Along with Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Richard Donner’s iconic 1978 film Superman, with its comic-book tale of mythic good vs. evil and grandly nostalgic fantasy and adventure, helped to define the vibe of post–Easy Rider age Hollywood.
Though disaffected critics dismissed these action-packed films as mere escapist spectacle, they were in fact infused with something more. The Force in Star Wars represented an overt appeal to the idea of religious mystery, of the numinous, of good and evil as more than human categories. Raiders of the Lost Ark explicitly wove Judeo-Christian awe of the sacred and dread of sacrilege into a story in which evil — represented by the 20th century’s most reliable icons of evil, the Nazis — is ultimately defeated not by rugged action hero Indiana Jones, but by no less than the God of the Hebrews himself.
Superman, and its sequel Superman II, drew on the implicit Christological resonances of the comic-book tale of a father in the heavens sending his only son to earth, a godlike being who becomes a kind of savior. “They can be a great people, Kal‑El,” Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor‑El (Marlon Brando) tells his son in a line from the first film prominently recycled in director Brian Singer’s new film Superman Returns. “They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all — their capacity for good — I have sent them you… my only son.”
Unfortunately, further sequels — Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace — squandered the franchise potential of the first two films. Then came Tim Burton’s Batman movies, gothic exercises in style and atmosphere that subtly subverted the comic-book character’s embodiment of heroic American manhood by casting the not-particularly-imposing Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight. (The Adam West Batman had parodied Batman’s heroism, but not subverted it.)
The Batman films, despite their limitations, tapped into a fundamental ambivalence in postmodern culture about the whole ideal of heroism and especially virtue and goodness. In a word, Batman strikes many people as cooler than Superman — and it’s not just because he’s more vulnerable and has to work harder, or because he has all those toys. Superman isn’t just too powerful for many people, he’s too good.
Meanwhile, where has Superman been? For years, attempts to bring back the franchise never got off the ground. Multiple scripts, directors and stars came and went, to no avail.
One spectacularly misguided version of the project had Batman director Burton set to cast Nicolas Cage — yes, Nicolas Cage — as the Man of Steel, a casting choice even more subversive than Keaton as Batman, if only because Superman’s iconic embodiment of heroic goodness is even more pronounced than Batman’s.
At another point, ironically, director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2) was attached to the effort to get a new Superman film off the ground. Instead, Ratner wound up directing X‑Men: The Last Stand when Singer (X‑Men, X2) left the X‑Men franchise to do Superman Returns. Good deal for Superman; bad deal for the X‑Men.
Even so, the question remains: Does Superman still have a place in the world today? Do people want a Superman? Will they accept him? Singer tackles that question head-on in Superman Returns, like the Man of Steel going head-to-head with a locomotive.
As the title suggests, Superman’s absence has been felt not just in our world, but in his own. An opening title reveals that it’s been five years since Superman (Brandon Routh) was last seen, and in the interim the world has had to deal with not knowing when, if ever, he would be coming back.
In fact, it turns out that when Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) finally won that Pulitzer Prize she was always dreaming of, it was for an article called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” which was presumably written as much to help herself try to get over the absent Man of Steel and move on as anything else.
“The world doesn’t need a savior,” says Lois, who is not only living with her fiancé Richard (James Marsden), but has a child out of wedlock. “And neither do I.” In this cynical, jaded world, what place is there for Superman?
Over a quarter century since Superman II and nearly 20 years since the last sequel, with a number of successful live-action and animated small-screen Superman projects in the interim, Singer and his X2 screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris could easily have chosen to jettison the Reeve films and redefine their subject from scratch, much as Christopher Nolan did in Batman Begins.
Instead, the filmmakers have audaciously chosen to build upon the foundation of the first two Superman films, while extending the Superman mythos into the twenty-first century.
Superman Returns echoes rather than retells the established story of Kal‑El’s Kryptonian origins, the death of his homeworld, his crash-landing on earth and upbringing by the salt-of-the-earth Kents (Eva Marie Saint has a nice cameo as Martha Kent), his coming into his own at his North Pole Fortress of Solitude, and his discovery of his destiny vis-a-vis Metropolis, the Daily Planet, and Lois Lane. The new film also draws upon the history of Superman and Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), including Luthor’s self-explanatory interest in kryptonite, his grandiose continental power-grab schemes, and his familiarity with the Fortress of Solitude.
From the rousing fanfare of the classic John Williams score to the comic book–inspired opening credits, it’s clear that Superman Returns means to be nothing less than the film that Superman III could have and should have been, but wasn’t.
Except it’s actually better than that. Superman Returns honors and builds upon the strengths of its predecessors while gracefully minimizing their weaknesses. Where the earlier Superman films were pioneering, somewhat rudimentary efforts, Superman Returns is a mature, fully realized film that works on the level of the best modern comic-book films, Batman Begins and Spider-Man 2.
The overt campiness and silliness of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is downplayed, though not eliminated, with the brilliantly cast Spacey honoring Hackman’s performance while giving Luthor a nastier, harder-edged streak. Routh (rhymes with “mouth”), uncannily well-cast as Reeve’s successor both for his looks and the timbre of his voice, likewise makes Clark a more sympathetically human, less comic figure than in previous films, and brings a level of conviction to Superman that is at least the equal of Reeve’s, without the hint of camp that crept into Reeve’s performance.
