Superheroes, no matter how tortured (Batman), neurotic (Spider-Man), or fashionably allegorical (X-Men), appeal primarily to those too young to vote. Look closely during the opening-credits sequence of Superman Returns, though, and you'll notice that the folks who seem visibly affected, with fists clenched and eyes misting, are the ones pushing 40—which is to say, those of us who were 8-12 years old back in 1978, when the first Richard Donner film resurrected the Man of Steel for the blockbuster age. Despite the title, I'd just naturally assumed that any new Superman flick would start pretty much from scratch; director Bryan Singer, whose two X-Men features are both grave and uncommonly ambitious, seemed a particularly likely candidate for imaginative reinterpretation. So the first urgent rumblings of John Williams' familiar symphonic score—possibly his most stirring—disarmed me in a way I hadn't anticipated. And when the first credit then came whooshing through space toward the lens, looking like something out of an Atari-era video game, I was struck by a wave of nostalgic sentiment scarcely less powerful than Kryptonite. He's back, Chief!
Well, yes and no. Fidelity is one thing; slavish imitation is another. Superman Returns picks up a few years after the end of Superman II, Singer and Co. having wisely chosen to treat installments III and IV as the horrific aberrations they were. Responding to false astronomical reports suggesting that Krypton may have somehow survived, our hero (now played by newcomer Brandon Routh) has spent some five years traveling there and back again, apparently via some kind of meteor shuttle service. He returns, defeated and lonely, to find that the world—and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) in particular—has moved on without him. (Fortunately, the same congenital idiocy that prevents anyone in Metropolis from penetrating Superman's clever disguise—that pair of eyeglasses—also keeps folks from wondering at the amazing coincidence that Clark Kent and Superman resurface on the exact same day.) Engaged to editor Perry White's smarmy nephew (James Marsden) and the mother of a creepily placid and frail little boy (Tristan Lake Leabu), Lois is also, rather implausibly, about to receive the Pulitzer Prize for an editorial pointedly titled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman."
Not a bad premise, really, and potentially quite affecting. Trouble is, Singer can't decide whether he's making a sequel or a remake. New plot details notwithstanding, Superman Returns follows the '78 Donner film almost beat for beat, even to the point of recycling a lot of its dialogue. (We also get some previously unseen footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El, shot for Superman II but never used because Brando demanded too much money.) This wouldn't be so terrible if the new film could brook the comparison; sadly, it only serves to underscore the inadequacy of Routh and Bosworth in the central roles. In my Nobel-winning 1991 essay, "Why the World Needs Christopher Reeve," I discuss in some detail the sly, knowing exuberance of the actor's work in the first two films—the way that Superman overcompensates for being the planet's most powerful entity by making his human alter ego maladroit in equal proportion. Reeve gives two distinct and credible performances; Routh, by contrast, doesn't even manage one, affecting the same bland, imperturbable mien with and without his specs. As for Bosworth, she may be a more technically proficient actor than Margot Kidder, but she possesses not a speck of Kidder's anarchic energy, coming across more like an actuary than a star reporter.
Even with better actors, though—and I should note that Kevin Spacey, while no Gene Hackman, has some genuine fun with Lex Luthor, oozing snotty contempt—I'm skeptical that Superman Returns could have ever succeeded with Singer at the helm. Unapologetically earnest and square, Superman needs to be handled with a light, breezy touch, lest he veer into self-important bathos. Singer, for his part, clearly aspires to be the Director of Steel. Fun just isn't part of this guy's vocabulary, and the intended whiz-bang sequences, such as Superman's rescue of a jetliner that's about to be accidentally launched into geosynchronous orbit, mostly go fizz-clunk. Meanwhile, the Superman-as-Jesus angle, present but unobtrusive in previous films, gets pushed to the breaking point, with constant references to his role as mankind's savior and repeated shots of the dude hovering high above the planet in a crucifixion pose. We have plenty of world-weary, angst-ridden superheroes—can't we let this one be, y'know, super?