Superman is, arguably, one of the biggest pop culture icons in American history. Everyone knows Superman, and it’s no wonder that when Hollywood began making major feature film adaptations of comic book characters, the Man of Steel was one of the first to come to the screen. Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman struck a chord with audiences at the time, as Christopher Reeve made folks believe he could fly. It is, by most accounts, a swell film, and while it’s held in high esteem as one of the best superhero movies ever made, I’d argue there’s another Superman film that exceeds Superman both in terms of quality and fidelity to the character: Bryan Singer’s 2006 reboot/sequel Superman Returns.
Donner’s Superman spurred four further sequels, each worse than its predecessor, until the franchise was killed once and for all with 1987’s low budget Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Hollywood spent the next decade and a half trying to figure out how to bring Superman back to the big screen until Singer—fresh off revitalizing the superhero genre with X-Men and X2—cracked the code. But instead of making a hard left turn away from what came before, Singer embraced Donner’s work on Superman and Superman II, crafting a film that was simultaneously a reboot and a sequel to Superman II.
The resulting Superman Returns was met with a mixed response. Just a year prior, Christopher Nolan reinvented the superhero genre once more with the gritty, ultra-grounded Batman Begins, and audiences firmly had Spider-Man fever in the wake of Sam Raimi’s colorful, splashy first two films. Superman Returns, meanwhile, was a much more thoughtful and deliberately paced superhero movie focused more on the relationship between Superman and the world/Superman and Lois Lane than action set pieces or fisticuffs. As a result, Returns got kind of a bad rap and with a worldwide gross of $391.1 million, failed to exceed the sky-high expectations of Warner Bros.
And yet, I still believe Superman Returns is the best Superman movie we’ve seen thus far. In terms of casting, Singer knocked it out of the park. Brandon Routh is at once thoughtful, sensitive, and above all heroic as the titular Man of Steel, and he very much follows in Reeve’s footsteps in crafting a distinct portrayal of Clark Kent in contrast to his true superhero persona. And holy hell is Kevin Spacey a delightful Lex Luthor. Despite an interesting performance from Gene Hackman, Superman’s portrayal of Luthor is somewhat boring—less menacing and more smarmy. In the hands of Spacey, however, Luthor toes the line between ruthless and charismatic. He’s clearly into some terrible things, but you also can’t wait to see what he’s gonna do next.