(Major spoilers are discussed. Tread carefully, or, better yet, go see the movie, ‘cuz you know you need to see for yourself, and then read the following.)
With three unfulfilling Star Wars prequels and one ludicrously bloated King Kong remake painfully fresh in the collective moviegoer memory, isn’t it time to acknowledge and, for the rough love of Joe Franklin, avoid the wasteful production of nostalgia trips masquerading as epic filmmaking? Emulating the past without purpose is a creative dead end; even the most brilliant directors stumble when indulgently celebrating beloved movies of their childhood – e.g. Peter Jackson’s big monkey movie, Steven Spielberg’s Always, and John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned. What these talented fellows temporarily forget in their rush to honor their forebears is that they’ve already paid homage by incorporating elements of Kurosawa, Stevens and Hawks into contemporary examinations of the human (or hobbit) condition. Enthusiasm for proven material is only valuable when it translates into something honest and deeply personal.
What’s regrettable about the spectacularly average Superman Returns is that director Bryan Singer’s adoration of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie is almost fervent enough to blast the sucker skyward. And there are moments when the film does take flight, delivering the derring-do that the Man of Steel do do so well. But Singer and his screenwriters, Mike Dougherty and Dan Harris, are plagued by uncertainty; is this a love story, a parable of assimilation, or both? Is this the ne plus ultra of comic book films, or just a random franchise reboot like last year’s muddled Batman Begins? And is America ready to embrace a Superman who stalks, eavesdrops and tries to wreck a healthy relationship?
That depends on their ability to weather a wretchedly paced first act, an aimless script and a distended finale that shamelessly cribs from E.T. The film’s basic premise – that Superman (Brandon Routh), feeling imperiled by discovery of Krypton’s cindered remains, disappears for five years, during which time the world falls into something akin to post-9/11 turmoil – is crackerjack stuff, and if Singer were truly interested in framing the Superman mythos as reflective of today’s moral haze, culminating in a rediscovery of all that’s right about American heroism, then he could’ve taken Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man flicks to the box office woodshed. Superman appeals to everybody; if one can’t relate to his alien (i.e. immigrant) status, then they latch onto Clark Kent’s standing as a social outcast.
But Singer’s real interest is in exploiting the loneliness of the long-absent superhero to stock romantic effect, which becomes a real drag real quick. Superman as apotheosized by Donner and Christopher Reeve in the first two films would’ve flown into action the minute he saw the chaotic state of the world. One of the script’s worst touches has Clark flipping through the news channels at Ma Kent’s house before mustering up the emotional fortitude to return to Metropolis; even then, the inference is that Supes is too lovesick to save lives. And when Clark finally strides back into the Daily Planet newsroom (an awful transition from Smallville, by the way), Singer immediately has Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) show off a picture of Lois Lane’s (Kate Bosworth) happy, non-traditional family (which Superman shatters as if he were a scornful Pat Robertson).
Superman Returns is full of mixed messages like this; Singer even undercuts the film’s most triumphant moment – Superman bringing that aforementioned, out-of-control plane to rest in the middle of a professional baseball stadium where his homecoming is cheered by a capacity crowd – with an awkward exchange between hero and erstwhile flame. It’s an unwanted punctuation that’s particularly frustrating since it’s one of the film’s few instances of narrative efficiency. True, it is something of a flamboyant, state-of-the-art upgrade from Superman: The Movie’s initial feat of heroism (Lois and the crippled helicopter), but it also robs the audience of a tsuris-free return to form for the Man of Steel. The love story can wait; folks have waited twenty-six years to see Superman save the day again, and they don’t want it diluted by some wussy bullshit.
Oh, but this is a melancholy Kal-El, a jilted ex-boyfriend who can’t help but insert himself back into Lois’s life – an especially dicey errand given that she’s days away from being awarded the Pulitzer for an article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” (goddamn liberals!). And while Singer does show Superman doing his super thang in various countries via news broadcasts, he never allows for a moment of joy. If his hero is miserable, then the audience has to be miserable, too, which makes the film as much fun as hanging out with a friend who’s been hung up over the same girl for three years, gets all weepy after a few beers, and then insists on driving by her house on the way home from the bar “just to see if she’s up”. Singer’s dour temperament, while perfect for the X-Men, is incredibly ill-suited to Superman. But it’s not a matter of going too dark (the Clark v. evil Supes fight in Superman III is as harrowing as anything here); rather, it’s a refusal to counter the unpleasantness with emotional highs. Who in their right mind makes a Superman movie wherein his ultimate victory is leaving the hospital after a nasty fall?
The film’s conceptual failings are crystallized when Jimmy Olsen, bringing Clark up to speed on Luthor’s dodging of two consecutive life sentences, asks his colleague how mad Superman must be at the fact that his abrupt absence resulted in his archenemy’s freedom. “Real mad”, fires back Clark with amusing uncertainty. Though everyone figures Superman’s ready to set the world aright, Luthor, the criminal mastermind who’s currently planning to sink the eastern seaboard so he can erect his own continent, is nothing but a pain in the ass to the man in blue. He’d rather Luthor delay his scheming while he’s trying to wreck Lois’s relationship with Perry White’s son, Richard (James Marsden), who’s a great guy doing a seemingly great job raising an asthmatic kid who isn’t even his. Superman really is a dick.
Lois’s (and Superman’s) son is easily the worst element Singer could’ve introduced because he’s now forced to develop it through the sequels, meaning the relaunch of the Superman franchise is about to become a live-action variation on The Incredibles. This might give Superman a greater emotional stake as his boring stable of villains materialize to exacerbate his emo malaise, but that’s just complicating matters to a needless degree. Thematic complexity is a hallmark of the Superman mythos; acting like an acne-ridden fourteen-year-old is not… until now. Who knew that, after all the caveats hurled at the casting, the actors would be so uniformly good (Routh and Bosworth may be too young, but they’re game), and the direction and story so dispiritingly inconsistent? That’s the fate of Superman Returns – a gargantuan Hollywood production with a selfishly narrow view of the world that never inspires.