It would be tempting to dismiss Superman Returns with a cursory he shouldn't have bothered. Certainly for all the noble intentions it's the most misconceived blockbuster in years, at times misjudging its audience more than any mega-budget film since Speed 2. On paper it sounds so promising - ignoring the last two Superman films and following on from Superman II as if they never happened, throwing Marlon Brando back in the mix via archive footage and bringing the Man of Steel back to Earth after an absence of several years during which people have begun to question whether they even need him anymore. And after Bryan Singer's success with the first two X-Men films, he'd seem the perfect director. Yet the end result is one of the most disappointingly dull and relentlessly glum movies of the century, and certainly one of the grottiest looking major studio films ever. It's at once one of those films that manages to look both expensive and cheap. You can see where money has been spent, but it never really counts. If anything it looks like a busted, bloated miniseries, all buildup but precious little payoff. What we get instead is endless brooding.
Yet the relentlessly oppressive look of the film is merely a symptom of a far greater malaise. Where Donner mixed sorrow with joy and exuberance, Singer just gives us naval gazing as his Superman spends far more of the movie brooding, brooding and then brooding some more, not even finding any satisfaction in the few feats of heroism he performs. Indeed, they should have changed the tagline to 'You'll believe a man can brood' as he mopes his way through much of the agonisingly long 154 oh so very long minutes. He hardly even flies - he just hovers around wallowing in wistful self-pity forever before we finally get half an hour of decent action before its back to the misery (albeit somewhat more effective than the dreary first half).
The film is often genuinely monotonous in the dictionary sense of the word. There's no sense of pace or narrative economy, no joy of discovery, no eagerness to see what happens next, just an unexciting trudge through the superhero's angst as he endlessly hovers around. Worse, this is a film with no sense of wonder at all.
Where the Donner films worked was their ability to juggle loss, emotion, a sense of wonder and joy and exuberance - with Reeve you got the impression that Superman enjoyed using his powers to do good, but here it's nothing but a cross to bear in a series of even-more-bleedin'-obvious-than-The-Passion-of-the-Christ metaphors. Look, there's Supes being crucified; look, there's Supes being scourged; and look - on the Third day the tomb is empty and he has risen!
Yet for all the time spent on would-be character building scenes, even by the half hour point we know surprisingly little and care less about the characters, so that when Superman finally goes into action in a well-conceived but strangely unexciting shuttle rescue it carries no real weight. Only Kevin Spacey seems to be bringing anything to the party, his Lex Luthor dominating the film far more than should be good for it as he sets about his latest real estate scam at great length. On the side of good, Brandon Routh fares better as Clark Kent than as Superman, his weak voice combining with a poor sound mix to make the Man of Steel sound distinctly wimpier than the mild-mannered reporter. Kate Bosworth does her best with Lois Lane, but the character goes through the film with such a huge chip on her shoulder it's impossible to warm to her despite her best efforts. Hell, you know a film's in trouble when James Marsden makes the most impression!
And it all looks so grotty all the time, with the limitations of the video photography robbing even close-ups of detail (some shots of Superman's face look more like a Final Fantasy computer simulation than a real person), limiting the color scheme (Superman's costume usually looks turquoise or green here) and seemingly limiting the action to clumsy tight shots that limit the film's scale. Even basic no-brainer shots are simply botched - hard to believe but even the would-be iconic shot of Clark ripping off his shirt to reveal - well, just a little bit of blue vest actually - flops because the shot misses the iconic `S' logo entirely as if the film was framed for fullframe TV instead of widescreen.
Nor are the well-intentioned nods to the Donner films successful. The Brando footage, after the first scene, seem more gimmick than anything else, with lines thrown in almost at random to no effect whatsoever. It even rehashes huge chunks of other characters' dialogue from the first film, showing up just how short some of the players fall (Routh seems almost apologetic when delivering the `flying is still statistically speaking the safest way to travel' bit while Parker Posey does her best with Valerie Perrine's cast-off wisecracks).
Although they're talking about adding more action for the proposed sequel, that's really not the solution - the 1978 film probably had less action than this, but it counted because we were involved with and liked the characters: you wanted him to rescue Lois from the helicopter, whereas this time round you couldn't care less if the surly cow burned up in the shuttle scene or not (as an introduction to her as well it's incredibly poor). What this needs is characters we like and can root for, not bigger set pieces. As it stands, Hell, even Fantastic Four was a more successful superhero flick than this. It's as if someone decided to film Lois Lane's editorial `Why the World Doesn't Need Superman.' Looks like Supe's fatal flaw isn't Kryptonite, it's Bryan Singer. Still, it could have been worse: it could have been Brett Ratner...
The transfer of the feature is okay, but the limitations of the original digital photography are often very apparent, meaning that it frequently looks worse than the first two films made more than a quarter of a century ago! No extras on this single-disc edition, but while the extras on the 2-disc set are good and at least highlight the sincere intentions behind this misfire it's hard to muster up the enthusiasm to watch them throughout after seeing the film, especially since the expensive Krypton prologue is NOT included in the deleted scenes, being held back for a future special edition (ultimately turning up on the Blu-ray boxed set of all the Superman films) in what seems a particularly cynically commercial move.