Superman Returns

This title always seems relevant. No matter what world Superman is returning to, it consistently seems to lack him. The 1978 film could have been called this in reference to the show from the 50s coming to the big screen. It could be released today in reference to DC’s lackadaisical cynicism towards the blue guy’s public image. In this case, it was his return from cinematic ruin after the bargain bin slogs of Superman III and IV. I did a critic’s job and watched the first two Richard Donner films before I watched Superman Returns, to see how triumphant the return really is in comparison. The word that comes to my mind is “lethargic.” Superman Returns feels like a lot of charming people were motivated to do the film twenty takes ago; now they’re kind of wistful and waiting for a break. The script has the right beats but the film is filled with sleepwalkers. It’s one of those movies that doesn’t feel like it has any input from the performers, like they’re wage workers on someone else’s passion project. Someone definitely has passion: the film is authentic, clean, safe. But so are most hygiene products. I’m saying it’s all just a little sterilized.

Casting is unusually relevant to comic book productions, and it’s a limitation of the medium. Characters were presented at newsstands to sell their stories with their bodies; they’re drawn by primary color pimps. And most of their character development is only skin deep. You know the kind of man Superman is because he always smiles and wears his underwear on the outside: he’s ready to help and has nothing to hide. He’s a flying self-endorsement, a Coke logo that dreamed it was a man and never woke up. I have to bring up the casting for these characters because they wear their soul on the outside. The people in Superman Returns were going to be laconic or exciting, and it depended not on what they did but on how they were drawn.

Brandon Routh is a pretty guy, and he looks a little like Chris Reeve. He’s the guy Reeve might have cast as himself in a glamorous biopic. The guy is all smiles in production interviews but as Superman he always seems furrowed – he smiles but seems to know the economy on them. He seems to pose rather than stand, like the film is his photoshoot. Reeve had an easy grace about him that never made me think of a sexy Superman calendar. Even in that iconic final flyby above the earth at the end of Superman Returns you’d hold your breath to see that dapper grin … and pass out waiting. I really thought it was coming (even watching it again, I remembered it being there).

I doubt this is Routh’s fault: it’s probably made of nothing more heinous than reverence. Where the Reeve film was playful and even crude at times, romping in uncharted territory, this one is metered by people’s expectations, particularly by those of Bryan Singer, who seems awed and even intimidated by his task. The result seems to be the desire to make an inspiring film without taking too much pleasure in it, as though that would debase the mythology. Superman used to save people like a jogger on a pleasure run; in this one, it’s like he should earn hourly. Part of the problem is that the script is so perfectly paced for the events that it lacks any room for the iconic banter. This Superman is tight-lipped! DC has recently made it worse, somehow, but at least Man of Steel introduces us to a consistently reticent savior. Routh looks like he has comebacks but lets them all die in his throat because the lawyers are still debating whether they’ll be Superman-enough. And then, it’s too late: the film has to move on.

It gets worse. Kate Bosworth is positively doughy as Lois Lane. Margot Kidder was sparky, even crude, not the prettiest gal in the yearbook but the go-getter with the right dreams. I used to think there was something holding her back, like Kidder was so stubborn she refused to yield to the idea of actually being Lois Lane. Bosworth makes me miss her: she’s so willing to surrender to the part that she becomes vacant and inactive, romantically befuddled between her fetish and her family like a deer that hopes the car will hit her so she doesn’t have to make a decision. And she’s young to the point of debasing the film’s whole exercise, which involves the return of the Reeve-era Superman into a future where he hasn’t been around for a while. Ludicrously, she’s seven years younger than Kidder was in the first film. Routh being Reeve’s age is poetic: he’s immortal as statuary. The effect is nullified by Lois, who could have been weathered by cynicism to write that article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” but instead seems like a disappointed tween in a snoozy slump about her ex-boyfriend, like Sandy Dee on morphine.

In truth, the whole film is cast out of tune. Frank Langella is a very workmanlike Perry White, with none of the blood-boiling eccentricity that I know he has (this guy unironically played Skeletor, for goodness sake: his Perry White acts like he wakes up into every scene from a fertile nap). He doesn’t even give his classic protests when Jimmy (Sam Huntington) calls him “chief.” Richard Marsden as Lois’ new husband (a pilot, naturally) is a tall drink of filtered mineral water, a man-sized Ken doll, and that works. Kevin Spacey shoves on Gene Hackman’s floppy car salesman’s shoes without taking any joy from them. He’s devious and demented but not so pleased with himself as I remember of Hackman. You’d think that in a world without Superman, he’d have gotten some stuff done (the scheme of the film, for instance, would have been more fortuitously achieved six months prior).

