Answer: Superman is Jesus.
The rest of my comments are going to be spoilerish, so you might want to avoid the jump if you’re sensitive.
I can see why Bryan Singer spent so much money on SUPERMAN RETURNS. The sets and effects are lavish, but not in a way that’s emptily spectacular. Superman is a perfect being, and his imagery must likewise be perfect. The script for SUPERMAN RETURNS can’t be more then 15 pages long — there’s hardly any dialog in the movie (and when there is it’s distressingly dumb). Instead Superman/Clark Kent/Brandon Routh speaks with long lingering close-ups, inscrutable gazes and the heartbreakingly beautiful unfurling of a cape 50,000 miles above the earth.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Singer is an intelligent filmmaker and he set out to make a good movie, not just a good action film — the film recalls the best bits of everyone from Orson Welles to Steven Spielberg to James Cameron to Peter Jackson, and not in a “oo, an homage!” way, but rather the way of finding what works and thrills us in a film.
I have to confess, I have never liked Superman. That doesn’t mean I *disliked* him, but just that as a character, he’s a tough nut to crack. On the Saturday morning Superman cartoons I grew up with, I despised the “secret identity” schtik, and Clark Kent’s knowing wink at the end of each episode at the expense of his co-star’s intelligence. The secret to making entertaining a hero who can do anything is surrounding him with a lovable, wacky supporting cast that creates its own drama — or comedy as Mort Weisinger legendarily learned.
In SUPERMAN RETURNS the characters of tough Perry White, spunky Jimmy Olsen, scheming Lex Luthor and snoopy Lois Lane are as iconic as Superman. To this mix, Singer and the screenwriters add a good man who knows the woman he loves will always love someone else more, aka Cyclops, aka James Marsden who is carving out his own legend in superhero films; Miss Teschmacher, played by Parker Posey; and Lois’s kid, Jason, a sickly child who huffs on albuterol all day. I’m going to avoid the big spoiler here, but one recalls that hybrids are often sickly. . Suffice to say that if Superman really is Jesus, this must be a sequel to THE DA VINCI CODE.
I’ve often noted in my reviews of comic book films how often the best moments are the ones lifted directly from the comics — Spider-man’s upside down Ditko pose, Jean Grey’s sacrifice, Bullseye pushing the sai through Elektra but not her costume. With Superman, there are fewer iconic moments to lift from the comics — Jimmy the Turtle anyone? Instead, Singer’s film is a direct sequel to Richard Donner’s first two Superman films. (SUPERMAN 2 was half directed by Donner, but had Richard Lester’s name in the credits.) In its own way this is just as smart — why bother to compose a NEW Superman theme when John Williams’ will forever stand for the character?
As the familiar Williams music swelled in the beginning of the movie Superman was returning from an absence of five years on screen, one of 19 years off, and who knows how many in our collective nostalgia. The effect was to make us, like the citizens of Metropolis, just as happy that the Last Son of Krypton had reappeared. My moviegoing companions, men in their 30s, started to sniffle.
Similarly, Routh channels Christopher Reeve. Not only is there a strong physical resemblance, but he even seems to be aping some of his inflections and mannerisms as Clark Kent. Hey it worked once, why not again? Marlon Brando was great as Jor-El so why not bring him back. And the scenes of Gene Hackman and Valerie Perrine were entertaining in SUPERMAN, so why not just remake them wholesale with Spacey and Posey?
Against this familiar backdrop, Singer takes the usual approach of playing up Superman’s outsider nature, but lays it on the thickest with Superman as savior. It’s pretty safe to say that when our jumbo jet is falling to the earth after a failed attempt to launch a space shuttle, we will all need a savior, boy howdy.
The jumbo jet opening, in which Supes makes a triumphant reappearance, is thrilling. The progress of special effects makes the scenes of Superman zipping or floating through space amazing. Every shot is composed for maximum loveliness. The ubiquitous shaky-cam action scenes take a slightly different tack than usual by focusing mostly on the faces of the people in peril — this makes their need for that savior all the more urgent and wished for.
Beyond this, however, the theme gets a heavy yet underdeveloped. As the story opens, Lois is about to get a Pulitzer Prize for her story “Why We Don’t Need Superman Anymore” Oh, snap! Is this the cry of human beings who are pledged to self-determinism…or just the bitter justification of a jilted lover? The savior theme is undercut by not having a significant anti-savior contingent. Every time someone is about to die a horrible death…zip, there’s SUPERMAN! You’d have to be a ninny to not want that! If he could clean out the kitty litter on a daily basis, I’d be clamoring for my very own Superman.
Which is why the Lex Luthor subplot, as always, comes off as just a silly supervillain scheme. I don’t think we’re meant to take it very seriously except as a chance for Superman to go around and SAVE people. Which is what it was always about.
At the end, the film goes curiously and completely flabby. There’s a loooooong hospital scene, and a loooooong bit of Lois moping around that seems to be meant for setting up the sequel more than anything. Superman does have a denouement with another character which brings his character arc to completion, but that whole idea raises a lot of problems in my head.
Routh looks beautiful and powerful as Superman, goofy yet wise as Clark Kent. He has hardly ANY dialog, perhaps to cover up his acting ability, but he’s great at looking beatific, and Singer milks this for all its worth. An actor hasn’t been shot this lovingly since Erich von Stroheim got moody with Marlene Deitrich,
On paper, I detested the idea of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. In the film, she wasn’t as bad as I feared, but she was kind of a big blah at the same time. Tall and slender, her figure looks like an Alex Raymond drawing brought to life. Her face looks like a FELICITY remake brought to life, however. Lois Lane is actually a snoopy bitch, and especially in this role as an award winning reporter, a mother, and a woman with a live in boyfriend she doesn’t want to or need to marry — not to mention as the women Superman loves — she should be a woman. Not a girl. NOT a girl. Bosworth was only 22 when this was filmed meaning she’s not just a single mom, she was a single TEEN-AGED mom. These days, Hollywood seems to be deathly afraid of strong women who don’t look like they stepped out of either Elle or FHM, sadly. Eva Marie Saint, who plays Ma Kent, is 80 years old, but she’s a fucking MOVIE STAR. She walked on the waterfront with Terry Malloy and climbed over Mount Rushmore. Bosworth has a lot of moments in jeopardy — she positively REFUSES to wear a seatbelt — and her own moments of heroism, but overall she could be played by any ingenue. She wasn’t as bad as Katie Holmes was, though.
Likewise, Parker Posey is always way smarter than her roles and here, playing an idiotic bimbo, that’s an easy feat. Nonetheless, her Kitty has way more presence than the anemic Lois.
Seasoned movie critics have been falling all over themselves to praise SUPERMAN RETURNS (although telilngly Dargis and Ebert hated it). The comics folks I know who have seen it have mostly given it a thumbs down. There are a lot of inconsistencies regarding Superman’s powers, which is a recurring problem when you’re dealing with a story about a God. Some of the complaints are legit dramatic flaws, and some are fanboyish nitpicking. I don’t have as many nitpicking problems, but the overall effect of the movie for me is spotty. The good parts are REALLY, REALLY good. Like, I’ll be watching them on the DVD over and over again. The slow or muddled parts are just that. Superman’s limited dramatic possibilities have always been his true Kryptonite.