High-flying Superman Returns to save the day

by Glen Baity

I’ve been saying it to people since I saw Superman Returns on opening night: There really is nothing better than stepping out of the late June heat, into an air-conditioned theater, and watching the Man of Steel stop a plane from crashing. Plain and simple, this is what blockbusters are made for.

The thrilling plane sequence is only one of many jaw-dropping moments in this return to form for one of America’s most enduring, recognizable icons. After witnessing the depths to which the X-Men franchise could sink absent the guidance of visionary director Bryan Singer, I was ready for this film to be something big. I wasn’t disappointed.

But here I’ll confess that as a long-time comics fan, Superman has always been a little vanilla for my taste. You can’t blame the guy: it’s been nigh on 70 years since he first outran a speeding bullet or overpowered a locomotive, and any fictional character, after that long duration, is bound to suffer from a dearth of new ideas.

Having said that, the situation at the outset of this film is almost reminiscent of a DC Elseworlds one-shot: After a fantastically retro title sequence, we’re told that five years ago, astronomers found traces of the destroyed planet Krypton. Superman (Brandon Routh) left Earth to go searching for it, and hasn’t been seen since.

His return happens as the film takes up in present day. Clark Kent tries to reinsert himself into his life, and finds that the pieces don’t fit as they once did. Pa Kent is dead, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is engaged and has a kindergarten-aged son, and the post-9/11 world seems to have moved on, neither wanting nor expecting a caped superhero to solve its problems. Lois, stung by Superman’s sudden departure, has won a Pulitzer for her editorial entitled ‘“Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.’” Truly, hell hath no fury like a journalist scorned.

The setup alone is enough to prove that Singer’s Superman is cut from a different cloth.

It follows that with all the changes, some people may be turned off by the film’s tone, which is somewhat sad, almost elegiac. The salad days of General Zod are long gone, it seems ‘— Supes has real issues to deal with here. The result is a film that is much darker and more ruminative than those of the Christopher Reeve era: the same old thing, but like most things these days, irrevocably changed.

Superman Returns is shot beautifully, from its breath-taking special effects to the hazy warmth of modern Metropolis. It’s impressive that Singer is able to make it all so timeless: Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington), for example, uses a digital camera these days, but he still wears a bow tie. And intrepid reporter-turned-mommy Lois Lane still takes no guff from the men in her life.

Newcomer Brandon Routh ably captures the essence of both his characters. Lovelorn, lonely Superman is more tortured here than he ever has been, but both he and Clark Kent remain incorrigibly, endearingly square. If at times Routh bears a stunning resemblance to Reeve, I think it’s only because Reeve understood this as well ‘— that no matter what Superman is going through, he’s still a Boy Scout, and he always does the right thing. Superman himself doesn’t have very many lines in this film, but Routh shows himself capable of conveying much through minimal body language.

Lastly, let’s have a big round of applause for Kevin Spacey, who plays Lex Luthor with over-the-top relish. His reading of the character is almost out of a time warp: While Superman’s life is in turmoil and the rest of the world is caught up in intercultural enmity, Lex is still hell-bent on world domination the old-fashioned way. In the wake of the modern problems confronted by the script, it falls to Spacey to remind audiences of where this franchise has been over the past several decades, and to once again ground the struggle in solid terms of good against evil. Miraculously, the central conflict doesn’t feel cheap or inconsequential, though because of its simplicity, there is a bit of welcome nostalgia tied up in it.

This film languished in oblivion for almost 20 years, but I’m happy to say the wait has been worth it. Superman Returns is two-and-a-half hours of near-perfect summer fun, weighty as it often is. There are thrills for the kids, in-jokes and tributes aplenty for the longtime fans, and a surprisingly eloquent comment on the world’s continued need for heroes. Of course, it could’ve just been cheap entertainment, another fun Superman yarn for a public long deprived of this particular quaint diversion. But the film reaches for more and succeeds, saving the world and the floundering summer movie season in one fell swoop.

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