Warning: SPOILERS will be discussed, but not “the big one” you’re co-workers and friends are just DYING to tell you. Read on at your own risk.
All other things aside, I do not envy the task that Bryan Singer (late of the two good “X-Men” films and “The Usual Suspects”) was set up with in directing “Superman Returns,” a film of pop-culture import so enormous that it’s title isn’t just a rough description of it’s premise… it’s it’s own reason for being: This film isn’t just here to be a good movie in it’s own right, or even a good SUPERMAN movie in it’s own right… It sets for itself the herculean task of sucessfully re-inserting Superman, eldest and greatest (and thus often least narratively-approachable) of Superheroes, into a cinematic era which is already teeming with his more immediately-three-dimensional, angstier, more humanized progeny.
And it has to do so with baggage. That Superman’s general status as the 20th Century heir-apparent to Joseph Campbell’s “hero with a thousand faces” means by default that everyone has their own nearly religiously-held opinion as to what he is/means/should-be is problem enough, but fate saw fit to place yet more weights atop these already impressive expectations: Nostalgia for the original Richard Donner/Lester “Superman” movies was always going to weigh as a factor, but that was before star Christopher Reeve’s tragic paralysis, ascension to real-life iconic hero and eventual death made him and, by proxy, “his” “Superman” work essentially untouchable in the public mind. That even the accomplished Singer might make a passable “Superman” film against such odds and expectations was a lot to hope for…
…and so to see him make a great one almost seems like a literal miracle to behold: “Superman Returns” is a grandly-entertaining, dramatic, heartfelt and awe-inspiring film; immediately among the finest films of 2006, the finest of the “summer movies” thus-far period and certainly one of the best superhero movies ever made… not to get too “inside baseball” on this, but we’re talking on-par with the original two films, “Spider-Man,” “The Incredibles” and even the oft-venerated “Captain Marvel” serial.
The film’s initial stroke of genius, fueled no-doubt primarily by a genuine nostalgia on Singer’s part but likely-also more than a little by necessity of compromise, is to set itself up not as yet another re-tread of the origin story that everyone knows but as part of a broadly-defined pre-existing continuity: The style, sensibility, crystaline Kryptonian art-design, digitally re-jiggered Marlon Brando footage and (of course) the John Williams theme music of the original films are retained; grounding the proceedings in the most-known of what “everybody knows.”
With this seemingly-simple fusion of re-invention and reverence, Singer and his cohorts deftly side-step the gut-instinct to seek unfavorable comparisons to the immortal Reeve films and in the same stroke give themselves the leeway to take things in an entirely fresh direction: They’re film hits the ground running, trusting in audience-familiarity to afford them license to put the Man of Steel through an original story of their own… and what they’ve come up with is a doozy.
Having suddenly vanished five years ago, compelled by the possibility that astronomers had discovered the remnants of his desicated homeworld Krypton, Superman returns to a world that’s since had a lot of time to reconsider it’s earlier embrace of him. Specifically, his onetime love Lois Lane has moved on rather definitively: She has a new beau named Richard a, son named Jason, and a Pulitzer Prize winning article titled “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Ouch.
Need or not, the non-Lois population of Earth gets over it’s seperation anxiety pretty swiftly, especially when Superman’s attempts to re-woo Lois prove futile (Richard is, enjoyably, a totally decent and heroic fellow in his own right) and he opts to seek comfort in a spree of world-saving acts. Elsewhere, Lex Luthor has weasled his way out of prison and into a massive inheritance, which he’s used to steal the powerful Kryptonian power-crystals from Superman’s arctic Fortress of Solitude. His nefarious plan for them I won’t reveal, save that it’s one of the most gloriously “Silver Age” nutty supervillian ploys put to screen in some time, and that if you’re honestly bugged by the logistics or practicality of it you really ought to remind yourself that we’re talking an evil plan by LEX LUTHOR.
To say any more as to the actual story would be the tread into the territory of spoilers for what might end up being one of bigger story suprises of the summer. Singer and his partners have chambered and fired a story-bullet that 60 years worth of DC Comics scribes have avoided like the plague, and the confident result is a story of profound resonance; a re-statement of the one of the key themes of the Superman mythology explored in an entirely new way.
And mythology is the key word here, on the presentation side. The bulk of the film, as it should be, is a seriously-maintained character drama that happens to revolve around Clark Kent, aka Superman. But when the plot leads into one of several action sequences, the visual scheme aims to emphasize it’s lead character in the most explicitly mythic (if not outright messianic) terms one is going to find outside of an Alex Ross calendar: Superman descends from space hovering in the pose of a Renaissance Crucifixtion, strains under the weight of falling planes, chunks of architecture and… well, you’ll see… with a strain clearly evocative of Atlas, endures a beating that’s as blunt a Christ-paralell as anything in the Mel Gibson canon and at a key point even comes bursting down through the clouds in a literal shaft of light. In less symbolic terms, the action scenes trend (wisely) away from fisticuffs (cause, after all, what’d be the point?) in favor of grand feats of strength, speed and sheer will.
The immediate standout among the actors is fresh-face Brandon Routh in the title role. For a moment, it almost seems that the early criticisms were correct that his performance essentially amounts to a Christopher Reeve imitation… but this is not the case. Look closer, listen harder, and you’ll realize: It’s not that he looks and sounds just like Reeve, it’s that he and Reeve BOTH look and sound just like Superman. Kevin Spacey, as expected, shows up to throw big-league pitching in the villian role: His Lex Luthor is an interesting interpretation, framed as a kind of transition between Gene Hackman’s colorful huckster in the earlier films and the cold, calculating supervillian more familiar from the comics and recent animated series.
Kate Bosworth, it must be said, is simply a little TOO young-looking to be playing a veteran newshound, but her overall performance is solid and hits the proper emotional beats… after all, it’s no small feat to come off onscreen as consistently likable when the foundation of the your character is being the bitter ex who makes the Man of Steel weepy. James Marsden, formerly the late, lamented Cyclops of Singer’s late, lamented “X-Men” films, has the most difficult role and does fine work as Richard White; the man who finds Superman a potential romantic rival and yet doesn’t descend into jealousy or vendetta.
In the end, and overall, the most important thing I can say here is that the title didn’t lie. Superman has returned, the franchise is reborn, and a so-far deeply uneven summer is saved. Whether or not the “world” needs him will, presumably, be fodder for further sequels. But for now, it turns out that the movies sure as hell did.
FINAL RATIG: 9/10