I'll say this for Superman Returns: at least it looked like they tried to make a good movie.
They failed, but when it's summer blockbuster time, and you're dealing with the likes of Poseidon or The DaVinci Code or--shudder--Click, good intentions actually count for something.
But director Bryan Singer made quite a few fundamental mistakes when he set out here. One is his obvious devotion to the 1978 Superman, which Singer feels--correctly--is still the best cinematic adaptation of a comic book. In essence, Superman Returns is a belated sequel to that picture.
And it just doesn't hold a candle to it. Singer is certainly a better director than Richard Donner, who helmed the '78 film, but Donner got lucky. He had a script by writers like Robert Benton and David Newman and Tom Mankiewicz, who'd written for magazines and newspapers as well as movies, and who could write dialogue as well as action. He had cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who shot 2001 and Cabaret, and designer John Barry, who'd created the settings for A Clockwork Orange and Star Wars. In other words, Donner was riding herd on world-class talent, and he had the sense to let them do their best.
But mostly what Donner had were perfect leads, Christopher Reeve, achingly sincere as Superman, goofily funny as Clark Kent, and Margot Kidder, quirky, adorable, cynical and slightly melancholy as Lois Lane. They had chemistry you couldn't manufacture, and it wasn't just between the actors but between their characters; you could understand why a straight-arrow like Superman/Clark would be drawn to an oddball like Lois.
Singer's movie has plenty wrong with it, but it would have gotten by with the right leads, and this is where Superman Returns fails most spectacularly. The whole premise is, Superman has been away from earth for five years (on a rather flimsy premise) and when he returns, he discovers that not only has the world survived without him, but worse, Lois has, too. She's engaged, she's got a kid--she doesn't need him anymore, and the poor sap's heartbroken. Basically, it's Superman as Paul Giamatti in Sideways. (Or, um, me.)
Fine. Not what most people want to see in superhero movies, but okay. For it to work, though, you have to believe that these characters have a past. And if Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth seem to have shared any kind of past, it must have been in junior high.
It's not just that they're too young for the parts (Though they are; seriously, if you're going to make it a plot point that they've been apart for five years, it pretty much follows that you should cast actors who would have been adults five years ago.), it's that there is nothing even remotely interesting about them. Routh--probably not his fault--simply does an impression of Christopher Reeve, and while he's not bad, he's clearly just a copy of the original. Bosworth is much worse. Beyond being physically attractive (though in a rather generic way), there is nothing in her presence or performance that justifies Routh's character carrying a torch for her. He's Superman, and this is the best he could do?
With this failure at its core, Superman Returns is left to live or die by its spectacle, but here, too, it comes up short. A sequence involving an airplane and space shuttle is fairly riveting, (though the cartoonish CGI looks phonier than the cheesy miniature work in the '78 film), and Kevin Spacey froths entertainingly as villain Lex Luthor (though again, he fails to erase memories of Gene Hackman's superb comic performance in Donner's original). But really, that's about it.
So what we have here is a summer blockbuster that tries to work on a slightly higher level than these things usually do, but fails on even the most elemental level. There's a lesson there somewhere, but no one in Hollywood will ever understand it.