June 28-July 5, 2006

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'Superman Returns'

Up, Up and Away: Brandon Routh dons the famous tights of his fore-heroes in 'Superman Returns.'

Man and Superman

Bryan Singer's resurrection of the American übermensch is solid but not deep

By Richard von Busack

Every era gets the Superman it deserves. Older readers will feel tenderness toward the beefy, paternal George Reeves from TV's Adventures of Superman, if they stop to remember him at all. (And it's a sign of the dreadful times that Ben Affleck will be playing Reeves in a biopic later this year; this is as appropriate as signing Verne Troyer to play Andre the Giant.) George Reeves' physical type was the model for the photo-realistic paintings of graphic novelist Alex Ross (Kingdom Come and elsewhere). When I interviewed Ross a few years back, he said that he preferred Superman "with a little beef on him," and so Ross painted him as looking like a Scandinavian farmer in his late 40s. Like Reeves, Ross' Superman looked like he'd labored in the sun, that he'd got his love for the Earth from working with the soil.

Rewatching the four Superman movies made from 1978 to 87, the special effects do look shoddy. As if, now, then or at any other time in the history of cinema, special effects meant all that much. Christopher Reeve seems better than he did back in the 1980s, and it's not because of the mawkish contrast of Superman's limitless freedom with Reeve's entrapment in his paralyzed body. When he went bad--Kryptonite-poisoned in Superman III--Reeve proved he could play what Bernie Mac called "a sexual being." Being the butt of coarse human jokes, Christopher Reeve's Superman kept his dignity. He didn't mind looking like a square, and he was always in touch with tender human-size feelings in a movie about a god.

And now Brandon Routh, or "Babe" Routh, as he could be known, at 27 is youthfully perfect, or rather pretty, with a penumbra of self-fancy that's more distracting than the glowing blue line that used to surround Reeve and Reeves as they flew. Since the effects are digital, Superman Returns has the synthetic visual quality that everyone has agreed not to notice ever since films went digital: powdery flesh and yellow-white interiors. The colors are more balanced than they were in Titanic, and the natural light is more modulated. Still, the digital paint box still hasn't captured the lambency of the sky and the sun, or the rainbow of shades of blacks in a shadow.

The premise is that Superman left the world five years ago, on a pilgrimage to find the relics of Krypton. In the meantime Lois Lane has engaged herself to the blandly perfect nephew (James Marsden) of editor Perry White (Frank Langella). Thwarted in his search for his home planet, Superman returns to find Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) rich, free and scheming on megamurder. Superman's love life is also in trouble: Lois has an illegitimate son that might be part extraterrestrial.

Except in the matter of violence, Bryan Singer creates a family-friendly, serious tone; it's never cheap or glib. If there's a spot of product placement, I didn't see it, and similarly the soundtrack doesn't push contemporary pop at expense of the film's mood. (As composer, John Ottman works with variations on John Williams' robust theme music, a cross between Thus Spake Zarathustra and a Sousa march.) The wordless flashback of Clark remembering the day he learned to fly is exquisitely done; a bespectacled child's running jumps that go higher and higher, until he crashes through the roof of a barn. There's enough of a lost child left in Routh to make this flashback work; as well lying in his old bed at the Kent farmhouse, gazing at his ceiling, Clark is consoled by the glow-in-the dark stars he pasted on the ceiling long ago--one star in red, to represent his home world.

But because of all of this preparation, the villain and the hero hardly get a chance to exchange a word when they finally meet an hour and a half later. This Lex Luthor-Superman feud goes back 65 years, and it seems like the two ought to have something to say to one another. When a Kryptonite-weakened Superman takes a savage beating and knifing, Superman Returns introduces ugly modern violence that's more realistic. But it's realism in the sense that the ultracrucifixion in The Passion of the Christ was realistic--depressingly literal, alienating.

On the whole, Spacey's Lex is modeled on Gene Hackman's jolly murderer in Superman (1978), just like Routh's is on Christopher Reeve's high-voiced, gabbling Kent, and supremely calm and sweet hero. Spacey is often delicious, though the most menacing image in the film may be the sight of his possessions. Lois and her son realize they've stumbled into the ogre's lair just by seeing Lex's toupee-covered wig-stands. It's like the discovery of the severed heads in Duke Bluebeard's castle. As they try to escape, they stumble across the man himself, surprised as he's brushing his teeth.

As a rule, an archvillain ought to be responsible for every crime in a movie, even if it's just a kid jaywalking. Still, two of the showstopper sequences--Superman rescuing the cabin of a flaming jetliner; Superman walking into the flaming spray an anti-aircraft gun--apparently have nothing to do with the master plan of Luthor.

The plane sequence is a marvel of speed and action. Ottman's editing breaks the ordeal with lucid, hallucinatory moments--an instant of weightlessness before gravity kicks in again, during which Lois is perplexed by the sight of her pen floating in air. A few days after the rescue, Superman takes Lois for a waltz 10,000 feet up in the sky. Before she's lifted up, she takes off her shoes and stands on Superman's feet, like a daughter being taught to dance by her father. She says, "I'd forgotten how warm you are." That's intriguing: is the solar-powered hero a few degrees hotter than mere mortals? But the film doesn't cast nearly enough light on the "Women are from Venus, Men are from Krypton" botched relationship of these two. In this time-honored love triangle, Kent gets pushed aside. I'm interested in Kent's humanity, but I didn't get enough of scenes like the one moment of Kent's beer with Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington, like a juvenile Will Ferrell). Kent, either tipsy or pretending, utters a sad belch.

There's truth and justice to the European view that, in enshrining Superman--and I have my own little shrine to him, too--Americans reveal themselves to hold ridiculously simplistic views of goodness and power. But in many of us, the fantasies are far more religious than patriotic. In a montage of world news in Superman Returns, we see Superman's international feats; like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, Superman Returns keeps coming back to the view of the globe from space. Note the conscious removal of "The American Way" from Superman's dedication to truth and justice. It's an apolitical film, in brief. Still, director Bryan Singer locked the door against the current war and troubles, but they snuck in the window. Do the math; five years since he's been gone; five years since Sept. 11, since the day when the inconsolable child inside so many adults had a thought that couldn't be said aloud: if only Superman were here.

Superman Returns has a plot point that Lois finally won her Pulitzer. It was with a scorned-woman editorial about why the world is better off without Superman. The piece ought to have won a prize: the prize for Most Horrendous Violation of Journalistic Ethics. Such an essay doesn't make Lois any more attractive as a person. (Sometimes it seems Superman really ought to trade up.) And Bosworth--wickedly miscast--doesn't deepen what the script can't fix. What did she write, though? What was her tremendously convincing argument against Superman? Aside from the personal grievance, Luthor's quarrel against Superman doesn't get explained, either. The villain compares himself to Prometheus, taking on a god--but it turns out to be just rhetoric. Lex's argument on TV's Smallville is a little brainier: isn't humanity at the mercy of this possibly dangerous alien?

Just as only the best acting can make special effects real, only the deeper meanings can shed new light on the hero. When retelling a story the world knows, we need more than his 12 (or more) labors, his rise to the heavens, his fall to earth and his ultimate resurrection. Superman Returns has plenty of sentiment, but not a deeper core. It entertains, but it doesn't disturb those inchoate, troubling feelings about this most fantastic of savior myths.

Movie Times Superman Returns (PG-13; 157 min.), directed by Bryan Singer, written by Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris and Singer, photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel and starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey, plays countywide. Metro Santa Cruz staff writer Richard von Busack also appears on Santa Cruz Community Television's 'CinemaScene.'

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