As far as American icons go, you can't get more mythic than Superman. He's humble, wholesome, caring and all-powerful, the ultimate Boy Scout. Superman never profits from his actions but rather eternally strives to save mankind from itself. As an orphan from another world, he also serves as a metaphor for the American-immigrant experience; an alien who loves his adopted country but struggles to assimilate into its culture. Both the hero and his alter ego, Clark Kent, are nonthreatening pillars of modesty, decency and humanity. In comparison to lesser-powered and more conflicted deities like Spider-Man, Batman or the Hulk, the Man of Steel is as unique as he is square.
In an ambitious turn, director Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2, The Usual Suspects) takes a corny superhero hunk and turns him into a lonely savior, isolated by his godly strength. He can protect mankind but never truly be a part of it. He yearns for Lois Lane's love but is unwilling to compromise his call to duty. Superman is here to safeguard and inspire humanity. As his father explains, "They can be a great people, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way."
Time and again, Singer and his co-writers invoke the celestial, alluding to everyone from Prometheus to Christ. And, like most members of the divine, Superman is called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Superman Returns owes far more to Richard Donner's 1978 Superman (and the 1980 sequel) than to DC Comics. Not quite a sequel and more than homage, director Singer has a flair for the poetic, but never quite finds the original's balance of wonder, emotion and humor.
Picking up right after the events of Superman 2, we learn Superman (Brandon Routh) has been away from Earth for five years, searching for the remains of his destroyed home world, Krypton. During that time, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has gotten engaged, won a Pulitzer, had a child and, like the rest of the world, moved on. The central theme: Does the world really need a savior? Leave it to archnemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) to concoct a plan so cataclysmically diabolical that the answer is an unqualified "yes."
After the astonishing rescue of a crippled airliner, Superman returns to Earth as Clark Kent and finds work, once again, at the Daily Planet. Pining for the now unavailable Lois, he discovers Lex's plan to create a new kryptonite-laced continent. Will he survive his archenemy's awful scheme? Can he stop the death of billions of people? Will he get the girl? His fate is less certain and more emotionally complex than you might think.
Superman Returns is surprisingly somber and more deliberately paced than audiences might expect. Singer's attempt to present beautiful visuals and evocative moments occasionally sap the excitement. The first 45 minutes, in particular, are pretty slow going.
Noble and brooding, Superman is like an aloof deity; he swoops in to save the day but never sticks around long enough for us to get acquainted. Newcomer Routh works overtime to channel Christopher Reeve's definitive performance and the mimicry is often spot-on. He's a little lankier and a bit more GQ but bears an uncanny resemblance to the original films' star especially in his guise as Clark Kent. Decent as his performance is, however, it lacks the authority and knowing sense of humor Reeve so expertly brought to the role.
Similarly, Bosworth seems too young and earnest to play the irrepressible Lois Lane. More eager beaver than feisty reporter, she lacks the world-weary confidence of Margot Kidder. Still, there's an undeniable chemistry between the two, and Singer puts it to good use.
Not surprisingly, Kevin Spacey wields his comic menace like a scalpel, delivering the perfect Lex Luthor. His performance outshines the campy narcissism of Gene Hackman by adding an element of depravity. Unfortunately, Spacey never gets the show-stopping showdown against Supes that he deserves.
The rest of cast is quite good. Frank Langella and Sam Huntington are effective as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen. James Marsden (Cyclops of the X-Men trilogy) proves he has leading man chops as Lois's good-guy fiance and Eva Marie Saint makes a nice cameo as Martha Kent. Only Parker Posey and Kal Penn (of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) seem lost as Luthor's henchmen.
In many ways Superman Returns emulates the scope and emotion of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Singer strives to break the comic book movie mold and deliver a stirring cinematic spectacle that bursts with rapturous imagery and iconic moments. He clearly loves the Man of Steel and understands how, deep down, we all wish we could be him. What Singer's missing, however, is the full-blooded story and perfect actors his remarkable vision requires.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.