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When the opening credits blast across the screen in Superman Returns using the same time honored whooshing style made famous by Richard Donner back in 1978, it's a giddy moment; alive and filled with the sheer power of the Man of Steel. When Bryan Singer's name flies across the picture with his directed by credit, you get the sense that seeing his name there, that way, is something he's been waiting for all his life. What kid wouldn't want their names swooping across the screen in a Superman movie? Forget Scorsese or Spielberg, when you're a kid you want to be Richard Donner. On screen his name had more flair.
Others have tried, but Bryan Singer has truly captured exactly what a Superman movie is supposed to be. Gone is even the smallest vestige of camp or tongue-in-cheek, in its place is a smart story about thinking, feeling people. One of those people just happens to be a god. Godlike is exactly what Superman is in this film, in a way he's never been before. He's Atlas, carrying the world on his shoulders. He's almighty Zeus, hurling thunderbolts at antlike mortal men. Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor compares his fight with Superman to the ancient story of Prometheus, and when he does so it's not just a parable, he means it. So does Superman Returns.
But how do audiences identify with a god? How can we root for someone almost completely free of human weaknesses or foibles? There's one thing both mortals and immortals have in common: Even gods fall in love. For Superman love is Lois Lane, and when he returns after an absence of 5 years he finds that love no longer requited. While Kal-El was off chasing remnants of Krypton, Lois Lane has moved on. She's got a man, a kid, a new life. Now that he's back, where does Superman fit in? Is he just a forgotten memory, or is Lois Lane still secretly in love?
As the movie develops it takes on almost a lyrical quality. It's at first bittersweet and filled with longing, but by the end Superman Returns is an uplifting experience punctuated by unexpected meaning and depth. This isn't Spider-Man, and Superman will never be a troubled everyman. Superman stands for something big. He's almost a force of nature. He's hope in the face of utter despair. He's more of a symbol than a man, yet Singer finds soul within Superman's "S". Superman's nigh invulnerable, but he's not invincible.
Perhaps most importantly to hardcore fans, Superman Returns retains all the earnest energy of the first two Donner movies. In making his version, Singer chose to ignore the two bad Superman movies (Superman III and IV) and make his a sequel (at least in spirit) to Richard Donner's masterful Superman: The Movie and Superman II. His film is a loving tribute to those movies, and it's not just some gimmick. It goes further than a simple reuse of the beautiful, classic Superman score by John Williams or a gorgeous new version of the old flying Superman credits. There's a genuine affinity for the work that came before it, and from the pic's familiar opening through its closing dedication to Christopher and Dana Reeve it pays reverent homage. That's nice, but Superman Returns is a better film than any of its predecessors.
Singer builds his film around the awkwardly resumed relationship between Superman and Lois, then fills in the gaps with heady, character-driven action sequences cooked up by the maniacal Lex Luthor. It works because Returns' actors are nearly as brilliant as its script, each incorporating pieces of what previous actors did with the characters while putting their own stamp on it.
Brandon Routh is stellar as Superman and his Clark Kent, believe it or not, may be actually better than Christopher Reeve's. There's been a lot of concern that Routh's not physically imposing enough to pull off the role, that he's too slight of build. With good reason. If you're judging him from the trailers or US Magazine tabloid photos, he's not exactly a bulky guy. In the context of the film, that doesn't matter. Singer makes him look not just imposing and powerful, but super-human. A lot of the credit for that should go to Routh. Brandon's gotten himself into phenomenal shape, and he carries himself with all the confidence and poise you'd expect from a man of might. He's John Henry driving steel, he's Hercules knocking down giants with one mighty blow of his fist
If there's one thing that's really had people worried about Superman Returns, it's Kate Bosworth as Lois. She's not exactly a natural as the fearless reporter type. Had Kate been asked to play the Lois Lane of Superman: The Movie or Superman II she'd have failed. Instead she succeeds brilliantly here, because she's playing Lois at a different stage in her life. Margot Kidder's Lois is young, brash, and take-charge. Now older and a little wiser, Kate is what Kidder's Lois would be if she'd won her Pulitzer, achieved her career goals, and then settled down. That younger, always in trouble Lois is still in there; but she's learned a thing or two too since last we saw her in Superman II. As this Lois, Kate Bosworth is an unqualified success.
Kevin Spacey has joked that he based his Lex Luthor on an Enron executive, and that may not be far off the mark. To me though, his Lex seems more like a mix of Gene Hackman's great performance in Donner's movies and a lot of full on Kevin Spacey. As much as I love Hackman's energetic Lex Luthor, Spacey surpasses him and gives what is probably the best performance in any Superman film. He's not just villainous or quick witted; he's poignant and even a little wise. He's also determined. This Lex doesn't preen while Superman rips down his lair. If Superman is an immovable force, then Lex Luthor is an unstoppable lever. Hackman's Lex was entertaining and while Spacey's is funny, he's also downright scary.
What's best about Superman Returns is that it's a deeply personal story with global significance. Superman is searching for something in the universe. He abandons Earth to go looking for it, and finds only a graveyard instead. When he returns the things he thought he had to come home to have been turned upside down, and he's left still looking for whatever it is that he's missing. Carried by a maelstrom of soul searching emotional turmoil, the Man of Steel is back with all the passion and heartfelt power that American cinema can muster. Bryan blends his beautiful vision with an elegant, intimate story and the result is a work of real art. By the end of the film Superman has found what he's missing, and like his return to cinemas, it was worth the wait. Now that it's here, Superman Returns deserves to be seen again, and again, and again.