Alternative Character Interpretation: The creators of the film appear to have had it in mind that Superman was to be a Christian Allegory or at-least an all-around boy-scout. This is kind-of undermined by how he turns out to be the father of Lois' child meaning he either slept with her without her knowing he was Clark, or Jason was conceived in Superman II and he impregnated her during the night they spent together which he erased from her memory—along with everything else—at the end of the film. He also decides at one point to eavesdrop on Lois and her family one night after using his super hearing to listen in when she tells the cab driver where to take her.
Anvilicious: In the Christopher Reeve films Jor-El talking to Superman already sounded like God talking to Jesus ("I have sent them you, my only son", etc.), but this film takes that parallel and runs with it. Besides reusing that version of Jor-El, Superman's return is a "Second Coming", he suffers a "Passion" when Lex and his men beat him up and Lex stabs him in the side, after saving the day he falls to Earth near death in a cruciform position, and he unexpectedly recovers from supposedly fatal injuries, with his empty hospital bed evoking the empty tomb. And as at least one critic (of TIME magazine) pointed out, Superman secretly having a child with Lois is sort of like Jesus secretly having a child with Mary Magdalene.
Jason White. Hoo boy. Either giving Superman a son is the perfect way to conclude his story while leaving the door open for a Passing the Torch moment, or giving Superman an illegitimate son made Superman a glorified deadbeat dad. There really is no middle ground.
The fanbase was (and remains) divided over this movie. While numerous fans saw Returns as a sincere ode to the earlier films, others were dismayed that the film didn't use any material from the more modern comics (given that the earlier films and their Silver-Bronze Age style Superman characterization was about 20 years out of date by the time this film was made) and completely changed the dynamic of Lois and Superman's relationship. While the film received some good reviews, the overall polarizing reception and underwhelming box office caused plans for a sequel to fizzle out, despite director Bryan Singer promising a more action packed follow up.
There has been some controversy with Jason White, since for some his role as Superman's illegitimate son make him look like a deadbeat parent, while others see it as a good closure to the character.
Complete Monster: In Marv Wolfman's novelization: Lex Luthor is a far more serious, depraved threat than in the film. Locked in prison after various crimes against humanity, notably attempting to assassinate the President of the United States and nearly wiping California and millions of lives off the map just for greed, Luthor escapes confinement and ruins an elderly woman's life before conning her out of her fortune. With his newfound resources, Luthor gets his hands on Krypton crystals, testing them out and causing citywide chaos throughout Metropolis that he giddily enjoys. Ultimately planning to use the crystals to form a new island that will never cease to grow, Luthor proudly brags that billions will die as his "new continent" overtakes and destroys entire countries, remarking that the countless lives lost deserve their fate for not appreciating his genius. Luthor hates Superman with such vitriol that he tries to murder Lois Lane and her five-year-old son just to spite the hero, and, after depowering Superman, Luthor spends several minutes brutally torturing and beating him to a bloody, broken pulp, taking sick pleasure out of his coming triumph.
Critical Dissonance: By critics, the film was fairly well received. By fans and the general audiences, however...
Ensemble Dark Horse: Some fans and critics felt that Richard White was more sympathetic than Superman/Clark Kent. In addition to being a loyal husband and a loving father to a child that isn't really his, he's a Badass Normal pilot who regularly flies halfway around the world on dangerous journeys, without superpowers to protect him.
The already tense scene where Lois and her son are held hostage by Lex Luthor can be quite uncomfortable to watch in light of the revelation that Kevin Spacey was a prolific sexual predator who targeted underage actors. Bryan Singer has also been accused of that.
Not to mention that his Establishing Character Moment has him swindling an old lady into getting her will and she mentions how he "shown [her] pleasures that [she] never known".
The ending with Superman promising never to leave Earth again, Lois and his son becomes absurdly devastating 13 years later, when this version of the character returns in the crossover of Arrowverse Crisis on Infinite Earths, and it is revealed that the Joker murdered Lois, Perry White. and Jimmy Olsen. It's even worse when you remember this is the same Superman from Christopher Reeve movies...
Henry Cavill (who would go on to play Superman in Man of Steel) was one of the top two contenders for the role along with Brandon Routh when it was still going to be a reboot. Singer later revealed that he gave the part to Brandon Routh because Routh bears a greater resemblance to Christopher Reeve. Singer's slavish devotion to replicating Richard Donner's film, rather than any apparent interest in anything else about Superman, was at the core of the problems that audiences had with Superman Returns, and it even extended to casting the lead.
The reveal that Superman is a father would become a reality when Convergence revealed that pre-New 52 Superman and Lois now have a son named Jon, who would return to the main DC Universe when DC Rebirth came out.
Ho Yay: Jimmy Olsen seems to be just a wee bit too fond of Clark Kent.
It's the Same, Now It Sucks!: A common criticism of the film is that its plot is far too similar to the original Superman — Superman tries to save Metropolis when Lex Luthor and his feisty female assistant try to kill him with kryptonite and make money with a real estate scam involving natural disasters.
Padding: One common criticism is that the movie feels padded to all hell. Multiple sequences of the movie feel as though they easily could have been considerably shortened. One example is a sequence towards the end of the film where they keep cutting between Superman saving people from various disasters occurring as a consequence of Lex's plan, and Lois Lane and her family trapped on Lex's yacht as it sinks. This sequence drags on for more than ten minutes when two or three easily could have gotten the point across.
Sequelitis: A variation; one of the often-raised criticisms of the movie was that the makers didn't seem able to make up their minds whether they were carrying on from the end of Superman II or whether they were making their own distinct film.
So Okay, It's Average: A general consensus of the film. It's not even close to as bad as many detractors say, but it leans a little too heavily on the original films by recycling the primary conflict and story beats of the the first movie.
