Superman Returns directed by Bryan Singer, written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, with Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey and Frank Langella. A Warner Brothers release. 153 minutes. For venues and times, see Movies, page 115. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Superman Returns is an elegantly made piece of superhero fantasy, with a great villain in Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor.
As for the rest of Warner's $200 million gamble, the studio cast its leads for a different movie than the one they made. Brandon Routh, the unknown playing Superman/Clark Kent, is 26 and looks younger. Kate Bosworth, of Blue Crush, is 23, and one of her principal qualities is that she plays much younger than that. At 20, she was perfectly credible playing 15-year-olds in Beyond The Sea and Wonderland.
If Superman Returns were the immediate sequel to Smallville, where Clark goes to Metropolis, gets a job at the Daily Planet and meets Lois, this cast might work, though Bosworth would still be problematic. The great Lois Lanes - Margot Kidder and Teri Hatcher - were both older (Kidder first did the part at 30) and rather saltier than their male co-stars. Kidder and Hatcher were in the great tradition of wised-up female journos that goes back to Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur in the 30s, women with an edge. Bosworth has no discernible spin - as Lois, she barely has a personality.
More important, Superman Returns is not that story. It takes place several years after the Superman-arrives-in-Metropolis story, after Superman has been away long enough for Lois to have a kid they claim is five but who looks seven or eight. Both actors are at least five years too young to be convincing as these characters.
Bryan Singer, who did such a good job with the first two X-Men films, wants Superman Returns to be a grown-up story, but it was cast for 14-year-old girls who had their TVs locked on the WB Channel.
Of course, there's still the big problem with all Superman stories, which is that he's kind of dull.
He's a nice guy, always in the right, dedicated to "truth, justice and the American way" - though they drop the last from the current film. He has no dark side, which is why his villains are so important, and why DC regularly went to such bizarre lengths in the storylines. (Around the time I was 12, I lost track of how many issues of Action Comics had featured "The death of Superman - not a hoax! Not a dream!")
The Christopher Reeve Superman films never overcame that problem, and Lois & Clark solved the problem by ignoring Superman as much as possible and playing the whole thing for screwball comedy.
In Superman Returns, Singer and his crew create grand scenes, hair's-breadth rescues and spectacular effects. And they've got Spacey. But you know there's a problem with a Superman movie when you're rooting for Lex Luthor.