It is almost impossible to write about Superman without diving headlong into the history of the iconography that surrounds the character; the image of the red, diamond-enclosed ‘S’ ranks among the most universally recognizable symbols in our marketing-soaked culture. The Golden Arches, The Mouse Ears, The Cross, The Red ‘S’. Like the stories behind those other symbols, Superman is more than just another brand name; he’s a vessel for an entire way of thinking about the world. In the time since 1938, when the character created by Canadian artist Joe Shuster and American writer Jerry Siegel made his debut in Action Comics #1, Superman has been utilized as a cipher for everything from the democratic values fighting for survival in the Cold War era to the dominance of scientific reason and technological advancement in the late 20th Century. That ‘S’ is so loaded with history and meaning, any attempt to add to the legacy and the myth of Superman comes burdened by very strict boundaries within which one must operate; Born on Krypton, a baby named Kal-El is sent to Earth to protect mankind. Given his incredible powers by our sun, Superman stands for truth and justice, and uses his arsenal of talents to help mankind against any and all of the various threats facing our civilization. Created as the fulfillment of the man’s ‘will to power’ as outlined by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and based on Jewish myth of the Golem, a creature created to protect the Jews of Prague in the 16th century, Superman has taken on an almost God-like omnipotence in the comic book universe. He is the first, and greatest, superhero; the heroic composite of centuries of storytelling.
That is a lot of baggage for any filmmaker to carry forward, but add to it the The Adventures of Superman, Superboy, The Adventures of Lois and Clark, and Smallville television series, the beloved Superman: The Movie and the Superman II-IV films of the late 1970’s and early-1980’s, and there is already an entire canon of Superman on film that, unfortunately, has never come close to capturing the depth and storytelling potential latent in the myth. On paper, Brian Singer’s Superman Returns held a great deal of promise to be the film that finally overcomes this disappointment. Singer is a talented director who single-handedly made X-Men and X-Men II among the best comic book films of all time, and his focus on the inner lives of his characters proved that there was more to the superhero movie than just spectacular fight sequences (although he gave us those, too.) Unfortunately, what looked good on paper fails to come to life as a film; Superman Returns is a big let down.
Übermensch Restrained: Brandon Routh as Superman
In Superman Returns, Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth after a five-year absence to find that things are exactly like they used to be. As Clark Kent, he returns to his old job at Metropolis’ biggest newspaper, The Daily Planet, and finds all of his old colleagues on hand to welcome him back; Jimmy Olsen (a scene-stealing Sam Huntington), Editor-in-Chief Perry White (Frank Langella, who somehow turns the part into a good-natured parody of his role in Good Night, and Good Luck), and the beautiful Lois Lane (a miscast Kate Bosworth). Of course, trouble awaits our hero once again in the form of Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, in full scenery-devouring mode), but it is not only Superman who suffers at the hands of Luthor’s plot; the movie itself suffocates under his messy, ill-conceived scheme. I won’t spoil the movie by giving away the details of Luthor’s dastardly plan, but if you’ve seen Superman: The Movie, well, you’ve already seen it. The crucial mistake that Singer and writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris have made with the story is that, instead of enhancing the Superman legend by taking us to wondrous places we never might have expected the superhero to go, the writers instead chose to make the film an unremarkable disaster movie.
Superman Returns oscillates Superman’s focus between petty crime and catastrophic disaster while spending all of its emotional credibility on the adulterous relationship between Lois and Superman. At one end of this fulcrum, we have a bank robbery whose payoff is more thrilling than Luthor’s ‘threat to humanity’ and on the other, the emotional distance between two people. Well, one person and a superhero. While the film tries to balance these conflicting impulses, it is the fight against crime that fails to register with much impact; the execution of Luthor’s plot feels half-baked and illogical, without a shred of the emotional weight of the Superman-Lois story. In fact, we wouldn’t care about Luthor’s plan much at all had Singer and the gang not forced an unwitting Lois into the center of the crime itself.
Bizarre Love Triangle: James Marsden, Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth in Superman Returns
In between kisses and explosions, Superman Returns becomes another in a long line of “name the reference” meta-movies that trade narrative innovation for a knowing wink to the audience. They are all here; Titanic, The Day After Tomorrow, United 93, Black Sunday, Armageddon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Passion of The Christ, Spiderman, On The Waterfront (Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in the same movie. Get it?), and most disappointingly, Superman: The Movie. Why are the Superman films constantly plagued by inadequate villainy? The only film of the five Superman movies to come close to capturing the best of the character is Richard Lester’s Superman II which, in retrospect, may only be based on the fact that Terence Stamp had the audacity to actually play his role (as the evil General Zod) straight. I won’t even discuss the horrific Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) in Superman III or Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) from Superman IV: The Quest For Peace as they represent pure camp. Of course, while the stakes in Superman Returns are high, the story is wiped on the screen in such broad, ineffective strokes and comes to such an understated conclusion that, in the end, the movie feels like just another day at the office for the Man of Steel. What is most frustrating is that no one in the film gets what is coming to him; not Lex Luthor, not even the bank robber who spectacularly shoots Superman. I assume we all want to see Superman kick some serious ass, but aside from his lifting very heavy objects and flying around faster than a speeding bullet, the film refuses us a big payoff.
Much has been made about the homosexual and Christian overtones of the Superman myth, and while the movie does no favors to those looking to claim Superman as a gay icon (his heterosexual performance is certainly validated), Superman’s Jesus complex comes on full force, including a wink and a nod to The Da Vinci Code’s big secret. Despite the savior pastiche, Superman Returns delivers on the unfortunate promise of its title. The film is indeed a return to the underwhelming Superman films of the past and, even at 157 minutes long, feels slight. There is no rhythm here, no escalation of tension. Watching scene after scene of useless cutaways that do nothing to build suspense (Martha Kent’s dish washing scene at the beginning, the airplane lecture, the cigar in the sewer, the piano duet as Lois bravely faxes a note to The Daily Planet?), I couldn’t help but think that Singer should have brushed up on his Hitchcock before shooting; the film could easily have run 120 minutes and delivered many more thrills. Ultimately, the film is the perfect start to the summer movie season; the hype and hope come down to nothing more than a simple shrug of the shoulders.