It’s a Plain

Salt Lake City Weekly | June 22, 2006
Director Bryan Singer doesn’t waste any time letting you know that he’s going retro for his franchise re-boot Superman Returns. The block-letter opening credits swoop and whoosh just the way they did in Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman; in the background, John Williams’ rousing fanfare plays. Marlon Brando intones the voice of Superman’s father Jor-El from his original performance. Even Brandon Routh’s squeaky-voiced delivery as Clark Kent provides frightening echoes of Christopher Reeve. Singer wants to return us to that time when, as the tag line famously announced, we could “believe a man can fly”—because at last, special effects technology had allowed comic book pages to come to life.

Nearly 30 years and an immeasurable number of gigabytes later, it’s no longer exactly a problem convincing audiences that a man can fly, or shoot webs, or sprout adamantium claws, or burst into flames. But the bar has been raised—by the likes of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, or even last year’s Batman Begins—for the psychological depth given to super-powered folks in tights.

That’s a crucial missing piece in a story that embraces Superman as an icon rather than an individual. It’s set five years after the events of Superman II, with Superman (Routh) just returned from a quest for whatever might remain of his home planet of Krypton. The world has had to figure out how to go on without him, with Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth)—now a single mom with a son coincidentally around five years old—having taken the departure most personally. Everyone is thrilled to know the Man of Steel is back—with the notable exception of Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), recently freed from prison and armed with a plan to use Superman’s own history against the world.

Singer, of course, has plenty of experience by now with big-budget comic book adaptations after his work on the first two X-Men movies, so it’s not surprising that he has a firm grip on action sequences like the crackerjack jet-in-peril set piece. He also gets great work from Spacey—who won his Oscar for the Singer-directed The Usual Suspects—whose take on Luthor brings more pure malevolence than Gene Hackman’s interpretation. Great villains are half the battle in comic book adaptations, so Superman Returns would seem to be on solid ground.

But the other half of that battle is creating a compelling dramatic dilemma for the protagonist, and it’s there that the script by X2 writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris hits a wall of steel. The big hook is supposed to be the romantic triangle involving Supes, Lois and her new beau Richard (X-Men’s James Marsden), and the lingering bitterness represented by Lois’ Pulitzer Prize-winning essay “Why We Don’t Need Superman.” That would, however, require some kind of spark between Bosworth and Routh, whose face seems as impervious to emotion as his curly forelock does to dishevelment. We never feel the tension of lovers separated by a hero’s duty and his desire for a normal life—the kind of tension that drove the Peter Parker/Mary Jane relationship in the Spider-Man films, just for instance.

Perhaps, that’s because—at least as far as we can tell—Lois is only really in love with the idea of Superman. And that’s not terribly surprising, because Singer himself seems mostly to be in love with that idea as well. He’s making a movie about our need for hope in a dark time, trying to cobble his Superman/Jesus metaphors to the necessary machinations of a Hollywood blockbuster. The result is something slightly aloof—a hero only briefly allowing us to touch his cape before he’s off to the Fortress of Solitude.

It’s kind of a shame, because Singer has actually crafted a comic book movie confident enough not to shout every scene at us. A meteor crashes in one scene not with a spectacular explosion, but with a distant, muffled thud; one climactic moment comes and goes without the expected whoop-it-up kaboom. But these muted moments are matched by a muted personality, nothing remotely close to the simple exhilaration of the first two Reeve Superman films.

Late in Superman Returns, Lois stares at a blinking cursor, frustrated in her attempt to create an essay titled “Why We Need Superman.” With his attention to abstraction rather than inner life, Bryan Singer never manages to come up with a decent answer either. It’s not enough to believe a man can fly. We need to believe that the thing that’s flying is actually a man.

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