The longest gap between James Bond movies was six years, between the Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan eras. The longest gap between Batman movies was eight years, and Star Wars went sixteen years between films. But the longest gap between Superman movies beats them all. It has been nineteen years since Superman IV: The Quest for Peace brought the once-mighty series—starring Christopher Reeve—to a cheesy yet sanctimonious end; and what's more, Superman Returns ignores the last two films entirely and positions itself as a direct sequel to the first two movies, both of which came out over a quarter-century ago. So when the new film's opening credits begin, with the John Williams fanfare blaring from the speakers and the blue letters streaking across the screen, they boldly herald what may be the most daring attempt at franchise resuscitation in movie history.
Director Bryan Singer, whose work on the first two X-Men movies played a key part in putting superheroes back on the big screen, certainly makes frequent nods to Superman's past. In one scene, Superman (Brandon Routh) holds a car above his head, at an angle that perfectly matches his pose on the cover of the first issue of Action Comics. The first time we see Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), he persuades a wealthy widow to leave him her entire estate—and she is played by Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane on the 1950s TV show (and Lois's mother in the 1978 movie).
But Singer is, if anything, a little too stuck in the past. Superman Returns not only stands on the shoulders of the first two movies, it also retraces their footsteps, sometimes in small ways (e.g., numerous bits of dialogue are recycled here, and nothing new or fresh is done with them), and sometimes in very big ways. This is the sort of thing that lesser sequels, like Superman IV, do. Then again, Singer and his writers also introduce some new elements which would seem to contradict the earlier films. It's all a bit of a muddle, and it is hard not to think that Singer should have just started from scratch, like Chris Nolan did with last year's Batman Begins.
The movie begins by telling us that Superman left Earth rather impetuously five years ago, when astronomers spotted the remains of his home planet Krypton. As the story progresses, we learn that he apparently left this world without saying goodbye to his closest friends, or without any thought to what the consequences of his absence might be—for example, the villain Lex Luthor is out of prison now because Superman failed to appear and testify against him at his parole hearing.
But no sooner has the movie begun, than Superman comes back. And while some things go back to the way they were rather suddenly—as Clark Kent, he gets his job at the Daily Planet back right away, no questions asked, and within minutes, he learns that Lois Lane's (Kate Bosworth) life is in danger, so he has to go and rescue her once again—he also learns that some things are very, very different. In particular, he learns that Lois is living with Richard White (James Marsden), nephew of Daily Planet editor Perry (Frank Langella), and that she has a young son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). Lois and Richard are also engaged, but no wedding date has been set, yet—and she doesn't like it when people ask her about that.
This complex web of relationships is the emotional heart of the movie, but the actors who have to pull it off are not quite up to the task. Routh does his best to mimic Reeve—as Clark, he wears big glasses and says words like "swell," and as Superman, he struts around in his suit and cape—but he neither makes the role his own nor comes close to inhabiting the part, body and soul, as his predecessor did. In a nutshell, he lacks Reeve's sincerity and flair for physical comedy.
Bosworth is even more poorly cast. Not only does she lack the spunk and sexiness of Margot Kidder, she was also 22 when the film was shot, which makes her almost impossible to accept as the mother of a five-year-old boy who also happens to be at the top of her game as one of the world's most successful reporters. (Just for comparison's sake, Kidder turned 30 two months before the first film came out.)
Spacey, at least, makes for a promising Luthor, at first. The early scenes of Luthor and his entourage (including Parker Posey as a deadpan ditz named Kitty Kowalski) are quite amusing and do a good job of stoking our anticipation. Luthor goes up north to steal the Kryptonian crystals that built Superman's Fortress of Solitude, and then he plans to exploit their properties. His first experiment, conducted within a large model town complete with train tracks and tiny mountains, is filmed like a disaster movie with toys—and it turns out to be much more interesting than the actual disaster that follows, when Luthor finally puts his plan into motion.
Indeed, when Luthor's plan is ultimately revealed, it is something of a letdown. For one thing, it is basically a retread of his real-estate ambitions in the first movie—an overblown, hyperbolic, special-effects-heavy retread, to be sure, but a retread just the same. For another, the film increasingly tries to impress us with the sheer hugeness of Luthor's plan, but never makes it awe-inspiring or majestic; instead, the plan is rather dull and lifeless, and increasingly, so are Luthor and his team, too.
There is a fair bit of God-talk in this film, not all of it Christian. Luthor, for example, compares his theft of Kryptonian technology to the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the Greek gods and gave it to mankind; after he succeeds, Kitty sings, "He's got the whole world in his hands." This line is echoed in a later scene, when the giant globe atop the Daily Planet building falls to the street and Superman catches it, holding the globe on his shoulders in a way that recalls certain depictions of Atlas—another Titan who, like Prometheus, was punished by the Greek gods.
Lex Luthor, probably NOT mulling over the difference between 'stalagmite' and 'stalactite'
Other scenes invite us to think of Superman as a Christ figure. His father Jor-El (the late Marlon Brando, here portrayed via footage from the first film and sound clips that were originally recorded for Superman II) says he sent his "only son" to Earth to be a "light" that would show us how to be "a great people." Superman floats in the air and listens to the sounds of the city, before deciding where he should intervene. And when Lois, bitter after Superman's absence, tells him that the world doesn't need a "savior," he replies, "Every day I hear people crying for one."
