Superman Returns

Superman Returns


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

When Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) shows reluctance to write an article on Superman's return, her Daily Planet boss Perry White (Frank Langella) explains that tragedy, sex and Superman are the only three things that sell newspapers, before adding: "People are sick of tragedy, [and] we know you can't write about sex..."

And there it is in a nutshell: the tragedy of 9/11 and Lois' super sex with the 'man of steel' are two major selling points of Superman Returns, but they must remain as sublimated as Clark Kent's secret identity. No wonder the American press is so obsessed with the question of whether Bryan Singer's Superman is as gay as the director, for this is a hero who has to keep his love in the closet, even if there are hints that his tackle has not always remained inside those tight lycra underpants.

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Five years ago, Superman (Brandon Routh) departed unannounced from his adoptive Earth, on a quest to see for himself the remnants of his home planet Krypton. Now he has returned, but the world has moved on. His former love Lois has just won a Pulitzer Prize for an article entitled Why the World Doesn't Need Superman, is living in a 'prolonged engagement' with Perry's nice-guy nephew Richard (James Marsden), and is lovingly raising their asthmatic son Jason (Tristan Lake Leobu). And let's not forget (although the film never refers to it with such crude directness) that the intervening five years have also brought the events of September the 11th and the subsequent chaos of America's War on Terror.

"You wrote", Superman tells Lois, "that the world doesn't need a saviour, but every day I hear people crying for one." And he's right. An American public still traumatised by horrific images from its recent history needs the reassuring spectacle of a heroic figure who can easily stop a plane from diving into their Metropolis or who can gracefully catch a man plummeting down the side of a skyscraper - and these miracles and more are precisely the sort of diverting wish fulfilment that Superman Returns has to offer. All those gravity-defying aerobatics and bullet-blocking feats may just be so much fantasy, but then so in the end is the American Dream that is embodied by Superman's square-jawed red-and-blue heroics. Sure it is comforting, but when America sleeps and dreams its happy dream, the rest of the world is often left wide-awake to face the all-too-real consequences of US actions. Is Superman really a boon to the community at large, or an interfering do-gooder who might do better by minding his own affairs and remaining a mild-mannered reporter on events in the outside world?

Singer's film provides at least a hint of these problems in America's international image. Superman's arch rival and alter ego Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) points out, in what is an astute analysis of America's current foreign policy, that while the caped crusader may be a force for the global good, he is hardly respectful of legal niceties such as the Miranda Rights or due process. Superman may have put Luthor behind bars, but his failure to follow through at the parole hearings also led to Luthor's early release. Perry, meanwhile, wonders: "Does he still stand for truth, justice, all that stuff?" Comicbook convention dictates that his rather dismissive "all that stuff" stands for "the American Way", but in a new world where the American Way has become associated with Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and 'external rendition', it is difficult to reconcile US policy any longer with such lofty abstracts as Truth and Justice.

Politics aside, sex is the other great unspoken in Superman Returns, only able to enter its discourse in Freudian slips. "I've done Superman", says Lois to Perry, before correcting herself with a blush: "I mean, covered him". And yet the film sizzles with hidden desire and illicit couplings. When Superman uses his X-ray vision to look inside the riverside home of Lois, Richard and Jason, he seems less a concerned citizen on Neighbourhood Watch than a voyeuristic stalker; and when later he uses the same power to see if Lois has suffered any serious internal injuries, a dramatic pause gets us wondering if that is all he is checking out under her dress. Not that there is anything there that he has not seen already... Still, even if Superman does the nasty, he most certainly does not do porn, and the closest we ever get to actually seeing a super screw is the cosmic big bang with which the film opens; the rest is left entirely to the imagination.

The blank spaces left by sex and politics are quickly filled in by religion. As a son sent by a distant father to shepherd the people of Earth onto the path of righteousness, Superman has always had his Messianic side, but here it is brought right to the fore, as he is shown having his side pierced, sporting an oversized crown of (kryptonite) thorns, and undergoing resurrection. Indeed, before newcomer Routh stepped into the crimson boots, Jim (The Passion) Caviezel had been in line for the part. Still, I'm betting that Jesus never had to take a bullet to the eye. Superman's first appearance in the film may be as a fallen angel, but it is Lex Luthor who slips into the role of Lucifer, determined to steal the power of Superman's long-dead father (played 'archivally' by long-dead Marlon Brando) and to show humankind his Promethean fire. Together, the blue-eyed poster boy and the bald-headed villain seem as essential to each other as good is to evil (and vice versa); and here, not only does the devil get to play the best tunes, but they are ones he has learnt from his rival's own hymnsheet.

In Superman's first bigscreen outing since 1987 (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), the acting is every bit as important as the action, the protagonist's brawn is matched by the script's brains, and the special effects, for all their excellence, remain subordinated to the plot. Superheroics are seldom so understated. For all that, however, it also seems overlong and just a tad underwhelming - even if it promises to father an almighty sequel.

Reviewed on: 12 Jul 2006
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The Man of Steel returns to save lives - but can he salvage his own?
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Read more Superman Returns reviews:

Jennie Kermode ****
Martin Gray ****
Scott Macdonald ****

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, from a story co-written with Bryan Singer, and based on characters by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster

Starring: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Frank Langella, Eva Marie Saint, Parker Posey, Kal Penn, Sam Huntington, Tristan Lake Leobu, Marlon Brando

Year: 2006

Runtime: 154 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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