Spoiler alert: As always, I don’t worry about giving away endings. Spoilerphobes should see the film before reading this review. That said, there aren’t a lot of surprises in this movie, so I couldn’t really ruin it if I tried.
I had mixed feelings about the new Superman Returns movie. Because of Bryan Singer’s defection from the X-Men franchise, Brett Ratner was allowed to destroy X-Men 3, which pissed me off. Then the early trailers for Superman Returns displayed a mostly mute Brandon Routh as Superman, suggesting that his remarkable resemblance to Christopher Reeve did not extend to his acting ability. And the casting of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane bewildered me—sure, she’s pretty and all, but does she have the spunk and the uniqueness to play a role personified by the delightfully quirky Margot Kidder?
Bryan Singer had two extreme options available to him: completely reconfigure the superman mythology or create an homage to the original Richard Donner film. I expected he would choose an option in the middle: acknowledge the first (through some sort of origins storytelling or through humor) yet determine to forge his own path.
Remarkably, Singer seems to have opted for the latter extreme—he almost recreates the first film, with many lines copied verbatim from the 1978 original. This isn’t a shot-by-shot remake a la Van Sant’s Psycho, but Singer draws parallels and direct references throughout the film. For instance, Lex Luther (portrayed with panache by Kevin Spacey) is back, with virtually the same plan attempted in the first Superman film: a real estate caper to create beach-front property that he alone will control. And his master stroke yet again is to steal some kryptonite found in Addis Ababa. Superman once more takes Lois Lane flying, with their lush love theme accompanying their journey (thank God there is no terrible voice-over this time). Even Luther’s female companion (deadpanned by Parker Posey) helps save the day yet again—only her motivation is even less justified this time around (girls are just more sensitive about mass murder, I guess).
Here’s the odd thing: Singer sometimes wants us to take for granted details from the first four films. When Posey's Kitty Kowalski comments that Luther seems familiar with Superman’s fortress of solitude, Luther doesn’t reply. But Superman fans will remember Gene Hackman's Luther discovering the fortress in Superman 2. Singer can use this sort of oblique reference because he trusts that fans are familiar enough with the first films to follow.
Yet in other instances, Singer depends upon his characters’ or our own ignorance. In Superman Returns, when Clark Kent hears that someone has broken into a museum to steal a rock (kryptonite, of course), pretty much the exact same thing that happened in the 1978 Superman film, Kent demonstrates no recollection of the other time Luther used kryptonite against him.
Also, does Singer expect audiences will feel any suspense about the true parentage of Lois Lane’s son, Jason? Waiting for the moment that Jason reveals his power is kind of fun, but Singer seems naively vague. Wouldn’t it have been more engaging to watch Lois nervously attempt to prevent Superman from discovering her secret? Or does she trust that Jason’s parentage is so impossible to fathom that no one will ever guess she once mated with Superman—kind of like how it is so impossible to fathom that Clark Kent is Superman that his "disguise" (consisting exclusively of a pair of eye glasses) obscures the truth?
As a fan, I relished Singer’s reliving of the great Donner film. It seems appropriate for Singer to concede the importance of that film in creating the reputation from which this film will benefit. Superman clichés, including Routh ripping his shirt open to reveal the red S beneath and Superman walking into bullets that deflect off his body, populate the entirety of this movie. These clichés are fun because they are so endemic to his legend. Yet as Singer persisted in his affectionate mimicry, I began to wonder if screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris were being cute or lazy. Singer avoids satire but therefore finds himself trapped within the confines of another person’s vision.
In many ways, this film feels constrained. The ending is anticlimactic: "oh, gee, Superman is strong. I didn’t get that yet." His relationship with Lois depends too deeply upon our recollection of Reeves and Kidder, for Bosworth simply doesn’t have the spark to make us care about the love story. And Routh himself echoes Reeve so dramatically that it is kind of eerie.
That said, Routh impressed me. He’s charming, attractive, and sincere. His climactic scene with Lois Lane’s son (supposedly the child of Richard White) remained with me long after the film ended. Singer depicts a Superman that is deeply and exquisitely lonely. Completely incapable of communicating with those he loves, Superman depends upon the adoration of the masses to motivate him. Routh’s moving performance with little Jason White exposes his deep need for connection, despite his admittance that his father’s words—he will live among humans but not be one of them— are true. Through this relationship, Singer and Routh provides Superman Returns with a poignancy heretofore unexplored in the prior films.
Singer also exhibits a maturity in his handling of Richard White’s relationship with Lois Lane. Despite her attraction to Superman, Lois refuses to betray the man who has adopted her child as his own. Singer doesn’t ask White’s portrayer, James Marsden (always so good as the "other" boyfriend—why can’t he play the main boyfriend for once?), to play Richard as a fool or a brute. Instead, he makes a great case for Lois remaining with Richard.
Richard even earns the respect of Superman himself. During one lovely moment, Superman saves the White family from drowning. He asks Richard, who has Lois and Jason clinging to him, "do you have them?" Then Superman carries Richard, who likewise carries Superman’s true love and son. In essence, Singer’s film demonstrates that Superman is incapable of being Lois’s lover, and somehow he makes us okay with that.
David Edelstein’s review of Superman Returns complains that Singer did to Superman what he did much better with the X-Men: depicting the struggle of being different in a world that demands sameness. Yet one could also consider that Superman’s loneliness speaks to gender relationships. Lois can never fill Superman’s need because she cannot understand his burden or his isolation. Though Superman carries her into the clouds with him to share with her how he hears the world’s suffering, she can never empathize. But his son will share Superman’s great ability and great burden. Superman has finally found someone with him he can totally relate. At last, he is no longer alone.
This isn’t a great film. To enjoy it, you must embrace the cheese, find something fresh in the tired cliché (both Superman-specific and cinematic), and allow innocence to take hold. Less "aw shucks, ma’am" than Donner’s film, Singer nevertheless could go deeper: Luther could be a more cruel villain, Lois a more self-interested reporter, and Superman a more clever hero. The sentimental naiveté lingering in Superman Returns does justice to Donner. Now perhaps in the sequel we will see what Singer and Routh are really capable of creating.