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Review: Superman Returns

Movies | The latest installment of Superman is one of the top superhero films of all time

Issue: "Books and Movies 2006," July 1, 2006

Superman Returns, and boy does he make an entrance. Fantastically entertaining-and full of delicate balances that allow the film to succeed on adrenaline rushes and romance, whimsy and thought-provoking seriousness-Superman Returns brings the Man of Steel back to theaters after a 19-year hiatus. He was worth the wait.

Superman Returns (rated PG-13 for some intense action violence) offers evidence that, even in the case of big studio blockbusters, the director matters. Brett Ratner was once attached to direct Warner Brothers' resurrection of the Superman franchise. He dropped out, and ended up directing this summer's X-Men: The Last Stand. Bryan Singer, who directed the first two X-Men films, left the third installment to take over Superman Returns. This was not a fair trade. The X-Men series devolved from smart, layered comic adaptations to mindless summer entertainment. And Superman was given new life in, easily, one of the top superhero films of all time.

The film sends Superman (Brandon Routh) back to Earth after a five-year journey through space to find his home planet and any remaining signs of his own people. In his absence Metropolis (and the world) had to cope with the sudden and unexplained disappearance of their defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) did her part to sooth the city's fears (and her own broken heart) by authoring a Pulitzer Prize-winning article titled, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman."

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But Superman rapidly proves his worth back on Earth in a thrilling opening sequence involving an airborne space shuttle launch. Soon, even Lois' steely defenses are melting, despite the fact that she has a son and is engaged to another man (James Marsden).

Superman rejoins the Daily Planet staff as Clark Kent, and again spends his nights seeking out disaster and crime-revealed in one of Mr. Singer's most elegant sequences, as Superman hovers in space, listening in on the disharmonious cries of a troubled world. Superman himself struggles to understand his place as an outsider in a world that doesn't always acknowledge its need for a savior. He doesn't simply become a naval-gazing hero, though, and a less metaphysical challenge comes in the familiar form of longtime nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), who is back to his old gleefully destructive, megalomaniacal ways.

Mr. Singer gets so much right with Superman Returns, it's hard to know where to start praising his vision. The cast is uniformly good, with Mr. Routh-a newcomer-ideal as Superman. He somehow manages to channel Christopher Reeve with exciting freshness, and can both pull off intentionally corny dialogue and convincingly display deep anguish as he seeks to understand his own past, present, and future.

A winning combination of deference to history and commitment to originality is the key to the success of Superman Returns. Visually, Mr. Singer creates an intriguing alternate reality that is identifiable to modern audiences (with cell phones and flat-screen TVs) but comfortingly old-fashioned (with an emphasis on 1950s-era dress and architecture).

The special effects in Superman Returns are far from retro, however. Mr. Singer capitalizes on his $200 million budget to give Superman's air travel an entirely new sense of visceral realism, deftly mixing slow, hovering take-offs and rocketing, cape-rippling flights.

Most importantly, as Mr. Singer demonstrated with his X-Men films, he's willing to earn his audience's engagement with the story. In addition to rigorous attention to internal logical consistency, he layers into the film themes that would seem far too unwieldy in less skilled hands.

Early charges that Superman would be "gay" (by journalists who had not seen the film) are completely spurious. Instead, religious allegory and heavy Christ symbolism abound here, as Superman's role as a savior son sent to Earth by a benevolent father reaches unexpected depths. Does the world need a savior? If so, what is that savior's role? This becomes a debate played out not only in Superman himself, but in surprisingly complex supporting characters.

For family audiences, the only questionable elements involve the implication (never shown) of an illicit sexual relationship and Lois' live-in arrangement with her new fiancé. Despite this, Superman Returns will entertain and astound family audiences, and even leave them with points of conversation after the film. In many ways, the return of Superman provides everything one could hope for in a summer blockbuster. Welcome back.


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