Luther’s plot is not only even grander, and much cleverer, than blowing California into the ocean, but also builds logically on the previous films, even explaining points that were previously unclear. Singer proved adept with well-crafted comic-book conceits in the X‑Men films, but he and his team have outdone themselves here.
Also like the X-Men films, Superman Returns takes a serious, intelligent approach to his hero’s established powers, avoiding the sometimes whimsical, arbitrary stylings of earlier Superman films, in which unexpected powers from levitating finger-beams and eye-beams to amnesia-inducing super-kisses might unexpectedly materialize at any time.
Superman or no, Kal‑El can’t change the laws of physics, and when a Boeing 777 is hurtling from the sky at over 500 mph there are certain challenges involved in stopping it without killing everyone on board, no matter how fast you can fly or how strong you are.
Needless to say, Superman’s powers are far more persuasively realized here than in previous films, where obvious bluescreens and other technical lapses often broke the illusion. But it isn’t just a matter of visual effects. Superman Returns succeeds in imagining the last son of Krypton’s powers in a way that goes beyond the earlier films.
When Superman soars into the upper atmosphere and hovers there, surveying the world below with his super-hearing and super-vision, we get a sense of just how far beyond mortal men he really is. “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior,” he tells Lois, “but every day I hear them crying for one.” These are only some of the film’s resonances with religious themes, which also include redemptive sacrifice, passion–crucifixion imagery, and (as USCCB critic David DiCerto remarked to me after the screening) an echo of the empty tomb.
Superman doesn’t always use his powers selflessly; in one scene he looks and listens in on the private life of Lois and Richard. Yet when Richard jokes about having “fun” with a talent like X‑ray vision, we know he’s off the mark — as a sweet later sequence suggests by showing Clark using his powers simply to watch Lois as she gets into an elevator and rides away. His eyes strip away the walls and floors that come between them, but though he could almost literally undress her with his eyes, he merely wants to look at her.
It’s impossible not to confront an ambiguous chapter in Lois and Superman’s history. In Superman II, Clark gives up his powers in order to consummate his relationship with Lois — before realizing what a disastrous mistake this is, not only because Lois’s complicated feelings are as much about the “super” as about the “man,” but also because the world needs Superman even more than Lois does.
To resolve this, Superman II resorts to a pair of instances of deus ex machina, allowing Superman to (a) recover his powers and (b) “annul” his union with Lois by means of an amnesia-inducing kiss. (The morality of this is arguably ambiguous, partly because Kal‑El isn’t really human, and it’s possible to see Clark and Lois’s union in quasi-marital terms — until it becomes clear that Superman’s larger obligations are an impediment to any such union.)
Superman Returns finds Lois cohabiting with a decent guy (Marsden, who plays Cyclops in the X‑Men films, and seems to specialize in decent but less exciting romantic rivals for the movie’s alpha male; cf. also The Notebook) with whom she is raising a child out of wedlock. The film neither condones nor condemns this arrangement, though it is possible to see the less than ideal consequences of the choices made in the previous film.
As Lois, Bosworth — unlike her costars Routh and Spacey — doesn’t remotely evoke the character played by her predecessor, Margot Kidder — though this Lois does resonate with other previous takes on Lois Lane, such as Teri Hatcher’s in “Lois and Clark.”
Though obviously younger than Kidder’s Lois, Bosworth’s Lois is also more grounded, less lost, and even Superman finds that she’s not so easy to sweep her off her feet. Motherhood looks good on her. She’s found a decent guy and stands by him, despite his not being Superman. True, she hasn’t married him; perhaps the emotional legacy of being jilted by Superman isn’t so easily put aside.
But for all that the Man of Steel may be her soulmate, he can’t be her life partner or a father to her child. (Been there, done that, seen the movie.) She’s trying to move on, and I find that I like this Lois, and respect her, more than the version played by Kidder. The earlier Lois, who loved Superman but not Clark, was too shallow to deserve Superman. This one isn’t — and that’s precisely why she herself knows he isn’t the man for her.
Kal-El, too, has grown up in a way. Looking back at the earlier films, it’s hard to see his love for Lois as much more than a schoolboy crush. As Clark, he grins bashfully and digs his toe on the floor; as Superman he shows off shamelessly, even undercutting his bespectacled alter ego to enhance his superhuman mystique (as if he needed it). Here, as he watches Lois from a distance, for the first time I take him seriously as a man who loves a woman and is struggling with it as a man.
Does the world need Superman? The sequence I keep thinking of in connection with this question is the terrific rescue of the falling 777, with its unavoidable resonances to United 93. It’s easy to see how some might be tempted to conclude that in this post 9/11 world there is no place for Superman, who wasn’t there to catch the planes falling from the sky.
Yet I remember how the days and weeks after 9/11 were marked by talk of heroes and heroism. It is precisely when we are confronted by the grimmest adversity that we are most acutely aware of the need for heroism and heroes. In that connection, it’s significant that Superman Returns is the first film that ascribes heroism to individuals other than Superman himself, including Lois and (better still) her fiancé Richard.
In the earlier films, Jor-El expressed concern that if Superman did too much for mankind, they would rely on him for everything, including things they could do for themselves. Superman has always saved the world from disaster, but in this film perhaps he begins to be a savior in the other sense alluded to by Jor‑El: a “light to show them the way.” A Superman who inspires or moves others to heroism or self-sacrifice is even better than one who swoops in to save us as we stand by passively.
Of course we still need Superman — now more than ever.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.