SUPERMAN Returns (2006)
Nothing endures quite like the tradition of our iconic heroes – and Siegel & Schuster’s Superman might just be the most vital of the pack. One could imagine that a child born and raised on a deserted island would instantaneously recognize Superman if the hero rocketed past, red cape whipping the wind in his sonic wake. As if Superman were an inherent part of the universe, birthed at creation on the fifth day with all other flying creatures, taught in the womb and then erased by an angel’s touch below and beneath the nostrils. For Superman could not possibly be a man made character drawn up in the 1930’s, but was surely the boyhood hero of Napoleon, the daydream of Socrates, the muse of Homer…and in many ways he was, wasn’t he…
This is why Bryan Singer’s addition to the mythology stands out not only for the pop culture relevance this summer (though nothing tops 1989 and Batman in that department), but, more importantly, from a sociological perspective: How is the 2006 Superman, as it reflects our definitions different than prior incarnations? With certain popular epics throughout history, the retelling in each generation reveals more about the society telling the tale than the characters within.
With this Superman, the first lesson is that those inheriting the adult world are painfully nostalgic for the simpler, more innocent times. With war, terrorism, raging storms, ticking clocks, dark horizons, and mortality looming, we can’t help but drift back to almost thirty years ago when we were young, hopeful, smiling, and mystified with glee at the spectacle of glorious Christopher Reeve in blue tights and the effervescence of John Williams score. I mean if “You’ve got me, who’s got you?” wasn’t just the most fantastically witty line a five year old ever was privileged to hear spoken.
Recently I’ve forced myself to sit through both predecessors to this film, Superman and Superman II. Although both films have their somber elements (Krypton’s fate, Lois being suffocated to death, a sense that Jon Cryer’s Lenny was lurking), the overarching mood is levity and an almost pathological inanity. Audiences today would never stand for the 1978 cure all – racing around the planet in reverse at hyper-speeds to turn back the clock. There is an entire sequence in Superman II where General Zod and cronies simply blow things on a Metropolis street – and the scene goes on endlessly replete with comedic setups (a man continues to talk on a payphone as he blows horizontally down the street). Today we like our comic based cinema dark and serious – perhaps to justify that we are spending our time and money watching what is essentially kid stuff. We deem ourselves sophisticated filmgoers not impressed in the slightest by blue screens, not interested in witnessing the innocent civilian emerging safely from the flipped vehicle. Let grandma die when a laser beam zaps her station wagon, because she would die in real life.
The frightening reality of course being that the 2020 Superman will make our 2006 update look like a relic from a saccharine, all too tame past (when the project was Kevin Smith’s, a rejected script called for Superman’s death).
Somewhat surprisingly, Singer hedges his bets and while he does give us a Superman picture to satisfy our craving for the morbid, he tempers the experience with throwback elements, a nod to a time when Christopher Reeve was a strapping, dimpled Adonis. In Brandon Routh as Kent/Man one may almost forget temporarily that our generation’s Man of Steel died in mid-age in a decimated physical body. The performance by Routh appears purposefully a tribute to Reeve down to the bone structure, mannerisms, and the controlled sonar of a voice.
questionable choice for Lois
Lane in Kate Bosworth
certainly caters to our
unprecedented obsession with
and deference to youth and
babeliciousness over all
other attributes in our
actresses. But again, Singer
keeps it copasetic by not
once allowing Bosworth to be
hot – no rescues on the
beach, no x-ray vision
underwear revelations – just
conservative and refined
reporter outfits. How
confused we are.
Kevin Spacey takes on Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor and delivers a wild, pitch-perfect and diabolical performance. While Hackman’s Luthor may have strung a chunk of glowing green Kryptonite around Superman’s neck and laughingly tossed him in a shallow swimming pool, in 2006 Luthor has our hero beaten senseless, stabbed viciously with a dagger of Kryptonite (breaking the handle and leaving the poison embedded), and pushes our hero into the raging, unforgiving deep. The difference between the handling of the villains is jarring but at the same time, as a 2006 filmgoer, I appreciated it.
The film also provides the requisite 2006 version of action – stirring, graceful, and beautifully choreographed – although an action film this is not. Because this is the new millennium, while mindless action films exist, they are mostly made by mistake as opposed to thirty years ago when audiences had a much higher tolerance for machine gun spray and red flamed fire balls ascending.
What Singer’s Superman Returns intends to be is twofold and soaringly succeeds at both. It is principally the first installment of an intended series and therefore merely a vehicle to acclimate audiences to a new look and feel and familiarize the unfamiliar. And on its own, it is a work about heroes, both in a global context and more acutely in our own lives and relationships. In a time where the youth of this nation are fighting and dying to defend this country, the film argues that each one of us can be super under the right circumstance. How appropriate it is then that in the 2006 version of the legend, the most astounding display of heroism comes from a mere mortal named Richard.