! It’s not a title; it’s a headline Perry White would’ve splashed in 72-point type across Page One of the Daily Planet
, over one of Jimmy Olsen’s blurry photos. Its implication is clear: Boy, do we need him now! Watching the recent boom years of superhero movies, it’s hard to disagree. Batman Begins
and the X-Men
movies connected with huge audiences, in part, by filling a moral vacuum. The lawmakers and law enforcers in those films are corrupt, compromised; costumed crusaders step into the roles they abdicated, as defenders of the common good.
If anybody could placate our national longing for moral stewardship—for ultimate power wielded wisely and well—it’s the Man of Steel. The irony, of course, is that Superman started out in Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s self-published 1933 zine as a monster—a man who acquires that very power and turns into a nightmare version of Nietzsche’s übermensch
. No matter. Stranger things have happened as myths escape their origins, taking on a significance never intended or imagined.
But perhaps only a Superman movie could simultaneously court the evangelical press while ending up on the cover of The Advocate
. Superman Returns
arrives with what seems like the weight of the country on its back—not just the legions who’ve followed the DC Comics saga through countless shifts in backstory and tone, but also the children of the ’70s and ’80s who grew up with Christopher Reeve’s definitive screen embodiment. The wonder is that, under all this pressure, elating moments of lightness, wit and visual beauty emerge from Bryan Singer’s heavily scrutinized revival.
Revival, hell: Superman Returns
aims for nothing less than resurrection in a godless world. Having disappeared from Earth five years ago—that explains a lot—the dejected Kal-El returns from a wild goose chase to the rubble of his home planet Krypton. “The world doesn’t need a savior,” huffs Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who has just won a Pulitzer for a Daily Planet
diatribe called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” (Apparently the Pulitzer committee is as sharp as ever.) Into the newsroom steps bespectacled Clark Kent, only to learn that in Superman’s absence the love of his life has acquired both a devoted fiancé and—shock!
This Superman—part Jesus, part Rick in Casablanca
—would be tough for any actor to pull off, and first-time leading man Brandon Routh doesn’t even get the platform of an origin story to make the role his own. Neither he nor Bosworth has the grown-up presence that Reeve and Margot Kidder brought to Richard Donner’s 1978 movie, still an unusually clever and wonder-struck delight; there’s no sex in their flirtation. But he grows into the part. Fairly or not, it’s impossible to watch Routh without comparing him to Reeve, who wore his ridiculous good looks as lightly as his cape. (If the closing dedication to Reeve and his wife Dana doesn’t choke you up, you’ve got a heart of lead.) Even so, Routh’s slightness—at times he looks uncannily like Jason Schwartzman—makes Superman’s vulnerability more threatening.
As a piece of storytelling, the two-and-a-half-hour Superman Returns
lacks the surety director Singer brought to his X-Men
movies. While Kevin Spacey has a fine nasty presence as Lex Luthor—the quicksilver lash of his line readings produces some explosively scary moments—the character’s plot isn’t particularly compelling or urgent. (He also could’ve used more bickering with Parker Posey, underused as his brassy moll.) Worse, the parallel cross-cutting early on tends to switch just as one story is getting interesting. Singer does a loving caretaker’s job with the movie, but he never quite makes the material his as he did with the X-Men
films: it may be that Superman’s struggle with divinity and Kryptonite is less juicy than an entire ecosystem of roiling mutant intrigue.
Where Singer excels, though, is in the indelible small touches that show a natural screen storyteller at work—the hopeful look with which Eva Marie Saint’s Martha Kent registers the fall of a fiery meteor, for example, which immediately conveys its contents. The improved special effects pay off beautifully when Superman and Lois lift effortlessly off a rooftop into a mid-air waltz: their flight over the New York nightscape of Woody Allen’s dreams has a magical lightness—love’s dizzying effect made literal. And Singer pulls off one breathtaking moment that’s as weirdly poetic as one of Louis Feuillade’s silent-movie serials. As Lois travels by elevator up the Daily Planet skyscraper, a wistful Clark uses Superman’s X-ray vision to follow her ghostly figure through the building’s infrastructure. If anybody has a hard time letting go, it’s a superhero.
won’t replace anyone’s fond memories of the 1978 film or Superman II
, nor does it mean to: the opening credits not only preserve the vapor-trail effect of the original’s but the sweep and swoop of John Williams’ playful score. Call it nostalgia-mongering, but the credits and music immediately beckon a world where truth, justice and the American way are untarnished and infallible. For two-and-a-half hours, anyway.