But we shouldn't make too much of this sort of thing. The Superman movies have never shown anyone actually following Superman's inspiring lead; if anything, they have shown people waiting passively for Superman to rescue them. What's more, the Superman of the movies has shown a remarkable tendency to shrug off his responsibilities—first abandoning his powers (and thus the safety of the world) so he could sleep with Lois in Superman II, and now abandoning the world altogether for several years prior to the events of Superman Returns.
In addition, whereas the first film had an almost mystical sensibility that lent itself to religious allegory, the new film does not. The Kryptonian crystals that seemed to keep Jor-El's spirit alive long after his physical death are just a form of technology here. (Indeed, Luthor quotes a famous line from atheist sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, who said any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic.) And that bit in the first film where Jor-El talks about the father and the son living in and through each other—a line that many Christians have seized on for its Trinitarian overtones—is now nothing more than a poetic ode to paternity.
Still, the film's weaknesses aside, there is no denying that Singer has pulled out all the stops in his bid to make the biggest, loudest summer blockbuster possible—and he sprinkles the movie with welcome grace notes of visual beauty and comic absurdity, from a startling moment of weightlessness aboard an airplane before it plummets to the ground, to a hilarious scene involving a thug, a hostage, and a grand piano. And have Superman's flights to the rim of space ever been more breathtaking or seemed so dangerously high? It's enough to make you really, really wish—if you didn't already—that Singer hadn't left the X-Men so soon.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What kind of savior is Superman? Is he the kind that people are asking for? Do people need a savior even when they aren't asking for one? Why or why not?
- If you had Superman's ability to hear everyone's cries for help—and to choose which ones to answer—how would you choose? Would you be able to take breaks regularly, like he does by going to work every day at the Daily Planet?
- Does Superman have to help people all the time? Why do you think he went into space several years ago? Why didn't he tell anybody where he was going?
- Do you think Superman is a Christ-figure? What sort of Christ-figure is he? Is he more Christ-like as Superman or as Clark Kent? (See Philippians 2:5-1)
- Lex Luthor says, "Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don't share their power with mankind." In what ways does Superman keep his power to himself, and in what ways does he share it? Is Luthor selfish, or sharing?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Superman Returns is rated PG-13 for some intense action violence, including rescue from falling objects, machine gun fire (some of which bounces off Superman's chest), regular bullets (one of which bounces off of his eye, in close-up), and some beating, kicking, and stabbing with Kryptonite. There are one or two uses of the word "damn," and Lois Lane's fiancé asks subtly if she was ever sexually involved with Superman.
Photos © Copyright Warner Brothers
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 06/29/06
It's been almost 20 years since director Richard Donner dazzled audiences with Superman: The Movie, and turned Christopher Reeve into a super-celebrity.
In the sequels that followed, a franchise quickly devolved, becoming preposterous and forgettable. But Superman was too popular to stay buried forever, and it's clear that Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-Men films, was excited to bring him back. At long last, the Man of Steel is stealing scenes again.
Can Brandon Routh live up to the standard set by Christopher Reeve?
Is Kate Bosworth a lovable Lois Lane?
How does Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor compare to the one played by Gene Hackman?
Was it a mistake for Singer to leave the X-Men franchise, which was going so well until he handed it over to Bret Ratner?
Christian film critics do not agree on the answers to these questions. But almost all of them are excited about interpreting Superman Returns as a sort of allegory about Christ.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "Superman Returns honors and builds upon the strengths of its predecessors while gracefully minimizing their weaknesses. Where the earlier Superman films were pioneering, somewhat rudimentary efforts, Superman Returns is a mature, fully realized film that works on the level of the best modern comic-book films, Batman Begins and Spider-Man2."
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says, "With Bryan Singer behind the camera, the parts were all in place for a successful rebirth of the Superman franchise. Why, then, is the final product so unmemorable? With the many bones thrown to religious viewers, why is the film so rarely uplifting? If Superman Returns makes enough money to justify a sequel, let's hope the creators spend a little more time concentrating on a rewarding story and a little less time catering to desirable demographic groups." (Note: Hamaker includes what could be interpreted as a plot spoiler in his review.)
Personally, I was disappointed in the film. Superman Returns is about a hero with very little personality, who's in love with a bland and forgettable woman. He faces a villain who fails to frighten us. And while he aims to save the world, he's really responsible for the danger that the world is in.
My full review is at Looking Closer.
Mainstream critics are mostly pleased, though a few, like Manohla Dargis (New York Times) and Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), are not—and Ebert goes so far as to spoil the movie's big surprise.
Note: Normally, Film Forum would have included more Superman reviews from other Christian media. But several websites to which we typically link posted their reviews early, violating agreements with the studios to hold their reviews until opening day. And more, some Christian critics have spoiled some of the film's big surprises. So be very careful which reviews you choose to read.
More Superman Returns reviews will be included in next week's Film Forum.
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