Lex Luthor hasn’t stopped angling for a chunk of prime waterfront property. Lois Lane continues to stick her plucky neck out in search of the next big scoop. The Daily Planet is still a journalistic fever dream of tough-love editors and gee-whiz newsboys, where everyone speaks in the rat-a-tat cadences of a clattering typewriter. But much else has changed in the five years since Metropolis’ favorite adopted son skipped town for a soul-searching sabbatical, cruising the outer reaches of the universe in hope of finding possible remnants of his exploded home planet. Life, for one thing, has managed to go on, even without an invincible intergalactic hero to right its various wrongs. Lois, meanwhile, has finally nabbed her elusive Pulitzer, for an op-ed piece about why the world doesn’t need Superman after all. She’s even gone and gotten herself another boyfriend who flies — a nice-guy pilot (and her fiancé) to be exact. She’s become a mommy, too. “It must be tough coming back,” says a kindly old barkeep to a certain Clark Kent early on in Superman Returns. He doesn’t know the half of it.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
Directed by Bryan Singer, Superman Returns is a loving homage to the ghosts of Supermen past, particularly the 1978 film version directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve and once upon a time responsible for making a budding young film critic inseparable from his Superman-branded underoos. Granted, I’m hardly the first kid to grow up wanting to be Superman, and I suspect that Superman Returns will harvest several million more in its wake — not because Singer (who also co-authored the film’s story with screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris) has worked any significant hoodoo on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s 67-year-old secular messiah, but precisely because he hasn’t. Like the other exemplary superhero films of recent years (Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and the two Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies), Superman Returns is a lush and enthralling piece of adventure storytelling that’s both revisionist and reverential, putting a timely spin on a timeless character without violating his primal appeal. In Singer’s case, that means saddling his caped crusader with a decidedly grown-up and earthbound dilemma: Like so many modern men of means, from Tony Soprano to the protagonists of such disparate recent films as The Weather Man and Click, the Superman of Superman Returns is torn between personal desires and professional responsibilities, no matter that, to all outward appearances, he seems to have the weight of the world balanced comfortably on his broad shoulders.
Actually, this isn’t the first time Supes has felt thusly conflicted, and at its core, Superman Returns feels like a canny re-imagining of Richard Lester’s slapdash Superman II (1980), the most intriguing (but underdeveloped) part of which saw the man of steel relinquish all of his Kryptonian superpowers in favor of a tranquil domestic life as Mr. Lois Lane. Would that it were so easy for Singer’s Superman, who — lacking a magical crystal chamber that separates id from ego — can do little but use his X-ray vision to peer inside of Lois’ picture-perfect suburban home, longing to settle down for a dinner of Chinese take-out and “Honey, how was your day?”
But if this Superman (played by screen newcomer Brandon Routh) is permitted more existential angst than any of his predecessors, that hardly means that he’s lost sight of his raison d’être. The writings of Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) to the contrary, the world of Superman Returns seems very much to need a savior — a real one as opposed to the self-appointed kind — and not just because Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is planning to do something very, very bad with a cache of crystals raided from the fortress of solitude. Hovering above the Earth in a semiconscious state, tuning into all manner of international crises like a life-size radio antenna, Superman finds himself working overtime to bring order to a decidedly post-9/11 planet where fiery airplanes fall from the skies, wars erupt in the Middle East and great walls of water threaten the lives of millions. And if Superman Returns isn’t an overtly political film, Singer has nevertheless made the most topical Big Summer Movie since Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, by way of omission: Not once does Superman fly around the world holding Old Glory proudly in his powerful grasp; and when Daily Planet editor in chief Perry White (Frank Langella) asks his reporters to find out if the returned hero still stands for “truth and justice,” the phrase “the American way” is conspicuous by its absence. (Those wondering where it went are advised to see Superman Returns at a cinema also showing The Road to Guantánamo and settle in for a double bill.)
It’s no secret that the combination of Bryan Singer and classic comics hasn’t always been to my own liking. Writing in these pages three years ago, I called Singer’s second X-Men movie, X2, “a cold, unfeeling, soulless film . . . with dollar signs in its eyes and adamantium coursing through its veins,” before going on to liken its director to the nefarious, metallurgical archvillain Magneto. Even Singer’s best films up to now — The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil — have struck me as antiseptic with regard to their characters and very much the work of someone who, like so many young directors in today’s Hollywood, knows more about moviemaking than about real life. But Superman Returns is something else entirely: It’s funny and swooningly romantic, and marked by the same delicate balance of comic-book exuberance and mythological grandeur that made the 1978 Donner film the prototype on which nearly all subsequent superhero movies (most of them unsuccessfully) have been based.
Visually, the movie is beyond anything Singer (working with his longtime cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel) has done before, filled with moments of strange and ethereal beauty, from the ripples that shudder through the fuselage of a seemingly doomed 777 upon being stopped by Superman’s mighty hands to the haunting image of a kryptonite-weakened Superman falling from the skies and crashing to Earth like Hephaestus cast out of the heavens. As for Routh, around whom so much speculation has swirled, I will defer to the famous Hollywood acting teacher who once told me that “any idiot who rolls out from under an apple cart” can be great in one movie if they’re essentially playing themselves. That’s a crude way of saying that only time will tell if Routh — a milk-fed Midwestern tumbleweed who projects a sense of innate, unassailable decency — has a career outside of being the Man of Steel. (Reeve, who was a very talented actor, didn’t have much of one.) But for now, he acquits himself with aplomb, and he receives able support from Bosworth (giving a more sober read on the role than the wistfully kooky Margot Kidder); the scenery-devouring Spacey (exploding in angry fulminations that are like fists slammed on a piano); and the scene-stealing Parker Posey as Luthor’s acerbic sidekick Kitty, who’s like a plastered widow telling jokes at her own husband’s funeral.
What is finally most surprising about Superman Returns is how unexpectedly moving it is — for its nostalgia; for its yearning for hearth and home; and for its overarching belief in the fundamental goodness of people, come hell or (literally) high water. Sometimes, it turns out, even Superman needs a helping hand, and when he does, it’s there for him. In those moments, I was strongly reminded of those hopeful words spoken to Superman by his late father, Jor-El (played, with the aid of a little CG wizardry, by Marlon Brando), in regard to the human race: “They can be a great people. They wish to be. They lack only the light to show them the way.” Could the world use a savior right about now? Probably. But while we’re waiting, Superman Returns believes, we just might manage to save one another.
SUPERMAN RETURNS | Directed by BRYAN SINGER | Written by MICHAEL DOUGHERTY and DAN HARRIS, from a story by SINGER, DOUGHERTY and HARRIS, based upon Superman characters created by JERRY SIEGEL and JOE SHUSTER and published by DC COMICS | Produced by JON PETERS, SINGER and GILBERT ADLER | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide