Soft-Spoken Man of Steel
In Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer's vision of The Man of Steel is both internally and externally an exploration of our fascination with this iconic figure. The character's appeal comes from the idea that Superman is bigger than any one person could ever be. He is each of our ultimate fantasies -- he's invincible, able to fly, and possesses super strength. He doesn't have any extra super powers that might be considered superfluous, like shooting webs, or growing claws, or being able to stretch -- who needs those when you're faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive? Hence, Superman isn't really a person; his issues aren't the angst-ridden dilemmas of many Marvel Comics characters, nor even the vengeance/vigilante issues faced by his DC Comics cohort, Batman. He's the perfect superhero, good to a fault, and, for that matter, kind of bland -- but that comes with the territory when you're considered universal.
The biggest achievement of the 1978 original Superman movie, directed by Richard Donner, was to bring a real human face to the character. Donner and star Christopher Reeve turned the hero into someone we might be able to relate to as a person. Ironically, now the movie itself and Reeve have also become iconic. So Singer has decided to address this reverence for the character, the original movie, and its star all at once in Superman Returns. It's a film that doesn't really exist on its own -- it's an essay about what the figure means to people, why he continues to be relevant, and how he impacted us in a unique way through the Donner film. It's not merely a sequel to the first movie (and the second, Superman II, part directed by Donner and finished by Richard Lester), it's a statement about the first movie and how much that particular vision helped to shape Superman.
From that viewpoint, we can register the main success of Superman Returns -- the duplication of the tone of the first movie. It begins with Brandon Routh's portrayal of The Man of Steel, a convincing impersonation of Reeve. With his imitation of Reeve's mannerisms (particularly as Clark Kent), we're brought back to the picture of Superman as an almost naive and innocent fellow living and working awkwardly in Metropolis, which seems to run on a subtle undercurrent of quirky, humorous energy. Singer's done his homework -- John Williams's soaring themes are back, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is feisty, Perry White (Frank Langella) is firm and demanding, and the people of Metropolis -- everyday Joes and Janes who just try to go through the day making their livings -- help re-create that rather sweet view of an honest bustling city. This is Superman's world, an ideal world we'd like to believe in, where everyone's a good guy except for those obvious bad guys doing something clearly mean, like robbing banks.
But where does it go from there? Singer wants to investigate Superman's relevance to our society today, so he incorporates the question literally within the story. It begins with Superman's return from a sudden five-year absence, during which Lois has become engaged to Perry White's nephew Richard (James Marsden) and is now raising a young son with him. Surprised by this development, Superman copes with it by concentrating on his welcome renewed role as the people's savior, flying around doing good deeds. Although he's hurt by not being able to reconcile with Lois, he carries out his duties with stoicism, without resentment.
Singer wants to portray the character as something of a martyr. Superman Returns should be the step wherein the character must move past his personal desires and accept that this is how he belongs -- to protect a people he isn't one of, a people who nonetheless adore and revere him for it. It's, yes, a tale as old as time, but the movie becomes muddled as it tries to flesh this out. Along with focusing hard on its Donner-homage aspects, it centers itself on Superman's now awkward relationship with Lois, regularly visits arch-villain Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) in a subplot only minimally related to the main drama, and lightly peppers the whole thing with super deeds. Some of those are breathtakingly presented (the airplane sequence is fantastic), but others feel a bit obligatory as set pieces. The whole movie doesn't run seamlessly, and its ending is curiously anti-climactic. Although the choices Singer makes are admirably ambitious and against the grain -- the film comes off as thoughtful and soft-spoken, with spectacles as the dressing -- the film could have used an infusion of energy at the end to give audiences a stronger lasting impression. This is Superman, after all.
I think Singer might've been trying to squeeze in too many short-term goals in what is essentially a re-establishing movie, one used to replant roots in a cinematic world now overloaded with superheroes. Superman Returns is a reminder, something to make the memories of the Donner version of Superman fresh again, affirming the role of Superman as our ultimate superhero savior, and creating a new tension in his relationship with Lois. It's a lot of small, wonderful parts that don't quite add up to a cohesive whole; as a result, it feels a bit like wheel-spinning and lacks a strong dramatic trajectory. If anything, it may just be prepping for its own sequel. After bringing its audience back to base after a long time away, Superman may be ready once again to dazzle us with a whole new adventure, hopefully with more urgent conflict and drama the next time.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "PG-13" for some intense action violence.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.