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Looking Back: Superman Returns (2006)

You have to love “Superman- The Movie” as much as Bryan Singer does to make a film like “Superman Returns.” As result, you’ll likely love “Superman Returns” if you’re as fond of the 1978-1981 Christopher Reeve-starring Superman movies as I am. The great thing about Singer’s film is that, in tone and in the casting of Brandon Routh as Superman, a continuity is created between the Reeve films and this one. Singer nails the tricky tone that Richard Donner established, finding the right moments to be cheerful and serious. Also, in casting Routh, an unknown actor who closely resembles Reeve, yet manages to make the part his own and also compliment what Reeve established, “Superman Returns” seems to exist in the same universe as the prior films. Not an easy feat for a film released in 2006, whereas the last Reeve Superman movie came out in 1987 (though Singer’s film wisely ignore the events of “Superman III” and “Superman IV- The Quest For Peace”).

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Routh’s Man of Steel returns to Earth after a lengthy absence, in which he was investigating what remained of his home planet, Krypton. Upon return, he discovers that his lifelong nemesis, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has hatched yet another plan for world domination and catastrophic destruction. Also, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has penned an award winning article titled, “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman” and is now a mother and dating a pilot (James Marsden).

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My feelings towards “Superman Returns” echoed the two comic book geeks who sat directly in front of me at the opening night screening. After over an hour, I heard one of them say to the other, “this could be one of the best movies I’ve seen all year.” As the lights went up at the end, the same guy turned to his friend (they were both wearing Superman t-shirts) and sighed, “…almost.” “Superman Returns” made my top ten best list of 2006 for its first 90 minutes, which are about perfect. As a reimagining of the legend, a faithful facsimile of Donner’s upbeat but grand vision and a comic book movie about an American savior, it’s a terrific film.

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The last hour, however, becomes overstuffed with special effects and too many incidents. Luthor’s physical assault of Superman (which inevitably mirrors the beatings Christ faced before crucifixion) is a powerful scene. Less so the inevitable reveal of Lois Lane’s son, which is too much a set up for sequel and shouldn’t have been sandwiched into the third act. So much of “Superman Returns” mirrors the story of “Superman- The Movie” (the opening credits, the shuttle a fill in for the plunging helicopter, the massive destruction in the last act) that, by the end, too much of it feels like déjà vu. It’s a shame, as the lead up couldn’t be better. The scenes in the Daily Planet newsroom have the quick wit and snap you’d hope for (it helps that Frank Langhella is an excellent Perry White).

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Superman’s first big rescue upon returning is a phenomenal set piece and Spacey compliments the playfully nasty blend of mirth and sadism that made Gene Hackman so good as Luthor. Parker Posey steals scenes as this movie’s Miss Teschmacher equivalent, the sequence of Superman and Lois flying is awe inducing and the blend of humor and excitement that should be in every Superman movie (I’m talking to you, Zac Snyder) is always strong. Had the final hour not become so heavy and overstuffed, this may well have been the best Superman movie, period. Instead, to echo another fan, it’s an “almost” movie.

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