It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a messiah? It's a gay icon?
“You’ll believe a man can fly,” teased the poster for Superman: The Movie. Audiences in 1978 were wowed by director Richard Donner’s vision for the first Man of Steel movie of the special-effects age. So were critics. The combination of box-office and critical success earned Superman its place in the pantheon of great American films, and set a movie franchise in motion.
But the blockbuster cost gobs of cash to make, and when the studio saw the budget for Donner’s sequel flying as high as the original’s, they canned him mid-production and brought in a more pliable hired gun, who reconfigured most of the material. Donner’s acolytes locate this moment as the event horizon that would bind all future Man-of-Steel flicks to mediocrity, if not abject failure.
After the lackluster Superman III (’83), which starred Richard Pryor, and the hoaky IV: The Quest for Peace (’87), fans abandoned hope that their hero would see another incarnation on the silver screen.
Bryan Singer had other ideas. Having proved himself worthy of comic-book adaptation on the films X-Men and its brilliant sequel, Singer signed on to helm Superman Returns with the explicit intention of reviving the legacy of Donner’s original film.
Singer has called Superman Returns a “spiritual sequel,” and in many ways it is. The forty-one-year-old director hews closely to the world Donner created, tonally and narratively, while adding to it in small, interesting ways. The film opens with virtually the same retro-3D titles sequence that lead off the original films, set to John Williams’s classic theme. Nostalgia trips can be creative cancer but Singer is able to integrate the reference material in a genuinely new and exciting ways, making Superman Returns’—whatever its flaws—nothing short of, well, heroic.
Superman Returns might be maligned by those who hungered for a reimagining of the myth, or at least a departure along the lines of last summer’s Batman Begins. The Batman story is, of course, enormously friendly to grittier retellings. It’s about a man whose parents were murdered before his eyes and who obsessively trains so that he can honor their memories as a vigilante. There’s good reason Batman is known as the Dark Knight.
Superman is different. He stands for “truth, justice, and the American way,” as the saying goes. He comes from another world to protect us from ours—and ourselves. He has powers beyond reckoning. He is literally incorruptible. Superman may carry on at his day job as Clark Kent, but in fact he’s not a man at all. He’s a super man.
So there is a thematic appropriateness to Singer’s interpretation and continuation of Donner’s sometimes wide-eyed point of view. The irony of the story, one that Singer emphasizes much more than Donner, is that despite the wholesomeness of the protagonist, his embodiment of all we would hope to be, Superman remains apart from creation as unique. He is the ultimate other.
Back on Earth
The plot picks up just before Superman comes back to Earth after a five-year absence. When scientists discovered the location of Krypton, Superman took off to search the remains of his long-destroyed home world for more clues about his past, and never said goodbye. He returns—in a vessel akin to that which shuttled him through space as a boy—to find his adopted world dramatically changed. Pa Kent has died. Lois Lane has a young son and lives with her fiancée. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” crystallizes the globe’s collective recovery from his abandonment—and Lois’s own. Humanity’s protector arrives home to find the welcome mat pulled out from under him.
Luckily, the Daily Planet still has a job for Clark, and before long, he’s called back into action to save Lois from certain death while she covers the flight of a new space shuttle aboard the launch plane, which, of course, has a problem. The scene is flawlessly executed, relentless, thrilling, and brilliantly staged. Superman slows the plane from its nose, setting it down in a ballpark full of people who have no clue he’s come back. They, as stand-ins for the movie audience, cheer wildly. There’s a bravado in Singer’s choice here—he’s staging a standing ovation for himself—but it’s also effective. After seeing one of the best action sequences ever filmed, who wouldn’t want to applaud?
But it’s not the special effects that make the movie.
No summer blockbuster worth its weight in popcorn can fail to deliver the whiz-bang and expect to last in theaters. And after sinking an estimated $250 million into Superman Returns, the studio can’t expect to make massive profits. To extend its shelf-life, an IMAX 3-D version will be simultaneously released (owing to its 2.5-hour running time, only twenty minutes of footage could be made 3-D). Certainly some fanboys and –girls will pony up for repeat viewings. But, given the emotional depth Singer attempted, it might not be for the reasons the studio honchos expect.
