Superman has returned. In the movie, Superman (now played by Brandon Routh) comes back to earth after five years in search of his roots on the exploded planet Krypton, and the inhabitants of earth are overjoyed. In real life, Superman has come back to summer audiences in search of the popcorn pleasures of explosions and flying, and the inhabitants of earth will be, if not overjoyed, happily entertained.
Routh is better than he needs to be. He’s a Superman with soul who makes his soaring flights expressions of his existential longing. But superhero movies depend on their villains, and this one has Kevin Spacey happily chewing up every piece of scenery in sight as Lex Luthor and is almost sinfully entertaining. He just loves being bad and we love watching it.
Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) nimbly navigates the tricky balance between the old-school purists (the Lois and Jimmy of the 1950’s television show have cameos and there are clever connections to the original comic book, the 1930’s radio program, and the 1978 Christopher Reeve movie) and 21st century sensibility, with existential questions: does the world need Superman? Does he need us?
Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) does not think so. She has a fiance, a dashing pilot named Richard (James Marsden, switching from Marvel’s X-Men to D.C.’s Superman) who conveniently happens to be the nephew of choleric editor Perry White. She has a son named Jason, a cute kid with long hair and asthma. And she has a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial arguing that the world is better off without Superman.
But before Perry can say “Great Ceasar’s ghost” Supe has suited up and is rescuing Lois again. She’s on a fancy new jet, covering its first flight, when everything goes wrong. The rescue is thrillingly staged, the kind of sequence summer popcorn movies are made for. Routh has the square jaw to make us believe in the man of steel and the puppy eyes to make us want to hang a poster in our locker after study hall. He and Bosworth make a picture-perfect couple, with their matching chins and dazzling smiles. The special effects are gorgeous; the bad guy is deliciously evil.
But it is easier to like than love. Traditionally, people have fallen into one camp or the other: Superman or Batman. There are those who like the dark, brooding, vulnerable Batman and those who prefer the more optimistic, confident, sometimes naive, outgoing Superman. Perhaps concluding that no one wants to see a cornfed boy from Smallville spout off about truth, justice, and the American way, this Superman is isolated by the mandate of the father he can barely remember. He was sent to Earth to help humans find their best selves and to protect them from their worst. That creates a barrier that prevents him from getting close to anyone. He loves Lois. He longs to be close to her. But he knows he cannot be what Richard is — a guy who can be there to help make dinner and pick up Jason from day care. He knows he must be willing to sacrifice everything, even his own life, to protect humanity. And Richard knows he can never be what Superman is, the man Lois loves. And of course Lex has some surprises for Superman, including a blade made from Kryptonite. Even Jason knows a few things that will surprise the adults in his life.
That’s a pretty soapy plot for a superhero movie. Some will find it rich and complex; some will find it overstuffed. It underuses some of its greatest resources, like Parker Posey (who looks sensational as Lex’s sidekick but doesn’t have enough to do) and Kal Penn as one of his indistinguishable henchmen. Some will admire the way Superman doesn’t just fly, but hovers. Others will think all that overlay gets in the way of the popcorn-chomping scenes and that Superman’s hovering makes him float like Tinkerbell. That pockmarked “S” on his chest looks like it was cut out of a bath mat, and the cape, while it billows nicely, is too dark. And the ending is not exciting enough to be a cliffhanger or satisfying enough to give a sense of resolution.
Still, Superman flies into space, lands an airplane in a baseball field, and rescues people all over the world. Bullets shatter when they hit his eyeball. He gives us the pleasure of watching a terrible villain, secure in the knowledge that Superman won’t let anything bad happen to us. Does the world need Superman, even a lonely, sometimes melancholy one? You bet we do.
Parents should know that the movie has a great deal of action-style (very little blood) violence. Characters are injured and killed and a child is in peril. Spoiler alerts: Superman is beaten and stabbed; some graphic and disturbing images. There is some crude language (pissed, crap) and there are some double entendres and mild sexual references. Lois is not married to the father of her child. Spoiler alert: the issue of the child’s paternity is raised.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Superman wanted to see what was left of Krypton. Older viewers might want to talk about some of the story’s themes parallel the New Testament or classic myths. They should talk about how Superman was created by a pair of teenagers who sold their idea for $130.
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy all of the various depictions of Superman, going back to the original comic books, the television series (“Superman,” “Lois and Clark,” “Smallville,” cartoons), and the Christopher Reeve movies (but skip the last one). They also might like to see Bosworth and Spacey as Sandra Dee and Bobby Darrin in Beyond the Sea.