Last night, I dragged my girlfriend along to a screening of Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer’s attempt to re-invigorate the Superman franchise following the bloody awful Superman IV (which I saw with my dad, I think, back in 1987 or so). The irreplaceable Christopher Reeve has been replaced by Brandon Routh, an unknown (just as Reeve was unknown before he filmed Superman: The Movie).
I loved Superman as a kid, but only the films, not the comic or cartoon. I never watched the original 1950s American TV series because, to my jaundiced eight-year-old eye, the special effects weren’t good enough. I did, however, pester my mum for several years until she (or, rather, my dad) decked out my room with Superman wallpaper. So I speak somewhat as a fan.
In Superman Returns, Superman has been absent for five years following a trip to his destroyed home planet of Krypton, whose location has been pinpointed by Earth astronomers. In the meantime, Lois Lane has given birth to a son — now five years old — and is in a stable relationship with Jason White (who, by the way, is played by debutant Tristan Lake Leabu, and hot damn if that isn’t a screen name of the first water). Lex Luthor has been released from prison because Superman could not attend his parole hearing as a witness; Luthor has plans to raid the Fortress of Solitude and steal the alien technology of Superman’s homeworld. What a git.
The experience of the movie is a enjoyable one. Bryan Singer has directed a work that is, in many ways, a tribute to Richard Donner’s original, and Singer uses the same music and even title sequence. (Remember those 3D whooshing titles from the first movie? They cost more than the entire shooting budget of most 1978 movies.) This similarity is the main strength of the movie, but it is also the chief weakness. The film is haunted by the ghost of Christopher Reeve. Brandon Routh, our new Superman, is almost a doppelgänger of the dead actor. In addition, Routh plays Clark Kent with the klutzy charm that Reeve brought to the role. To compound this physical similarity, New York once more doubles as Metropolis, and a number of scenes from Donner’s first film are treated to uncomfortable reprises: gags are recycled, cinematographic frames are repeated, and sometimes entire lines get a second outing. To be fair, Routh is not just a good actor, he’s excellent; and Singer is not just a good director (X-Men, X-Men II and The Usual Suspects were sterling efforts). But, for me, as person who can recite chunks of dialogue from the first film, these nods to the gallery undermined its capacity to stand on its own two (red booted) feet.
Some of the themes were interesting, too. I won’t provide too much detail because I don’t want to spoil the film, but this is certainly a post 9/11 film. Lois Lane is about to receive the Pulitzer for her editorial “Why the world doesn’t need Superman”; one of the messages of the film is that, in this day and age, we need something like Superman. Either the man, in the case of the characters in the film, or the idea, in the case of the audience. Overall, this is a good story, well told, and don’t be surprised if Superman Returns again and again.