Superman Returns (2006)

No multi-bazillion-dollar Hollywood budget can match the power of a small dog on the big screen. A studio can spend a fortune on spectacular special effects, and yet a little four-legged co-star can steal the show by walking across the stage and yipping adorably.

In the year’s most anticipated movie — the hugely expensive Superman Returns, the first Man of Steel movie since 1978 — the most memorable, delightful, and unexpected moment in the movie belongs to…

… a Pomeranian.

Something is terribly wrong here.

SINGER’S PASSION

Director Bryan Singer was not familiar with the X-Men until he had the opportunity to make a movie about them. And he did a great job, starting an excellent comic book franchise with two solid films. He became a hero to X-Men fans. And he raised the bar for comic book movies, which may have inspired the filmmakers behind Spider-man 2 and Batman Begins to greatness. Singer’s films found character and personality behind the superpowers. They took on tough, contemporary questions with intelligence and meaningful metaphors. And they boasted some excellent performances.

But here, rejuvenating the franchise of his favorite comic book character, Singer has made a film that delivers spectacular action, but baffles the brain, and comes up far short with its cast.

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.

And that’s a pack of problems.

Many Superman fans have been hoping Singer would lift the character and the tradition out of the wreckage of the lamentable Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and restore it to the glory of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie. Donner’s original film is still a barrel of fun. It’s memorable as much for its comedy as its groundbreaking special effects and its likeable cast. While I hear from the experts that Singer’s Superman Returns has bested the terrible sequels — wild dogs tried to drag me to the video store to rent them, but I fought them off — this new movie is still inferior to the original.

I applaud the impressive visual effects and sound design of Superman Returns — they do what we expect summer blockbusters to do. There are a couple of scenes that develop some tangible, nerve-wracking tension. One involves the simultaneous rescue of a troubled space shuttle and a plummeting passenger plane. The other takes place during a piano duet, as unlikely as it sounds. None of the action scenes in Singer’s X-Men films come close to this level of spectacle.

And Singer’s most surprising accomplishment is to pass the Super-torch to an actor who will prevent backlash from Christopher Reeve fans. Brandon Routh looks the part, so the transition is fairly smooth.

But as soon as you start thinking about the storyline of Superman Returns, everything starts falling apart.

WHAT KIND OF HERO IS SUPERMAN?

I’m in the minority, finding fault with the movie. Superman Returns has dazzled and delighted most critics. Many of the reviews are pumped up with nostalgia. Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando are in a movie together again! The dying widow who gives Lex Luthor a fortune is played by the Lois Lane of the 1950s television series! Listen — that’s John Williams’s 1978 theme music!

And some Christian film critics are giving the film high marks because they’re excited to recognize a clearly-marked Christ figure.

But these aspects steer us away from more important questions: Is Superman Returns a good story? If it’s such a great Christ allegory, what does it suggest about the character of a savior? Is it really a meaningful story?

Superman Returns fumbles around, looking for a theme, and never really finds one. The first possible theme is broadcast in the opening scene, when we look down at a Scrabble-board that highlights the word “ALIENATION.” And then it’s about family, and fidelity, and faith, and… It’s about so many things that it never really finds a focus.

Alienation? Superman’s loneliness is partly his own fault. He’s so busy busy answering his questions about his past, and rushing off to save random people in peril, that he just can’t devote himself to a relationship. While we’re made to feel sorry for this poor, misunderstood, lonely hero, let’s face it… he chooses to be a lone hero.

Thus, the alienation theme doesn’t really ring true. And why bother? Singer explored the same theme far more profoundly in the X-Men films. (In retrospect, I wish Singer had finished that trilogy. The storytelling was stronger, the characters were far more interesting when he was at the helm. If Singer can revive Superman two decades after it fizzled, perhaps he can save the X-Men sometime soon.)

So, what about “saving the world”? Is that the theme of this film?

If so, Superman’s not doing a very good job of that either. Like any good superhero, he busies himself saving people from crises. But the movie raises our expectations by reminding us, through the voice of his father Jor-El (Marlon Brando), that Superman is not supposed to save the world single-handedly. He’s supposed to “light the way” for humankind to follow his example. And Superman never lives up to that bold charge. He’s too busy leaping buildings and preventing doomed vehicles from blowing up to show us “the way.” If Superman is a “Christ figure,” why is he behaving like a typical American hero who operates above the law, showing us all that we should endeavor to save the world independently rather than cooperatively?

If Superman really wants to save the world, he should learn to hide those weapons of mass destruction that he brought to earth. While he’s off chasing his question, the bad guys are getting hold of his super-trinkets and using them to cause great civil unrest. In other words, the world is in trouble thanks to Superman’s carelessness.

How about “true love”? Is that what the film is about?

If so, Superman is lacking there too. The film picks up where Superman 2 left off. Superman has just made his relationship with Lois Lane official, in a carnal sense, and then he up and flew away. He departed Planet Earth without even saying goodbye to Lois. This left her in a terrible state, and Planet Earth, which he had sought to serve, was left vulnerable. In my mind, Lois has every right to be angry and to move on to another boyfriend.

By the end of this film, I have no doubt that Superman can catch a falling aircraft, but I have serious doubts that he can commit himself to another person or fulfill the responsibilities of a relationship. He never should have started one in the first place.

We’re supposed to hope that he and Lois Lane can work things out. But personally, I found Richard White, Lois Lane’s new boyfriend, to be far more sympathetic and courageous than Superman. In Superman’s day-to-day routine, preventing accidents and saving plummeting planes, he’s not at great personal risk. It’s not costing him. He doesn’t have much to lose. Richard, on the other hand, dearly loves Lois Lane and the five-year-old child who depends on them. He’s dependable. He pays for his commitments. He has everything to lose. And he makes some brave moves before the film is over that show true risk, courage, and selflessness. This guy, played with surprising emotion and energy by James Marsden, is super.

