Movie Review: Superman Returns

By  · Published on June 28th, 2006

What defines a great superhero movie? Of course this is a topic that would spark a very heated and potentially violent debate if brought up in any comic book shop across America. It is also something that is very subjective, but there are a few things that very successful and beloved superhero films of the past have in common. In fact, I have narrowed it down to three specific elements that I believe to be necessary in making a great superhero flick. The first is that the film must have great action. Not good action, not lukewarm action, but GREAT action. It must contain the kind of action sequences that cause your back to stick the seat because you are sweating (and the sweating can not be related to any pre-existing conditions, a la obesity). A great superhero movie must also have performances by their lead actors that make us believe that these characters whom we loved so much in print are really coming to life. We cannot survive on actors who just look like our favorite heroes, they must also be able to walk in their shoes. And lastly these successful superhero films must have a story that keeps us yearning for more. We have read every comic, seen every animated episode, and we even have the bootlegged director’s cut of the 1970’s serial edition; we need more than just a rehashing of yesterday’s saga.

All of these elements are absolutely necessary in making a superhero movie that will be both respected and loved by fans everywhere. All of the X-Men films had them; each Spiderman thus far has had them; and even the Batman movies of both past and present have had them (with the exception of that one with George Clooney. We don’t talk about that one). Today’s question, of course, does Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns have all of these elements, and is it worth getting all worked up about? I will divulge such information in good time, but first allow me to break down a little bit of synopsis for you.

Singer’s Superman Returns finds the Man of Steel, played by Brandon Routh, returning to Earth after being gone for 5 years in search of his long destroyed home, Krypton. He soon finds that plenty has changed in the world in the time that he has been gone. His nemesis Lex Luther, played by Kevin Spacey, has been released from prison and is — you guessed it — plotting a scheme to basically take over the world. Superman’s lost love Lois Lane, portrayed by the classically beautiful Kate Bosworth, has since started up a little family unit complete with a 5 year old son and father-but-not-husband played by James Marsden, who just seems to be popping up all over the recent slue of comic-to-film adaptations (he was Cyclops in X-Men for those of you keeping score at home). Now Superman must fight to win back the love of his life and keep his identity hidden, all while fending off the evil aspirations of that crazy Lex Luthor guy. Still with me? Good, because that pretty much sums this one up.

Back to the task at hand and the question of whether Returns has what it takes to solidify itself as a great superhero film. It comes through very nicely in regards to the quality of the action sequences. Each sequence, of which there are only a few, is nothing short of heart-pounding. The visual effects in this film are stellar, as can be expected from a movie with a $260 million dollar budget that took what seemed like forevor to make. But such great visual effects would go to waste if they were not accompanied by fantastic sound. This is where Superman really begins to take off, as the sound (both effects and score) were breathtaking. It was almost as if you could have closed your eyes and not missed any of the action. To be honest, it sent chills up my spine to hear the sound of Superman whizzing through the air. Score one point for Bryan Singer and crew.

On to the second non-negotiable of a great superhero movie, the believable performances. This seems to be the most talked about element of this film prior to its release, due to the fact that it could have gone either way. It is almost impossible to fill the shoes of the great Christopher Reeve, but Brandon Routh does put his best foot forward. I was able to very easily buy his performance as both Clark Kent and Superman. The only difference was that Routh’s Superman was still a little dorky when he donned the cape, whereas Reeve’s rendition saw Superman as more of a bad-ass. Moving past Routh’s very acceptable and impressing performance brings me to the character that I anticipated seeing most; Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. And what a performance it was; Spacey was both diabolical and dead on as Superman’s arch enemy, giving him a swagger and intelligence that set him apart from your average bad guy. Without Spacey’s brilliance there would have been more pressure for Routh to carry the film, and that may not have gone well for all involved. Overall the entire cast fit well into their roles and it made me believe that Superman could once again fly.

That brings us to the third and final element of a great superhero movie, a story that keeps us yearning for more. This is unfortunately where things begin to get a little shaky for Superman Returns. The film seemed to be a little longer than it needed to be, with some almost unnecessary additions to the Superman saga. As well, these additions to the story could potentially have long time Superman fans up in arms, as they don’t really fit as they should. This is not to say that the movie was by any means boring or completely off target, but something about the story just doesn’t sit right, especially for anyone who is a die-hard Superman junkie.

Yet even with a plot that leaves a little to be desired, there is still plenty to love about Superman Returns. Above all things it is entertaining and exciting to watch. The action sequences are well shot, the film sounds beautiful, and the acting is surprisingly on point. What this film loses in its off-center story, it more than makes up with an adrenaline rush of action. The average moviegoer who enjoys a good action flick will be well served with this film, as it is a hell of a ride. As for you die-hard Superman purists out there, if you don’t expect this film to out-do the Superman of 1978 and you can overlook some unnecessary additions to the plot then you may just find yourself enjoying what will become one of this summer’s best action movies.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)