An undercurrent of sadness permeates Superman’s return to earth as an alien Christ figure sent here by his father to cure humanity of its endless calamities and crimes. Crucial to the film’s success is newcomer Brandon Routh who fills Superman’s and Clark Kent’s ever-changing shoes with a perfectly mannered nuance of best intentions and calm resolve. Kate Bosworth ideally anchors the story as Superman’s eternal flame Lois Lane with a guarded romantic gravitas that sustains the film’s two-and-a-half-hour duration.
Director Bryan Singer and his gifted design team perform a neat cinematic slight of hand by embellishing the story’s modern day settings with 1930’s art deco touches that hearken back to the era when the Superman comic first began. Most present are effortless brushstrokes of modern day subtext that relate to apolitical issues of global warming, greed for oil and the way the media leads public consciousness.
Superman Returns is a meticulous study in how a much-beloved comic book hero and movie franchise can depart enough from its predictable source material to render surprises while still paying reverence to its quintessential narrative and character constraints.
We are introduced to the outer space context of Superman’s origin with a striking scene of planetary cataclysm (namely Krypton) that gives way to Superman’s meteor crashing arrival on earth near the farm where his compassionate human parents first raised him from a baby. A brief flashback sequence shows Clark Kent’s discovery as a teenager of his otherworldly powers amid the cornfields of his earthly home.
In the five years since Superman last left earth to check on the status of his destroyed home planet, the ever-treacherous Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has freed himself from jail and connived away the fortune of an elderly dying millionaire. Luthor and his assistants pay a visit to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude where they encounter a three-dimensional recording of Superman’s father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) bestowing advice to his absent son. Luther steals a set of precious crystals that soon enable him to create a quickly expanding landmass that will end the lives of billions of people and reconfigure North America.
Clark returns to his desk job at the Daily Planet where he discovers that Lois won a Pulitzer Prize for an article entitled “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman,” and that she has a son (Jason) out of wedlock with the editor’s nephew Richard White (James Marsden), a big-hearted pilot.
Young Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu) becomes an increasingly important aspect of the story and provides a key element for younger audience members to relate to. The ever-reliable Frank Langella ornaments the story as the Daily Planet’s demanding editor-in-chief Perry White.
The first major computer-assisted spectacle arrives when Lex Luthor causes a power outage that disables the release devices on an airliner attempting to launch a space shuttle into orbit. The plane also carries a group of journalists covering the event led by one vociferous Lois Lane.
Story and spectacle coalesce as Superman proves his mettle in liberating the shuttle and setting the crashing airplane down in the middle of a baseball field during a game. The action sequence distills all that Superman represents into one lasting moment of exuberant relief.
The audience I was with applauded the feat, and I experienced the communal elation as it was kept in check by the weighty emotional undercurrents of John Ottman’s brilliant musical score. As with Superman’s eloquently unhurried assents to the sky and equally deliberate descents to the ground Superman Returns is a powerful knockout. MTW