Like his superhero, director Bryan Singer carries an Atlas-like burden. To resuscitate the big-screen Superman franchise, Singer takes his cues from the Richard Donner elements of Warner's first two Superman features. The 68-year-old hero is, once again, a young hunk with a complicated dating life and the weight of the world on his broad shoulders.
Admirably, Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris take a few bold steps in the story department, which I won't spoil, though the endearingly klutzy shooting script is as off-kilter as Clark Kent. When the film opens, the Man of Steel (newcomer Brandon Routh) has been mysteriously absent for five years, leaving the world to fend for itself and jilted Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) to pen the Pulitzer-Prize-winning editorial "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman" (the contents of which are left to the viewer's imagination).
Lois has also taken a new romantic partner and borne a child, not necessarily in that order. The new man—a good man—is Richard White (James Marsden of X-Men), father to Lois' asthmatic moppet Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu) and son of Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella). Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has wriggled out of custody and foully accrued a fortune to enact a new plan for world domination.
Superman returns to this disconcerting news and, feeling well and truly rejected by Lois, gets literally high and goes on a life-saving bender. While the world may not need Superman, people sure do like having him around. Super-strength, super-hearing, super-breath, X-ray vision, heat vision, and super hearing all come in handy in the life-saving department, but Luthor has been studying the secrets of Superman's homeworld Krypton and plans to use the newfound knowledge in two ways: create a continent of his own and kill Superman.
Routh, 26, makes a serviceable Superman: if his Abercrombie-and-Fitch look lacks expression, Routh's blank otherworldliness emphasizes his alienness, and his vocal tone eerily resembles that of predecessor Christopher Reeve. Though he transparently lacks Reeve's Juilliard-honed chops and George Reeves' warmth, Routh fares better than 23-year-old Bosworth. Hobbled in part by the screenplay, Bosworth fails to exude natural charm, energy, or intelligence. Unlike Margot Kidder or Noel Neill (who appears in the new film's first scene), Bosworth is only semi-fiesty.
Spacey has fiendish fun as Luthor, crowing about "whoever controls technology controls the world." "I just want what Prometheus wanted," he explains, to bring "fire" to the people (oh, and to get a cut of the action). Waggling his head, nattering and bellowing, Spacey makes the sort of lively villain kids will love to hate, and Posey keeps pace with him with a salvo of dim responses and mean-spirited zingers. As cub photographer Jimmy Olsen, eye-popping Sam Worthington will also appeal to the kids (Singer gleefully pairs Worthington with original TV Olsen Jack Larson, here playing a bartender).
Singer's film is, in many respects, more mature than either Superman (1978) or Superman II (1980), but Superman Returns lacks Donner's ability to grab the audience and hustle the story along with confident showmanship. The character-deficient script gives the best lines to Spacey and henchwoman Parker Posey, leaving the colorless leads adrift. The story proceeds more in fits and starts than a careful build, as when Bosworth's Lane is put into mortal jeopardy before we care a whit for her.
The action sequences, of course, rely heavily on digital effects, and the results are mixed. In general, the more practical the effect, the more magical the impact, but the motif of the floating Superman adds a new lyrical aesthetic to the franchise, and there's a genuine gee-whiz factor to much of the action. A bank robbery sequence exemplifies Singer's urge to synthesize his inner-child memories with modern blockbuster stylings. As Superman walks toward a Gatling gun, memories of Max Fleischer cartoons and Adventures of Superman episodes flood back, capped with a truly special effect only possible in the digital age.
So, as Perry White asks, does Superman "still stand for truth, justice, and all that stuff?" Yes, yes, and yes, with Singer taking Donner's Messiah theme all the way across the finish line. Through the use of alternate takes from Donner's Superman, Marlon Brando again plays Superman's father Jor-El, who explains to his son, "Even though you've been raised as a human being you're not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all—their capacity for good—I have sent them you...my only son" (in a Wordsworth mood, he adds, "The son becomes the father and the father becomes the son"). After a second-coming return, there's also a "Passion of the Superman" sequence, with some serious Christ-figure posing.
As for "the American Way," Singer also understands how alien farmboy Clark Kent and larger-than-life Superman represent a (Bizarro) American-dream fantasy of immigrant boy made good. When Supes revisits Ma Kent (Eva Marie Saint) and his old farmhouse digs, we note the "cowboys and Indians" wallpaper that fueled Clark's childhood imagination; a later sequence in Jason's room shows the next-generation of American-dream furnishings: a bedspread of industrial vehicles. As the hub of Lois' family way—one that Superman can't quite have for himself—Jason also represents Jor-El and Kal-El's complicated dreams of domesticity, and hope for the future. Singer bookends the film with mirrored images of the immigrant's experience: a rattling arrival and a sad symbol of assimiliation, as Kal-El pushes against a past that can emotionally and physically harm him.
With thorough fan-friendly fetishism, Singer honors the Superman mythos and especially the legacies of Donner and Reeve (the film is dedicated to Christopher and wife Dana, both recently departed). Singer's opening titles appropriate the seventies design, and composer John Ottman's sterling work makes extensive use of John Williams' stirring original themes. Though Superman's two-time assurance "I'm always around" seems a poor choice of words after a five-year absence, the statement is clearly true in our world, and big-screen sequels will follow (super)suit.
[NOTE: The IMAX-3D incarnation of Superman Returns includes four 3D sequences totalling roughly twenty minutes: the Smallville/young Clark Kent flashback (framed by Routh's first substantial scene); the plane/shuttle sequence; the sinking of the Gertrude and Superman's rescue of Lois, Richard, and Jason; and Superman's film-ending flight. The IMAX 3D gives these sequences a ViewMaster pop, a bit more added value to the already impactful sight-and-sound experience of IMAX. Briefly flashed green and red icons signal viewers when to don and doff the lightweight 3D glasses.]