The first three significant things you'll see and hear in Superman Returns are things you've seen and heard before in, as they say, the Superman franchise.
The film begins with the voice and then the trifurcated image of Jor-El, Superman's father, played here by Marlon Brandon in archival footage from 1978's Superman: The Movie (with Christopher Reeve). Next come the opening credits, and Johnny Williams' rousingly familiar super-theme. Finally, there's an old woman on her deathbed, being gypped of her fortune by Lex Luthor. The actress playing her is Noel Neill, who starred as Lois Lane in the '50s TV series The Adventures of Superman.
I would like to report that this fan-pleasing homage-ery stops when the "new" story finally kicks in. But Superman Returns is pure rehashed leftovers a dull, unimaginative, two-hour-37-minute bag of bones, brought back to life in the rotting flesh of everything we've seen before. It's shocking, really, that a smart director like Bryan Singer would waste his time on a piece of crap like this. I can only guess that he liked comic books as a boy, so he parlayed his X-Men success into, as they say, a dream project.
Superman Returns is still about the Man of Steel (Brandon Routh), his immutable arch-enemy Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, who won an Oscar in Singer's The Usual Suspects), and Luthor's sinister scheme to, oh, I don't know take over the world? (M'w-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!!! ).
He plans to do this by finding the Fortress of Solitude (Superman's winter retreat), harnessing the power of its crystals, and creating a new continent in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, displacing enough water to flood most of the United States, thereby making his new real estate rather valuable to the people left alive who can afford it. And oh, yeah: He steals some Kryptonite, then lodges a slice of it in Superman's back, which is the comic-book equivalent of treating Samson to a SuperCuts.
Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella) is slightly more gentlemanly than his '78 counterpart but still somewhat blinded by his notion of what sells newspapers ("tragedy, sex and Superman"). One wonders if he'd bother to cover a third-rate burglary attempt. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is still a self-important workaholic who treats Clark Kent like a disposable object and who's still in love with Superman. Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) is still a wide-eyed dweeb.
The additions to the story include Richard White (James Marsden), Perry's intrepid journalist nephew and the father of Lois' asthmatic 5-year-old son. There's Kitty (indie-cinema doyenne Parker Posey), Luthor's whiny (as opposed to sexy) sidekick, who covets fur and goes everywhere clutching her little dog (which would make a tasty meal on, let's say, a desert island where Superman leaves you stranded, just in case of a sequel). And, briefly, the stately (i.e., craggy) old Eva Marie Saint appears as Clark's mother, who's aged a lot in the 23 years since the last Superman movie, although only five years have "actually" passed.
By the way, if you've heard the Internet rumors, then you'll also be happy or disappointed, depending upon what blogs you read to learn that Superman redux is so not gay, or if he is, then he's the most convincing closet case in Hollywood history (and that includes CENSORED!). He begins drooling for Lois the moment he returns, and considering how long he's been away, visiting the intergalactic shards of his obliterated home planet, you can pretty well guess he hasn't been laid in a long, long time.
When Warner Bros. made Superman, in 1978, the movie's tagline was, "You will believe a man can fly." We didn't, of course. That was still the age of strings, however skillfully removed they were on film. This new digitally enhanced flight looks more convincing, and it doesn't matter one iota: Superman has never staked his motion picture success on his ability to violate Newton's Fourth Law ("what goes up must have wings").
You'll also have to be desperate for a Superman movie to care a whit about the story, or to feel for even a nanosecond that anything of consequence will happen to anyone. In fact, it could have been an hour shorter if our hero had just pulled a Superman: The Movie and made the Earth spin backward on its axis to reverse time. Superman Returns is so without tension, suspense or surprises that it plays like a Gilligan's Island reunion, minus the laughs. The dialogue is drab, and the screenplay can't muster up even a token attempt at something substantive or meaningful. Any talk of "growth" will probably have more to do with chest size (Superman's and Lois') than with character.
Singer softens the comic-book tone of his enterprise, but he's damned no matter what he does: There's just not enough material left, especially after better movies like Spider-Man and X-Men. Routh doesn't have much to portray, just Clark Kent's awkward dorkiness and Superman's goody-two-shoes morality (he catches Lois smoking, although they've engaged in unprotected sex). It's more imitation than performance, so the jury's still out on his career. That leaves Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor or is it the other way around? He (who?) speaks few sentences that are more than 10 words long, none of it worth listening to.
"The world doesn't need a savior," some idiot tells Superman. What a great place this would have been to discuss the myriad horrors of modern life, considering the cataclysmic moments in Superman Returns that remind us of recent events. (Metropolis has always been a shadow New York.) When will Hollywood learn that mindless summer movie audiences won't turn away from palatable entertainment (which this isn't) if a few of the characters talk good now and then?
Rating: 1.5 projectors