Superman Returns is a product of the same writing and directing team that made the second X-Men movie (X2: X-Men United), perhaps the best superhero movie ever. But what is interesting here is that the same creators -- director Bryan Singer and young writing team Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris -- have taken an almost opposite strategy this time.
X2 pleased comics fans without being for them. It took fantastical source material and rooted it in the real world, made it seem more human, more lovably and thrillingly mundane. By contrast, Superman Returns is awash in nostalgia and self-awareness. It's a geek's reverie, filmed with a burnished glow that makes the movie look something like a memory. That this obsessively reverent approach doesn't leave casual fans out is a result of something Singer, Dougherty, and Harris seem to understand: Unlike most comic-book creations -- and certainly unlike X-Men -- Superman is shared cultural mythology. With this story -- and the iconography that goes with it -- we're all knowing geeks.
Rather than break from cinematic tradition -- a la Batman Begins -- Superman Returns takes the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies from a quarter-century ago as canon: It uses the same musical score and same style of opening credits. It uses archival footage from the earlier films of Marlon Brando as Krypton father Jor-El. And, as Superman, relatively unknown TV-actor Brandon Routh doesn't just look like Reeve but seems to use his performance as a direct homage to how Reeve played the part.
Pretending the less successful third and fourth installments of the earlier Superman series never existed, Singer & Co. treat Superman Returns as an alternate second sequel to the Reeve original. The storyline has Routh's Superman returning to Earth after a five-year absence in which he went searching for the remains of his lost home planet.
Upon his return, the Man of Steel has to find his place on a planet that's learned to live without him. Though perpetual romantic interest Lois Lane (a brunette Kate Bosworth) is set to receive her Pulitzer for the editorial "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman," a television news scroll reveals a world gone awry.
The planet's problems are made worse by the re-emergence of Superman nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), whose grand entrance comes when he plops his wedding ring in the denture jar of a dying billionaire as she signs her fortune over to him. This Luthor has retained his real-estate obsession and penchant for skittish, unreliable female companionship.
Luthor's grand plan in Superman Returns is to create a new continent as personal kingdom from purloined Kryptonian technology, sinking North America and killing billions in the process. But despite a truly thrilling early action set piece -- Superman has to dislodge a space shuttle from its 747 launching pad and then stop the jet liner as it plummets to earth -- the battle of good against evil seems like a secondary concern.
Superman Returns is primarily about obsessing over the idea and imagery of Superman: swooning over the idyllic allure of the Kent family farm; paying homage to Reeve and the original-movie Lois Lane, Margot Kidder, with another lovely night flight; reproducing the iconic image of Superman lifting a car above his head which graced the cover of Action Comics #1.
Superman Returns does have some fun updating Superman mythology. (Jimmy Olsen gets upstaged by a 12-year-old with a cell-phone camera.) But, ultimately, Superman Returns is rooted in reverence. Singer's latest adaptation might be one of the most satisfying Hollywood films of the summer, but it's almost as much a meditation as it is a movie.