Does the world need Superman? That’s the topic of the editorial that wins Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) a Pulitzer Prize in Bryan Singer’s majestic new movie, Superman Returns. Me, I always found Superman a bore. Omnipotence, invulnerability, pure goodness — there’s not much room for improvement or conflict. And when the conflict is contrived — for example by imposing a Messianic subtext the way Richard Donner did in Superman: The Movie — it makes the movie pompous and pretentious and a lot less fun.
That Jesus holdover is the weakest part of Singer’s movie: any dropout from a first-grade catechism class can pick out the overwrought symbolism, from the hero’s cruciform posture in a bad moment toward the end of the film to the repetition of his dead dad Jor-El’s (maybe it should be called Brando Returns) posthumous voiceover of platitudes like “The son becomes the father, and the father the son . . . ” Fortunately, that’s a one-time indulgence. The mastery of cinematic form that Singer exhibited in his X-Men movies carries the narrative and then some. Images and eloquent editing not only tell the tale but also disclose elements of theme, depths of character, and tantalizing allusions.
These include, of course, allusions to Donner’s 1978 original. The new film does not so much follow up on the earlier one as reinvent and transcend it. Once again, Kal-El (Brandon Routh) crashes his spacecraft in a Kansas field. Once again, Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint) takes him in. It’s his second coming. Five years have passed since he traveled to the ruins of Krypton to connect with his roots — a weak premise that might prove resonant when the 15 minutes of Krypton footage cut from the original finds its way to the DVD.
As Clark Kent, he resumes his job at The Daily Planet and finds he’s barely been missed. His unrequited heartthrob, Lois Lane, has put her love for Superman aside and taken up with another man; she has a young son. But her resolve falters when Superman must save her from a 777 plummeting to earth.
More f/x as usual? Actually, the CGI intensifies the realism. You can see that catching a huge airliner by the nose before it splatters onto the pitcher’s mound in the middle of a baseball game is hard work. And not only does the scene thrill, it means something. It establishes the main characters and their relationships and fate, and it illustrates a theme. As the stadium crowd (Superman gets a standing O and appears on the JumboTron) and the world cheer what looks like a stage-managed news event, a diffident Lois insists on being more concerned by the power outage that preceded the near-disaster. Echoing the philosophy of our own media, Perry White (Frank Langella) tells her that the story is Superman, not the blackout.
PULITZER PRIZE WINNER: Does the world need Superman? Does Lois?
And so Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), the man behind the blackout, can go about his schemes undetected. They will involve many other spectacular sequences, all fraught with significance beyond the visceral thrill. (I’m sure the evocation of Katrina and Ground Zero in some images is intentional.) None of which would register if Routh weren’t a Superman whom if we don’t need we can at least feel for. High above Metropolis in Wings of Desire mode, he does indeed look messianic, and tragic, as he hears the cacophony of suffering humanity and flies off to save it.