It's been a nice couple of years for the rehabilitation of pop-cinematic icons. Last summer, Christopher Nolan rescued Batman from the gothic campiness of the Tim Burton-Michael Keaton collaborations, not to mention the outright inanity of the Joel Schumacher sequels. Just weeks ago, the custodians of James Bond replaced their gadgeted gigolo with a sparer, meaner 007 in Casino Royale. (You'll have to wait for the video release to get my take, but here's a preview: It's the best Bond in nearly 40 years; see it now.) And over the summer, Bryan Singer attempted perhaps the most daunting feat of all: reinvigorating a Superman franchise that was left for dead nearly two decades ago.
Though the Man of Steel helped launch the big-screen superhero genre in Richard Donner's 1978 Superman, it took him a while to catch the comic-book tidal wave that followed Singer's X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. And not without reason: Long before even Donner's film, Superman had a reputation as a hokey do-gooder, and his squareness has only grown more problematic as pop culture has, for better and worse, become ever more immersed in irony.
Rather than fight this stereotype, Singer embraces it in Superman Returns. As a result, a comparison between most recent super-fare and Singer's film is like night and day--literally. The former have tended toward dark settings and noirish brooding, perhaps to offset the innate silliness of the cape-and-tights genre. Superman Returns, by contrast, takes place in such dazzling daylight that viewers might be forgiven for applying sunscreen. The sky that looks down on Clark Kent (Brandon Routh) and beckons his super-alter-ego is as blue as his eyes and no less innocent.
For the first two-thirds of his movie, Singer creates an aura of gee-whiz credulity that remarkably avoids bathos, though sometimes by a close call. The mood is jocular without being jokey, heartfelt without being sentimental. Unlike Batman's Gotham City, Metropolis is a cheery place, almost an urban Eden. When you first see that Perry White, Clark's boss at the Daily Planet newspaper, is played by the formidable Frank Langella, you might expect he'd give Spidey's J. Jonah Jameson a run for his money as the Publisher from Hell; but no, he's like a gruff uncle, wishing only the best for his staff and Superman alike. Even Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), the world's most villainous egghead (in both senses of the word), is an amiable enough presence in the early going, supplying more dark comedy than genuine menace. The first calamity he causes--the harrowing near-crash of a jetliner carrying Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth)--is just the inadvertent byproduct of an experiment he undertakes with a model train.
The story, in a nutshell, is that after a five-year journey to find his devastated, lifeless home planet of Krypton, Superman returns to Metropolis to discover a few changes have taken place. Lois, the love of his life, has jilted him both as a woman (by getting engaged to another man and having a baby) and, perhaps more cuttingly, as a journalist (by winning a Pulitzer for an editorial entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman"). Luthor, meanwhile, has gotten out of prison, married a wealthy invalid, and begun turning his subsequent inheritance to nefarious ends. Well, perhaps not nefarious so much as ridiculous: Luthor's evil plot involves stealing a crystal from Superman's arctic Fortress of Solitude and dropping it in the ocean off the Eastern seaboard. Once submerged, it will expand even more quickly than Donald Trump's self-regard, growing into a new continent that will swamp North America, kill billions of people, and provide Luthor with the makings of his own tidy real-estate empire.
This is, self-evidently, the most idiotic plot for global domination ever committed to celluloid. Yet Singer somehow prevents it from ruining the film and even gives it an ominous resonance: The jagged crystalline peaks of Luthor's new world emerge from the waves like Serpents staking their claim on Paradise, a mountainous Mordor suddenly casting its shadow over the skyscraper-studded Shire of Metropolis. Rather than posit a world full of evil men, Singer envisions a world in which it takes only one to upset the natural order and bring Hell to the threshold.
Superman closes the door on it, of course, with the help of Lois and her altogether-too-decent fiance, but not before encountering his own mortality and requiring a rescue of his own. It's an obvious arc, but no less satisfying for it. And even after the problem of global holocaust is solved, the problem of Lois's Other Man remains, lending the film a wistful, rather than triumphant air.
In the title role, screen newcomer Routh often seems less to be playing Superman than to be playing Christopher Reeve playing Superman, but the tribute seems apt. It helps that Routh isn't quite so tall or broad-shouldered as Reeve, whose shrinking-violet act as Clark Kent was always a tad ridiculous. Ross Douthat observed that, over the years, the actors playing Superman have seemed to get younger and younger--as he put it, "George Reeves looks like your Dad, Christopher Reeve looks like your youngish uncle, Dean Cain looks like your older brother, and now Brandon Routh looks like, well, the 1980s Superboy"--and it's hard to imagine this is a coincidence. As American culture has grown more jaded, the figure of Superman--honest, earnest, idealistic--has felt increasingly anachronistic; rendering him as an ever-younger figure is a way to keep his innocence from appearing to be a case of arrested development.