Superman Returns to the big screen after a 20-year absence.
It’s been almost 20 years since the last time Superman flew across the big screen, but, considering the debacle that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace — remember Nuclear Man? — three times that long would not have seemed like just penance. That is, until the credits for Superman Returns begin to roll and John Williams’s instantly recognizable score creeps up on you. It’s then that you realize how much Superman has been missed, and moreover, how much he still matters. Not like Batman or Spider-Man, but like only Superman can matter, because ol’ Supes isn’t just any superhero. He’s the superhero. The one who represents everything we, as human beings, idealize. He’s the light all other superheroes look to for guidance, and that’s why it’s so poignant that director Bryan Singer (X-Men) has resurrected him.
|Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s ... Brandon Routh as Superman.|
First off, Singer pretends away Superman III and IV altogether, choosing to complete a trilogy started by Richard Donner back in 1978, when Christopher Reeves was in the cape. Donner also managed to distill, from 40 years of the Man of Steel’s history, an unspoken truth about his character — he was a god figure, with inspirational Christ-like traits. His father, Jor-El, a man with almost omniscient wisdom, sends his “only son” to Earth in a star-shaped cradle, wrapped in swaddling blankets. Here, Kal-El/Clark Kent draws his power from the sun’s light. Mighty though he is, he must struggle with earthly vices such as vanity and the human temptation of love as he serves mankind. Superman II brings this metaphor to a head, as Superman chooses to give up his godhood for earthly satisfaction — only to realize others will suffer for his selfishness. The rest of the movies in the series spiraled off into nonsense (like casting Richard Pryor), but Singer knew a good thing when he saw it. He returns to that moment when Superman realizes how important he is to humanity.
After disappearing for five years to search out the remains of his home world Krypton, Superman (newcomer Brandon Routh) returns to Earth only to discover that his former love, reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), is now a mommy with a 5-year-old and, according to her, “The world doesn’t need a savior.” She even wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning article called, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” (really the ranting of a woman scorned). But, despite Lane’s criticism, Superman is right when he points out, “You write that people don’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one.”
Of course, that might be because Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, much darker in the role than Gene Hackman) is on the prowl again, this time armed with quasi-magical crystals given by Jor-El to his son. These crystals have world-shaping powers, which is how they built the Fortress of Solitude Supes liked to hide in during the first two films. Luthor intends to create a new continent — billions will die, of course — in order to rake in the profits from the sale of beachfront property. After five years in prison, he’s become a super-genius with an ex-con’s prison-yard edge.
While Singer is relentless with the Christ symbolism, he also manages to introduce a degree of spirituality that has never been a part of the Superman mythos. For every line like Luthor’s, “Gods are selfish little beings who fly around in red capes and don’t share their powers with mankind,” there is an unspoken question about the power of gods and heroes to inspire us in the darkest periods of our history. For every crucifixion pose floating before a radiating sun, there is a line like Jor-El’s, “They can be a great people, Kal-El. They only lack the light to show them the way.” Does the world even need Superman? In other words, does the world even need a god? Singer might not be willing to answer that question, but he is willing to declare that we need the kind of hope a god — especially one like Superman — provides.
In 1978, movie posters declared, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Thanks to Singer, maybe 2006 will be the year you believe a comic-book movie can be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, too.