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.
(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.)