exists on its own rather than being part of a sequence of such scenes, and as such feels a little out of place, randomly dropped in for the sake of it.
Still, though, the film does succeed in capturing the feeling of awe and wonder that should surround Superman every time he appears onscreen - and a nicely graceful and majestic nature is brought to him both by the excellent direction of the flight scenes, and the performance of Routh himself. As can be seen from stills and photos, Routh looks perfect in both guises, and when he opens his mouth - particularly as Clark - it really is scary how reminiscent he is of Christopher Reeve. The problem, though, is that he's not Reeve - and, worse, Singer seems aware of the fact. So, while he is given plenty of screentime in the suit, he barely seems to spend any of it actually talking, and his performance therefore doesn't quite carry the weight that Reeve managed. Of course, it's hard to say who would ever be able to emulate that classic tour de force, and so one can at least be content that Routh inhabits the role, as it's given to him, as well as he can.
Making a less favourable impression, however, is Kate Bosworth as Lois. It's not that she's a bad actress at all - she just isn't Lois Lane, not any version that has ever appeared on page or screen. There are only fleeting attempts to even portray her as the same character that Margot Kidder played, and by and large they feel desperately forced - particularly when she asks "How many Fs in 'catastrophe'?", a running gag from the first two movies but a stilted one-off here. There's absolutely nothing exciting about the character whatsoever - nor any explanation as to why Clark might have fallen in love with her in the first place (apparently relying, instead, on implied knowledge of the Donner film, which is a dangerous game to play with a fresh audience nearly thirty years on). And it bears repeating, even though it's been done to death, that she's far too young to be playing this role - she's got a five-year-old kid, she must have been (from what we know of her) a successful investigative reporter for some years before that, yet she looks barely any older than her twenty-three years (heck, she's actually younger than Sam "Jimmy Olsen" Huntington!). Indeed, the miscasting is made yet further galling by the presence of a potentially brilliant Lois, in Parker Posey, elsewhere in the film.
Despite this misstep, the rest of the cast is almost uniformly strong. Spacey is Spacey, playing Luthor exactly as you'd expect him to, with hints of the Gene Hackman version interspersed with his own mix of camp and menace. It's a risky line, but one that he pulls off - and the disappointment at the series again failing to explore any of the rest of Superman's rogues gallery is at least tempered by such an entertaining performance. Frank Langella's Perry White is straight from the page - and indeed, you wonder how different the character might have been had Hugh Laurie remained onboard - while Huntington threatens to steal the show in just about every scene that Jimmy pops up in. Credit, too, to James Marsden for taking on the difficult role - being the "other guy" but still having to be likeable - and succeeding in grabbing that minute yet necessary shred of the audience's sympathy. It's a shame, though, that Luthor's goons are so generic, although the aforementioned Posey is good for a bit of comedy value.
It's certainly possible to find fault with Superman Returns, particularly with regard to its bloated and lengthy nature, culminating in a particularly lethargic and unnecessary final quarter of an hour or so. And it's baffling that a film of this length, with apparently so much to say, really does little more than retread the path set out by the original. This would perhaps be more acceptable if it were laying the groundwork for a new series of films - but in terms of plot, the intention appears to be to belatedly wrap up the "trilogy". There's a quite major, and completely new, addition to the Superman mythos in place by the end, and it's one that makes it difficult to see where Singer and co might go from here. As such - as a capstone rather than a foundation - it ultimately feels a little unsatisfying. Yet despite all this, it's hard to deny that when it does hit its stride, and when that reputed $200million budget is clearly being thrown right at the screen, it's an absolutely spectacular ride, arguably unmatched in modern superhero films. Following in the footsteps laid by Donner and Reeve, with the man who single-handedly resurrected comic book films at the helm and a strong cast behind him, and in the midst of the purple patch the Superman comic books are in at the moment, we might have expected perfection. We haven't got that, and its ponderous nature won't appeal to everyone, but it's certainly a more than worthy addition to the canon.