It's no accident that the best of several bravura action sequences in Superman Returns shows our hero rescuing an airplane full of passengers from certain death. Predictably and by design, Returns plays like an optimist's answer to United 93 ' a flawed yet hugely healing throwback to a time, not so very long ago, when 'Look! Up in the sky!â?� were words of hope, not dread.
Who could suppress memories of Sept. 11 as a fuselage's worth of innocents are tossed about a 777's careening cabin, oxygen masks falling ominously from the ceiling and everybody bracing for impact with an enormous edifice on the ground (not an office building, but something even more specifically American)? It's like a Saturday-serial replay of our own generation's day of infamy, with the key difference that there's a prodigiously capable Good Samaritan on hand to forestall calamity as only he can.
Yeah, wouldn't we all wish.
The theme of post-traumatic recovery is embedded in the film, which was assembled with obvious care by director Bryan Singer and writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (a trio that last collaborated on the fine X-2: X-Men United). In their conception, Superman has been away from Earth for half a decade (for reasons that are touched upon so lightly that they're almost inconsequential). What counts is the spiritual confusion he experiences when he returns to a world that's been forced to move on without him. Former flame Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has led the charge, earning a Pulitzer for a Daily Planet article titled 'Why the World Doesn't Need Supermanâ?�; perhaps this attitude reflects a more personal hurt, as evidenced by the domestic tranquility the abandoned reporter has since sought with her boss' nephew (James Marsden, the X-Men's Cyclops) and ' get this, oh acne-ridden protectors of the canon ' their young SON. Meanwhile, the criminal-justice system has divested itself of Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), who is now free to further his unhealthy obsession with real estate ' and to avenge himself against an enemy whose re-emergence couldn't have come at a more opportune time.
While the film's reference to the War on Terror is more covert than overt, limited to a fleeting shot of some angry Arabs on a TV screen, the story's true context can be revealed by some simple math. The Man of Steel, we're told, has been MIA for five years. If we're meant to construe the actions of the film as taking place at the present moment ' and there's every indication that we are ' that would roughly set the time of his departure as summer 2001. Now, ask yourself: Which Earth-shattering event would Big Blue have happened to miss entirely? Hmmmmm.
This sort of strategic removal is nothing new. Like Clark Kent in a moment of crisis, Superman has always been conveniently absent when real-world tragedy comes calling. With the advent of World War II, publisher Detective Comics Inc. was hard-pressed to explain why its flagship character wasn't cutting off the Axis threat at the knees. The solution they hit on had an overeager Clark reporting for Army induction, only to flunk his physical when a nervous burst of X-ray vision made him read the eye chart in the next room! (Why this would prevent him from acting in the European and/or Pacific theaters as Superman escapes me.) The point is that flesh-and-blood disaster momentarily takes Supes off the cultural chessboard ' for reasons of taste as well as narrative practicality ' but its emotional aftermath puts him right back on as a necessary player. He's our dignity regained, a coping mechanism in a cape.
And once again, he's wonderfully cast. Newcomer Brandon Routh, who looked a worrisome stiff in his promotional stills, is word- and expression-perfect in the lead role, cut from the same cloth as Christopher Reeve without sinking to the level of cheap impersonation. As his nemesis, Spacey performs as terrifically as you'd imagine, adding a thrilling nastiness to Gene Hackman's comic sleaze, and Bosworth makes for a wholesale improvement on Margot Kidder, whose Lois was a mostly grating presence. Other than reimagining the latter reporter as someone the world's most powerful farm boy would actually want to be around, the filmmakers slavishly re-create the tone, look, sound of Richard Donner's seminal 1978 Superman, with an added emphasis on incorporating tableaux of he-man exertion that date all the way back to Action Comics No. 1 (and further, given the number of times Superman is shown lifting objects over his head like Atlas at the height of his ordeal).
It's equal parts figure-drawing lesson and 21st-century catharsis. There's Supes saving the aforementioned plane, holding it off the ground with a force that makes metal ripple like the air outside a Mexican radio station. There he is confronting a suitably overarmed bank robber, letting bullets ricochet off his chest and not breaking his stride. And there he is caught on a security camera, making time in his busy schedule to foil a penny-ante deli holdup. The audience laughs in delighted, populist reassurance.
Practiced critics of the Hollywood mindset are bound to castigate such sequences as infantile pandering, a manifestation of the ongoing search for simple remedies to complex real-world problems. But comics have always been about wish fulfillment, and if they (or the films they inspire) can't provide us with economy-sized doses of relief from intense pressures, what good are they? Besides, dismissing Superman as a daddy figure, or perhaps an ersatz Christ (an analogy even this otherwise on-target flick ultimately overworks) is missing the point. Superman isn't an alien deity to worship but a metaphor for the best part of ourselves ' an idealized example of the life-saving miracles we can work collectively if we really try. It's just more fun to see somebody do it all at once. (And I'm betting Al Gore looks lousy in a bodysuit.)
So deep is the psychological satisfaction that you can forgive the movie its unfortunate last act, in which the plot takes a really dumb turn that lays bare Singer's desire to make his mark on the mythology in a big, unforgettable way. (As if, y'know, having the Last Son of Krypton return to a planet that needs him more than ever somehow wasn't big enough.) Just as bad, once the movie is on this ill-advised path, it springs a flat tire, its pace slowing to a near-crawl that's the last thing anyone could want from a summer action flick. It's speedier than the denouement to The Da Vinci Code, but only in the sense that ketchup pours from a newly opened bottle faster than molasses runs uphill.
So 30 of the 150 or so minutes are a bust. There's still ample reason to see the thing in first run, if only for the chance to be part of an audience that cheers en masse at the exorcism of its darkest, most up-to-date fears. Find your place in the crowd, and worry about the consequences of a good/evil orientation at some unspecified later date. It's been a hell of a five years you've had, and you deserve it.