Superman Returns: Just in the Nick of Time

If you want a break from the bad news that’s been spanning the globe lately, go see the latest Superman flick, “Superman Returns”. Directed by Bryan Singer, this installment of the adventures of the Man of Steel combines many elements of previous efforts in new ways reflecting 21st century sensibilities.

Superman Returns is entertaining and fun, but, with a PG-13 rating for violence, it’s a bit intense for young children. This film has modern complexities but avoids the darkness of “Batman Begins”.

At 157 minutes, “Superman Returns” is a little long. However, for the most part, the storyline and action sequences move well. And the Sensurround is loud enough to drown out the inevitable chatter of cranky kids.

Abandoning a fruitless, five-year search for the remnants of Krypton, Superman, a.k.a. Clark Kent (Brandon Routh), returns to the Kent farm in a fiery crash, collapsing in the arms of his human mother (Eva Marie Saint).

The fact that he’s slightly shorter and less heavily built than previous actors who have portrayed the Man of Steel does not prevent Routh from doing an excellent job. He’s intensely heroic as Superman, and an almost timid, bumbling Clark Kent, reminiscent of the late Christopher Reeve, whom he resembles.

Life has moved on since Clark’s absence, particularly for Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). Lois has a live-in fiancÃ?©e, Richard (James Marsden), who is also a Daily Planet editor and the nephew of Perry White (Frank Langella). She also has a five-year-old son named Jason (Tristan Leabu).

Rest assured, “Superman Returns” doesn’t involve terrorism or some psycho dictator launching a nuke. It’s just good, old, evil villain Lex Luthor, finely played by Kevin Spacey, trying to make a continent for himself using crystals from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

Spacey’s Lex is more reserved than Gene Hackman’s (“Superman I and II”) and less dashing than John Shea’s (“Lois and Clark”). Luthor in “Superman Returns” is temperamentally closer to the Lex portrayed by Michael Rosenbaum in “Smallville”, but without the youthful ambivalence. This Lex is decidedly cold, witty, and funny. After kidnapping Lois and Jason, Luthor tells them that he won’t hurt them but will kill them if they don’t behave.

Former indie film star Parker Posey plays Luthor’s wisecracking sidekick. She’s little more than window dressing but has one good line. When Lex asks her what his father used to tell him, she replies, “Get out?”

Superman fans will see abundant echoes of previous large- and small-screen versions of the franchise. Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in the 1950s “Adventures of Superman” television series, is cast in “Superman Returns” as a dying, wealthy woman ripped off by Lex Luthor in an early scene.

Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen in “Adventures of Superman”, has a cameo as a bartender. Cutting room footage of the Fortress of Solitude from the 1978 movie “Superman I” is resurrected, and the image and voice of Marlon Brando, who played Jor-El in “Superman I”, are reconstructed for “Superman Returns.”

In addition, the musical score of “Superman I” and “Superman II” are once again impressed into service. Finally, some lines are lifted from previous movies, such as Superman’s quip after saving a jet full of passengers: “Statistically, it’s the safest way to travel.”

One might think that all this borrowing from previous Superman productions would make “Superman Returns” hackneyed, but new material is creatively combined with old to make this film work. Lois and Richard, who happens to be a superb pilot, team up to help a severely wounded Superman during a ferocious storm at sea. Although young for Lois Lane, Bosworth projects jadedness in her complicated feelings toward the Man of Steel and her family situation.

Singer’s treatment of Superman is reverential, almost holy. Much is made of Superman’s deriving his powers from the sun. One of the themes in this movie is a play on words, “sun” and “son”, which takes on a religious connotation. Superman vigilantly watches and hovers over Earth with folded arms, hearing individual voices simultaneously, and knowing exactly when a particular person needs help. The God-Christ metaphor continues when an injured Superman falls limply back to Earth.

Conservative commentators are in an uproar over the omission of “American way” in Perry White’s description of what Superman stands for. The notion that “Superman Returns” is unpatriotic because it slights the venerable slogan “truth, justice, and the American way” is obliterated by Erik Lundegaard’s June 30, 2006 op-ed piece in The New York Times. Lundegaard observes that before World War II, Superman fought for “truth, justice, and tolerance.”

The 1966 cartoon series “The New Adventures of Superman” had him fighting for “truth, justice, and freedom.” The only times “truth, justice, and the American way” appeared, according to Lundegaard, were during the 1952-58 television series “The Adventures of Superman”, and from 1942-44 in the radio series of the same name. Thus Superman’s stated purpose has frequently changed with the times.

Yet Superman has special meaning to Americans and America. Superman was invented by two Americans, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The image of the United States as a powerful force for good in the world, though tarnished in recent years, has been imprinted in the American consciousness since the Second World War.

Superman Returns respects that image. Clark first reappears in rural Kansas, America’s heartland. He returns to his old job in Metropolis, an American city. And he lands a damaged airliner in a cheering, packed stadium during a major league baseball game. You can’t get more American than that.

At the same time, Superman is an international hero. Television screens around the world broadcast the news of Superman’s return. Even in “The Adventures of Superman”, George Reeves was traveling the globe, solving a mystery in Morocco and aiding a kidnapped Indian yogi.

In the 1943 film “So Proudly We Hail”, which co-starred a pre-Superman Reeves and Claudette Colbert, there is a scene in which a little boy in Guam is animatedly enjoying a Superman comic book. Superman was born in America, but he’s always belonged to the world.

Superman Returns is a great, escapist, summer film. It even cries out for a sequel. Hint: it has something to do with Lois’s son. Go see it. You’ll forget your troubles and the world’s problems – at least for a couple of hours.

Mark Stuart Ellison has worked as an attorney, reporter, and freelance writer. He is an author of Dear Mom, Dad & Ethel: World War II through the Eyes of a Radio Man.

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