The rumors of a Christ-like cast to SUPERMAN RETURNS are definitely true. The Man of Steel (Christopher Reeve look-alike, Brandon Routh) has been sent to Earth by his father to help the inhabitants, to lead them to the light, and to help them follow their instinct for goodness. There is also the moment of self-sacrifice to save that world, a thuggish version of the scourging by arch-enemy Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), and something very like a resurrection. And yet, for all that, this is anything but a dull sermon. Director and co-writer Bryan Singer has done more than make the franchise his own, he’s breathed a whole new life into the super hero, even the hackneyed bullets bouncing off Superman is rendered with a smart dynamism, and has made one of the best films of the summer.
It starts with infamy, as Lex Luthor smoothly bilks a fortune from a dying woman (Noel Neill, television’s Lois Lane), and uses the money to take a trip to the Fortress of Solitude. There, he swipes advanced Kryptonian technology to use in his nefarious scheme to wreak havoc on the world at large in revenge for the five years he was stuck in prison thanks to Superman.
Meanwhile, Superman himself is making his eponymous return. With a bang, literally, after a five-year absence when he left to investigate the remains of his home world, Krypton that astronomers had pinpointed. To the residents of Smallville and its environs, it might look like a meteor crash, but to Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint), Superman’s adoptive mother, it’s her boy coming home in a nifty spaceship. In short order, he’s assumed his alter ego of Clark Kent, returned to his job as a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet, and discovered that love of his life, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), has moved on. In this case, by winning a Pulitzer Prize for an essay entitled, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”, taking up with Daily Planet international editor, Richard White (James Marsden), and having a baby, Jason, now more or less four years of age. And, yes, we are expected to make some assumptions here.
There are no assumptions, though, when it comes to Superman’s dramatic reappearance on plant Earth. No sooner has Clark returned to the newsroom of the Daily Planet, much to the toothy-grinned delight of Jimmy Olson (Sam Huntingdon), that the plane Lois is on becomes imperiled. It becomes the first of several hair-raising effects sequences that boosted the cost of this flick to $300 million, and it was money well spent. Singer has an unerring sense of pacing, in this and in the trickier, character-driven moments. Both are equally effective and by that I mean superb.
In this version of the story, Lois doesn’t know that she’s working side-by-side with Superman’s secret identity, and there is a real sense that this Clark Kent isn’t just pretending when he’s tongue-tied around the intrepid lady reporter. That makes the situation all the sweeter as she treats him in an offhand way while working out her unresolved feelings for Superman, who broke her heart when he left without saying goodbye. That editor-in-chief, Perry White (Frank Langella acerbically deadpan) assigns the Superman story from every angle (sports, fashion, health) to everyone in the newsroom except Clark Kent doesn’t improve the relationship with Lois, who would rather be covering the story of the mysterious blackout that occurred just before the plane she was on started to go down.
This is an epic tale that is dramatically compelling, visually dazzling, and emotionally satisfying. At one point early on, the camera lingers over a Scrabble™ board on which the word “alienation” features prominently and the theme, while never overplayed, is always in the subtext. Routh brings a surprising gentleness to the character, and handles the inner conflict, he’s the last of his kind, Lois doesn’t love him anymore, with restraint. Bosworth is plucky and smart and she handles Lois’ conflicted feelings about the love of her life showing up again with a palpable pang that her better sense dismisses. Reluctantly.
This Superman soars like all his predecessors, but he also hovers with a wonderful grace, high above the Earth, listening to all its voices at one, and in one sequence that is destined to be a romance classic, Lois slips off her shoes, and in a way that seems very familiar to both of them, gently stands on Superman’s boots as he gently slips the bonds of gravity to take her on a nostalgic flight around Metropolis. His other superpowers get an effects upgrade, too, particularly the x-ray vision, which the camera mimics in a way that takes in all the intervening levels as he focuses on the particular spot in a house or within a body that he’s interested in.
Another upgrade is Lex Luthor. Spacey brims with ironic sarcasm and a roiling anger that seethes uneasily beneath a gleefully evil exterior. He may not have the iconography of the anti-Christ as such, but he is the incarnation of a amorality that is never less that exhilarating to watch, whether sniping as his glamorous, puppy-toting, brain-dead girlfriend, Kitty (a wonderfully layered Parker Posey), or raging for the sheer joy of it.
SUPERMAN RETURNS respects all that has come before, and not just with the art direction that hearkens to the 40s, while remaining in the present, the barely glimpsed face of Superman’s father really is Marlon Brando, or the presence of Neill and Jack Larson (television’s Jimmy Olson). It remains true to its comic book roots, being an adventure, of action and of the heart, that never forgets its sense of fun, and more importantly, its exhilarating sense of wonder.