Few big-screen franchises have fallen so far or so fast as Superman, who has been absent from multiplexes for nearly two decades. “Superman Returns” provides a most satisfying resurrection, especially for those who have always regarded the Superman story as a Christ allegory.
The first two Christopher Reeve films were big hits with critics and the public in 1978 and 1981. But it’s hard to find anyone with a kind word for “Superman III” (1983) or “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (1987), both of which were so out to lunch that Superman retreated to television with “Smallville,” “Superboy,” an animated series, and “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.”
Throughout the 1990s, and especially after Reeve had a paralyzing and ultimately lethal accident, it looked like television was where the franchise would stay. It certainly did in the 1950s, when George Reeves played the Man of Steel on a weekly basis.
Tim Burton, Kevin Smith and others tried and failed to get a new big-screen version off the ground. Richard Donner, who created the distinctive visual style of the 1978 and 1981 films, had gone on to his own “Lethal Weapon” series.
But a wounded franchise can be successfully revived, as Warner Bros. demonstrated last summer with “Batman Begins,” which more than lived up to the promise of its clean-slate title. In addition to a terrific cast, it benefited from a young and talented director, Christopher Nolan (“Memento”).
Warners is trying again with “Superman Returns,” directed by Bryan Singer, who left his own “X-Men” franchise, taking with him the talented writers — Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris — who helped make “X-Men 2” the best of that series.
Kevin Spacey, who won his first Oscar for his performance in Singer’s “The Usual Suspects,” plays the chief villain, Lex Luthor. And James Marsden, who was Cyclops in the “X-Men” series, returns to the Singer fold as Superman’s romantic rival.
Singer calls the result a chick flick about “what happens when old boyfriends come back into your life.” Superman, now played by 26-year-old Brandon Routh, who was hired partly because he looks like Reeve, is the old boyfriend of Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who has won a Pulitzer since she last saw him.
“Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” was the title of her prize winner, which apparently carried the sting of a jilted lover. She still adores him, but she’s offended that he left without saying goodbye.
He’s been absent from Earth long enough that she’s acquired a new boyfriend, Richard White (Marsden), as well as a five-year-old son named Jason. The dilemma for Superman/Clark Kent, who is still carrying the torch for Lois, is, as Singer puts it, “emotional Kryptonite.”
This romantic triangle is handled with unexpected tact and tenderness. Richard, the nephew of Lois’s boss, Perry (Frank Langella), is unequivocally a good guy, a doting father and undoubtedly a devoted lover. He just can’t measure up to an airborne saint.
In one of the more wrenching scenes, Superman spies on Richard and Lois and witnesses the depth of their bond. At the same time, Richard suspects the strength of Lois and Superman’s connection. It’s confirmed when he discovers that her computer password is not Jason, not Richard, but Superman. It’s not an easily resolved situation, and the script never suggests that it will be.
Donner’s 1978 movie boosted the Man of Steel’s spiritual credentials, thanks in part to John Williams’ stirring theme music (dusted off again for “Superman Returns”), and Singer and his writers take them even further. It isn’t just that Superman’s father (the late Marlon Brando, via flashbacks from Donner’s film) declares “I have sent them you, my only son.”
The crucifixion imagery is explicit, and so is a truly spectacular miracle involving a runaway plane that Superman prevents from wiping out a packed sports stadium. This somehow doesn’t come off as just a special-effects stunt. It’s genuinely exhilarating, the kind of moment that can bring a packed theater to its feet.
Donner’s film was promoted with the tag line, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Singer’s installment goes a bit further: you’re tempted to believe that such a miracle worker could exist in the 21st century. It’s an astonishingly hopeful fantasy — which may be why the picture is unlikely to be accused of sacrilege. It’s doubtful that it would offend Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created the original comic book in 1938 (both died in the 1990s).
“Superman Returns” is at its most playful when Singer and his writers are teasing the audience with hints about Jason’s paternity. “I’ve done Superman,” says Lois, though she quickly points out that she’s referring only to the stories she’s written about him. In a scene that recalls Superman’s X-ray vision, Jason wanders around with a garbage pail over his head, crashing into a glass door. How could he be such a klutz if he’d inherited special powers?
Spacey manages to be both funny and deeply sinister as Luthor, who is determined to cripple Superman and take over the world — even if that means wiping out billions of people and much of the United States. His dour companion, Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey), has a soft spot for Superman (not to mention those innocent billions), but she stands by her bad man.
Relationships are the key to Singer’s approach, which also makes room for Superman to reconnect with his adoptive mom (Eva Marie Saint) and the eternally juvenile Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington). Huntington consistently brightens the newsroom scenes, which include a sly homage to the dueling newspaper headlines in “Citizen Kane” — as well as the opportunity for Langella to declare “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” at a most appropriate moment.
The jury is still out on Routh, whose Superman suggests a lightweight imitation of Reeve’s performance. He rarely makes a false move — he’s credible in the action-heavy set pieces, charming in the more intimate scenes — but, aside from an emphasis on Superman’s lonely outcast status, he doesn’t appear to contribute anything vital of his own. Perhaps he’ll grow into it.