Superman Returns

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 godawful, 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, I was 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 it was the right move for Singer and company to devote themselves so slavishly to Richard Donner's 1978 Superman.

The story picks up where 1980's Superman II left off. Newcomer Brandon Routh gamely apes 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, albeit updated for 2006.

Although it's lovely to see the filmmakers' dedication 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've had some time to think about it, I wish Singer had pushed the envelope further than he did.

One big improvement over Donner's Superman film(s) is that Singer more fully explores the complex web of responsibilities and desires in the Man of Steel's life. Here you really see 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 pain is personified by Lois Lane, who in Superman's absence has shacked up with her editor's nephew and mothered a young boy. And in a clever twist, we also learn that while Supes was off wandering the universe, he was nowhere to be found when called as a witness at his archenemy Lex Luthor's trial, so Luthor was sprung 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 actresses like Margot Kidder 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. Meanwhile, Luthor's latest scheme for world domination, with its Kryptonian sci-fi elements, lacks the real-life scariness of his nuclear hijack in Donner's original.

Still, the star of the show is Bryan Singer, who delivers some intense action scenes, emotion, derring-do, and many moments of pure cinema. And in the end, a movie is only really remembered by how many of those moments it can give us.