Superman Returns (2006) Movie Review

image of flying Superman in Superman Returns

Title: Superman Returns
Year: 2006
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Play time: 2h 34min
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenwriters: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Brandon Routh, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth

And so all the worrying, the hand-wringing, the cruel jokes were for naught. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns is a worthy return for a franchise that slinked away in shame after two beloved films were followed by two downright embarrassing outings. Returns is not a great film, but there’s nothing remotely embarrassing about it; Singer, the seasoned professional who seemed to will X-Men and X2 to a level of efficient quality, has made a sequel as solid, entertaining and reverent as anyone could ask. Running a seemingly indulgent two hours and thirty-seven minutes, it cannot even manage to be too long.

Brandon Routh the new Clark Kent – in Superman Returns

 At the center of everyone’s concerns was the casting of unknown Brandon Routh as the title cape-donner; the internet hummed with brutal barbs about Routh, Singer and the casting couch. But Routh comes through: his performance may not be a display of versatility, but he’s mastered the physicality of the character while managing to make him an even more genial fellow than he was in the Reeve films. Much of the time he is almost fatherly, with little of the tongue-in-cheek stoicism displayed by Reeve; makes sense, considering that Superman was sent to Earth to be a light to show us the way.

Detailed Synopsis

That feature of Routh’s Superman may function as a clue to the rest of the film, which is almost peculiar in the way it leaves its title character.

r on the sidelines. He returns, all right, but doesn’t do very much once he gets here; his function seems to be almost exclusively saving the day, and the screenplay doesn’t give him the autonomy to do much of anything else of his own volition. Of necessity, this makes him a less dynamic hero, and the film has little of the labyrinthine plotting and character conflict of, for example, the Spider-Mans. Most of what’s interesting about Superman happened before the events of this film.

But then, maybe that is at least partially the point. If Superman is a father figure to humanity, then it makes sense for the focus to be on the humans whom Superman is supposed to be shepherding. And it is to the film’s credit that the scenes sans Superman work; the screenplay makes them important. Of course, when you have a supervillain threatening to destroy North America and have a private continent sprout in its place (for some reason all I could think of was John Malkovich in Johnny English plotting to replace England with an enormous prison), urgency is easy to come by.

Lex Luthor a Decent Enemy of Superman Returns

That supervillain is none other than Lex Luthor, played by Gene Hackman in the 1978 and 1980 films and by Kevin Spacey here. The differences are intriguing. Hackman’s Luthor was a petty tyrant, mean to his henchmen and fanatical in his arrogance. Spacey’s is toned down a notch; still megalomaniacal, of course, but in a more tempered, more sinister way. He no longer blindly lashes out at his subordinates, and even tolerates a full-on slap to the face from one of them (a hysterical, in both senses of the word, Parker Posey). When he discovers that he and his team are in danger, he exhorts them to leave everything and run; somehow, I think the old Lex would have risked the lives of his charges to save expensive equipment. This calmer, more reasoned exterior to Luther makes him less cartoonishly evil but more sincerely frightening. Spacey has a lot of screentime — probably more than Routh — and he is superb in the role.

When Superman does show up, Singer shows us why this is the most expensive movie ever made, though in retrospect it’s probably a shame that Superman is largely limited to lifting heavy things. In fairness, when one of those things is half of a yacht, it is difficult to complain. When Lex Luthor gets ahold of kryptonite and at least temporarily has our hero at his mercy, the emotional effect of seeing the Man of Steel beaten to the ground is unexpectedly fierce.

In the end, we are left with a few questions. Why is 23 year-old Kate Bosworth playing Lois Lane five years post-Margot Kidder? Why did they hire Kal Penn to play Stanford only to leave him without a single line of dialogue? But these are peripheral. Superman Returns pays its respects to the Richard Donner films (Lester? Who’s that?), replicates some of their pleasures, and swats away many of the barriers they faced. The event of the summer? Maybe. After a hideous May and June, unadulterated competence feels like an event.


Movie geek and tv show lover. Favorite genres: sci-fi, action, crime. Fan of trilogies.

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