I've been a Superman fan for as long as I can remember. For a kid (or certain kinds of kids), Superman is the ultimate power fantasy: flight, super-strength, the ability to shoot heat rays from your eyes, always arriving in the nick of time to save people from danger, etc. I did the requisite tying of the towel around my neck and pretending to fly around my yard. My sister and I watched Superman II on video as often as possible. We also liked Superman: The Movie, but Superman II had better fights and moments of endless quoteability (particularly that great scene at the end, where Clark Kent says, "I've been working out.")
The first film beautifully introduced (or re-introduced) the Superman mythos. All the major elements were covered: the young Kal-El's adoption by the Kents; his childhood in Smallville; first public appearance as Superman in Metropolis; saving Lois Lane; and battling the nefarious Lex Luthor. The film even had Marlon Brando as Superman's father, Jor-El. Superman II concerned an epic battle between Superman and three Kryptonian villains—General Zod, Ursa, and Non. They were aided by Lex Luthor, who agrees to help them take over the world so long as he gets "beach front property." Lois Lane also figures out Superman's true identity, and he ends up relinquishing his powers for her (because apparently, to do otherwise would be fatal for Lois, see Larry Niven's infamous article, "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex"). But we hated Superman III and were sorely disappointed by Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
I loosely followed the progress of new Superman projects over the years. I was quite excited to hear about Kevin Smith scripting a new film several years ago and was disappointed when that didn't work out. (It's a good script, and it can be found at the Superman Homepage.) When I learned that Bryan Singer would make Superman Returns a direct sequel to the films I'd enjoyed as a youth, I was only mildly intrigued. The recent boom in comic book films has produced far more misses than hits, and even good examples like Spiderman 2 or X-Men have their eye-rolling and/or stupid moments.
So I went into Superman Returns knowing only the basics: some guy named Brandon Routh was playing Superman/Clark Kent, Kevin Spacey was Lex Luthor, Kate Bosworth was Lois Lane, and there would be old footage of Marlon Brando in there, too.
The opening rumbles of John williams's Superman theme and the opening titles (which follow the same general style as the first two films) had a visceral impact on me. From that point forward, I realized that Superman Returns would be the true Superman III.
The film is set five years after the events of II. (Superman and Superman II are definitely worth checking out if you've not seen them—or if you haven't seen them in ages—although neither is required to understand Superman Returns.) The film's title cards tell us that astronomers have located the remains of Krypton, and Superman immediately leaves to search for any other survivors. The film sets a somber tone early on, as Superman returns to Earth empty-handed. Weakened by his long sojourn, he is cared for by Ma Kent (Eva Marie Saint), who gives him a safe place to recuperate.
A lot has happened during Superman's absence. Lex Luthor has married a wealthy, elderly woman (well-played by Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in The Adventures of Superman) who signs her entire fortune to Luthor on her deathbed. Meanwhile, Lois has become involved with Richard White (James Marsden), the nephew of Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella). Richard and Lois have had a young son together, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu), who is plagued by a host of allergies. While Clark/Superman tries to adjust to a completely upgraded Daily Planet and cope with the article Lois wrote after his departure, "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman," Luthor gleefully puts his plans for world domination back on track. Aided by Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) and four curiously silent henchmen, Luthor goes back to Superman's Fortress of Solitude in the North Pole and steals several Kryptonian crystals. Luthor is still obsessed with owning his own continent and he's going to use the Kryptonian crystals to create it. "Gods are selfish beings," he tells Kitty, "who fly around in little red capes and don't share their power with mankind. No, I don't want to be a God. I just want to bring fire to the people. And I want my cut."
This is a tantalizing idea, but it's dropped as quickly as it's raised. Even though Spacey infuses his performance with pizzazz and vigor, Luthor's arc is the weakest element in the film. The film's internal logic doesn't hold up. The new continent is a barren and ugly mass, and the entire concept really only exists as a plot coupon for the eventual confrontation between Luthor and Superman. Superman's reunion with Lois is another weak point. Like the earlier films, Lois is thrown into peril while covering a story. This time, she's on an airplane, whose engines cut out. Even though this is a superhero film, watching Bosworth being bounced around the passenger cabin of a Boeing 777 with no apparent residual injuries was just too much disbelief to suspend.
Excepting that scene, the special effects in the film are excellent, and there are more than a few "wow" moments. At one point, Superman faces down a thief with an eight-barreled Gatling gun (it's never really explained why a thief would have such firepower, but damn if it isn't cool!) and then Singer one-ups it by showing a close-up of Superman deflecting a single bullet. With his eye. These effects were obviously not possible in the early 80s, so it's nice to see Singer have fun with the wizardry available now.
While I was pleased with the technical mastery on display, I was also impressed with how well Singer, and writers Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty, realized the emotional center of the story. The majority of the interplay between Superman and Lois is handled very well. I thought Bosworth did an excellent job relaying the heartbreak and cynicism Lois feels toward the super-powered Boy Scout. She doesn't forgive him easily for leaving her, but she still loves him. Her feelings are complicated, however, because Richard White is a decent man who is crazy about her and Jason. Lois's internal battle, along with Clark's perpetual longing, creates the film's resonant emotional core.
Routh, too, does a fine job showing Superman torn between his feelings for Lois and his duty to his adopted home. He is a Christ-figure, haunted by Jor-El's words (related early in the film): "You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father. And the father, the son." When Superman tells Lois that he hears the world crying out for a savior ... he says it with such compassion and sincerity, that it affected me. Call it old-fashioned or whatever you want, but the film brought back that feeling of wanting to have superpowers to do good. It felt comforting, and I enjoyed the feeling. Not every film (or book or piece of music or art) should always seek to comfort, of course—and it's certainly debatable if a real-world Superman could (or would) alleviate any of our world's man-made ills. The film, however, makes the case that the world needs Superman. In a world beset by supervillains who create artificial continents that can destroy North America, a man who can perform literal magic is required.
By now, Superman Returns has been relegated to second-string theaters, so it will be harder to find (until the inevitable DVD release), but it's still worth seeking out. If you have any affection at all for Superman, you'll remember what it felt like to fly.
Mahesh Raj Mohan lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife Sara. He is working on a novel and several short stories. He can be found on the web at http://moksh.blogspot.com/.