[EDITOR'S NOTE: The inspiration for this piece, Deep Focus: Superman Returns - Angel of America, comes from a review Matt Zoller Seitz wrote for the New York Press in 2006 at the time of the film's release. We have reprinted that piece below with this video essay as point of comparison.]
Bryan Singer's Superman Returns is no masterpiece. The movie's first act is hobbled by weird misjudgments (including a criminally underused Eva Marie Saint as Ma Kent), and it's so choppy that it seems to have been edited with a meat axe. Kevin Spacey's snidely campy performance as Lex Luthor unbalances the film's otherwise sincere tone. It's also so dependent upon our knowing what happened in 1978's Superman: The Movie and its follow-up, Superman II, that at times it feels like a long-delayed sequel in which the principal cast has been replaced.
Yet these flaws don't diminish the film's impact. From the moment that its hero (Brandon Routh) returns to the sky to rescue Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) from a plummeting jet, Superman Returns flirts with greatness. Its greatness originates in its respect for Superman's decency: Routh's graceful incarnation of the character, and Singer's decision to express the hero's goodness in a cascade of iconic images as beautiful as Superman himself.
Superman (aka Jor El, aka Clark Kent) left earth years ago to revisit Krypton to see if there was anything left (there wasn't). He returns to earth in a meteor that lands near his Smallville homestead—a mirror image of his arrival in Superman: The Movie, and a tipoff that we're about to see a bubblegum epic about loss, renewal and the continuity of values. Singer expresses this continuity by reviving elements from the Reeve movies, including John Williams' score, the designs of Krypton, the Daily Planet, the Fortress of Solitude, the Kent Farm and—most strikingly—the late Marlon Brando's hambone performance, revived through archive footage.
Luthor's out of prison (thanks to the absent hero's failure to testify at his trial) and up to his old tricks, scheming around Metropolis with his thug henchmen, his wiseass gal pal (Parker Posey) and two yippy but vicious little dogs. In Superman's absence, Lois Lane (Bosworth, swapping stoic warmth for Margot Kidder's abrasive '70s kookiness) won a Pulitzer for an editorial about why the world doesn't need him, and then settled down with Daily Planet colleague Richard White (James Marsden), nephew of publisher, Perry White (a brusque yet warm performance by Frank Langella).
She also has a moody, asthmatic son (Tristan Lake Leabu) whose existence puts a period at the end of a relationship, which Superman and Lois would rather treat as an ellipse. The tension between Lois, Richard and Clark/Superman forms the film's bittersweet core; she loves him but just can't be with him. Superman and Lois' nighttime slow dance in the skies of Metropolis is richer than the similar scene in 1978's Superman because of its acknowledgment of unrealized dreams. In scene after scene, implicitly asks what it might feel like to be Superman and to live in a world that has the Man of Steel in it. Routh articulates the first part of that equation with sweet precision. Though he lacks Reeve's sunbeam warmth, he compensates with a soft-spoken, Boy Scout melancholy that's unique among superhero performances.
Singer backs Routh by deftly illustrating Superman's casual mastery of his own powers. When a frazzled Lois leaves the Daily Planet newsroom and takes an elevator to the roof to smoke a cigarette, Clark's X-ray vision allows him to peer through walls and elevator doors and observe every step in her short journey. Then he joins her on the roof as Superman, slyly announcing his presence by blowing out her flame from afar.
Where most comic book movies are paradoxically inclined to make their points verbally—bulldozing heaps of raw data in our faces, a la The Matrix movies, Batman Begins and Singer's own X-Men films — Superman Returns is conceived as a visionary spectacle, a series of mythic tableaus that brazenly liken Superman to Mercury, Jesus, Atlas and Prometheus. It's a sensory—at times sensuous—experience, modeled not just on great comic book art, but on the crème-de-la-crème of machine-age spectacles: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Warning, that segue means possible spoilers ahead.)
A slow Kubrickian pull-out from Krypton diminishes Superman's homeworld against a boiling sun, and then obliterates it like a shotgunned chandelier. When Luthor experiments with pilfered kryptonite to produce a new crystal continent, the miniature prototype punches up through a model train diorama like the scale model of Devil's Tower in Richard Dreyfuss' rec room. The film's powerful, often intensely violent final act—in which Superman tries to thwart Luthor's plan, falls into a devastating trap, only to endure a Passion of the Christ-style beatdown and a plunge into the sea—climaxes with a biblically awesome panorama of a Texas-sized landmass ascending heavenward like the mother ship going home.
Singer never stops being amazed at the very idea that a man could fly. Yet, he treats his protagonist as an adult man who pays a price for his goodness. He is physically almost invulnerable, but he is not omnipotent: He can't be everywhere at once, and he doesn't always want to be.
The film's most haunting scene finds Superman floating above the earth, eavesdropping on layers of conversation, then becoming overwhelmed and shutting them all out. He could be a two-fisted cousin of the angels from Wings of Desire. He feels guilt over needing not to be needed, if only for an instant. He's an extraordinary ordinary man—the better angel of our nature.
A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Ken Cancelosi is a writer and photographer living in Dallas, Texas.