I stepped into this movie like I step into most movies. I do my best to clear my mind of any and all expectation. I push all the positive and negative reviews I've heard (and I heard a lot of both from this movie) out of my mind and try to look at it from a completely unjaundiced eye. I don't form an opinion until the credits roll. Sometimes even long after.
That having been said, I thought that Superman Returns would have made Christopher Reeve very proud. I saw some significant bows to the first two movies, the pre-Crisis and post-Crisis versions of Superman and thought it did a good job of establishing his character and strength of character. I'll break it down character by character, because in the end, that's what the movie was about. The people. The story was a backdrop.
Superman/Clark Kent - Brandon Routh did an excellent job, in my humble opinion. The moment that it really registered that this was Superman was when he stepped onto that plane to check on the passengers (and Lois) and gave them that little quip about flying still being the safest way to travel, statistically. I could just hear those exact same words and tone coming out of Reeve's mouth. As the movie progressed, I think it took a step beyond the previous movies in that it actually presented Superman with a genuine moral test. Pursue the woman he loved and shatter her relationship with an honest, decent man and the father of her child, or deny his heart for what was right. In the end, Superman's strength of character would not allow him to make a real play for Lois, even though she clearly still loved him. Unfortunately, the place where the movie lacked (the only place, IMO) was while Superman shone, Clark was eclipsed. One of the things that even made me remotely interested in Superman, post Crisis, is that John Byrne gave Clark a life. He became a rival for Lois, professionally. He became a celebrated and published author, won a Pulitzer and was one of the top reporters for the Planet. And he actually thinks of himself as Clark Kent, a farmboy from Smallville, Kansas who made good. He just becomes Superman when people need help. Here, he's just a schmoe again. A disguise to wear to fit in with humanity. David Carradine's speech about Superman in Kill Bill, Pt. 2 sums this view of Superman up perfectly, and it's not one I particularly agree with.
Lois Lane - Even more so than Superman, Lois is the truly conflicted character in this movie. Kudos to Kate Bosworth for playing it so perfectly. Superman has been out of her life for 5 long years. And Lois Lane is NOT a woman to sit around waiting for a man to come back. Did Margot Kidder, Teri Hatcher and Dana Delany teach you nothing, people? She's moved on. Still, the heart is a tricky thing. Feelings you thought were dead and buried will come back to haunt you. This is the heart of Lois' character arc. That even though she has moved on, she has a relationship with a great guy and a kid, there's still a good part of her that is very much in love with Superman. And yet, she still has so much anger and bitterness in her, and rightfully so. After all, HE left HER. Without a word. Put all that together and stir, and you have a woman who, for perhaps the first time in her life, doesn't know which way to jump.
Lex Luthor - Again, a STUNNING performance by Kevin Spacey. This Luthor was, in my eyes, an amalgam of every version of Luthor we've seen. The mad scientist/conqueror from the pre-Crisis comics came to the fore with Luthor's raw intelligence, something that was not displayed much in the previous movies. Also, Lex was clearly aiming to become a world power. The billionaire manipulator from the post-Crisis comics, Lois & Clark and the animated series was evidenced in not only the wealth he surrounded himself with, but his sheer hatred of Superman. He hated Superman not just because Superman had jailed him, but because he viewed him as a threat to his enormous ego. That this...alien would DARE to establish himself as a champion of humanity is a belittlement of human achievement. Of HIS achievement. And the high stakes con man that Gene Hackman nearly stole the show with was present in spades. Real estate scam, indeed. He could have ditched the ditz, tho. I miss Ms. Tessmacher. Well, actually, I just miss him screaming, "Miss Tessmacherrrrrrrrrr!"
Richard White - I find it funny that James Marsden got more screen time and character development in the movie where he DIDN'T have superpowers than the three where he DID. Combined. You want to hate the guy. You really do. Hell, some of you probably do. After all, he's the only thing standing between Lois and Superman, right? Thing is, you have no RIGHT to hate. He's not a jerk, he's not abusive, he's not controlling. There's not a single bad quality to the guy. Hell, I'd LOVE to be in relationship with a guy like Richard. And it's not like he STOLE anything. Lois was completely free. If you do hate him, there can only be one reason: he's not Superman. And that's really no reason at all.
Other things that struck me about the movie were the obvious homages to the Action Comics #1 cover, the story in The Man of Steel #1 and the representation of the extent of Superman's power. Seeing him stop that plane, seeing that bullet bounce off his eye, lifting that boat and hefting that huge landmass into space was pure Superman.
I believe that a lot of problems people had with the movie were that they were expecting "BANG POW ZAP", but instead, Singer gave them character development. He made a story about people's lives and the difference that Superman made in them.