With the first two X-Men films, director Bryan Singer brought comic-book movies into the modern age. He ran the gauntlet to appease diehard comic geeks, casual moviegoers, and critics alike with his own mutant blend of superhero myth, human drama, and good old-fashioned Hollywood spectacle. And it worked, mainly because Singer remembered both to make his superpowered characters recognizably human and to keep them true to their source material. Both X-Men and its sequel were superbly elevated pulp — somehow more than their grubby cartoon origins, yet still immediately recognizable as genre.
Now, with Superman Returns, Singer is attempting a similar strategy of universal appeal. Like the X-Men films, Superman Returns packs in something for everyone — a geek trivia book’s worth of knowing references, heartfelt romance, and all the megabudget grandeur that a $200 million army of Hollywood-effects gurus can buy. The results are occasionally astounding and often elegant. But this time, Singer’s ambitions to stretch beyond his source material’s pulp roots get the best of him. What should have been yet another exercise in elevated genre ends up disconnected and distant — a film that flies too high for its own good.
Singer sets his film in the years following Superman II, essentially wiping the groan-inducing third and fourth sequels from the series’ continuity. We find that Superman has left Earth for several years in order to visit the ruins of his destroyed home world. During his absence, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has gotten engaged and had a child. Continuing to pen articles for the Daily Planet, she has done what any journalist jilted by her lover would do and taken revenge in print with a Pulitzer Prize-winning article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Talk about nasty breakups. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (now played by Kevin Spacey) is still both bald and scheming, as well as continually prone to keeping a company of insipid thugs so that he might have someone with whom to share his schemes, thus helpfully advancing the plot for the audience.
Richard Donner’s original 1978 Superman film weighs heavily on the proceedings, especially the score, which utilizes a hybrid mix of John Williams’ imminently hummable original theme and new music by composer John Ottman. Some of the results are inspiring, such as the opening credits sequence that cleverly mimics Donner’s original, right down to the cool-for-1978 whooshing blue font. Williams’ theme is iconic, and Singer often uses it to great effect. Other allusions, though, seem to exist for their own sake; a handful of scenes are practically reenactments of bits from Donner’s original. Singer can’t seem to tell the difference between smart homage and slavish imitation.
At times, the film plays almost like an updated remake rather than a sequel. Luthor’s land-baron plot is all rehash, as is the basic “get Kryptonite/kill Superman” aspect. Still, Singer has done some smart work updating the Superman milieu for 2006. Gone are the quick changes in phone booths; instead we have kids snapping Superman pictures on their cell phones. One of the interesting ideas that Singer toys with is how Superman has become an integrated part of city life. When he flies overhead, it is a strange and wonderful sight, a man flying a dozen stories above while you walk home from work.
Yet for all its devotion to the original Superman mythos, there are some significant departures, particularly in the character of Superman himself. Like Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in this summer’s Mission: Impossible sequel, Superman has been softened for our newly refined modern sensibility. Where he was once a confident, courageous hero who chose to play Clark Kent as awkward in order to conceal his identity, he’s been redefined as a tentative, emotionally confused young man. Much of the movie concerns Superman/Kent’s struggle to reconcile his lingering affection for Lois Lane. Just what is a superhero supposed to do with all those pent-up feelings? Those of us without secret identities might go for a walk or take a drive; Superman, on the other hand, tends to fly around aimlessly or hover dejectedly in space. Because it’s like, so empty, and he’s so lonely, dude.
If this emotionalized sensibility renders Superman little more a mopey teenager, it lends itself to some surprisingly elegant imagery. Superman’s flight is a cinematic wonder. Before the advent of computer generated imagery, the old school approach to special effects was to point a camera at something that looked approximately how the director imagined and film it. Sometimes blue screens were employed for a hokey flying effect. Now, vast armies of computer effects artists give directors the ability to create what are essentially animated paintings, as lush and meticulously crafted as anything brushed onto canvas.
Most directors use this capability to create ever more epic action scenes, and while Singer gives us the necessary spectacle — a midair airplane rescue is alone worth the price of admission — he also employs this ability in more interesting ways. Everything from the city of Metropolis to Superman’s vast crystal fortress in the arctic is beautifully articulated. Perhaps the film’s most effective sequence is Superman’s nighttime flight with Lois. What might have been a heavy handed moment of soap opera obviousness is luxurious, a sweet, airy moment that seems to capture what it might be like to fly.
The rich detail makes a good distraction from the fact that the film’s narrative lacks anything remotely like the super strength of its hero. Overlong and burdened with too many undeveloped ideas, it aspires to something far more grand than it delivers. Even Kevin Spacey’s zippy combination of smarts and menace as Luthor cannot save the film from the fact that its villain suffers from a dispiriting lack of motivation. Many of the scenes with Jimmy Olson and Perry White in the Daily Planet newsroom fall flat, coming off as pale imitations of similar newsroom scenes in the Spider-Man films.
Singer seems to be operating on the assumption that if Superman isn’t physically vulnerable, he at least ought to be emotionally vulnerable. He’s not the Man of Steel — he’s the Man of Emo. But if this high-minded idea of a superhero who face up to both his feelings and his role as savior of the world is ambitious, it also robs us of the character’s gleeful, juvenile vibrancy. What Superman Returns needed was a little less ambition and a lot more of a brawny guy flying around in blue tights and underwear pummeling the bad guy.