Director Bryan Singer, of X Men fame, accomplishes the super-heroic in bringing a definitive Superman to the screen in the epic Superman Returns. The narrative picks up loosely where Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman left off. Superman disappeared five years ago, and both the world and Lois Lane seem to have given up on him. Superman’s search for remnants of his destroyed home planet, Krypton, requires the plot to go back and retell the entire saga from the beginning, from the cataclysmic end of Krypton to Superman’s humble Midwestern upbringing, to his secret double life as mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent and savior of the world and Lois Lane.
Singer manages to revivify the icon with mastery bordering on genius. Brandon Routh’s Superman captures the nuances of Christopher Reeves’ performance – the impish half-smirk, the gracefully acrobatic exits and entrances, the almost tremulous yet firm voice, the spirit of a humble clean-cut boy who grew up to become a god. Routh has the look and comportment from the classic-era DC comic books and inhabits an idealized vision of Metropolis and America. Crusty Art Deco-era architecture melds seamlessly with a nostalgic vision of the newspaper racket. A 1967 Mustang careens out of control in comic-book fashion through crowded Manhattan-Metropolis streets. Even the emerald-green kryptonite seems exactly comic-book right. Akin to Tim Burton’s Batman (Michael Keaton), this Superman is haunted by his past and nobly bears the burdens of being the last survivor of a lost world.
And yet, true to the original conception, while withdrawn into the crystal palace retreat known as his Fortress of Solitude, Superman learns from recordings left by his dead father Jor-El his intended role in this new world. Marlon Brando is brought back from the dead, in the form of remastered tapes, to play Jor-El, projected against various crystal walls. Fittingly it is Jor-El-as-The Godfather who tells Kal-el (Superman) he, as the father’s only son, has been sent to Earth as a savior, to bring light into the world of humans. Singer handily frames the return of Superman to the film-going public’s consciousness as a five-year hiatus in Superman’s universe. Singer adds the twist that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who has won a Pulitzer for penning "Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman," has a five-year-old son and a live-in partner, editor-in-chief Perry White’s nephew Richard (James Marsden). Sam Huntington plays a moderately plausible Jimmy Olsen with an obvious crush on Clark Kent, while Frank Langella’s Perry White is uninspiring, but serviceable.
The opening crisis-as-amusement park ride, involving a plane ensnared with a space shuttle, a massive power failure, and, later, the quaking of skyscrapers, all express a post-9/11 anxiety. The supreme show-stopping scene-stealer and Superman Returns’ best feature is Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luther. The diabolical genius outsmarts the Man of Steel once again, bringing him to his knees, stabbing him in the back and tossing him into the pits of kryptonite hell, all while taking over the world, one wisecrack at a time. Singer reaches back to the serious heroic Superman of World War II years and holds up to post-9/11 America anew this heroic vision of salvation. In doing so, he reinvigorates an original American archetype. Superman Returns gets it exactly right.