They don't call Superman the Man of Steel for nothing. Besides the whole physical invulnerability thing, the guy just doesn't bend. Sturdy, deeply principled and certain of things in a way that has little to do with the vagaries of contemporary existence, Superman's a relic, stuck in a mid-20th-century moment when "truth, justice and the American way" actually seemed to mean something. He's your dad, your dad's dad, a shining emblem of America's Last Great Generation.
There are no flags proudly waving in Superman Returns, and the movie conspicuously neglects to add that "American way" bit when talking about our hero's ongoing crusade for truth and justice (probably a smart marketing move given the current mood of global audiences) — but Superman's still the most hopeless square in all of Superheroland. Don't expect the cheeky banter of a Spiderman or Wolverine here: When Superman tells the passengers of a plane he's just rescued that "Statistically speaking, flying is still the safest way to travel" (a line reprised from 1978's Superman), he means it. With nary an ironic bone in his invulnerable body, Superman is nothing if not sincere.
Even Superman's world is square, or at least deeply stupid. How else to explain all those seemingly normal human beings (including at least one who's had carnal relations with him) who are somehow completely stumped when Superman puts on a pair of glasses and "disguises" himself as Clark Kent?
All of which begs the question that Superman Returns itself asks at more than one point: Does the world still need Superman? Or, in more practical dollar-and-cents terms, are audiences likely to gobble up a once-popular Hollywood franchise that limped to an ignominious end nearly 20 years ago?
Superman Returns answers its own question with a resounding "Yea, Verily!" of near-biblical proportions. What to do with a ridiculously old-fashioned icon in these jaded, post-postmodern times? Why, make him an even more iconic icon, of course. And if you're really daring, frame your argument in sweeping, quasi-religious terms that have absolutely nothing to do with logic or realism.
This is exactly what director Bryan Singer and co-screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris do in Superman Returns, pushing every heroic anachronism and narrative inconsistency of the Superman mythos to its outer limits, then stepping back and daring us to deny it. Superman Returns doesn't just ask us to suspend disbelief in the way that most movies do; the film is a veritable test case for some Kierkergaardian notion of faith versus belief. You either get Superman or you don't.
In a nutshell, Superman Returns turns its hero into Jesus himself, and that's no lie. I'm painfully aware that this analysis might sound a touch far-fetched, maybe even delusional, but bear with me here. It might be useful to count the times someone in the movie refers to its all-seeing, all-hearing hero as a "savior," or watch as the burning-bush image of Superman's father (Marlon Brando) explains, "I have sent them you, my only son," before shipping his boy off to redeem the world. You might also want to note how an image of Superman collapsed in his human mother's arms is a dead ringer for Michelangelo's Pieta, or how that signature flying stance (arms thrust forward, fists closed) now occasionally morphs into a feet-crossed, arms outstretched to the sides position, sort of like a floating, free-form crucifixion.
Still not convinced? Okay, I dare you to watch the sequence toward the end where a Kryptonite-weakened Superman is beaten, humiliated and dragged along the ground, and tell me this isn't an outtake from Mel's Passion.
Superman Returns is class-act pop art along the lines of Singer's X-Men films, but it's also pure passion play, bringing home its resurrection message by focusing on Superman back in action after a prolonged absence (during which time he was essentially "dead" to the good citizens of earth). In the Gospel According to Bryan Singer, however, it's as if the last two Superman movies (III and IV, the bad ones) never existed, and Superman Returns meticulously recreates the spirit and particulars of the first two films, beginning with a proudly retro title sequence complete with John Williams' instantly recognizable, tarted-up Star Wars theme.
The movie takes up pretty much right after 1980's Superman II, with our hero (Brandon Routh, a bit wooden, but resembling Christopher Reeve to an eerie degree) returning to discover former flame Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth, also wooden) hooked up with another man — one of the movie's few concessions to a slightly darker, more complicated modern world. Waiting in the wings again, as if you couldn't guess, is Superman's Judas, former friend and perpetual arch-enemy Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, putting a slightly more sinister spin on Gene Hackman's version), who's hatched a scheme combining global warming with the most nefarious real estate scam of all time.
There's certainly fun to be had here, but Superman Returns takes such a reverential approach to its famous hero that he sometimes seems like an insect in amber, and consequently the film floats as often as it soars. It's also a long movie (over 2 and a half hours) and the pacing sometimes approaches glacial, particularly in the beginning, where Superman Returns plays more like understated romance than action-adventure. Singer's tongue was almost certainly in cheek when he reportedly dubbed his new baby a "chick flick," but it is well over half an hour before Superman even suits up and flies into the fray.
But when the movie does get down to business, all is forgiven. The special effects sequences are frequently spectacular, and not just in terms of the raw excitement they generate. As with Singer's previous comic-book extravaganzas, Superman Returns is a dazzling reminder of the elegant cinematic poetry at which this director excels. Whether it's a transcendent moment where a young Clark Kent first discovers he can fly (he leaps, falls, then just stops, floating inches above the ground) or an alien landscape of dark, jagged crystals (evoking Dr. Caligari by way of The Monolith Monsters), or the nearly abstract P.O.V. shots of Superman gazing through walls — the movie's remarkable visual imagination lifts Superman Returns several notches above standard popcorn fare.
As superhero movies go, Superman Returns isn't quite the success story of Batman Begins (although both films reinvent the wheel by getting back to basics), but it makes a solid case for the continued relevance of Superman and his franchise. Still, I can't help thinking Superman Returns might have benefited by giving its hero an even more compelling cross to bear and simply throwing him headlong into the lions' den of the post-9/11 world. Just imagine, for instance, a self-doubting Superman wracked with guilt over his inability, super-speed or not, to save all those thousands of victims of the collapsing twin towers.
Even Superman can't be everywhere at once, after all. You can save some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but sometimes even God isn't enough.