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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 July 2006, 07:34 GMT 08:34 UK
Film review: Superman Returns
By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

The popular comic-book character returns in a Hollywood blockbuster rumoured to have cost more than $200m (108m). But is Superman's comeback worth the wait?

Brandon Routh in Superman Returns
Brandon Routh becomes the latest actor to don the iconic cape
Crushing disappointment. Mind-numbing tedium. A sense of outrage at having cherished childhood memories trampled and corrupted.

But that's enough about Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. What about Superman Returns?

Director Bryan Singer knew he had a challenge on his hands reviving a character indelibly associated with the late Christopher Reeve, who so memorably donned the iconic cape and tights between 1978 and 1987.

In truth, however, the Man of Steel has been pretty much moribund since Reeve's abortive last outing in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

Yes, he has enjoyed small-screen success in The New Adventures of Superman and cape-less TV prequel Smallville.

But the tortuous process of bringing him back to the big screen - with everyone from Nicolas Cage to Jude Law linked to the role at one stage or another - only showed how tough it was to escape Reeve's looming shadow.

Obsolescent

Singer's solution is not to dodge that association, but to embrace it.

Picking up where Reeve's first two Superman movies left off, the X-Men director presents an irony-free action adventure that merges state-of-the-art technology with dewy-eyed nostalgia.

Kate Bosworth in Superman Returns
Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is now engaged and has a young son
From John Williams' theme tune to Marlon Brando's posthumous cameo, we are never far from the comfort of the familiar.

And like director Richard Donner before him, Singer casts an unknown actor in the lead - the personable, if conspicuously Reeve-like, Brandon Routh.

As the title suggests, Superman Returns has the invincible icon arrive back on Earth after five years in space searching for the remains of his home planet Krypton.

In his absence, however, Metropolis has learned to live without his heroics, with even ex-girlfriend Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) declaring him obsolescent.

The Daily Planet's ace newshound is forced to eat her words when a space shuttle launch goes explosively awry, with only Superman's 11th-hour intervention saving her from a fiery demise.

But even he finds his powers wanting when confronted with Lex Luthor's latest scheme to create real estate from nothing using stolen Krypton crystals.

Angst-ridden

Internet scuttlebutt that Singer's film would have a gay subtext similar to that of his X-Men films proves to be way off the mark.

More apparent, however, is the religious undercurrent, with Superman painted as a troubled messiah here to redeem and, if necessary, die for mankind.

Kevin Spacey in Superman Returns
As usual, Lex Luthor has a nefarious scheme up his sleeve
Whether yearning for his home world or pining for the newly engaged Lois, this is a much more angst-ridden portrayal than we are used to seeing.

Thank goodness, then, for Kevin Spacey, who brings a glee and relish to Luthor's larger-than-life villainy that compensates for the slightly sombre whole.

In terms of effects and spectacle, Superman Returns tops all of its predecessors with extravagant set-pieces featuring the latest digital trickery.

It also boasts a strong cast, with Routh and Bosworth's relative inexperience balanced by the seasoned likes of Frank Langella and Eva Marie Saint.

Parker Posey also has some hilarious moments and all of the best lines as Luthor's ditzy partner-in-crime, Kitty Kowalski.

The result, then, is the kind of spirited, satisfying follow-up that The Phantom Menace should have been but wasn't.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the people who thrilled to Reeve's exploits three decades ago will come out in sufficient numbers to reward Singer's retro gambit - especially one that clocks in at a somewhat extravagant two-and-a-half hours.

Superman Returns opens in the UK on 14 July.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Brandon Routh talks about his role as Superman



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