Back With A Bang

“Why the World Doesn't Need Superman” is the headline of an article in the Daily Planet that wins Lois Lane the Pulitzer Prize in Superman Returns, the latest and greatest big-screen resuscitation of the original movie superhero. She’s wrong, as she comes to realise herself by the end of this exemplary summer adventure. Despite there being a twenty-year gap in big screen outings for the character (dead in the water by Quest For Peace in 1987), and the trouble and expense bringing this $250 million, long-delayed incarnation to the screen, director Bryan Singer more than justifies the effort. After a five-year journey into deep space to find any traces of his home planet Krypton, Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth filled with doubts and fear. A lot has happened in the time he was away and humanity is on the brink of collapse without him to save the day. Chief originator of the chaos is Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), released from prison on a technicality and quickly returning to his nefarious plans for world domination. He has found Superman’s abandoned Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic and plans to use its mystical crystals to build a new island in the Atlantic that will flood the eastern seaboard of the United States. Another discovery, a meteorite made of kryptonite, gives Luthor a vital secret weapon, once Superman arrives to foil the scheme. In his other life, back at work as a reporter on The Daily Planet, Clark Kent finds that former flame Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), has moved on with a new partner (James Marsden) and a son (Tristan Lake Leabu), suspiciously just about 5 years old. Lane, a tough and diligent journalist, offers Superman his best chance at feeling human emotion, their romance rekindled spectacularly on a night-flight through Metropolis that raises old stirrings that are tempered by new realities.

Bryan Singer makes a radically different summer blockbuster to his contemporaries, building on the smart, literate and emotionally credible ground established in his two X-Men films. This film has been carefully and lovingly directed, where others have been assembled from pre-modelled kits. Every subtle flourish from Singer adds heart or humour or gives a jaw-dropping twist to a stunt work standard; the way a vast expanse of outer space dissolves into a field of glowing stars on a child’s bedroom ceiling, the way Superman generates a corona of vapour as he re-enters the earth’s atmosphere or the little kid’s asthmatic off-screen wheeze as he realises Kent and Superman are the same person. Thankfully, Singer doesn’t spin his film into concentric rings of self-reference, irony or camp. He knows there is a legacy here, and pays due homage, but this is his own sincere work, far grander in scale and deeper in emotion than anything that has gone before in this much maligned and abused genre.

For a newcomer, especially one donning such a legendary mantle, Brandon Routh gives an exemplary performance, bringing nuance and vulnerability to what could easily be a flying, costumed stiff. Much of this comes from his deliberate, graceful movement which add great force and control to his actions. It helps that Routh plays these scenes mostly mute with the gaze of a man on the outside, looking in on the mess humanity has created and he is duty bound to repair. Routh’s effortlessness in the role betrays the weight of the character and his meaning to fans across generations. Stealing the show, and all the best lines, Spacey plays the cocksure criminal genius Lex Luthor with demonic élan. Beside him Parker Posey plays a perfectly sassy moll, particularly when arranging a false rescue to distract Superman that pays direct homage to his famous debut issue of Action Comics.

For every complicated stunt or grand battle there is a contrasting moment of quiet visual poetry that opens another door on Superman’s story; a dropped scrabble board (‘isolation’ is the only word I caught), a snatch of Ligeti on the soundtrack when Superman ascends into space, his adopted mother’s (Eva Marie Saint) face in the crowd outside the hospital, a mask of worry and unbreakable separation. Singer and Routh succeed in giving us a new, better understanding of Superman by allowing him to feel a full range of emotion. This is an omnipotent being that can stop bullets, fly through space, see through matter, but he cannot be human and it’s killing him. Isolation is the theme here, the existential pain of his uniqueness. Rather than a simple all-conquering cipher carrying the red white and blue ideals of America, this is a Superman for all mankind. Now, Superman represents “truth, justice and…all that stuff”, a pointed awareness that nowadays “the American way” isn’t always the right way, reinforced every time he orbits the Earth and looks down on all of creation.

Singer’s deft efforts to add depth and significance go as far as making Superman Returns a blatant Christ allegory. Superman, according to his father Jor-El (Marlon Brando in a port mortem cameo) is “the light” that will “show humanity the way”. When he ascends to the heavens and uses his super powers to hear what everyone is praying for, we get a sense of his otherness and his supernatural godliness. Superman is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, up to and including a crucifixion-inspired last breath, his side pierced by a Kryptonite lance. He is raised again, seemingly from the dead, to destroy the evil kingdom Luthor has established in the ocean. Regardless of this heavy tone, with Superman Returns, Singer does almost everything right in what is a beautifully rendered film. His action sequences are new and exciting, coherent and motivated and drive momentum into the long, complicated story. The world really does need Superman, if only for the tremendous entertainment value.

(The comic-book image at the top of the post is from The Superman Home Page. Not everybody in the world of movie blogs agrees with my assessment of Singer's labour of love, by the way. Cullen Gallagher at Cinema-Journal fucking hated it.)


Carl V. said...

I'm a comic book geek but have never been a big fan of Superman. I didn't even care if I saw this one on the big screen. Last Friday, however, I took my daughter who had been wanting to see it and I am so glad I did. It was great. I really enjoyed it and believe much of the praise goes to Singer for a great script. Routh did a fantastic job as well. All in all it was a very pleasant surprise.

Fence said...

I totally agree with your review, and I wasn't expecting to enjoy this film all that much. But I loved it.