Crystals and kryptonite
I love the fact that he never lied.
—Bryan Singer, Christianity Today
Superman Returns begins with an explanation of the hero’s “disappearance.” Some five years ago, it seems, “scientists discovered remains” of his home planet Krypton, and he had to go investigate, you know, to understand who he is, to get a handle on his background and purpose. And so, just like that, he was gone, right around 9/11.
During his absence, the superhero vacuum was filled by any number of wannabes, characters less stoic and more pissed off, harassed, and alienated (count among these figures himself as an adolescent, in the WB’s angsty Smallville). These characters questioned superheroism’s status as cure-all, hinting that the “American Way” might to be so sacrosanct as it used to seem. In fact, as these figures took up the big screen, they revealed that Americans could be fearful and intolerant, even vengeful. And yet, even as the X-Men (first movie released in 2000), Spidey (2002), and a beginning-again Batman (2005) struggled against prejudice and politics-as-usual to secure their places in a pantheon of men in tights, rumors circulated that Superman was coming back, under the guidance of Tim Burton, McG, or Brett Ratner. Scripts were reworked, projects fell through, kill fees were paid. Still, no Supes.
His return right now, in Bryan Singer’s 154-minute film, takes up the “relevance” questions. He arrives back on earth in suitably spectacular fashion, rattling cups and alarming the dog out in Smallville where his mom, (Eve Marie Saint) knows just what the fiery meteor-looking object means. She drives the pickup out to the cornfield and collects her son,
Superman’s first major feat, in the big-chested form of Brandon Routh (whose previous credits include MTV’s Undressed), is the rescue of Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) and sundry others (including Peta Wilson as a NASA rep). These victims-to-be (mostly reporters) are assembled on a plane that’s about to launch a space shuttle. At that same moment, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) initiates a power outage that cripples the plane and sends it hurtling up up up into space, attached to the shuttle that takes off anyway. Superman arrives just in time to become a hero for a contemporary moment of terror: passengers in a panic, hectic camera angles, and collision cuts combine for an effect nearly as harrowing as the plane going down in United 93. It appears, at first, that this exactly why Superman needs to come back, because in the face of such unpredictable, unknowable chaos, no one else can help. Specifically, no one else can take a plane in his hands and land it in a baseball stadium full of properly impressed fans.
The crowd cheers, Lois smiles, Superman gives a sheepish, familiar salute. But it’s not all as it used to be. As Superman soon discovers, redisguised as Clark at the Daily Planet office, Lois has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning essay entitled, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” She’s also had a son, Jason (Tristan Leabu), now (pointedly) five years old, and started living with Richard (James Marsden), nephew of her boss Perry (Frank Langella). On learning of these developments, Clark looks part Clarkishly crestfallen, part Clarkishly dopey, but because he is the uprightest character ever conceived, he understands her choices. He loves her, but he believes in the family unit. Lois, for her part, is to about to let go of her righteous anger at her former lover or her ferocious protection of her son from disappointment. When Richard wonders whether she was ever “in love” with Superman, she has an answer that takes into account the ways that hype shapes desire and ambition: “He’s Superman,” she sighs. “Everyone was in love with him.”
Romantic subplot aside, the movie spends most of its explanatory energy on familial relationships, specifically, father-and-son relationships. While the most obvious sons are little Jason (whose paternity remains unspoken, though clear enough) and Superman (still communing with Jor-El, who is still played by an archived Marlon Brando), the most tormented—and so, most compelling—is Lex Luthor. While Superman was away, Lex was also, in the sense that he was in prison, paroled after five years (again with the 2001 marker) when Superman did not show up for the hearing. (Just why Superman is the only witness who might have kept this colossal criminal incarcerated is unclear, but gives his detractors another reason to be mad at Mr. Truth-Justice-and-the-American-Way.)
On his release, Lex travels to the Fortress of Solitude and gins the Jor-El tape. His face lit up like a kid’s on Christmas, Lex is thrilled and renewed, listening to the same words Superman does. “The son becomes the father, the father, the son,” decrees Jor-El, and as each son listens, each finds his own meaning in the message. “I’m his son,” gasps Lex, while Superman, who arrives later, finds that Lex got there first. Lex finds a way to make land, literally (a neatly abstract metaphor for all those post-9/11 references reportedly removed from early versions of the Superman Returns script). Accompanied by his moll Kitty (Parker Posey) and henchmen (including Kal Penn, once again underused), Lex combines crystals and kryptonite to grow a land mass to serve as his empire’s base and to kill Superman. It’s a brilliant scheme, nation-building at its most extreme, unnamed and insidious.
With Lex thus reconfigured as Superman’s illegitimate, self-decreed brother, the movie goes on to explore not only the usual dark and light sides typically embodied by such characters, but also the effects of two superpowers at war. Never mind that Superman doesn’t ever make a declaration of war: he’s sucked into the void when Lex declares him sucked. And as Superman becomes vulnerable, physically and emotionally, he starts to resemble those recent movie superheroes, wondering about his raison d’être and worrying about his legacy.
In the context of such concern for legacy, Singer pays loving homage to Richard Donner’s 1978 franchise-starter by way of John Williams’ score, the Brando footage, and Routh’s striking physical similarity to Christopher Reeve. But though this new Superman is young and robust, he is also saddened, if not disillusioned, at least conscious of the possibility. While he maintains faith in himself and even his infamous sense of honor, he also sees how such ideals can be reframed, that self-image isn’t all that matters. He has, in his five years of travel, seen the aftermath of world destruction, and he’s come back with a perspective not quite so boldly idealistic or pompously ideological. Yes, he still means to save this world, but the triumph is less complete now, the costs more visible.
Superman Returns - Theatrical Trailer