It's been a nice couple of years for the rehabilitation of pop-cinematic icons. Last summer, Christopher Nolan rescued Batman from the gothic campiness of the Tim Burton-Michael Keaton collaborations, not to mention the outright inanity of the Joel Schumacher sequels. Just weeks ago, the custodians of James Bond replaced their gadgeted gigolo with a sparer, meaner 007 in Casino Royale. (You'll have to wait for the video release to get my take, but here's a preview: It's the best Bond in nearly 40 years; see it now.) And over the summer, Bryan Singer attempted perhaps the most daunting feat of all: reinvigorating a Superman franchise that was left for dead nearly two decades ago.
Though the Man of Steel helped launch the big-screen superhero genre in Richard Donner's 1978 Superman, it took him a while to catch the comic-book tidal wave that followed Singer's X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. And not without reason: Long before even Donner's film, Superman had a reputation as a hokey do-gooder, and his squareness has only grown more problematic as pop culture has, for better and worse, become ever more immersed in irony.
Rather than fight this stereotype, Singer embraces it in Superman Returns. As a result, a comparison between most recent super-fare and Singer's film is like night and day--literally. The former have tended toward dark settings and noirish brooding, perhaps to offset the innate silliness of the cape-and-tights genre. Superman Returns, by contrast, takes place in such dazzling daylight that viewers might be forgiven for applying sunscreen. The sky that looks down on Clark Kent (Brandon Routh) and beckons his super-alter-ego is as blue as his eyes and no less innocent.
For the first two-thirds of his movie, Singer creates an aura of gee-whiz credulity that remarkably avoids bathos, though sometimes by a close call. The mood is jocular without being jokey, heartfelt without being sentimental. Unlike Batman's Gotham City, Metropolis is a cheery place, almost an urban Eden. When you first see that Perry White, Clark's boss at the Daily Planet newspaper, is played by the formidable Frank Langella, you might expect he'd give Spidey's J. Jonah Jameson a run for his money as the Publisher from Hell; but no, he's like a gruff uncle, wishing only the best for his staff and Superman alike. Even Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), the world's most villainous egghead (in both senses of the word), is an amiable enough presence in the early going, supplying more dark comedy than genuine menace. The first calamity he causes--the harrowing near-crash of a jetliner carrying Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth)--is just the inadvertent byproduct of an experiment he undertakes with a model train.
The story, in a nutshell, is that after a five-year journey to find his devastated, lifeless home planet of Krypton, Superman returns to Metropolis to discover a few changes have taken place. Lois, the love of his life, has jilted him both as a woman (by getting engaged to another man and having a baby) and, perhaps more cuttingly, as a journalist (by winning a Pulitzer for an editorial entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman"). Luthor, meanwhile, has gotten out of prison, married a wealthy invalid, and begun turning his subsequent inheritance to nefarious ends. Well, perhaps not nefarious so much as ridiculous: Luthor's evil plot involves stealing a crystal from Superman's arctic Fortress of Solitude and dropping it in the ocean off the Eastern seaboard. Once submerged, it will expand even more quickly than Donald Trump's self-regard, growing into a new continent that will swamp North America, kill billions of people, and provide Luthor with the makings of his own tidy real-estate empire.
This is, self-evidently, the most idiotic plot for global domination ever committed to celluloid. Yet Singer somehow prevents it from ruining the film and even gives it an ominous resonance: The jagged crystalline peaks of Luthor's new world emerge from the waves like Serpents staking their claim on Paradise, a mountainous Mordor suddenly casting its shadow over the skyscraper-studded Shire of Metropolis. Rather than posit a world full of evil men, Singer envisions a world in which it takes only one to upset the natural order and bring Hell to the threshold.
Superman closes the door on it, of course, with the help of Lois and her altogether-too-decent fianc?, but not before encountering his own mortality and requiring a rescue of his own. It's an obvious arc, but no less satisfying for it. And even after the problem of global holocaust is solved, the problem of Lois's Other Man remains, lending the film a wistful, rather than triumphant air.
