My strongest childhood movie memory is the time my grandfather took me to see Superman . I loved the movie so much, he took me to see it again the very next day. Fast forward twenty-eight years. I arrived home in the dark after screening Superman Returns . The kids were asleep. There, crumpled in a ball on the ground in front of the bedroom, was my four-year-old’s Superman costume. I felt a great sense of sadness and loss.
Never mind that it’s an unnecessarily violent PG-13; why would I take my kids to see Superman Returns ? What would they find there to aspire to? The first two Superman films were magic. They were bright with goodness, optimism, and hope, and anything was possible. But this new film is lost and wandering, sour and deeply strange.
The film labors mightily not so much to plunder the past as to turn back the clock to a kind of movie-making that might be lost forever. It begins with a credits sequence recreated in the finest detail from the 1978 original. We hear the voice of Marlon Brando, coming to us from beyond the grave, and the John Williams theme, soon to be recycled to annoyance. Brandon Routh, the young actor who plays Superman, mimics Chrisopher Reeve’s voice and mannerisms to creepy perfection, though he can’t do the comedy. What would Reeve have thought of this ventriloquist’s dummy?
We’ve been here before, and more vividly. Superman goes for another aerial pas de deux with Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). Bosworth is a far cry from Margot Kidder’s spitfire, and hardly an equal partner for Superman. Curious that she stands on his feet, like a little girl dancing with her daddy. She’s also not likely to win any mother-of-the-year awards, as she routinely drags her son into the most dangerous areas on planet Earth.
Lex Luthor, now played by Kevin Spacey, is voluptuously wicked; he belongs in the sumptuous deco production design. But his evil plan once again involves Kryptonite and a land grab. Can’t he come up with anything new? We observe the plot with more curiosity than involvement, and – in part due to the movie’s two and a half hour length – more than a little boredom.
And yet there are some new things here. Whenever Superman flies, he is usually a completely computer-generated construct. This allows director Brian Singer to create images that Richard Donner, the director of the original film, could only imagine. When we see Superman in long shot, flying around a gorgeous model of Metropolis, it works; and the images have a stronger effect upon reflection than they do when you first see them. But the computer graphics also make Superman far less human. His skin is too smooth; he’s too perfect. Lois Lane is a Mary Magdalene kissing her god. She says he’s warm, but we doubt it.
Of course, Superman isn’t human. But in order to identify with him, it’s critical that we forget this. As evidenced in his X-Men films, Singer has a genuine concern with alienation. But what’s fun about that? Superman’s longing is very much like the robot child in Spielberg’s A.I., who desires only to be human. We feel sorry for him. And like Superman, hovering outside Lois Lane’s house, watching and listening to the family life inside, the movie itself remains outside our hearts, wondering how to get in.
Superman Returns is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.