It’s touching to think that when Richard Donner’s Superman was released in 1978, the ads could tempt audiences with the line ”You’ll believe a man can fly.” Nearly three decades later, it’s hard to find a man in the movies who doesn’t fly. Special-effects comic-book fantasy is the atmosphere we breathe, and when you go to see Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, it’s with the expectation that you’ll believe a man can fly, and also speed through blasts of underground fire, land a crashing airplane, and stop a bullet, in slow motion, with his left eyeball — all of which Superman does, without breaking a supersweat. He’s still a sleek marvel of fun, though, even if we now take his powers for granted.
The surprise of Superman Returns is that it isn’t a funky, ambitious conceptual reimagining, like last summer’s Batman Begins. This really is your father’s Superman; it re-creates — and updates, though just barely — the universe Donner invented. Opening with the voice of Marlon Brando as he murmurs cosmic gibberish (somewhere, he must be giggling at the way his worst performance keeps getting recycled), the movie then blasts us with those lasery blue ”X-ray vision” credits, which now look about as eye-popping as a game of Pong. John Williams’ theme music has been revived, and so has the crystal-chintz Fortress of Solitude, where Jor-El appears on those Krypton DVDs. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), cue-ball-headed and deeply insecure, once again leads a fumbly team of camp thugs as he plots to be the ultimate real estate pig.
And Superman? He’s been gone for five years, having left Earth to attend to the tragic remains of his planet. It’s never clear why this would take him more than a long weekend, but at a Superman movie it’s best not to spend much time questioning the logic. What matters is that Brandon Routh, the 26-year-old unknown who took on the role that every Hollywood actor with a name turned down, has Christopher Reeve’s dimples, streaky eyebrows, prominent nose, and Olympic-gymnast facial planes, and that he plays Superman by unabashedly mimicking Reeve’s performance. As the twittery nerd Clark Kent, Routh stammers with mock anxiety, bowing his head as he pushes his glasses up with his index finger, and he’s all sexy, straight-staring chivalry as the clear-eyed, rock-chested Superman, a god too noble to be a stud, even when he’s coursing through the air with Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) in his arms.
Routh, it must be said, isn’t nearly as nimble a comedian as the hulking yet light-footed Reeve, who made Clark a figure of fun, playing up the way this office dweeb was really an actor, and carrying a hint of that amused spark over to his portrayal of Superman as well. Routh, who actually resembles a tall, buff Jason Schwartzman, lacks that authority; he’s virtually the same age as Reeve was when Reeve first played the part, but Routh’s Superman isn’t quite a man — he’s closer to an eager adolescent. As Lois, Kate Bosworth, in wavy brown hair and a permanent expression of worry, seems more like a corporate lawyer than a sassy reporter; she’s earnest when she should be zestful. Remember the Sunset Boulevard line about how movie stars used to be — ”We had faces”? At Superman Returns, you watch Routh and Bosworth and remember back to Reeve and Margot Kidder, that witchy-lipped flirt, and you think, They had personalities!
Yet Routh and Bosworth have a puppyish connection that grows on you, and it’s tapped by a shrewd romantic story. Superman Returns expands the love ”triangle” of Lois/Clark/Superman by having Lois caught between Richard (James Marsden), her spirited fiancé, and the hero she’s still craving. She also has an asthmatic kid who may just be a Supertyke. During Superman’s absence, Lois penned a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial (”Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”) that’s really a statement of her I-will-survive independence, and Bosworth turns Lois’ still-burning attraction to the Man of Steel into a haunted metaphor for the dream of white-knight perfection that every woman, potentially, gives up when she settles down. I wish that Superman Returns were more original, and (in its first 45 minutes) better paced, but Singer, after two X-Men films, is now a commanding orchestrator of pop spectacle. The movie gets tighter and fiercer as it goes along. Kevin Spacey, for all the hilarity of his zombie sarcasms, lends a hungry gravitas to Lex’s dreams, and as Luthor creates a crystalline fortress of megalomania, which evokes the remains of the World Trade Center, Singer does his grandest work to date. I was happy, in the end, that Superman came back, though I hope next time he does something I can hardly believe.