Superman Returns, announces the title of the new movie, but has the Man of Steel really been away? Since his introduction in Action Comics #1 in 1938, Superman has been an omnipresent part of pop culture. On television alone, we've had the archetypal George Reeves' 1950s show, "Lois and Clark," "Smallville" and nearly countless animated shows. There's no escaping the son of Krypton.
It's been almost two decades since the last of Christopher Reeve's four movie epics, however, and with the bat- and spider-themed superhero franchises making fortunes, Superman had to get a piece of the action. Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men movies, both genuflects before the material and mixes it up. He gives Superman Returns muscular set pieces as well as twisty surprises, and explores some thoughtful ideas about why Superman (both in fiction and "our" world) has such a hold on our imaginations. Some crucial casting choices, however, afflict the film like Kryptonite.
Singer relaunches the franchise with the premise that Superman (along with his mild-mannered alter ego, Clark Kent) has been absent for five years, searching outer space for the remains of his exploded home world, Krypton. The setup allows Singer to restage scenes from the character's canon, such as Superman (Brandon Routh) crashing in an alien spacecraft in Kansas farmland and Clark arriving at the Daily Planet's newsroom as an awkward, overlooked outsider.
In his absence, reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has won a Pulitzer for her editorial "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman," and currently has not just an out-of-wedlock boyfriend (James Marsden, Cyclops from the X-Men movies), but also a sickly, towheaded son named Jason (Tristan Leabu). You're shocked that the film stoops to placing a kid in jeopardy, but Jason brings along some provocative and at times amusing implications. For one, he's the first to notice the blindingly obvious resemblance between Clark and Superman.
Singer treats Superman Returns explicitly as a sequel to Christopher Reeve's first two films from the late 1970s. Not only does composer John Ottman employ John Williams' rousing soundtrack, Singer makes shout-outs to earlier scenes and surprisingly many lines of dialogue. At times, Superman Returns feels akin to Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong. The filmmakers' affection and respect for the source is admirable, but where's the effectiveness of their fresh ideas?
The spirit of homage pays off superbly for Kevin Spacey, who puts a new spin on Gene Hackman's conception of arch-nemesis Lex Luthor as both a brilliant schemer and preening, wisecracking huckster. (Parker Posey even plays the equivalent of Eve Teschmacher as Luthor's sidekick and foil.) Spacey captures the same humor but adds a scary, intimidating edge as Luthor unlocks the secrets of Kryptonian technology for a huge-scale evil scheme that could remake the face of the Earth.
Undeniably, Superman Returns plays on a huge canvas, which includes a spectacular airplane/space shuttle disaster and, later, a massive yacht that rises from the ocean and splits clean in half. Still, the best moments are the less bombastic ones, like Lois stepping out of her shoes to fly with Superman, or Jason playing Hoagy Carmichael's "Heart and Soul" on the piano while captive.
Singer's evocations of the earlier films make it painfully obvious that Routh doesn't own the role like Reeve did; the young newcomer barely stands a chance. Reeve not only wore the cape with confidence, as if his Superman felt right at home in being Superman, but he displayed surprisingly nimble comic timing as Clark.
Routh certainly has a wholesome, farm-boy-in-the-big-city quality that's expected from Clark Kent, but seems far over his head as an actor. It doesn't help that the costume proportions are a little off, or that Superman's forehead cowlick looks fake. Apart from a few fleeting moments and a longer, surprisingly effective rooftop romance, Routh and Bosworth both seem like soap opera players unready for prime time.
There's enough big-budget razzle-dazzle -- and scenes where they don't talk much -- that you can ignore their limitations for a while. But their presence undermines some of Superman Returns' mythic notions, which go beyond evocations of Prometheus and Atlas. Through deftly chosen outtakes of Marlon Brando's scenes from the first film, Superman's father, Jor-El, sounds like God himself, who sent his son to Earth to save mankind. At one point, Superman floats in orbit, listening to the white noise of every sound on Earth before filtering out a single crisis and flying to the rescue like an angel in blue tights. Lex Luthor even turns the idea around by arguing that mankind shouldn't trust an omnipotent alien who's appointed himself savior.
The emphasis of Superman's Olympian, Christlike nature should be fascinating, but it falls a little short. He almost literally carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, but does he suffer from his isolation? Having confirmed that Krypton is dead, does Superman treasure his adopted home more than ever? Perhaps another actor could have given Superman a rich emotional life, but Routh remains an amiable blank. We believe that he brushes aside bullets, that he sees through walls with his X-ray vision, and that he can fly to the rescue from the far reaches of the planet.
We just never get inside his head.