An early script even had Lex reveal to a weakened Superman that he had one of his henchmen send false signals to set Superman up into space. Thus, making a completely defeated Supermaan realize he left Earth, left Lois, for nothing.
Superman is MIA for a few years, the Earth has to learn to get along without him, and then he comes back and... this potentially interesting idea of the Earth having to readjust to his return while he has to rediscover his place among humanity never really goes anywhere, since the film seems too busy focusing on Superman being mopey about Lois moving on.
If they had kept in the Deleted Scene of Superman returning to Krypton, this would have been the first Superman film to show Supes traveling to another solar system in his Kryptonian spaceship — finally bringing the interstellar scope of the comic books to the big screen. But despite the many opportunities for Supes to have adventures in outer space and tangle with aliens, his interstellar journey is quickly glossed over so that he can return to Earth and try to woo back Lois Lane.
When Superman is hospitalised for his kryptonite stab wound and they can't inject anything to help him, the doctors don't get the idea of using controlled exposures to the mineral to allow that or surgery. The comics had already established that medical option years earlier when Superman needed surgery for a kryptonite bullet wound.
Visual Effects of Awesome: The film had a budget of $250 million and every cent can be seen on the screen. From the beautiful opening titles to Superman's incredible rescue of a jet to Superman having a bullet bounce harmlessly off his eye, every scene shines with a quality that shows how much Singer cared. Special mention must go to the scene where Superman lifts an island with shards of Kryptonite mere millimetres from his face. The effects are unanimously stunning, which only makes the shoestring budget of Superman IV all the more hilarious in comparison.
Thom Holbrook wrote an essay pointing out that Superman is dumber than a bag of hammers in Returns.
The big inspiration for Superman Returns is when Superman and Lois had sex, what if he got her pregnant? Thus the need for him to be gone five years so that he could return to discover he has a son. That also means that, clearly, Superman left before he knew Lois was pregnant, we can assume he left shortly after Superman II. Really shortly. He's Superman. He would be able to see Lois was pregnant very early on with his vision. Lets say he leaves two months after the end of Superman II. So in Superman II he painfully learns that he must put the needs of Earth ahead of his own personal desires. He apologizes to the President for being away so long (we was gone maybe a week or two) and that he won't let him down again. Then two months later he leaves Earth without telling anyone on a personal five year long wild goose chase. He also leaves without covering his bases. He doesn't secure the dangerous tech in his Fortress of Solitude. He doesn't make sure his departure won't result in Lex Luthor's release from jail. He doesn't even apparently warn the President he's leaving. His actions fly in the face of everything he learned in Superman II and everything he swore to do. Dumb as a bag of hammers.
Lois also qualifies for going to investigate a story she suspects is criminal in nature A. alone, B. without telling a single person where she's going and C. bringing her four-year-old son. This would be monumentally stupid for a first-year reporter, let alone a seasoned, Pulitzer-winning journalist.
To be fair, Brandon Routhis fairly convincing as Clark Kent. As Superman however... not so much. (Part of the problem may have been, as Roger Ebertpointed out, that Superman has very little dialogue in the movie.)
Kate Bosworth also received some of this when cast as Lois. Numerous commentators seemed to be of the opinion that she and Parker Posey should have swapped roles, not least because Posey had a closer resemblance to Margot Kidder, the Lois Lane of the previous film sequence. The fact that Kate Bosworth is thought to be too young as Lois (23 opposed to Posey's 37) helps.
This was a problem with the casting of Brandon Routh as well, even though he had the bare minimum of Superman's appearance (tall white guy with dark hair) - he was only about 25 when he was cast, yet he was supposed to be playing a Superman who was already an established and experienced hero, a legend in his own time. The problem is that Routh, at best, looked like a recent college graduate. (He's actually almost two years younger than Tom Welling, who was simultaneously playing the much-younger Clark on Smallville.) He got to return to the role in Crisis on Infinite Earths at age 40, which everyone agreed worked much better.
Also, Routh had to wear tinted contact lenses to make him look like he had Superman's canonical blue eyes.
And, in all fairness, the absolute biggest thing working against Routh was inevitable comparisons to Christopher Reeve, who for many, will forever be the One True Superman. It didn't help that this film was supposed to be directly linked to at least the first two Superman movies.
Lex Luthor is worse than his film counterpart. Faking reports of Krypton still existing to get rid of Superman, Lex is released from jail and cons an elderly woman out her belongings. Lex steals and experiments on the data crystals, causing a blackout and unleashing multiple criminals and creatures onto the city, including Bizarro and Riot. Lex's ultimate goal is to use the crystals to build a continent that would destroy most of North America and potentially kill billions. Lex later plants the crystals, causing tornadoes, and abandons Lois Lane to die. When Superman comes to the island, Lex beats him up and throws him into the ocean to die. Uncaring and out only for himself, Lex laughs off any of the damage he causes.
Mongul is the sadistic leader of Warworld, where he forces aliens to fight for his amusement. Capturing Superman on his way back to Earth from Krypton. Mongul forces him to fight in Gladiator Games against his will. When Superman beats his opponents, Mongul enters the ring himself, but is beaten. Mongul tries to goad Superman into killing him, and following Superman to Earth, he has his men attack Metropolis. In his final battle with Superman, Mongul attempts to have asteroids crash into the city and has his men attack citizens to hurt Superman.
The Problem with Licensed Games: The tie-in game was soundly thrashed by critics, and generally seen by gamers as somewhat decent compared to stinkers like Superman 64, but nothing to write home about. Flying around Metropolis saving the day is fun, and the unique idea to handle Superman's invulnerability by giving the city a health bar instead is interesting, but on the whole the game is just kind of. . . there.