CAST PROBLEMS

Superman’s heroism isn’t the only problem in the film. The cast bringing this comic to life make things worse.

Brandon Routh strikes memorable iconic poses, and he throws himself whole-heartedly into the action. But his Man of Steel lacks personality. There’s no discernible intelligence beyond the brawn, just a sharp-looking Reeve-alike. The script gives him very little help. I think the much-harassed Hayden Christensen did more with less in the Star Wars prequels than Routh does here.

Similarly, Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane is D.O.A. Previous Lois Lanes — Margot Kidder, Teri Hatcher — showed personality and spirit. And they were the right age. Kate Bosworth looks young enough to be Lane’s daughter. And she shows no range here, more lame than Lane. I have to take it on faith that she won a Pulitzer for her essay “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” but it’s easier for me to believe that Superman can leap a building in a single bound.

Why does Superman go for her? Where’s the spark that would make Lois stand from all of the other desperate women the Man of Steel encounters? I didn’t see it, and I didn’t sense any chemistry between the two of them. Bosworth makes a great cosmetics spokesmodel, but she doesn’t come across as a woman of character and strength.

Kevin Spacey is, well, Kevin Spacey, playing the part of Lex Luthor. Whereas Gene Hackman created a bold new persona for the famous comic book villain in 1978, effectively turning the film into a comedy, Spacey is content to do his usual smug, self-satisfied shtick, playing the part of a bad guy who is clearly out of his mind. His wicked plan consists of a super-sized real estate maneuver. He thinks he can grow a whole new continent and declare himself its king. How can he possibly think he’ll stand to gain from his wickedness? What’s to stop the U.S. military from executing a swift regime change? Luthor isn’t just lacking in super-powers… he’s lacking a brain. A Superman movie needs a far more interesting and dangerous villain.

As Luthor’s assistant Kitty Kowalski, Parker Posey is funny and entertaining. She’s one of my favorite big screen comediennes. But here, her personality is stifled by her costumes and her pet Pomeranians. Here’s a simple rule: If you want to get your money’s worth from an actress, don’t let her carry dogs around on the screen. The dog will steal the show every time.

In fact, the dog gets the film’s biggest laugh. Almost a week after seeing the film, it’s the Pomeranian’s big moment, early in the film, that I’m telling people about.

CHRIST FIGURE? NOT REALLY.

But I can’t put too much of the film’s failure on Lois Lane or the villains. This is a Superman movie, after all, and the guy just doesn’t inspire me at all.

Intelligence is not this Superman’s strong suit. He’s mostly a mountain of muscle whose desire to save the world amounts to picking off a few criminals here and there, and then wasting eight hours a day in a newspaper office where people are obsessed with celebrating his every move. Sounds more like super-ego than super-man.

Many Christian film critics are making much of this character as a Christ figure. And he certainly seems anxious to strike a Christly pose. He spreads his arms in crucifix poses, which earns some ooohs and aahhhs from some of my colleagues. And he makes some claims to cosmic compassion — he can apparently “hear everything,” including mankind’s cries for a savior. This suggests there is a spiritual crisis in the world that he wishes to address.

But Superman’s actions show he’s more interested in being a random life-saver than someone who can “light our way.” He prevents car accidents and walks boldly into the blazing bullets of a machine gun to prevent a bank robbery. The lesson of such behavior should be “Don’t try this at home” instead of “Make this man your role model.” He’s more likely to find his way into photo-ops than hearts.

If we really want to celebrate Christ-figures in film, why are we overlooking films like Hotel Rwanda or The Motorcycle Diaries, both of which give us much more beautiful portraits of Christ-like love and sacrifice?

I have a theory about that. We like to watch stories about people who will save us from trouble. We’d rather dream about being saved from our own distress than apply ourselves to relieving the problems of others. A true Christ figure inspires us to follow his courageous, selfless example and seek to help the needy. That makes us uncomfortable. It suggests that we are responsible to participate in saving the world. It asks something of us.

My colleague Steven Greydanus asks if the heroism of other characters like Lois and Richard might not have been inspired by Superman’s bravery, but I don’t see that. It looks to me more like heroism required by the plot in order to keep our favorite hero alive, so we have someone who will take care of our problems for us. I don’t get any sense that Superman’s heroics are lighting the way for anyone else.

NEXT TIME?

So, Superman has returned, but he has a lot to learn about being a light to the world, overcoming loneliness, and fulfilling responsibilities in relationship.

I’d love to see a sequel. But allow me to recommend some improvements: A villain who is truly frightening. A threat that comes from something other than the baggage Superman brought with him to earth. I’d like to see his character put to the test, not just his strength. If he falls in love, I hope we can find someone for him who’s truly worthy of his admiration.

You know what I’d really like? A spin-off about the brave and faithful Richard White. Or that lovable but daaaaangerous Pomeranian.

Directed by Bryan Singer; written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, based on a story by Mr. Singer, Mr. Dougherty and Mr. Harris from characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, published by DC Comics; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Elliot Graham and John Ottman; music by Mr. Ottman; production designer, Guy Hendrix Dyas; produced by Mr. Singer, Jon Peters and Gilbert Adler. Starring – Brandon Routh (Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman), Kate Bosworth (Lois Lane), James Marsden (Richard White), Frank Langella (Perry White), Eva Marie Saint (Martha Kent), Parker Posey (Kitty Kowalski), Sam Huntington (Jimmy Olsen), Kal Penn (Stanford) and Kevin Spacey (Lex Luthor). Warner Brothers Pictures. 2 hours 37 minutes. Rated PG-13.
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