‘Superman Returns’ to Save Mankind From Its Sins

Jesus of Nazareth spent 40 days in the desert. By comparison, Superman of Hollywood languished almost 20 years in development hell. Those years apparently raised the bar fearsomely high. Last seen larking about on the big screen in the 1987 dud “Superman IV,” the Man of Steel has been resurrected in a leaden new film not only to fight for truth, justice and the American way, but also to give Mel Gibson’s passion a run for his box-office money. Where once the superhero flew up, up and away, he now flies down, down, down, sent from above to save mankind from its sins and what looked like another bummer summer.

The super-size (more than two and a half hours) “Superman Returns” was written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, working off a story hatched by them and the director, Bryan Singer, after what appears to have been repeat viewings of Richard Donner’s “Superman.” Released in 1978, that film ushered Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original comic creation into the blockbuster age with frothy wit and a cast that included Marlon Brando in a creamy scoop of white hair and Gene Hackman in clover. Christopher Reeve, of course, wore the cape and tights, while Margot Kidder did a fine approximation of the young Katharine Hepburn at her most coltish. Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty added some laughs, while Glenn Ford supplied a pinch of gravitas.

As nutritious as a box of Cracker Jack and just as yummy, “Superman” was at once a goof and a self-conscious bid at modern mythmaking. Years later, what resonates aren’t Mr. Donner’s action scenes, which look crude compared with what he would do later in the “Lethal Weapon” series, but how fluidly he changes tones from the iconic (as when the supertoddler lifts a truck off his Earth father) to the playful (as when the souped-up adult realizes that the closetlike phone booth is a thing of the past). Mr. Reeve worked the tonal changes with similar ease, delivering a superhero whose earnestness was strategically offset by his fumbling, bumbling, all-too-human twin, who was just the ticket for the post-Watergate, pre-Indiana Jones moment.

Mr. Singer’s Superman, played by Brandon Routh, is a hero of rather different emotional colors, most muted. Like Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” Mr. Singer’s effort reworks the legend against a vaguely modern, timeless backdrop that blends the thematically old with the technologically new. The story opens with some necrophiliac wizardry and Brando newly arisen as Superman’s extraterrestrial father. Well represented even from beyond, the dead actor receives billing for his spectral turn, squeezed between Eva Marie Saint, who plays Superman’s earth mother, and Tristan Lake Leabu, who plays Lois Lane’s young son. The Daily Planet’s star reporter is in turn played by Kate Bosworth, whose glum mien and curtain of brown hair suggests that blondes really do have more fun.

Lois, however, doesn’t enter the picture until after the filmmakers have laid the story’s Oedipal foundation, which finds two men saying goodbye to the much older women who will, intentionally or not, shape their destinies. In one corner, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey taking up the role played by Mr. Hackman) bids cold adieu to the crone who will make him fantastically rich; in another, Superman again digs a fiery trough into the Kent family farm upon crash landing. This time, it’s the grown man who brings tears to his mother’s eyes and who stares at the sinking Kansas (actually Australian) sun, weighing his responsibility to humankind after a five-year hiatus crossing the galaxies to visit his original home.

It’s too bad that Mr. Singer and his colleagues don’t really do anything substantial with the good-guy-bad-guy routine. Superman may be a super-creation, but it’s his villains rather than his dual identity that have usually given him a kick. Unlike his brooding and angst-ridden rivals in the superhero game, his alter ego is only as interesting as the comic book artist or the actor adding shades of gray to Clark Kent’s business suit. Part of the charm of Mr. Reeve’s interpretation was that a guy this impossibly handsome, who literally towers over everyone in the office, could hide behind a slouch and oversize eyeglasses. It was absurd, but then so too was the idea that a powerful extraterrestrial would hang around Earth to take the kind of abuse perennially heaped on his human half.

That identity allowed Superman to walk among us, but mostly it allowed him and, by proxy, generations of geeks both creating and consuming the character, to engage ritualistically in a sadomasochistic relationship with Lois Lane. A variation on the high school homecoming queen who sails past the shy guy in glasses on her way to a back-seat tumble with the captain of the football team, this trouble-seeking reporter has always brought out what is most human, vulnerable and identifiable in Superman. He gives her headlines; she gives him a broken, or at least bruised, heart. In “Superman II,” which was directed by Richard Lester (and an uncredited Mr. Donner), she gave him a bit more, too, thereby transforming the world’s most powerful virgin into a one-night stud.

Near the end of the second film, Superman, realizing that he and Lois have no future, wipes away their boudoir encounter with an amnesia-producing kiss. Mr. Singer expends much more time and many more resources to do pretty much the same, erasing part of the past to create what is essentially a new and considerably more sober sequel to the first two films, one that shakes the earthiness off Superman and returns him to the status of a savior. There’s always been a hint of Jesus (and Moses) to the character, from the omnipotence of his father to a costume that, with its swaths of red and blue, evokes the colors worn by the Virgin Mary in numerous Renaissance paintings. It’s a hint that proves impossible not to take.

Intentionally or not, the Jesus angle also helps deflect speculation about just how straight this Superman flies. Given how securely Lois remains out of the romantic picture in “Superman Returns,” now saddled with both a kid and a fiance’ (James Marsden), it’s no surprise that some have speculated that Superman is gay. The speculation speaks more to our social panic than anything in the film, which, much like the overwhelming majority of American action movies produced since the 1980’s, mostly involves what academics call homosocial relations. In other words, when it comes to Hollywood, boys will be boys and play with their toys, whether they’re sleeping with one another or not, leaving women to weep, worry and wait to be rescued.

Every era gets the superhero it deserves, or at least the one filmmakers think we want. For Mr. Singer that means a Superman who fights his foes in a scene that visually echoes the garden betrayal in “The Passion of the Christ” and even hangs in the air much as Jesus did on the cross. It’s hard to see what the point is beyond the usual grandiosity that comes whenever B-movie material is pumped up with ambition and money. As he proved with his first two installments of “The X-Men” franchise, Mr. Singer likes to make important pop entertainments that trumpet their seriousness as loudly as they deploy their bangs. It’s hard not to think that Superman isn’t the only one here with a savior complex.

“Superman Returns” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Mild action and no blood.

Superman Returns

Opens tonight in selected cities and tomorrow nationwide.

Directed by Bryan Singer; written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, based on a story by Mr. Singer, Mr. Dougherty and Mr. Harris from characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, published by DC Comics; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Elliot Graham and John Ottman; music by Mr. Ottman; production designer, Guy Hendrix Dyas; produced by Mr. Singer, Jon Peters and Gilbert Adler; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 37 minutes.

WITH: Brandon Routh (Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman), Kate Bosworth (Lois Lane), James Marsden (Richard White), Frank Langella (Perry White), Eva Marie Saint (Martha Kent), Parker Posey (Kitty Kowalski), Sam Huntington (Jimmy Olsen), Kal Penn (Stanford) and Kevin Spacey (Lex Luthor).

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The New York Times, USA
June 27, 2006

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday June 28, 2006.
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