Superman came out in 1978 and is considered the first modern super hero movie. The series finished its initial run in 1987, with the not-so super Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and the series went dormant for a while. Despite various efforts from the likes of Tim Burton and Kevin Smith, a Superman movie did not take off in the 90s, and the Man of Steel did not return to the Silver Screen until Superman Returns (2006), directed by Bryan Singer.
Between 1987 and 2006, the super hero genre exploded with the such titles as Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spider-Man, and even Singer's adaptation of X-Men. Some were darker. Some introduced more flawed, human heroes. The decision any filmmaker must make when making a Superman movie today is whether to stay true to his roots as a paragon of goodness and virtue or to make changes and give him flaws that might make him more relatable. Superman Returns takes what is arguably the bolder choice and strives for the former.
It's been five years since anyone has seen Superman (Brandon Routh), who left to search out the remnants of his home planet Krypton. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), now with a young son and living with nice guy Richard White (James Marsden), the nephew Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella). She's even won the Pullitzer for her article, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." Then one day, Superman returns, as does Clark Kent, which oddly enough no one questions. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has gotten out of prison and hatches a scheme to utilize Superman's power crystals to create a new land mass and utilize the Kryptonian technology for his own gain.
Superman Returns strives to return to the mythic, epic quality Richard Donner brought to the first two Superman movies. In age when most blockbusters are dominated by explosions and big action scenes that overwhelm the screen and move at a breakneck pace, Superman Returns takes its time and is more concerned with character development than action, although it does have its share of that. We spend time on the Kent Farm in Smallville, a return to the Fortress of Solitude, and a tender, romantic flight with Superman carrying Lois.
Stock footage of Marlon Brando as Jo-El is used to continue the previous movies' themes about Superman's place in the world and his responsibility, and Superman Returns continues the idea of creating a legacy by making Superman a father (come on, that can't be a surprise. They might as well have given the kid a sign to wear.) This a thoughtful Superman, the kind of hero who hovers above the world, listening to all the cries he hears for a savior. He's not acting out of a compulsion or for revenge or thrills; he genuinely wants to make the world a better place, a courageous characterization in a modern cinema dominated by irony, post-modernism, and cynicism.
With Superman Returns, the filmmakers made the correct choice by casting an unknown in the part, ensuring that the persona and gossip of a big star didn't overshadow any performance (for an idea of how badly this could have gone, imagine Nicolas Cage, who was cast in an aborted 90s movie). Unfortunately, I have trouble seeing anyone other than Reeve in the part and found Routh to be disappointing. With Reeve, you could almost believe Clark Kent and Superman were really two separate people; he could heroic, funny, charming, intense, romantic. Routh isn't really any of these; he's just kind of there, fulfilling the functions of the plot but without the humanity Reeve brought, and his attempts to differentiate Superman and Clark Kent aren't very effective (It's really astounding no one clues in). It's a big hole for the movie to overcome.
The special effects are top notch; Superman's return to action involving a crashing jet liner works tremendously well and is probably the best action scene. Even the CGI and other modern updates, such as how Superman's X-Ray vision and his super hearing, add value without overwhelming the screen and drawing attention to themselves. Singer brings first-rate touch production design to the movie and even brings back John Williams' iconic score. Like Donner, he is treating the movie with respect and trying to build a modern myth.
It would have been nice if Singer had gotten another shot at the Man of Steel since he seems to understand and appreciate it for what it is. Perhaps Routh could have grown into the role and found a way to make it his own. Unfortunately, the response to Superman Returns resulted in a completely darker and grittier reboot from the team of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan that tried to turn the series into another Batman. But for one fleeting moment, there was hope.