#5 in my ranking of the theatrically released Superman films.
Batman Begins came and went to great fanfare, and Warner Brothers needed someone to help them reboot the long-neglected Superman franchise. Who better than Bryan Singer, the man who made the well-received first two X-Men movies? It helped that he was a big fan of the original Superman films by Donner and Lester, so he would bring the right kind of attention to the film. Well, he made the interesting choice (later mimicked across other franchises like Halloween) to simply ignore the events of Superman III and IV (the less said of Supergirl the better), and he made a spiritual sequel to II. It’s oddly reverential to the original films, though. Like, actual reverence, borderline religious. I find that kind of weird, but I think it’s an interesting place to start a film like this.
Superman (Brandan Routh) has been missing from Earth for five years after astronomers found the remnants of his home planet of Krypton which he investigated. In that time, the world, including Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has moved on with their lives. They feel like they don’t need a hero anymore, and Superman walks (flies?) into a time and place where his presence feels unwanted (out of place might have been a stronger approach, but this is fine). At the same time, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has gotten out of prison after his capture, married a dying old woman of wealth, and inherited her fortune upon her death, much to the chagrin of her family (who are never seen again). He uses his newfound wealth to go back to the Fortress of Solitude and learn about the crystals of Krypton, including their ability to take on the properties of the material that surrounds them (I’m sure they’re designed to not become air, or flesh, or something). He hatches a scheme, and to test it, he cuts off a bit of a crystal, throws it into some water, and watches as an EMP pulse emanates from his position.
This becomes the public reappearance of Superman in an exciting and fun action sequence as a shuttle launched from the back of an airliner malfunctions and Superman must save both, ending with him placing the large jet onto a baseball diamond in the middle of a game. The clarity of action, quality of the special effects, and clear stakes with Lois being on board the airliner create spectacle that’s worth watching.
The heart of the movie, though, is Superman trying to reinsert himself into the world that he abandoned. Life seems to have moved on without huge disruption, but people still need that symbol of a savior (the Jesus metaphor is thick in this one, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s thicker here or in Man of Steel). That is emotionally centered on his relationship with Lois, embittered by Superman’s unexplained absence. She seems to have moved on with an asthmatic son Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu) and fiancé Richard White (James Marsden), son of Perry White (Frank Langella), Daily Planet editor. Lois refuses Superman’s advances, even after he recreates the flying scene from the first film, and Superman consoles himself by saving other people, including Kitty (Parker Posey), one of Luthor’s henchmen.
Luthor put Kitty into danger to create a distraction so that Superman wouldn’t notice a robbery going on at the Natural History Museum where Luthor finds a meteor with kryptonite in it. He combines this kryptonite with a crystal and shoots it into the ocean with the variation of his plan from the first film. Then, he was going to sink California into the sea to create new beachfront property. Here, he’s going to create a new Kryptonian continent that drowns out most of North America that he will then sell to those who want space. It’s not the best thought out plan (the land that rises from the ocean doesn’t seem to be amenable to plant life, which is kind of important), and he talks about the crystals giving him advanced technology, none of which he seems to use or find, but madmen’s plans don’t always need to be perfect. I’m okay with a madman having incredibly destructive plans that won’t pan out just like they imagine. It makes Luthor a bit less of a super-genius, for sure, but I’m still okay with it.
Of course, it can’t be as straightforward as that because Lois, being a good reporter (despite still not noticing that Superman and Clark Kent showed up again on the same day) tracks down the source of the EMP pulse to Luthor’s boat right before he takes off with little Jason in tow. Figuring out that they’re kidnapped, Superman and Richard both go out after her, and the rescue by Richard goes wrong. This bit, with the ship breaking in two as the continent rises up from the ocean, seemingly leaving Richard, Lois, and Jason to die is surprisingly tense, dragging out just long enough to keep things interesting before we get our hero moment from our actual hero. I like it.
The big showdown happens on the dead rock with Luthor stabbing Superman with a kryptonite shard (awesome), Richard flying in to save Superman from drowning, Lois pulling the shard from his back, and Superman performs his greatest feat of strength in lifting the entire new continent and throwing it into space. I can dig it.
The movie’s best assets are the spectacle itself. The airplane sequence, the near drowning, and the lifting of the continent are all great individual sequences that work well on their own. The connective tissue isn’t quite as engaging. It’s fine, enough to get us through the picture, but the effort to relate us to a demigod who just feels out of place ends up feeling reverential to a certain fault. I can understand it, but there’s an emotional disconnect that Singer seems to take for granted. He expects us all to love the first two Superman movies as much as he does, and that’s an odd assumption to make. The emotional connection seems to really rely on that previous attachment to the other films rather than building a compelling character on its own. Routh is fine in the role, playing the overgrown boy scout well, but he’s not exactly challenged to do much. It doesn’t help that Bosworth was miscast as Lois, being simply too young for the part. Spacey’s fun as Luthor, though, chewing scenery appropriately.
I admire the film more than I actually love it. I enjoy it as spectacle first with enough to tie it all together so I don’t completely disengage between the action beats. It’s not great, but as a near-religious exploration of some silly comic book movies from the late 70s and early 80s, it’s entertaining.