Superman Returns
written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris
directed by Bryan Singer
starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey
4 stars

review by Stephen Notley

Ah, pleasure, the pleasure of seeing a good movie. A good Superman movie, no less.

We’ve been conditioned to expect little from the event pictures, the summer blockbusters. They’re machines to deliver special effects, spectacle vehicles in which the stories are considered successes if they allow the viewer to experience a flicker of interest during a $15 million action sequence. The notion that such films might be actual films, might actually have something to say beyond their mere existence as an assemblage of computer-generated imagery, seems a lofty and unrealistic ambition.

And yet we have Superman Returns. Certainly there’s spectacle. Oh yes, there is spectacle, grand stunning sights of impossible things of which, if you’ve seen the trailers, you may have some idea. But these sights are backdrop and baseline for what the film is about rather than being the reason for the movie’s existence. There’s a grace and assuredness to the production, not simply in the clarity and effectiveness of the super heroics but in the small storytelling choices, the well-chosen tight shots for the intimate moments, Lois’s hand on his arm, Lois slipping out of her shoes.

By deft dint Bryan Singer has added immeasurably to the stories of Superman, not by indulging in a blockheaded “darkness” but by being willing to face truths and make choices like an adult. The most surprising thing about Superman Returns is that there are surprises. The movie develops relationships in unexpected ways, presses different buttons than the ones we’re used to having pressed, doesn’t unfold according to the same tiresome patterns. This is Superman, but not as we’ve known him. It is, in fact, a love story, a most unusual and satisfying one. Superman has always been motivated by love, but here we see a different love than the one that drove him to unspin the Earth and turn back time. A better love. A super love, if you will.

I do have complaints. Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth, while game, seem insubstantial compared to the memory of Christopher Reeve’s manly solidity and Margot Kidder’s birdy twitteriness. Routh and Bosworth’s performances fuction well enough as invocations of these previously realized roles but they wouldn’t be strong enough to stand on their own without the history. And I’m not entirely sold on John Ottman’s efforts to interpret and expand on John Williams’s classic Superman score; he works the themes as best he can but there is a muddiness in the music that’s regrettable.

But these are nits in an otherwise thoroughly satisfying experience. I thrilled, I cheered, and there’s a fleeting but actual moment where I felt my heart shift. Get that done and I’ll forgive anything.