People are very fond of the Christopher Reeve Superman series. Both on and off screen Reeve proved to be a hero and embody the kind of courageous spirit that Superman represents. So the pressure is on director Bryan Singer and neophyte actor Brandon Routh (rhymes with South) to top the Reeve movies, while at the same time being respectful of them. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk but Singer and company have succeeded.
Superman Returns picks up the story five years after 1981’s Superman II. The Man of Steel has returned to Earth after a five-year exile on the remains of his home planet. In Metropolis he tries to resume his old life as Clark Kent. The Daily Planet gives him back his job as a mild mannered reporter, but he is heartbroken to discover that his old flame, Lois Lane, has a hunky boyfriend, a son and a Pulitzer Prize for her article “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”
Meanwhile, cue-ball-headed criminal Lex Luthor, fresh from a prison stint, has also returned to Metropolis with a monstrous plan to use Superman’s alien “crystal technology,” to create a new continent in the Atlantic, flooding North America and leaving him with the only—and most valuable—inhabitable land. Superman must stop him before several million people are killed by his insidious plan, but first he has to sort out his romantic life with Lois.
Almost thirty years ago the tagline for the Superman: The Movie was “You will believe a man can fly” and back then, before the “wow” period of special effects the sight of someone convincingly soaring through the stratosphere was enough to satisfy many viewers. In 2006 though we’ve seen men fly, giant apes made of pixels and binary code and we’re jaded. We take it for granted that Superman can fly and it will look cool.
Singer knows this and he doesn’t skimp on the action—Superman’s rescue of an air force jet plane is breathtaking and his deflection of a bullet is just plain cool—but while your eyeballs are dancing he’s reeling us into the engaging story, balancing scenes of a lovesick Superman with the spectacle that we expect from a big summer movie.
As for the character of the 2006 Superman, well, he’s adopted several human traits—he’s smarting from Lois’ rejection, and longing for his dead father—but Singer wisely keeps him on the straight and narrow. Portraying virtue on screen may not be as exciting as Batman’s tortured thirst for vengeance or exploring Spiderman’s tragic side but Singer doesn’t tamper with the core of the character in an attempt to update the character or add a contemporary twist on his psyche. He is still a Christ-like alien to Earth sent to help human beings in need. It may be corny but in an era where people’s dark sides are so readily on display it is refreshing.
As Superman newcomer Brandon Routh had big tights to fill. He’s the same age as Reeve was when he took on the role, and could easily win a Reeve look-A-Like contest, so comparison is inevitable, but Routh holds his own. He’s a bit stiffer than Reeve, but he has a face that looks like it was torn from the pages of the original Superman comic book and exudes an all-American charm that enhances the character.
Kevin Spacey crafts Luthor as an insecure megalomaniac who will stop at nothing to get his way. He says he based his portrayal of evil genius Lex Luthor on Ken Lay of Enron. Less successful in a supporting role is Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane who proves to be the film’s only hint of kryptonite. She just doesn’t exude the kind of personality that we expect from Lois Lane, the hard-bitten (but really a bit of a softie) reporter. Her namby-pamby work made me long for Margot Kidder’s sexy, sharp-tongued portrayal of Lois Lane.
In the last year or so there has been no shortage of flying and fighting superheroes in the movies. Batman began again. Daredevil dove, Elektra irked, the X-man excited and Catwoman crashed. Now Superman returns to the big screen after a nineteen-year absence, bringing the best of the old with him and combining it with new and exciting technology. Superman Returns works as a popcorn movie and as something a little deeper.