Sounded promising, didn't it? Bryan Singer blew off directing the third X-Men movie in order to do this one, and he brought along two of the screenwriters (Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris) and the cinematographer (Newton Thomas Sigel) from that franchise to work on this prospective franchise-in-the-making. He was given a budget estimated to be more than $250 million. And now here it is: Superman flies again — more expensively than ever before, but, as it turns out, at a considerably lower imaginative altitude.

The story is unusually romance-oriented for an action movie of this scale. As it begins, Superman (Brandon Routh) has been away for five years (something about flying off to visit the wreckage of his blown-to-bits home planet of Krypton). He returns to Metropolis to find that his old girlfriend, "Daily Planet" reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), now has a five-year-old son, and is engaged to be married to the paper's assistant editor, Richard White (James Marsden — Cyclops in the X-Men movies). This instant love triangle has some emotional grip because Richard is in fact a fine match for Lois. "He's a good man," she tells the disconsolate Supe, "and you've been gone a long time."

Also still on the scene is megalomaniacal criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), now attended by a crew of hulking thugs and a dim, tartish consort named Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey). Luthor is plotting to conjure up a new continent out of the ocean, submerging the United States — no, the world! — in the process. When he lays his hands on some kryptonite, Superman's least-favorite extraterrestrial mineral, things get nasty. Indeed, even the movie's conclusion, which arrives some two and a half long hours after its commencement, is not entirely upbeat.

So. Are there astonishing action scenes? Well, real astonishment — of the "How on earth did they do that?" variety — is in oddly short supply. There are, however, a number of big, money-intensive sequences, with mountains of rock rearing up out of the Atlantic, and Superman straining mightily to push back a plummeting airplane before it crashes into the middle of a baseball stadium, and Lord knows, they're well-done. There's also a lovely, dreamlike image of an unconscious Superman floating silently through space back down to earth, and a witty interlude in which one of Luthor's brawny henchmen, assigned to guard the captured Lois and her son in the salon of the boss's luxury yacht, casually slides in beside the boy on a piano bench for a four-hand rendition of "Heart and Soul."

But for all its visual felicities, the movie is curiously flat, largely because of the casting. "Superman Returns" is a fond homage to the first two Superman movies of the modern blockbuster era, which were released in 1978 and 1980. Both of these (along with two best-forgotten further installments) starred the late Christopher Reeve, to whom Brandon Routh bears a strong resemblance. (With his wig-like matte-black hair and heavily-pancaked face, Routh suggests a wax sculpture of his predecessor.) But Reeve started out as a stage actor, both on Broadway and in London and Paris, too, and he brought to the role of Superman a sweet, glimmering charm and a dramatic presence that are, at the moment, beyond the ability of Routh, who comes to the big screen from a seven-year career in television.

Problematic in another way is Kate Bosworth. She may be more dewily pretty than Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane in the earlier pictures, but she lacks Kidder's sparky humor — she's not much fun. And given Bosworth's age (she's now 23), this Lois's long flirtation with Superman would have had to begin when she was the only major metropolitan newspaper reporter in the country too young to drink or drive.

Also inadequate is Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. This character was played in the original movies, unforgettably, by Gene Hackman, whose florid sarcasm and ranting egomania were a comic wonder to behold. Spacey, opting to avoid any comparison, perhaps, takes his performance in a much less entertaining direction. His Luthor — with the trouser-cuffs of his swank suits tucked into military combat boots, for some reason — is a purring sadist, and the sequence in which he and his thugs beat and kick a weakened Superman almost to death defiles the romantic tone of the picture; it's repellent.

As for Parker Posey, such a pleasure to watch in the Christopher Guest mock-docs, like "Best in Show," she's been asked to step into a role — that of Luthor's hapless moll — that was done to trashy, air-headed perfection by Valerie Perrine (as Miss Teschmacher) in the first two Superman movies. And Posey has been given nothing to work with — the character here is a skeletal concept, and takes no advantage of her eccentric comedic intelligence. This is a perplexing waste of a lively actress.

A lot of talented people have put a lot of work into this movie, and since its ending all but cries out for a sequel or three, they'll probably have a chance to get it right the next time around (should they remain onboard). The bittersweet love story is interesting, but it remains to be seen whether the young action-movie audience — the people that studios count on to be repeat ticket-buyers — will find it all that addictive after an initial viewing. The digital action looks as costly as it obviously was, and there are acres of it. But despite the considerable amount of time that Superman spends flying around the sky, his return never really takes off.

 
— Kurt Loder

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