You’ve got to hand it to Bryan Singer. Not because he brings anything new and innovative to the story of the Man of Steel in “Superman Returns,” or makes us pause to reexamine the legend of Superman, but because he succeeds where even Frank Miller failed: he makes Superman…creepy.
As the movie opens, the big lug has just returned to Earth after spending five years visiting the ruins of Krypton, his home planet. In that time, arch-nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has engineered his parole from prison, and former quasi-girlfriend Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is engaged to Perry White’s nephew and has a young son. And what’s our hero’s first order of business after returning and seeing the tableau of misery and human suffering on Ma Kent’s TV? Rescuing the Sudanese refugees? Rounding up the Taliban? Hurling Rick Santorum into the sun? Of course not. First, he has to check on his old flame.
Mild mannered Clark Kent learns of Lois’ extracurricular activities when he returns to his old newspaper gig at The Daily Planet. In the first disturbing development, he cracks a picture frame showing her happy family. Commiserating with Jimmy Olsen over beers(!), he finally gets his chance at some superheroics when a shuttle launch Lois is covering goes awry. I must admit, as jaded as I am with comic book movies and their set action pieces, that particular sequence was jaw-droppingly awesome. And for a moment, the movie’s possibilities lay before you like a brunette Earthling newspaper reporter whose pants you’ve just charmed off by taking her on a twilight flight around the city.
And then the “Man of Stalk” returns. As unsettling as it is to see the former champion of Truth, Justice, and the America Way use his super senses to eavesdrop on private conversations between Lois and her beau Richard (James Marsden) in the office (he’s an assistant editor), it doesn’t begin to plumb the depths of disquiet as when he does the same while lurking outside their house. Superman doesn’t “lurk,” goddammit. Batman does, and even then he doesn’t spy on his exes (that’s more of a Green Arrow thing). Credit Singer with another first, he manages to make Superman more sinister than the Dark Knight himself.
Even so, the first half of the film holds up fairly well. The icky romance angle is offset by some great scenes of Superman doing what he does best and a bit of decent scenery chewing by Spacey. At about the halfway point, however, two things happen. One of which I won’t divulge, but suffice to say it throws 70+ years of Super-continuity into the crapper. The other involves Luthor’s ultimate plot, which he – of course – explains in great detail to Lois while she’s held captive on his yacht. His intent is to create an entirely new continent (using pilfered Krypton crystals), flooding 75% of the known world and demanding exorbitant real estate prices from governments and businesses who need property. No, really. Luthor must have forgotten his genius pills that morning, or he mistakenly assumes that the U.S. government won’t simply scramble some B-52s from Barksdale AFB and “rolling thunder” his a*s back to the Stone Age.
Singer is so intent on making a worthwhile sequel to the Richard Donner movies – right down to duplicating the opening titles, musical score, and a number of shots from the 1978 original – that he sacrifices both script and plot. For example (and Luthor’s scheme aside), Lois is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter…who can’t spell “catastrophic;” Superman recovers damage if exposed to Earth’s yellow sun…sometimes; and to top it off, the guy spends the whole movie trying to make time with another guy’s woman.
And it doesn’t help that newcomer Brandon Routh barely has the personality of Christopher Reeve’s spit curl.
Singer also has quite an infatuation with Christ imagery, putting Routh in several “Passion of the Kal-El” type poses and throwing the word “savior” around. If fundamentalists vilified Martin Scorsese for depicting Jesus’ dream about raising a family with Mary Magdalene, the idea that their Messiah might be a jealous extraterrestrial sporting fruity tights and a cape ought to stoke them to levels of outrage not seen since Terri Schiavo.
I wanted to like “Superman Returns,” but Singer and company are so concerned about doing justice to Superman’s past, they fail to generate much interest in what, if any, future the franchise might have.