Superman Returns (PG-13)
Carmike Stadium 10, Chapel Hills 15,
Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX,
Director Bryan Singer doesn't waste any time letting you know that he's going retro for this franchise re-boot. Even Brandon Routh's squeaky-voiced delivery as Clark Kent provides frightening echoes of Christopher Reeve. Singer wants to return us to that time when, as the tag line famously announced, we could "believe a man can fly" because at last, special effects technology had allowed comic-book pages to come to life.
Nearly 30 years and an immeasurable number of gigabytes later, it's no longer exactly a problem convincing audiences that a man can fly. But the bar has been raised for the psychological depth given to super-powered folks in tights.
That's a crucial missing piece in a story that embraces Superman as an icon rather than an individual. It's set five years after the events of Superman II, with Superman (Routh) just returned from a quest for whatever might remain of his home planet of Krypton.
The world has had to figure out how to go on without him, with Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) having taken the departure most personally. Everyone is thrilled to know the Man of Steel is back, with the notable exception of Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), recently freed from prison and armed with a plan to use Superman's own history against the world.
Singer, of course, has plenty of experience by now with big-budget comic book adaptations after his work on the first two X-Men movies, so it's not surprising that he has a firm grip on action sequences like the crackerjack jet-in-peril set piece. He also gets great work from Spacey, whose take on Luthor brings more pure malevolence than Gene Hackman's interpretation. Great villains are half the battle in comic book adaptations, so Superman Returns would seem to be on solid ground.
But the other half of that battle is creating a compelling dramatic dilemma for the protagonist, and it's there that the script hits a wall of steel.
The big hook is supposed to be the romantic triangle involving Supes, Lois and her new beau Richard (James Marsden), and the lingering bitterness represented by Lois' Pulitzer Prize-winning essay, "Why We Don't Need Superman." That would, however, require some kind of spark between Bosworth and Routh, whose face seems as impervious to emotion as his curly forelock does to dishevelment. We never feel the tension of lovers separated by a hero's duty and his desire for a normal life.
Perhaps that's because Lois is only really in love with the idea of Superman. And that's not terribly surprising, because Singer himself seems mostly to be in love with that idea as well. He's making a movie about our need for hope in a dark time, trying to cobble his Superman/Jesus metaphors to the necessary machinations of a Hollywood blockbuster. The result is something slightly aloof a hero only briefly allowing us to touch his cape before he's off to the Fortress of Solitude.
It's not enough to believe a man can fly. We need to believe that the thing that's flying is actually a man.