PG-13, 157 minutes
Now playing at Seminole Square Cinema 4
He’s been called “the ultimate immigrant,” “a secular messiah” and “the world’s most boring Boy Scout,” but to those of us who’ve worshipped him our whole lives, he’s just Superman, as familiar to us as George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Daniel Boone or Babe Ruth. Like all mythical figures, Superman seems to have been around forever, but he was actually born during the Great Depression, when people were looking for somebody to catch them on the way down. And in the intervening years, he’s constantly adjusted to his surroundings—leading the fight for truth, justice and the American way during the early years of the Cold War, lying low during the Vietnam War, then resurfacing as a sensitive New Age guy during the Carter and Reagan years, courtesy of Christopher Reeve’s indelible movie performances. Then he faded again. Faded so far, in fact, that DC Comics actually tried to kill him off in 1992. Was there a place for the celebrated Man of Steel in post-industrial America?
Well, that’s the $363 million (including $100 million for marketing) question posed by Superman Returns, Warner Bros.’ attempt to bring this quintessential 20th-century icon leaping and flying into the 21st. A lot has happened in the 19 years since Superman last touched down in a movie theater: Bush the Elder, Clinton, Bush the Younger, “Lois & Clark,” “Smallville,” the lambada. The true challenge of bringing the old fellow back is proving that there’s still a place for him. As its title suggests, Superman Returns speaks to this issue. Picking up where 1980’s Superman 2 left off (Superman 3 and Superman 4 having been discreetly swept into history’s dustbin), it presents us with a Superman who—you guessed it—has been away for a while. Holed up in the Fortress of Solitude, paring his nails? Well, not exactly. It seems that astronomers have discovered chunks of Krypton (Supe’s home planet) floating through outer space. Superman has gone to see whether any of them happen to contain friends or relatives.
They don’t. And so, as the movie opens, Superman…well, you know—he crashlands his pointy space pod in a Kansas cornfield all over again. (When will he learn how to fly that thing?) By going the sequel route, director Bryan Singer and scriptwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris have cheated themselves out of the classic “early years” mythos (something that “Smallville” has been exploring on the small screen). But there are still a few choice moments, like the flashback of him as a young teenager, running and jumping from one side of the Kent farm to the other—it’s an early indication of how astonishing the special effects are going to be. Singer, who directed the first two X-Men movies, knows how to bring out the lyrical side of a superhero’s superpowers. And there’s never been anything more lyrical than Superman flying through the air with the greatest of ease, his cape fluttering like a flag. It’s every kid’s dream come true, and Singer doesn’t disappoint on this front: He turns the Man of Steel into an airborne Baryshnikov.
On the ground, however, he’s more of a klutz. Newcomer Brandon Routh (who’s the same age Reeve was when he first donned the apparel), sometimes seems like a boy sent to do a man’s job. He resembles Reeve enough to pass for his younger brother, and he certainly has no trouble filling out what TV Superman George Reeves, in a moment of weakness, called “the monkey suit.” But what he lacks is Reeve’s physical grace—especially when it comes to playing Clark Kent, that tall drink of water that Lois Lane steadfastly refuses to sip. They threw away the mold after Reeve worked out his bumbling, stumbling routines, but Routh seems to have unearthed it, copying Reeve tic for tic. Alas, he doesn’t bring anything of his own to the role—doesn’t show us how a Clark Kent of the 21st century might have his very own bumbling, stumbling routines. Actually, he seems more comfortable playing Superman, despite that whole man-in-tights thing. As his biceps pop, all but ripping the fabric, it’s easy to imagine him saving the world.
But do popping biceps work for Lois (played by Kate Bosworth) anymore? When Clark finally catches up with her, she’s clearly moved on, as any woman would if the man of her dreams wasn’t there when she woke up in the morning. Lois has even written an article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” that won the Pulitzer Prize. More importantly, she’s gotten engaged to a guy who’s arguably better looking than Superman (James Marsden, who played Cyclops in the X-Men movies), and she has a somewhat sickly son who’s just old enough to be Superman’s own. (Don’t let the inhaler fool you; the kid clearly doesn’t know his own strength.) “I call it my first chick flick,” Singer has said about Superman Returns, alluding to Lois’ being torn between a mensch and an übermensch. But her dilemma isn’t developed in the script, just stated. There isn’t even much of a rivalry between the two men in her life—the mortal one gladly takes a backseat. Winning Lois’ heart? That would be a job for Superman.
And during their scenes together, he basically gets the job done. It’s the scenes between Lois and Clark that seem a little lacking, perhaps because the filmmakers were determined to avoid “Lois & Clark.” That whole Tracy/Hepburn thing, which made Reeve’s pairing with Margot Kidder such a romantic-screwball delight, has been largely dropped. Apparently, Singer had bigger fish to fry—namely, a moody meditation on Superman’s Christ-like split between divinity and humanity, Superman and man. As in the X-Men movies, Routh’s Superman is the eternal outsider—a bit of a social misfit in or out of the costume, destined to be a loner. The religious overtones have always been there, but Singer runs with them, even bringing back (via doctored archival footage) Marlon Brando’s Old Testament-ish Jor-El for some patriarchal musing about fathers and sons.
So where does that leave the speechifying, power-mad Lex Luthor, you ask? To be honest, it leaves him all dressed up with nowhere to go on (and on, and on). From the beginning, there’s been a shortage of memorable villains able and willing to take on a guy who’s faster than a speeding bullet (among other things), and so Lex keeps getting sprung from prison—time off for bad behavior, apparently. This time around Kevin Spacey takes over from Gene Hackman, and he clearly didn’t want to go as far in the direction of camp as Hackman did—but what other direction is there? How else to convey Lex’s ludicrous dreams and schemes? (In this case, a real-estate swindle of biblical proportions.) Or his taste in women? As Kitty Kowalski, a lady who lunches (on those less fortunate), Parker Posey is obviously going for something in the Funny Department, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what it is. Did her performance get left on the cutting-room Eaten by the dog? Valerie Perrine, come back, all is forgiven.
But don’t get me wrong. Although Superman Returns leaves much to be desired, it’s far from a bomb. On the contrary, it often soars, held aloft by Singer’s way with an action sequence and his contrary ability to slow and quiet things down when the picture needs it most. The movie also looks great: Metropolis is restored to its Art Deco glory, with the bubblegum flavors of the last go around darkened and deepened into a more somber palette. (Superman’s cape is basically the color of dried blood.) But was darker and deeper really the way to go? And if so, why didn’t the filmmakers hurl their revitalized superhero into the contemporary maelstrom? There’s not even an oblique reference to 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq or—the perfect Dr. Evil to Lex Luthor’s Mini-Me—Osama bin Laden. What’s the point of bringing Superman into the 21st century if you’re not going to bring the 21st century to Superman? With $363 million at stake, Superman Returns both takes itself too seriously and doesn’t take itself seriously enough. Yes, the Man of Steel is back—but, like his cape, he’s a little rusty.