It never really occurred to me before, not even the many times I sat through the second Star Wars trilogy, but John Williams’s music was the soundtrack of my geeky childhood. The music that accompanied the things I loved as a kid — from Jaws to Star Wars to Raiders of the Lost Ark to E.T. — it’s all his. And as Superman Returns started to roll, with Williams’s original theme swelling over swooping opening credits that are so like the 1978 film’s, well… I was hooked anew.
As with the new Star Wars flicks, I can’t really be anything near objective about Superman Returns, far less so than I could be about stuff like Smallville or Lois and Clark, which spun the tale of the man from Krypton in new directions, because this just sorta picks right up from Superman II (Bryan Singer pretty much pretends that movies III and IV didn’t happen, and isn’t that what we all do?) and carries on with the still surprisingly effective combination of charmingly dorky humor (like about the disguising power of a pair of nerd eyeglasses) and comic-book-engaging pseudo-deep mythologizing (like the Christ metaphor of the only son of a godlike alien being sent to Earth to save people). Singer and his screenwriters, X2 vets Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, don’t remake the original films — they assume the audience knows that backstory and they continue on, mixing geek appreciation of the Superman saga as a whole with a clear abiding love for the ’78 and ’80 films in particular.
As with so much pop culture made by geeks for geeks these days, that may make it feel a bit exclusionary to nongeeks, particularly when there are some problems with the film, speaking from as much of an objective perspective as I can muster. The biggest issue is that Kate Bosworth (Beyond the Sea, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!) is no snarky Margot Kidder — Bosworth is, alas, bland and boring, and it’s hard to see what Clark finds so irresistibly attractive about her Lois Lane, who is rather unattractively petulant and whiny; and there’s no screen chemistry at all between Bosworth and the big-screen newcomer playing Clark/Superman, Brandon Routh. And of course it’s fine to have some fun with the traditional, longstanding ridiculousness of the Superman story, as Singer & Co. do here: How the hell does no one put Clark and Superman together, particularly when Superman just so happens to show up again after five unexplained years of absence just at the precise moment when Clark, who has allegedly been on a loooong around-the-world trip or something, returns to Metropolis and his job at the Daily Planet? But another absurdity of the script is less easy to dismiss: It’s impossible to believe that Clark is so much a gentleman that it has completely slipped his mind that before his disappearance, he and Lois spent a hot night at his icy Fortress of Solitude. How could he meet Lois’s, ahem, just-about-five-year-old son and not wonder if the kid could be his? It’s pretty much the first thing that occurs to Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey: Beyond the Sea, The Life of David Gale) when he meets the adorable tyke (Tristan Lake Leabu). “Who is this boy’s father?” he demands of Lois, and you’re like, Yes! Finally, someone is asking this all-important question! Of course Lois thinks his father is Cyclops– I mean, James Marsden’s (X-Men: The Last Stand, Heights) Richard White, her Daily Planet coworker and son of her boss, Perry White (Frank Langella: Good Night, and Good Luck., House of D). We know, from Superman II, that she’s got no memory of her super night with Superman. But surely Superman himself does. The only night with the woman you adore — how do you forget that?
But as part of the intended audience, I don’t much care. There’s so much geek love emanating from Superman Returns that it’s more than enough for me. Routh is delightful as Clark/Superman — he looks and sounds so much like poor departed Christopher Reeve that it’s a bit eerie. But he’s his own charming self, too, with a sense of vulnerability that is at once sweeter and edgier than Reeve’s was. The audience knows that Clark’s five-year absence has been taken up with a visit to the remains of Krypton in search of any other survivors — there are none, of course, at least not that he can find, and one scene early in the film, after he returns “home” to Earth and to Smallville and laments to his Ma (Eva Marie Saint: Because of Winn-Dixie) about his loneliness, sets up the undercurrent of poignant isolation that characterizes this version of Clark/Superman. There’s plenty of humor in Superman Returns, but this isn’t so much an overt comedy as the ’78 Superman was. This is a very geeky movie in the sense that it takes this shit seriously while it has its fun — Superman is here much more a figure of pathos than maybe any other Superman has been before. He’s facing outright rejection even from the women he loves — Lois, in his absence, has won a freakin’ Pulitzer Prize for an editorial called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” and why doesn’t she just rip his little alien heart out and stomp on it while she’s at it? Even something as simple as the little bit of intimacy Superman is able to snatch with Lois, when he takes her on an evening flight over Metropolis (which of course harkens back to the ’78 film), is an opportunity for Singer to highlight his alienness: “I forgot how warm you were,” Lois says as he takes her into his arms — his Kryptonian metabolism working overtime, maybe?
(Oh, and Routh? Singer found a guy to play his superfarmboy who is not only actually from Iowa, but he’s a geek, too. Routh’s being quoted all over the place as saying he made himself “sick with excitement” over the prospect of seeing the ’78 Superman on TV when he was a kid. And he even won a Halloween contest just a few years ago for dressing up as Clark Kent. What a dork. And you know I mean that as the highest possible compliment. And like Super Grover, he is cute, too.)
But even the comedy, much of which is concerned with Lex Luthor, is undercut by something dark. Spacey is a hoot as the mad genius, but there’s a coil of genuine wickedness in his Luthor, too. His hatred of Superman is far more uncomfortable to watch in action than Gene Hackman’s was — kicking a superhero when he’s down isn’t just an expression for this Luthor — and Spacey imbues his evil plans for world domination, which once again, hee hee, involve beachfront property, with something malevolent and almost lecherous. Some of that is tied up in the fact that his evil plans literally rattle downtown Manhattan– er, Metropolis, which has obviously been hit with terrorism, because Metropolis’s Twin Towers are missing, too. (And it makes you wonder: if Lois Lane had been in Tower 2 on that day, would Superman have found a way to rush back from Krypton to save her?) But mostly it’s Spacey, who’s having a ball with Luthor but also finding a kind of furious glee in mass destruction that feels more real after 9/11 than it would have before.
There’s a kind of hugeness to Superman Returns, and I’m not talking about the huge and unprecedentedly expensive FX, though they are indeed gorgeous and impressive. It’s a personal hugeness, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron: the film takes Superman to new places and puts him through some big things, some of which can be undone, and some of which can’t. It lays new meaning on the character, tearing him between a fictional world in which he feels lonelier and less needed than ever and our real world, in which we can’t help but wish even harder for a champion like him.
It makes you wanna believe a man can fly.
“Superman gay? no way, honey”