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It’s been quite some time, Superman, but now that you’re once again among us, let me be among the first to say, welcome back.
And what a magnificent, dramatically rewarding homecoming the Man of Steel gets in Bryan Singer’s spectacular, epic Superman Returns. It’s a little too early to call it the absolute best movie of the summer season (a new Johnny Depp-fueled Pirates of the Caribbean is still on the horizon, after all), but it’s certainly better than anything else that’s come prior up to this point.
Super friend: Routh
The story picks up five years after the action of Superman II (dismissing entirely Superman III and the thoroughly wretched Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). Connecting the new movie to the first two Superman films (made in 1978 and 1980) turns out to be a smart move on Singer’s part. Unlike Batman Begins, there is no reboot here — just a mild tweaking. While Superman Returns pays respect to those two classics, both of which redefined our notion of the superhero blockbuster, it also reinvents itself for our modern times. Superman’s iconic costume, for instance, with its muted coloring and bas-relief ”S” badge is strikingly elegant; the Daily Planet newsroom has high-tech elements strewn throughout its classic, The Front Page retro-feel.
The movie drips thick with religious allegory, but then the story has always had a Christian undertow. After all, it is, at its core, the story of a father (Jor-El, portrayed by a digitally recreated Marlon Brando, which turns out to be less creepy than it sounds) who sends his only son to help guide a civilization down a path of enlightenment and peace. Superman is a modern day saint, a savior in a scarlet cape, a miracle worker with supreme-being abilities. Lucky for us, he’s benevolent, still fighting for truth, justice and, well… let’s just say the American Way has evolved into the Global Way.
”Every day I hear people crying out for a savior,” Superman (Christopher Reeve-lookalike Brandon Routh) tells Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth).
Like Batman, Superman has always been a bit of a loner — but he’s less a broody than the caped crusader. He’s merely an outsider, a man who desperately wants to fit into society — a point amplified by Singer throughout Superman Returns.
”I’m all that’s left,” Superman tells his foster mother, Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint), upon returning to Earth after a five-year round-trip to the ruins of his home planet, Krypton.
”But you are not alone,” she softly replies.
As luck would have it, Superman’s return to our blue planet coincides with the prison release of his archenemy, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), who has grown increasingly bitter over time. In Superman II, Luthor learned the location of the big guy’s Fortress of Solitude. He travels to the formidable structure and snags a handful of crystals, brilliantly hatching the mother of all real estate land grabs.
”Millions will die,” gasps Lois Lane, after Luthor, like the good self-adoring megalomaniac that he is, reveals to her the full horror of his plot.
”Billions!” he snarls back.
There’s a murderous glee to Luthor that wasn’t present in the previous films, in which he was portrayed by Gene Hackman in full camp mode. Spacey’s Luthor is a far more twisted individual, a creepingly, deliberately evil man. Nowhere does this become more apparent than during a jarring, queasy encounter between Luthor, Superman and a jagged piece of green Kryptonite.
Working with the writing team of Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, Singer has devised a narrative that doesn’t stray far beyond the usual comic-book genre boundaries. Nearly every superhero film, it seems, must contain all of the elements on display in Superman Returns, including one in which the hero is put in a dire, life-threatening situation from which he must rise triumphant or perish.
Routine aside, the distinction here lies in Singer’s flawless, cinematically vivid execution and in his genuine respect for the core material. As he displayed with the two X-Men films he helmed, Singer favors dramatic gravitas over cartoonish excess. He finds places for humor and wit — indeed, sometimes Superman Returns is alarmingly, hilariously morbid — but he also concentrates on the movie’s romance between its central figures. Singer adds two wrinkles into the fabric of Superman and Lois Lane’s tenuous courtship — a fiancÃ© for Lois in the form of Richard White (James Marsden) and a 5-year-old son named Jason. Let’s just say Kryptonite ain’t the only green that Superman sees.
There is a stockpile of touchstones from the previous films — the soaring opening credits are a souped-up version of the original’s, and portions of John Williams’s unforgettable score frame the action at key moments (though it’s beyond me why Singer didn’t hire Williams to score the entire film). And the action is appropriately super-sized — there is one breathtaking setpiece in particular that involves a plane, a space shuttle and a baseball stadium. Only one instance in the film, during the deployment of Luthor’s scheme, fails to deliver. And while Singer’s hesitancy to not go all the way is understandable given the still-painful events of 9/11, the sequence comes off as incomplete and, worse, anticlimactic.
Routh settles comfortably into the role, evoking memories of Reeve mainly when playing Superman’s bumbling alterego, Clark Kent. Routh probably should make a career out of the franchise — as long as quality directors like Singer remain vested in it. As for the media hubbub about this Superman being ”gay,” it’s complete and utter nonsense. Singer’s Superman has no gay aesthete; he’s as block-jawed hetero as they come. He’s also quite pretty — but then, they grew them pretty back on Krypton.
If anything, Spacey’s Luthor is more the gay dandy, but that’s more likely due to his penchant for elegant, fur-collared coats than anything else. Luthor has a great foil in Kitty Kowalski, brilliantly (and complexly) portrayed by the scene-stealing Parker Posey. And Bosworth makes a classic, feisty Lois Lane.
The movie’s a tad long at over two and a half hours, but, really, who cares? When you look up on that screen and see not a bird, not a plane, but Superman soaring by at supersonic speed, you’ll once again believe a man can fly.