Fear of Flying
by Eric Kohn
Dir. Bryan Singer, U.S., Warner Bros.
In late 2004, I had the unique opportunity to watch Bryan Singer and his writing team, Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty, field questions about the Man of Steel. It was no more than a few days after it had been announced that the director was slated to resurrect the beleaguered Superman franchise, which had dwindled as a film project after several false starts and an appallingly bloated budget. Needless to say, the buzz was palpable. This was Bryan Singer, after all, who immortalized Keyser Soze before making a bold leap to the farfetched fantasies of the X-Men films, and, amazingly, succeeding. The fluid action in the X-Men films never dwindles, but the central theme of camaraderie among outsiders—unavoidable since the mutants band together in response to societal rejection— isn’t trumped by the onslaught of effects. Singer understood and respected his audience’s demand that the spectacle mesh with an engaging story, which is particularly impressive given the multitude of characters involved. The Superman saga essentially centers on the trials of one almighty persona, so, the logic goes, for Singer it should be a breeze.
Singer, Harris, and Dougherty kept the room smiling by displaying reverence for the first two contemporary Superman films, both directed by Richard Donner and starring the iconically debonair Christopher Reeve. The filmmakers had no interest in what was condescendingly referred to as the “Richard Pryor Superman,” meaning the uneven schizo plotline of Superman III nor did they care for 1987’s atrocious Cold War relic Superman IV: the Quest for Peace. They joked about unrealized versions of a fifth film, especially the Tim Burton project that would have starred Nicolas Cage, whom Harris referred to as “white-trash Superman,” a satiric epithet met with a roomful of laughter in agreement. Their cynicism served to discount the idea that they planned to do anything that would depart from the strengths of the series’ earlier entries. Their film was Superman Returns, and he was returning not only to Earth but also to an oeuvre that had something pretty good going before it lost steam.
The excitement was reasonable, but I remain skeptical about the nature of the film’s existence. Donner’s entries work because they insist on faith in a 40-year-old mythology, leading back to the first issue of Action Comics in 1938. Certainly Superman was “the ultimate immigrant,” as Singer has explained to interviewers, since he was conceived by Jerry Sigel and Joel Schuster, who came from European Jewish families that would know a thing or two about all that. The origin story, which every man, woman, and child can recite like a psalm— about a destroyed home planet and powers provided for the sole survivor by our puny sun—is the product of science-fiction ingenuity. It seems like a real recognition of the Superman legacy would acknowledge the now nearly 70-year-old mythology, rather than jumping back three decades to the last time Hollywood was up to the task of adaptation. Don’t get me wrong: I geeked out with the rest of the bewildered herd when John Williams’s original score echoed across the pavilion; I smiled in appreciation at the totally retro vibe of the bright blue credit font that imitates those in the older films; I can’t help but agree that Brandon Routh fits the Superman mold by looking like he could be Reeve’s younger, more nubile brother. But I still have to wonder if any of that is really necessary. With a legend that stretches back to before World War II, why not reach deeper into the goodie bag of pop-culture dynamite?
Much has been said about the charm of Singer’s films, especially since he sacrificed the X-Men franchise by passing the buck along to Brett Ratner, whose X-Men: The Last Stand brought the triptych to a close with a resounding thud. Now that both directors have played separate roles in the creation of a single story arc, their techniques stand in stark contrast to each other. Singer is an artist who understands nuance, allowing silence to dominate entire scenes, telling stories in fleeting glances, giving meaning to the tension of a well-choreographed battle. Ratner thinks in loud noises and inane dialogue. Superman Returnshas a lot of the elements that make a Singer film work, and very few of the distractions that make a Ratner film awful. The CG is marvelous, of course, but even though it’s plenty fun to watch Superman save a wingless plane from interrupting a major league baseball game, Singer provides an additional, unexpected perspective—the pedestrian’s view, as a miniscule blurb of blue and red wisping across a clear afternoon sky. Those small moments create a sense of awe to balance out the more raucous action.
Harris and Dougherty’s script demonstrates an appropriate understanding that Superman, along with his Clark Kent alter ego, is a rather unremarkable character who works for an objective good, abiding by an anachronistic sense of patriotism. Take, for example, the airplane rescue scene. Once the environment is secured, our hero checks with the passengers to make sure they haven’t been put off air travel—statistically speaking, he points out, it is still the best way to fly. This snippet of advice, corny though it may be, is consistent with his personality, both as a character beyond the film and within its context. As the story starts, Superman returns to Earth after six years of soul searching across the universe. Six years? No wonder he’s so quick to endorse air travel.
Other characters are less enthralling but competently performed. Kevin Spacey nails the cartoonish villainy of Lex Luthor, as expected. His ghastly scheme involves some flimsy idea to create a continent made of Kryptonite, and Spacey channels the character’s sad vanity through the inanity of Luthor’s plan. Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane looks enough like an old school Hollywood dame that her awkward love triangle, which places her between an affable husband and Superman, is easy on the eyes if occasionally a bit tough on the ears. But that’s fine, because their best scene is a classy nighttime trip through the clouds, which works just as well here as it did for Donner.
And yet. The movie runs nearly half an hour longer than it should, with a new plot strand introduced in the third act that has questionable vitality in the presumed sequel. Here, it’s a distraction. The final showdown between Superman and Luthor lacks momentum, and much of the resolution is inexcusably dumbed down. These issues can’t be tracked to a particular flaw, but rather to several miniscule issues that could have benefited from a looser production schedule. David Poland has decried the film for being “terribly cast, poorly conceived, extremely light on action, [featuring] a romance that is not remotely romantic, [and not featuring] a single memorable, ‘gosh, that was great’ repeat-to-your-friends moment in a positive way.” He’s right, but he’s not right. The movie jives with a coherent rhythm and isn’t afraid to waste a few seconds on a close-up. That patience carves out room for the action, but only when its presence is deserved. Poland’s criticism of the material for lacking believability is disingenuous, since the original stories have featured far more ludicrous concepts for decades, and the public’s interest has never completely waned. Superman Returns doesn’t suffer from incredulousness, but rather from a lack of originality. In one of its finest set pieces, our hero nearly sacrifices himself by hurling a ball of fatal kryptonite into space, then loses consciousness and gradually plummets to Earth while thousands watch, entranced. The sequence is more lyrical than thrilling, suggesting a terrific scene that belongs in a better movie. And it has metaphorical ramifications that seem to be self-critical, a defense against people like me who like to see more invention rather than consistency: Even when crazy Kal-El tries to break away, the people bring him crashing back to familiar terra firma.