The longest gap between James Bond movies was six years, between the Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan eras. The longest gap between Batman movies was eight years, and Star Wars went sixteen years between films. But the longest gap between Superman movies beats them all. It has been nineteen years since Superman IV: The Quest for Peace brought the once-mighty series—starring Christopher Reeve—to a cheesy yet sanctimonious end; and what's more, Superman Returns ignores the last two films entirely and positions itself as a direct sequel to the first two movies, both of which came out over a quarter-century ago. So when the new film's opening credits begin, with the John Williams fanfare blaring from the speakers and the blue letters streaking across the screen, they boldly herald what may be the most daring attempt at franchise resuscitation in movie history.
Director Bryan Singer, whose work on the first two X-Men movies played a key part in putting superheroes back on the big screen, certainly makes frequent nods to Superman's past. In one scene, Superman (Brandon Routh) holds a car above his head, at an angle that perfectly matches his pose on the cover of the first issue of Action Comics. The first time we see Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), he persuades a wealthy widow to leave him her entire estate—and she is played by Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane on the 1950s TV show (and Lois's mother in the 1978 movie).
But Singer is, if anything, a little too stuck in the past. Superman Returns not only stands on the shoulders of the first two movies, it also retraces their footsteps, sometimes in small ways (e.g., numerous bits of dialogue are recycled here, and nothing new or fresh is done with them), and sometimes in very big ways. This is the sort of thing that lesser sequels, like Superman IV, do. Then again, Singer and his writers also introduce some new elements which would seem to contradict the earlier films. It's all a bit of a muddle, and it is hard not to think that Singer should have just started from scratch, like Chris Nolan did with last year's Batman Begins.
The movie begins by telling us that Superman left Earth rather impetuously five years ago, when astronomers spotted the remains of his home planet Krypton. As the story progresses, we learn that he apparently left this world without saying goodbye to his closest friends, or without any thought to what the consequences of his absence might be—for example, the villain Lex Luthor is out of prison now because Superman failed to appear and testify against him at his parole hearing.
But no sooner has the movie begun, than Superman comes back. And while some things go back to the way they were rather suddenly—as Clark Kent, he gets his job at the Daily Planet back right away, no questions asked, and within minutes, he learns that Lois Lane's (Kate Bosworth) life is in danger, so he has to go and rescue her once again—he also learns that some things are very, very different. In particular, he learns that Lois is living with Richard White (James Marsden), nephew of Daily Planet editor Perry (Frank Langella), and that she has a young son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). Lois and Richard are also engaged, but no wedding date has been set, yet—and she doesn't like it when people ask her about that.