While watching Superman Returns the other day, I felt guilty for allowing that Brett Ratner didn't muck up the X-Men movie franchise after Bryan Singer left to make this film. Since Ratner proved to be only mediocre instead of god-awful, I had basically tolerated his work, forgetting how good Singer's direction in the first two X-Men films really was.
While watching Singer's masterful pacing, suspense, attention to detail and love for the filmmaking craft in Superman Returns (which admittedly showcases his directorial talents more than the X-Men movies did, or maybe he's just getting better with each film), I was instantly reminded of the difference between a talented helmer who truly calls the shots (Singer) and a studio hack who lets the rote mechanics of production dictate what he does with his camera and his cast (Ratner).
That said, I am still on the fence about whether, in the long run, it really was the right move for Singer and company to devote themselves so slavishly to Richard Donner's 1978 Superman. The storyline in this film (one of countless storylines, I suppose, over the decade of troubled Hollywood development snafus in bringing Supes back to the big screen) picks up where 1980's Superman II leaves off. So newcomer Brandon Routh gamely apes then-newcomer Christopher Reeve in the title role, composer John Ottman makes liberal and loving use of John Williams' iconic original themes in his score, and the look and feel of Superman Returns hews closely to Donner's vision, if updated for 2006.
Although it's lovely to see the filmmakers' devotion to all the things that worked in the first place - even the opening title sequence is an homage to the lightspeedy zoom of the 1978 film's end credits - now that I have had some time to think about it, I wish Singer had pushed the envelope a little further than he did.
The one big improvement over Donner's film - and its first sequel - is that Singer more fully explores the complex web of responsibilities and desires in the Man of Steel's life. Here you really feel how important Superman is to his adopted planet Earth, how much a part of the fabric of life he has become. So while it never really delves into why this godlike being, this literal savior of our world, would choose to rather selfishly take off for five years just to see if there are any remnants of his home planet of Krypton, it does at least touch on the all-too-human pain of being away from those we love, only to realize how they have gone on without us.
In Superman Returns, this of course is personified by Lois Lane, who in Superman's absence has shacked up with her editor's nephew and mothered a young boy. Though in a clever moment, we also learn that while Supes was off wandering around the universe, he was nowhere to be found when called as a witness at his archenemy Lex Luthor's trial, and so Luthor was released from jail - much, of course, to Superman's later regret.
Herein are the things about Superman Returns that didn't quite work for me. Kevin Spacey is fine as Luthor, but he only brings back memories of Gene Hackman's superior work in the part. And Parker Posey, as an amalgam of the Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty roles in the 1978 film, is an ill fit as Luthor's dimwitted sidekick. (The uncompelling Kate Bosworth is also just OK as Lois Lane; too bad in this day and age scrappy, raspy-voiced actresses like Margot Kidder and Raiders of the Lost Ark's Karen Allen no longer get cast in leading roles. In fact the only casting that really works here is Sam Huntington as a very funny Jimmy Olsen.) And Luthor's latest scheme to take over the world, with its Kryptonian sci-fi elements, lacks the real-life scariness of his plan to hijack nuclear weapons in Donner's original.
Still, the star of the show is Bryan Singer, who delivers some intense, crowd-pleasing action scenes, real emotion, genuine derring-do, and many beautiful moments of pure cinema. And in the end, a movie is only really remembered by how many of those moments it can give us.