The first hour or so of Superman Returns is indeed wonderful. After a fruitless journey to the ruins of his home planet, the Man of Steel (newcomer Brandon Routh, whose last name rhymes with “south”) returns to Metropolis amid general jubilation. One of the few people not happy to see him is a bitter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who now has a fiancé, Perry White’s nephew and assistant editor (James Marsden), as well as a young son.
The filmmaking team that did such a fantastic job on the first two X-Men movies (including director Bryan Singer and screenwriters Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty) stays faithful to the Art Deco style created for Richard Donner’s 1978 film, and Singer and company come up with a beautiful way of rendering Superman’s X-ray vision — the façades of buildings silently melt away under his stare. The team wrings laughs from Clark Kent’s problems settling back into his job at the Daily Planet and create a great, twisted gag involving an old lady’s pet Pomeranians. Even funnier stuff comes from Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, giving his most entertaining performance this century) and his splendidly bonkers plan to destroy the world’s continental land masses to make a killing in the real estate market.
Yet somewhere before the halfway point of this 154-minute film, the charm leaks out, and the movie turns dutiful and square. Part of the blame belongs to the lead actors. Bosworth and Routh (who strongly resembles a young Gregory Peck) aren’t bad, but they never find the spark that fires Superman and Lois’ romance. I found myself missing the scrappiness of Margot Kidder and the self-mocking strain of Christopher Reeve, neither of whom were among the great actors of their time.
The people behind the camera are also at fault. The subplot with Lois’ son (Tristan Lake Leabu) is easy to sniff out, and if you haven’t seen the original 1978 movie, you won’t figure out why Lex’s playmate, Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey), turns against him. The extended sequence with an earthquake hitting Metropolis is well-executed, but we know that Superman will be everywhere at once to save most everyone from death. Whereas Spider-Man, Batman, and the X-Men all have to strain themselves to do what they do, Superman’s superheroism comes too easily, and his persona is too invulnerable to be interesting. (Please don’t mention kryptonite — Steven T. Seagle’s comics deconstructed that weak-ass metaphor for all time.)
The movie reuses John Williams’ theme music from the original, which is one of the best things he ever wrote. It’s one of many happy decisions by Singer and his team, who bring more thoughtfulness, artistry, humor, and humanity to Hollywood blockbusters than either George Lucas or Peter Jackson. For all that, Superman Returns emerges as a cold, obdurate film that’s difficult to warm up to. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel turns out better.