“Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” reads the title of a piece that wins Lois Lane the Pulitzer Prize in “Superman Returns,” the latest bigscreen revival of comicdom’s strongest and fastest hero. Not only is she wrong in the context of the story (not to mention real life), but she’ll be wrong in the court of public opinion once the world gets a look at this most grandly conceived and sensitively drawn Superman saga. Sure to rate with aficionados alongside “Spider-Man 2” and, for many, “Batman Begins” on the short list of best superhero spectaculars, pic more than justifies director Bryan Singer’s decision to jump ship from the “X-Men” franchise, and will pull down stratospheric B.O. around the globe.
What is it about the current climate that has produced three major releases within a month’s time that hinge on the hitherto unsuspected offspring of legendarily childless figures — Jesus in “The Da Vinci Code,” Satan in “The Omen” and the title character here? It’s an odd development, although it does provide a promising springboard for future series entries, something not enjoyed by the three increasingly dispiriting sequels to Richard Donner’s entertaining Christopher Reeve starrer.
New version tips its hat to the 1978 picture in numerous ways; it’s dedicated to Reeve and wife Dana; it recycles John Williams’ main musical theme; Marlon Brando once again appears, albeit mostly vocally, as Superman’s father; and newcomer Brandon Routh bears a conspicuous resemblance to Reeve.
Nonetheless, Singer imprints his handiwork with its own personality. Despite its acute awareness of what’s come before, “Superman Returns” is never self-consciously hip, ironic, post-modern or camp. To the contrary, it’s quite sincere, with an artistic elegance and a genuine emotional investment in the material that creates renewed engagement in these long-familiar characters and a well-earned payoff after 2½ hours spent with them.
After an opening credits sequence devoted to an explosive illustration of the tremendous energy forces in deepest outer space, screenplay by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (“X2: X-Men United”) returns Superman, briefly, to the farm where he was raised (memory flashbacks neatly recall his learning to fly) after a five-year absence. Soon turning up in Clark Kent guise at the Daily Planet to reclaim his old job, he’s nonplussed when he learns his beloved Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu) and a good-looking significant other, Richard White (James Marsden), the editor’s nephew, and has made her name as banner-carrier for the anti-Superman lobby.
But the Man of Steel nonetheless proves he’s worth having around. Old nemesis Lex Luthor (a shaven-headed Kevin Spacey) is up to no good again, harnessing power from a perfect crystal and announcing his return by causing power outages and creating mayhem on an intended airborne space shuttle launch (yes, that’s Richard Branson on the shuttle crew) that sends the plane carrying the shuttle and reporters, including Lois, out of control. Arriving a half-hour in, sequence is a doozy, as the burning jet eventually plummets straight for the ground (unavoidable shades of “United 93”) until being gently stopped at the last second by the Caped One.
As far as the public is concerned, Superman has made a triumphant return. But Lois remains unimpressed, to the point that a rebuffed Superman takes a lonely flight to Lois’ waterfront home (with its gorgeous view of Metropolis) in order to use his X-ray abilities to eavesdrop on her seemingly enviable family life.
Sequence, and all that comes after, renders rubbish all the uninformed pre-release media stories about a gay Superman, as what Singer and his writers are offering here is an elaboration on the theme of Superman (or most any superhero) as an outsider. Brando’s Jor-El is heard to tell his son (in dialogue from the Donner version) that he’ll always be “different,” an “outcast” who can pass as a human being but will never truly be one.
For quite some time, Lois maintains her resistance to Superman, while he can’t help but do what he does best — save the day for those in dire jeopardy (in a truly internationalist, although markedly nonpolitical, spirit, as TV news reports testify). Pushed by editor Perry White (Frank Langella) to get an interview with her old flame, Lois finally meets him on the roof of the Daily Planet’s splendidly retro office building, whereupon Superman takes her on a nocturnal flight that beats Howard Hughes’ airborne date with Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator” any day.
By this point, it is clear Singer’s take on the impossible love between the two has nothing to do with the old joke that Lois doesn’t see the resemblance between Superman and Clark Kent (something picked up on quickly by her son) or the problems of finding a place to change into tights and cape, but perhaps quite a bit to do with themes of loss and the tragedy of fate as classically expressed in opera or ballet. There are dramatic passages where, in another context, one could easily imagine any of the three leading characters breaking out into arias of regret, confession, desire or intent, just as Superman’s incredibly graceful and often slow vertical ascents and landings, as well as his moments of reflective isolation, create the frissons of expressive dance movements.
Topping off these aspects is the evocative, darkly lyrical score by John Ottman, continuing in his unique dual role for Singer as composer and editor (with Elliot Graham). The sometimes ethereal qualities of Ottman’s work, amplified by significant choral strains, provide an emotional dimension — and show up Williams’ “Star Wars” thematic variation for the bombast it is.
Luthor’s dastardly plans involve kidnapping Lois and her son aboard his sleek boat, giving Spacey a big scene in which he can really rock and roll with some very choice line readings. The villain really does seem to have Superman on the ropes at one point, but after a somewhat distended final stretch, the real climax comes in a touching scene between Superman and little Jason, who may or may not be super himself.
Regular Singer cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel has contributed significantly to giving the film a fantastically clear, clean and stable look; “Superman Returns” is an unalloyed pleasure simply to behold. Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and costume designer Louise Mingenbach have anchored their work in the ’50s — an old-fashioned newsroom with modern accoutrements, coats and ties for the men, sharp professional wear for Lois and other women — but without any cloying self-consciousness. Visual effects are super throughout.
One can praise newcomer Routh very highly indeed simply by saying that he carries this giant film with apparent effortlessness. Thesp possesses a winning, appealing personality that nicely complements his rangy, black-haired, blue-eyed good looks. Parker Posey has a bit of a field day playing Lex Luthor’s sassy floozy.
The only semi-disappointment in the cast is Bosworth. First off, she seems too young to have been working for the newspaper for more than five years and to plausibly have had her kid for the same length of time. More significantly, she comes off as flinty and cold for too long, denying Lois a beating heart beneath the brusquely professional m.o. You never get a strong sense of the woman inside the newshound with an unrivaled inside connection to the most famous man in the world.