After a series of unsuccessful projects to resurrect Superman on screen following the critical failure and box office disappointment of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Warner Bros. hired Bryan Singer to direct and develop Superman Returns in July 2004. The majority of principal photography took place at Fox Studios Australia, Sydney, while the visual effects sequences were created by a number of studios, including Sony Pictures Imageworks, Rhythm & Hues, Framestore, Rising Sun Pictures, and The Orphanage; filming ended in November 2005.
Upon release, Superman Returns received generally positive reviews, with critics praising its visual effects, story, musical score, the performances of Routh and Spacey. However, it received criticism focusing on its runtime and lack of action sequences. While it was a box office success, Warner Bros. was disappointed with the worldwide box office return. A sequel was planned for a summer 2009 release, but the project was later canceled. The Superman film series was completely rebooted in 2013 with the film Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder and starring Henry Cavill as Superman.
For the previous five years, Superman has mysteriously abandoned his adopted home of Earth while on a journey into outer space to investigate what astronomers believed to be an intact Krypton. In his absence, journalist and past love Lois Lane wrote a scathing article "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman", winning her the Pulitzer Prize. Lois is engaged to Richard White, the nephew of Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White, and with whom she shares a young asthmatic son, Jason. Notorious criminal mastermind Lex Luthor secured an early release from prison due to Superman not appearing as a prosecution witness during Luthor's fifth appeal trial. By seducing an old heiress, Luthor is able to inherit her fortune, giving him resources for his next scheme.
Superman returns to Earth, crash landing at the Kent farm, just as he did as a child. He reveals to his adoptive mother Martha Kent that he left hoping to find his homeworld, and expresses his dismay at being the only one of his kind remaining. Upon returning to Metropolis in his human identity of Clark Kent, he is shocked to discover the consequences of his disappearance.
When a mysterious nationwide power outage causes catastrophic failures during a space shuttle launch, Clark realizes that he must reemerge as Superman. Saving the shuttle and its ferry jet in highly public fashion causes a resurgence of media attention regarding Superman's return. Unbeknownst to anyone, the accident was triggered by Luthor using Kryptonian technology stolen from the Fortress of Solitude.
Luthor sends his moll, Kitty, to distract Superman, allowing him to steal a sample of kryptonite from a museum. Still investigating the earlier power outage, Lois tracks the hypocenter to the mansion Luthor recently inherited and, along with her son, explores the yacht docked there. Discovering Luthor, she is held captive as the yacht heads out into the Atlantic. Luthor plans to use the Kryptonian crystal technology Superman used to create his Fortress of Solitude to create a new land mass, which would swallow the continental United States. Placing a crystal inside a shell of refined kryptonite, Luthor triggers the new land growth by launching it into the sea.
Lois manages to use a fax machine on board the yacht to send their location to the Daily Planet headquarters, where it catches the attention of Clark and Richard. Upon discovering her attempt at subversion, one of Luthor's henchmen attacks Lois, causing Jason's powers to emerge as he crushes the henchman to death with a piano – revealing that the (no longer asthmatic) Jason is Superman's biological son. Realizing this fact, Luthor and his thugs escape by helicopter as the earthquake effects from the growing landmass span back to Metropolis. While Superman works to contain the damage in the city, Richard reaches the yacht by way of a floatplane and releases Lois and Jason from their locked room. The three become trapped when the yacht is split in two by the growing rock formations, knocking Lois unconscious and sinking the yacht. Superman rescues them and gets them to the safety of Richard's plane.
Superman pursues Luthor, who has made his way to the growing land mass. The kryptonite shell surrounding the crystal has caused the new rock formations to be infused with kryptonite, making the land itself toxic to Superman. Luthor and his thugs easily manage to beat Superman into submission as he is unable to fight back. Superman tries to flee, but Luthor stabs Superman with a kryptonite shard, before leaving him to drown.
Regaining consciousness in the escaping floatplane, Lois learns that Superman has gone to confront Luthor. Knowing of the kryptonite danger, Lois convinces Richard to fly back to help him. Jason spots Superman in the water and Lois and Richard get him into the plane, where Lois removes the shard. Recovering, Superman flies high into the atmosphere to regain his strength by exposure to sunlight. Using his heat vision, he then tunnels deep under the new land mass and, using the last of his strength, is able to fly it off into space before it absorbs more land.
Escaping with Luthor in the helicopter, Kitty discards the remaining crystals and the two eventually end up on an uncharted island when they run out of fuel. Complications from kryptonite exposure cause Superman to fall into a coma, and while doctors are able to remove more fragments from his body, they are unable to revive him. Lois visits him in the hospital and whispers into his ear while glancing at Jason. Soon after, hospital staff discovers his room empty. No longer feeling alone in the universe, Superman visits his newly revealed son in the boy's room and repeats to Jason the words of his own father as he sleeps. Lois starts writing another article, titled "Why the World Needs Superman". Superman reassures her that he is now back to stay, and flies off into space, where he gazes down at the world.
- Brandon Routh as Superman
- Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane
- Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor
- James Marsden as Richard White
- Parker Posey as Kitty Kowalski
- Marlon Brando as Jor-El
- Tristan Lake Leabu as Jason kent
- Frank Langella as perry White
- Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen
- Eva Marie Saint as Martha Kent
- Kal Penn as Stanford
- David Fabrizio as Brutus