Messiah with a Capital S
Tug on this Superman's cape and he might start crying. The feminization of movie superheroes continues as a metrosexual Man of Steel (Brandon Routh) falls to Earth after a five-year trip to his home planet and a twenty-three-year absence from the big screen. Things have changed back on terra firma. Most notably, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has made a valiant attempt to get over Superman and Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is on the loose with a moll (Parker Posey) and crystals that will test Superman's mettle.
More melodramatic disaster flick than superhero action-adventure, the latest movie based on the D.C. comic comes off like a harlequin novel-cum-Christian pageant set in a planetarium. Following a clunky title sequence and overblown first hour that might have been produced by "Master of Disaster" Irwin Allen, Superman Returns does settle down, finding its rhythm in a soft, Christian-humanist message.
Casting aspersions on the virility of Brandon Routh's incarnation isn't completely fair. He's a properly chiseled if rather callow and sensitive Superman/Clark Kent, ably filling out the tights and making few wrong moves as an actor. But his Superman isn't called on to do very much. A shy Messiah with muscles, he's more in need of rescuing than he is rescuer. He has no climactic confrontation with his nemesis, and his salvation comes about courtesy of a Holy family consisting of Lois, her son, and her live-in boyfriend (James Masden).
Whenever George Reeves or Christopher Reeves were incapacitated by Kryptonite, Superman's All-American grit and ingenuity would save the day. Here, a message of love that's been cast over mankind and which has taken hold of a smitten Lois, proves the deciding factor. Not that real superheroes don't love or that Superman isn't enamored of Lois, but it's legitimate to wonder whether we're being asked to consider the possibility that a hero can be light in the loafers. Pop-culture innuendo is very close to the surface.
Superman as Savior is even more explicit. There are numerous resurrections and he often adopts a cruciform position. This all may be obvious symbolism and subtext to Superman aficionados, but when we hear Marlon Brando's voice intoning New Testament verbiage, it approaches the level of pastiche. Hearing the line "I sent you my only son", The Daily Planet's crusty editor (Frank Langella) might cry plagiarism.
Given the two-and-a-half hour runtime, the dearth of plot is a minus; the screenwriters assume a familiarity with the Superman story that a new generation of moviegoers might not possess. There aren't many memorable action sequences. Most of the pyrotechnics stem from the geological eruptions and climactic disturbances caused by crystals that Luthor locates in the arctic storehouse of Superman's father. (Your high school geology teacher was right: crystals hold all the secrets of the universe.). The coolest effect was a bullet falling to the ground after striking Superman in the eye.
Director Bryan Singer does bring along the sleek production design and visual style from his X-Men movie. What Superman Returns needs is more of the narrative intricacy in his crime film The Usual Suspects. Singer squeezes out ample humor by casting Parker Posey and through visual jokes -- about Luthor's wig collection, for example. By nailing the romantic attraction between Lois and Superman, he may be credited with hurling Bosworth, who almost has as much screen-time as Routh, into the movie star stratosphere. A sexy levitation scene between the two is an impressive bit of courtship and effective bit of melodrama. It's arguably too successful.
The open-ended conclusion of Superman Returns is a shameless example of setting up the sequel at the expense of the current picture. Trying to humanize summer blockbusters by not letting the special effects dominate is an estimable goal. But Singer and company go too far. While feelings are important, in this realm they shouldn't be the whole ball of wax.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "PG-13" for some intense action violence.)