Singer wisely cast the unknown Brandon Routh, 26, in the title role. Routh’s Clark isn’t nearly the klutz that Christopher Reeve’s was. Oh, he bobbles his share of, well, anything he’s holding. And his Midwestern reserve remains intact, but the Clark Kent of Superman Returns has much more in common with Superman than Reeve’s. Perhaps Supes is just rusty—after all, he hasn’t had to be Clark for half a decade. But maybe Singer is telling us something about Superman’s evolution. Routh’s Superman is somehow less confident, more troubled than Reeves’, as if he’s been through something he hasn’t quite gotten over.
So has Lois. Singer makes similar adjustments to Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). Gone is Margot Kidder’s feisty tomboy. The go-getter has other concerns—she’s a mom now. She can’t act the loner. Bosworth conveys a melancholy that belies the confident declaration that she “doesn’t need Superman” anymore. Her first encounter with him after the space-shuttle incident is colored by bitterness—he’s reawakened something she thought long buried.
Kevin Spacey’s Luthor is expertly portrayed, yet nowhere near the comedic figure Gene Hackman originated. He’s been imprisoned for five years, and he means to make the most of his freedom—most money, that is. When Superman threatens Lex’s outrageous plan to sell real estate on a continent he creates with crystals from Krypton (don’t subject that to logic), Lex’s pent-up rage is finally released.
The Passion of Superman
The scene in which Lex exacts his revenge is one of many that some have claimed demonstrate Singer’s intention to emphasize the messianic aspects of Superman. It’s difficult to put Mel Gibson’s Passion out of the mind as Lex and his henchman pummel a kryptonite-weakened Superman. Though the scene is set literally on an absurd plot point (the new, expanding continent), Singer conveys real pathos. It’s tough to watch, yet never falls into bathos.
To some extent the messiah question has always nagged Superman. Over the years, he’s been variously interpreted as a latter-day Moses (floated down the Milky May in an intergalactic basket), or a thinly veiled Jesus figure. In the weeks before Superman Returns’ release, media outlets buzzed anew with more Christocentric speculation. Singer, raised as a secular Jew, has admitted that Christian imagery has filtered into his film, but he’s stopped short of declaring Christianity the lens through which the film should be read.
Sure, the film contains enough Jesus-infused moments to raise the possibility that audiences are meant to identify Superman with Christ: Superman’s father explaining that he sent “my only son” to be a “light” for the human race, Superman flying above the globe to listen to humanity’s cries for help, a shot of him falling back to Earth in cruciform, his “rising” from a coma leaving only a white sheet on the hospital bed, Lex referring to him as a god, or the many times he’s shown struggling with his power (divinity).
The Parent Trap
But seeing Singer’s Superman as a stand-in for Christ would be a mistake on par with interpreting him solely as a figure representing the struggles of gay people. For one, Singer’s been clear that he identifies strongly with Superman because, like the man of steel, he too was adopted. The theme of parenthood lies at the film’s heart—indeed, without giving anything away, it bookends the story. It’s Superman’s search for his own lineage, his sharp sense of isolation that animates the emotional core of Superman Returns. Not his powers as such, or, if you prefer, his divinity—but how that power separates him from us. Yes, he trades on Christian iconography and language, even while furthering the iconic language of the Superman story—but it’s the proverbial spoonful of sugar that makes his medicine go down. This is not a Christian trope.
This Superman has a profoundly tragic aspect. He is as alien as he’s ever been; he sees what he wishes he could be, or have. Indeed, at one point, he hovers outside Lois’s home, using his X-ray vision to glimpse the domestic scene—mom, dad, and child—under a pall of sadness. He sees, but he can’t touch. The horizon he moves toward constantly recedes.
Which is ironic for a man who can fly faster than sound.
To all those who might consider the character of Superman to be boringly perfect and incapable of interesting development, Singer replies: watch this. With spot-on performances, a clever script, a moving story and mind-blowing special effects, Superman Returns reclaims the classic American myth for a new generation, joining Donner’s original as a classic superhero film. It’s a tour de force that’s not to be missed. You may not believe Superman-as-Jesus, but you will believe that the superhero genre, like the man, can fly again.