Along with Star
and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the
original Superman, with its tale of
mythic good vs. evil and grandly nostalgic fantasy and adventure, helped define
the vibe of
Disaffected critics dismissed these action-packed films as mere escapist spectacle, but they were infused with something more. The Force represented an overt appeal to the idea of religious mystery, of the numinous, of good and evil as more than human categories. Raiders explicitly wove Judeo-Christian awe of the sacred into a story in which evil is ultimately defeated not by rugged action hero Indiana Jones, but by God 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.
Yet it’s been nearly 20 years since the last Superman movie, and the interim has seen a succession of darker, grimmer cinematic super heroes: Batman, Wolverine, Daredevil. This long absence is reflected in the title as well as the plot of Superman Returns, directed by Brian Singer, whose two X-Men movies helped resurrect the superhero genre after Joel Schumacher’s Batman sequels killed it.
An opening title reveals that it’s been five years since Superman (Brandon Routh) was last seen. The world has had to deal with not knowing when, if ever, he would be coming back.
In fact, it turns out that, when
“The world doesn’t need a savior,” says Lois, who is not only living with her fiancé Richard (James Marsden), but also has a child out of wedlock. “And neither do I.” In this cynical, jaded world, what place is there for Superman?
Given the long lapse since the last Superman film, 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 21st 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, 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.
From the rousing fanfare of the familiar John Williams score to the comic-book 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 builds on and honors 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 as accomplished as 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 Kevin 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
Luther’s plot is not only even
grander, and much cleverer, than blowing
Superman Returns likewise takes a serious, intelligent approach to its hero’s established powers, avoiding the sometimes whimsical, arbitrary stylings of earlier films.
Superman or no, Kal-El can’t change the laws of physics and, when a Boeing 777 is hurtling from the sky at more than 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. But it isn’t just a matter of visual effects. Superman Returns succeeds in imagining Superman’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-senses, we get a feel for just how far beyond mortal men Superman’s powers elevate him. “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 of religious themes, which also include redemptive sacrifice, passion-crucifixion imagery and (as observed by Catholic critic David DiCerto after the screening) an echo of the empty tomb.
It’s impossible not to confront an ambiguous chapter in Lois and Superman’s history. In Superman II, Clark gives up his powers and consummates his relationship with Lois — before realizing what a disastrous mistake this is, not only because Lois’ 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 two separate instances of deus ex machina, allowing Superman to recover his powers and “annul” his union with Lois by means of an amnesia-inducing kiss.
Superman Returns finds Lois cohabiting with a decent guy 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 consequences of the choices made in the previous film.
Does the world need Superman? Perhaps the best answer lies in the film’s single most haunting sequence, the terrific rescue of the falling 777, with its unavoidable resonances with United 93. The days and weeks after 9/11 were marked by much 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.
Of course our world needs Superman — now more than ever.
Content advisory: Intense action sequences and some strong violence; cohabitation and out-of-wedlock maternity.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.