In the title role, screen newcomer Routh often seems less to be playing Superman than to be playing Christopher Reeve playing Superman, but the tribute seems apt. It helps that Routh isn't quite so tall or broad-shouldered as Reeve, whose shrinking-violet act as Clark Kent was always a tad ridiculous. Ross Douthat observed that, over the years, the actors playing Superman have seemed to get younger and younger--as he put it, "George Reeves looks like your Dad, Christopher Reeve looks like your youngish uncle, Dean Cain looks like your older brother, and now Brandon Routh looks like, well, the 1980s Superboy"--and it's hard to imagine this is a coincidence. As American culture has grown more jaded, the figure of Superman--honest, earnest, idealistic--has felt increasingly anachronistic; rendering him as an ever-younger figure is a way to keep his innocence from appearing to be a case of arrested development.
Spacey is a pleasure as Lex Luthor, sporting a mordant wit that balances the movie's frequent helpings of uplift. As Philip Seymour Hoffman did in Mission: Impossible III, Spacey forgoes the usual hammy tropes of global villainy, offering instead a more precise, restrained performance. His reaction to the movie's major revelation--I'll only say it involves a piano--is a gem of actorly understatement. (He's also the only member of the cast who knows how to pronounce "Pulitzer.") Spacey is supplied with a worthy foil in the form of Parker Posey, who plays Luthor's addled companion Kitty with a dyspeptic deadpan. They may not be Burns and Allen, but their chemistry is similarly volatile. Bosworth makes less of an impression as Lois--she seems hard-pressed to persuade herself, let alone us, that she's really a brunette--but she is a sprightly presence nonetheless. Actor James Marsden, who was Cyclops in the X-Men movies, brings to the role of Lois's fianc? his considerable experience playing the unlucky corner of superhero love triangles. And Sam Huntington summons enough comic pluck to dismiss past portrayals of cub reporter Jimmy Olsen from memory.
But the true star of the movie is its director, Singer, who offers a whole new vernacular for the contemporary superhero film. With the first two X-Men films, Singer helped establish the grim, gritty tone that has characterized most entrants in the burgeoning genre. In just the first few minutes of X-Men, he managed to cram in references to the Holocaust, McCarthyism, and homophobia. But with Superman Returns, he's raised the stakes from political metaphor to religious allegory. Rather than effect a worldly cool, he seeks to evoke an innocent wonder. Superman's faster-than-a-speeding-bullet exploits are impressive, but it's the quieter moments that linger--when Clark uses his x-ray vision to watch wistfully as Lois ascends in an elevator, or the way Superman, after catching an immense steel globe that was plummeting toward a crowded street, places it gently, almost tenderly, on the ground. Even the movie's few night scenes evoke not danger, but the domesticity to which Superman vainly aspires.
Singer overplays his hand on occasion, in particular with a few lines of voiceover spoken by Superman's father (Marlon Brando, in a posthumous performance adapted from earlier footage) and later repeated by Superman himself, dialogue that makes unnecessarily explicit the film's Christian subtext. The movie doesn't need to advertise its themes so bluntly, having fulfilled them so expertly. It wasn't until long after watching the film that it even occurred to me that, in it, Superman never once strikes another person; from start to finish, his deeds are purely protective. (Take that, Wolverine.) Indeed, to a remarkable degree, his role consists of preventing large objects from crashing into the Earth: the runaway airliner, the giant globe, a massive department-store sign, a car driven by Kitty, a crystalline continent. It's an unusual conception of a hero--someone who's merely there to rescue us when the sky is falling--but an unexpectedly moving one.
The Home Movies List: Out of the Darkness
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Batman Begins (2005). Superman may belong to the blue skies, but the Dark Knight prowls the city shadows, a point Christopher Nolan understood intuitively. Throw in a monkish backstory, Christian Bale's fittingly aristocratic mien, and a host of strong supporting performances (no, not you, Ms. Cruise), and you have a retelling that almost redeems the schlock of the 1990s.
Daredevil (2003). Of course, sometimes the whole hiding-in-the-shadows routine is merely an acknowledgement that a black screen is preferable to the spectacle of Ben Affleck in his Maybelline-red leather jumpsuit.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). God, let's hope so. When Singer decamped for Superman, he took with him all the traits that had made the X-Men franchise worthwhile--the thoughtful characterization, the tragic majesty. Half-hearted replacement Brett Ratner gets nearly everything wrong, perhaps most memorably when, in an effort to have his final battle take place under cover of darkness, he stages the most abrupt sunset in cinematic history. To think, pop genius Joss Whedon, who had written the comic series on which Last Stand was largely based (and whose Serenity is among the best pulp adventure films of the past 20 years) asked to direct this movie but was rebuffed.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.