I don’t mean to crucify the film but I have one more nail. Clark and Lois are not as we left them. Despite the fact that I suspect Routh has it in him, Clark is a true alter ego in Superman Returns, a character that exists only to be Superman’s secret identity and not a character in his own right. We’ve gone backwards from the airy Puzo/Donner work where Clark was Superman’s idea of decent folks piled up into a well-meaning lump. There are a few clutzy moments, but Superman Returns craves the situation comedy of the original series, the kind of rigmarole that you could have watched clutching a Hop-Along-Cassidy doll in front of your TV dinner. Reeve and Kidder had that when they went on assignment to Niagara Falls, when Clark had to save Lois without revealing his secret, when Lois gave Clark dating advice, when they went out for dinner both thinking about how they should deal with their Superman problem. That burden delimited him, where his powers and weaknesses never do. Yes, I’m aware of Kryptonite. I’m also aware that it never seems to matter much. In Superman Returns, neither does Clark Kent.

The effects dazzle. A mid-air plane rescue lit the theater with turmoil and it still works at home. It poses the question of whether a very strong man can do anything against natural forces like inertia: despite the fact that Superman could deadlift the plane, he has trouble stopping it in midair without pulling its wings off. Natural elements become characters in this sequence, relocating Superman to a world where gravity and air resistance exist without his permission. His effort is palpable, if not on his face then in his straining posture, which is a look you don’t often see on Superman.

I like the subplot of the little kid with the predictably mysterious origin; the mythology of it rings true to me. I don’t mind that he’s a little blank-eyed. Who wouldn’t be scared of themselves in that situation? His gaze is effective: from ground-level, Clark Kent isn’t fooling anyone. The poor guy goes asthmatic with the knowledge.

There’s a mythology-defining moment in this film. Superman has to decide if he will save Lois from drowning or Metropolis from being destroyed by Luthor’s manufactured earthquake. He chooses the city, while the Marsden character goes after her. It is, in a beautiful moment, the reason they can’t be together: because of his ability to save so many others, Superman can’t put her first, as a husband would. His decision is the testament to his father’s warning many movies ago, that he can’t live both lives. This was the moment I proclaimed in my notes that Superman Returns accentuates the old mythology; when Superman then has to save them anyway after the city is safe, I wrote beneath it with a double underline, “Never mind.”

At least he initially leaves her for a brilliant sequence. Saving Metropolis is a matter of a thousand mini-disasters, a crisis on infinite street corners. Superman has to do a lot of fly-by saves, on his way to the next tragedy. Camera shutters struggle to keep up; people editorialize him from the ground. Luthor said once that Superman can’t be in two places at once but here he hopes to go fast enough to make up the difference. A similar sequence in Man of Steel reveals a Superman complacent with destruction, who doesn’t take responsibility for his ability to stop bad things from happening. Destroying the plane is easy; saving it is the only thing that would be super.

This idea of a selfish Superman doesn’t work, even if it’s got moral ground to stand on. No one is responsible for everyone else, it’s true: Superman has a right to his own life. But this dilemma can’t be ignored by this character, who not only has the power to save people but also the upbringing to make him feel that his power means something. Such a moral question has to be calculated, and beautiful moments in Superman Returns do that for us: Superman, hovering above the earth, listening to a million cries for help and trying to pick one, or his inability to save the woman he loves because of his ability to save a thousand others. The problem with Man of Steel isn’t that it’s wrong but that it shirks off this essential dilemma. Spider-Man was told that his great power gave him great responsibility, and he knows how much responsibility because he knows how much power he has. But what if you have infinite power? How much responsibility can one man take?

This is why Clark Kent is the most essential aspect of the Superman story. He is the one thing Superman gives himself: his one chance to take a break, to be someone no one expects anything of. He’s almost a no-show in Superman Returns not because Singer is obsessed with Superman but because he’s obsessed with the responsibility of being Superman, which I believe he considered at least equal to his responsibility to direct a film about him. This makes for a film where the heroism is authentic and the humanity is absent. Clark appears at comedic moments to cover for Superman (with a face full of noodles after Superman and Lois dip their toes in the bay and play with the clouds) but we never see him too far from work. Clark is Superman’s punch-card.

Superman Returns is a fantastic comic book movie, and it’s also no better than one. In those original scripts, Donner and Puzo turned a newsprint god into a real person with goals and weaknesses (emotional instead of mineral). The Reeve performance rang through Clark to allow Lois to be cruelly apathetic to the man she loves, and then it echoed to allow Superman to be in on that joke with us when Lois was too full of endorphins to speak straight. Superman Returns doesn’t let us in on the joke because it doesn’t really think there is one. Singer approaches this project like a reverent chronicler, fearful of reenacting the parts of the mythology that have been mistaken for being corny. But they made all the difference! He casts Routh as one would build a monument, and Bosworth as one would audition an extra for the part of a sightseer. And that’s what I felt like. One knowing glance from Superman, one cheeky smile, would have been enough to remind me that he sees the irony he’s built around him, just for the chance to playact as someone who doesn’t need special effects to be a great guy. Everyone on this production was enamored with Superman. But if Clark asked them out for burgers, I really wonder if they would have gone.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Bryan Singer

Michael Dougherty (screenplay and story)

Dan Harris (screenplay and story)

Bryan Singer (story)

 

Clark Kent/Superman Brandon Routh
Lois Lane Kate Bosworth
Richard White James Marsden
Perry White Frank Langella
Kitty Kowalski Parker Posey
Lex Luthor Kevin Spacey
Jimmy Olsen Sam Huntington

Official Trailer

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