There was a time—just a few days ago, in fact—when I would have argued that Superman was one of the most obsolete of the 20th-century mythological gods spawned in the pulpy pages of comic books. But that was before I saw director Bryan Singer's Superman Returns.
As the title implies, Superman Returns finds the Man of Steel (Brandon Routh) returning to Earth after a five-year absence. He has been searching the galaxy for signs that part of his destroyed home world, Krypton, has survived, and in that time, the world has learned to live without him. Even Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), the intrepid reporter who has pined for Superman for years, has moved on. Lois is raising her son and is engaged to Richard White (James Marsden), nephew of Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella). But when Superman does return, rescuing Lois and a group of others from certain death, it is obvious she hasn't really gotten over him.
And, of course, there is Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), the criminal mastermind whose nefarious plans have already been thwarted by the last son of Krypton. Using technology stolen from Supe's Fortress of Solitude, Luthor hatches a fiendish plot that promises to destroy Metropolis, as well as much of North America.
Superman, the Depression-era creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—two Jews forced by anti-Semitism to work in the ghettoized world of comic books—was a hybrid of Judeo-Christian history and ancient mythology. He was not the first iconic god created as a contemporary equivalent to the deities of ancient civilizations, but he is one of the most memorable. For some, Superman was appealing for his godlike invincibility and his devotion to truth, justice and the American way. For others, these traits made Superman a boring, overgrown Boy Scout.
The Superman of Singer's film is very much the demigod of comic book lore. He is devoted to the notion of justice, as he hovers high above Earth, listening and watching for wrongs that he can make right. Moving at nearly the speed of light, he traverses the globe, advancing a notion of righteousness that no longer emphasizes the American way so much as the human way (as dictated, of course, by Eurocentric values). At the same time, however, he is a profoundly complex being swayed by emotion and desire. He is clearly hurt by Lois' moving on. Lois Lane is the Mary Magdalene to Superman's Jesus, but the question of her son's paternity calls into question the humanity of the Man of Steel. And within this exploration of Superman—a man with godlike powers, but a man nonetheless—Superman Returns succeeds.
Riding high on the triumph of the first two X-Men films, Singer brings the same sort of humanity to Superman Returns. If the greatest achievement of 1978's Superman: The Movie, starring the late Christopher Reeve, was making us believe a man can fly, then the greatest achievement of this film is making us believe a flying man has emotions. Singer's ability to get emotional density from actors playing super-powered beings in outlandish attire shines throughout Superman Returns, while serving as a reminder of how inept Brett Ratner's handling of X-Men 3 really was.
Cinematically, Superman Returns is not as solid as the X-Men or Spider-Man films, but it is far better than one might expect. It's too long, often lingering on sequences presumably because the special effects cost so much (Superman Returns is reportedly the most expensive movie ever made). There's also a sense that this is the abbreviated version of an even more epic film. But flaws notwithstanding, Superman Returns is an entertaining bit of bombastic filmmaking balanced with enough character depth to deliver the sort of goods that should be expected from summer blockbuster fare.
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