Digging up idols always bugs some people, and despite the best efforts of the shows Lois and Clark and Smallville, Superman is in some minds still that turn-of-the-80’s Greco-Roman hero with the dorky sense of humor. (“Bad vibrations?” he asks a guy whose crowbar quivers after bashing him.) One result of this reviewer’s sensitivity to changes was a heightened receptivity to the slightest signal from that bygone era: Superman Returns preserves the rounded hollow titles and unironically wondrous space-constellation tour from the original title sequences, all of which cry out Omni magazine. And is the space shuttle (piggybacking on a plane) that he saves here really called Genesis?
Before I embarrass myself further, let’s get to the meat of things: Bryan Singer’s sequel/veiled remake measures out to about half of a nimble, exhilarating action movie but, like his earlier franchise–opener X-Men, seems to end abruptly. Since Superman’s powerful PR-ray has already placed a Times article outlining the movie’s subtexts, you probably already know where the other half goes: Lois Lane and Superman brooding over their late great love, at which the teenage boy in me cries out “Mush!” (and “more cruise missiles that need lassoing”).
But that’s Singer’s post-Buffy m.o., and soap hunk Brandon Routh, boyish and plasticky, dutifully makes one of his first missions the lovelorn stalking of the riverside house where Lois and her new husband (all italics) nest. I prefer the elaborate double-dare-pulled-off-without-breaking-a-sweat that have always marked Superman’s best moments — such as this film’s enthralling first (and best) set piece, the rescue of a doomed airliner mere inches above a major league game’s ballfield.
Because there’s no getting around Kate Bosworth’s blandness as Lois, and even if she’s supposed to have cooled off and become a grown-up, she doesn’t know where else to go with the character, looking even a little bored with her secrets (a moment please for twitchy, batso Margot Kidder...). The biggest warning signal is that the name of her Pulitzer prize-winning editorial — “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” — isn’t played for the super-ex-girlfriend-caliber joke that it is.
But she’s not the bad guy — that’s Lex Luthor, aka now Kevin Spacey. Where Gene Hackman’s brilliant jittery rambler carried the nervous paranoia (as if from The Conversation) of a loser no one really cares about, Kevin Spacey as an actor suffers from the reverse paranoia of believing everyone thinks he is shit-hot. Still, he’s fine here, doing his usual sadistically measured intonation bit and getting a good sense of coward’s timing. His Insane Plan is really literally so (tell me if it makes any sense to you) and, like much of the movie, echoes details from the earlier films: using the pilfered power of Superman’s crystals, to raise an island, submerge the East Coast, and send real estate prices skyrocketing (for all the people who are now dead...?).
The movie’s visual imagination drops off sharply once his plan gets rolling, with nothing to match the adventure and intrigue of an earlier runaway-car sequence, for example, or the ethereally (and effectively) romantic water-skimming flight on which Superman takes Lois. Singer throws around the fathers-and-sons stuff about Superman, Jor-El, and Someone Else (no spoiler necessary, believe me) to a catechismic degree, and he neatly answers the scientific-theological questions that mark a comic-book god, like, what exactly does happen to a solid when it hits the surface of Superman’s skin?
Soon the movie shows its length and anxieties, and so other questions arose for me, such as, is Superman a crime deterrent, or functional law enforcement? How will he face today’s virtual crimes, like identity theft (and is Superman himself perhaps guilty of same)? When will he stop all this putting out of fires and just run for congress to start super-pushing important bills through committee?