Superman Returns Movie Review

My wife and I went to the 10:00 p.m. showing of “Superman Returns” last night. No real spoilers below for any who have seen any of the pre-release publicity but my review is hidden after the jump just in case.

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Overall, it was an enjoyable movie but not one that lived up to the hype, let alone an eighteen year wait. It wasn’t nearly as good as most of the other superhero movies that have come out over the last few years.

Bryan Singer is an excellent director but his X-Men films were far superior to this one. The special effects were excellent, especially compared to the Christopher Reeve “Superman” films, but nothing special in comparison to the X-Men, Spiderman, and Fantastic Four movies. The plot moved very slowly, with long setups for a rather mundane story.

The premise of the movie is that our hero departed five years earlier to explore Krypton after its remains were discovered by astronomers. Yet, all we learn of that trip is that the planet was “a graveyard.” Why, then, was he gone five years? One would think a man who can fly at light speed could have explored a barren planet and returned home in time for dinner. No explanation is offered.

The Fortress of Solitude as crystals from Krypton angle, one of the most annoying aspects of the Reeve “Superman” series given its departure from the comics (although since woven into the two television adaptations) is central to the plot of this film. That the crystals can be easily removed by human hands and dumped into water — “like sea monkeys!” — with literally Earth shattering effect struck me as highly implausible. And Luthor’s motivations for a plan that would kill “billions,” including destroying the wealth of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, were at best puzzling. How, exactly, he hoped to get rich with those people gone, especially living out on a barren Kryptonian-technology-laden island, was unexplained.

Photo Superman Returns Clark Kent Photo Superman Returns Action Comics #1 Homage Singer is obviously a comic book fan and there were numerous clever homages to the genre throughout the movie. Not only did Brandon Routh look eerily like Reeve, especially in his Clark Kent guise–down to a 1970s haircut and outdated three piece suit and tie–but he worked in most of the standard cliches and even evoked the cover of Action Comics #1, where Superman made his debut.

Routh did a creditable turn as Superman and Clark Kent, although nothing spectacular. For my tastes, Reeve’s was the best “Superman” portrayal and Dean Cain’s (“Lois and Clark”) the best “Clark Kent.” (Tom Welling’s “Smallville” version is also compelling but a radical departure from the canon.)

Photo Superman Returns Newsroom Daily Planet Kate Bosworth was an excellent Lois Lane, portraying the role more powerfully than Margot Kidder. Mostly, I suspect, this is just a function of it being 2006, where a strong professional woman can be played effortlessly, vice 1978, where one had to introduce a campy “women’s libber” angle. She’s also, frankly, much better looking than Kidder, although perhaps no Teri Hatcher.

Photo Superman Returns Newsroom Daily Planet Kevin Spacey stole the show with his variation on Lex Luthor. His interpretation is much more theatrical than past versions, borrowing somewhat from Jack Nicholson’s Joker. He had several great lines and pulled off the role superbly. It’s been too long since I’ve seen the Gene Hackman version to compare them. It seems clear, though, that the Luthor role is the premier one in the Superman stable. Michael Rosenbaum’s portrayal in “Smallville” is probably my favorite, just in terms of showing the man’s brilliance and complexity, but it’s not fair to compare a 2-1/2 hour film with an episodic format.

Parker Posey was also quite funny in her portrayal of Kitty Kowalski, Luthor’s nitwit girl Friday. Like Valerie Perrine in the Reeve movies, though, one wondered why Luthor would consort with such an obviously stupid woman. Indeed, more so given Perrine’s rather obvious compensating qualities.

Overall, I’d say the movie is worth seeing in the theater but certainly not worth camping out overnight for. It’s a cultural event moreso than an ordinary movie, just because of the character’s staying power–now going on 70 years. If this were the debut of Superman, though, I don’t think he would catch on.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    Is the theme music the same as the old Superman movies, or do they have a completely different sounding song?

  2. James Joyner says:

    It’s the old John Williams theme.

  3. Mark says:

    Good. Some themes should never change, and that is one of them…

  4. donsurber says:

    “Like Valerie Perrine in the Reeve movies, though, one wondered why Luthor would consort with such an obviously stupid woman.”

    Men like stupid women. Smart women know this

  5. Anderson says:

    But how was the Spidey 3 preview?

  6. It sounds like this Superman movie inherited the weakness of the original Batman movies, i.e. a villain who’s more interesting than the main character.

    Luckily Batman was remedied last year, and if all else fails, we have the original Superman movies.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Robert: I think the problem with Superman as a live action charact er is that he’s essentially flawless. Not only is he a Boy Scout (although maybe not so much given his implied relationship with Lois in this version) but he’s invincible and damned near omnipotent. That means writers have to rely on tired variations of the Kryptonite schtick (which DC did away with to brilliant effect in Superman #233 way back when) or other wildly implausible devices to make conflict interesting.

  8. Anderson says:

    Robert: I think the problem with Superman as a live action character is that heâ??s essentially flawless.

    I was trying to think of a workable plot. One is to acknowledge that while Superman in 2006 is still hale & hearty, Lois Lane is probably in a nursing home right now, and to see what a time-manipulating supervillain could tempt Supes with. Pathos of immortality & all that.

    Another was to imagine that Superman, offering his services to his country after 9/11, was rebuked by a suspicious administration that didn’t want any Boy Scout values hindering its Global War on Terror, with the plot building to an attempt by the feds to take out Superman. (Surely the Army Dep’t & then the Pentagon began studying the Superman problem from very early on? Kryptonite bombs? Secret “X” weapons?)

    Given the utter stranglehold our liberal media have on Hollywood, I’m actually rather surprised this film didn’t get made ….

  9. Mark says:

    (Surely the Army Depâ??t & then the Pentagon began studying the Superman problem from very early on? Kryptonite bombs? Secret â??Xâ?? weapons?)

    Or, they could have just manufactured Kyptonite like they did in Superman III. Well, the lab did screw it up, but I am sure that with a pentagon-size budget they could get it right!

    Either that, or trick Superman into going into that chamber that takes away his powers (pt. II). heh.

  10. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: I think they did a variation on that theme the first season of “Lois and Clark.”

  11. Jim Gleeson says:

    Concerning the implausibility of seeding the crystals into the ocean and getting rich, it is no more implausible than a lot of the diabolical plots thought up by criminal minds in movies of the past such as shooting nuclear warheads in the San Andreas fault to make a whole new shore for oceanfront property. If you look back at any of the movies there is probably an implausibility flaw built in. That is what separates Luthor from being merely money hungry into being a sociopathic person devoid of any consideration of anyone but himself.