Speaking strictly metaphorically, you have to admire Bryan Singer’s balls. Not only does he hand off the lucrative and ultra-reliable X-Men franchise to Brett Ratner, he grabs – and clings on to – one of the hottest potatoes in Hollywood history.
Attempts to resurrect the Man of Steel have been hovering around the various circles of Development Hell for years, with directors from Burton to Ratner himself seemingly set for the test. All of them, save Singer, took a long, hard look at the material, the context, the history, the demands of the fanbase, the emotional fall-out from the Christopher Reeve tragedy... and quietly backed away.
You can hardly blame them. Superman remains the most cherished superhero in history; the iconic blueprint for the legions who followed. He was also, of course, immortalised on screen to most fans’ satisfaction in Richard Donner’s beloved 1978 movie – and its diminishing sequels – by the late, lamented Reeve. To mess with the legacy of that iconic portrayal is to mess with the legacy of Superman himself. So it’s gratifying to report Singer is as adept with the S-Man as he was with the X-Men.
Comic-book movies have mutated since Donner’s wholesome ’70s version, and the problem with Superman – if it is a problem – is that, unlike, say, Batman, his unstainable character grants no licence to revisionists. Played entirely as written, he could grate with a generation weaned on more human, troubled men in tights. What, no tortured self-loathing or hero/vigilante identity crisis?
It’s to Singer’s credit, then, that he sets the tone perfectly, paying due respect to both the source material and the Donner movies. The nods are playful in places, quietly respectful in others (the reprisal of John Williams’ rousing score; the disembodied tones of Marlon Brando as Super Sr). Despite the resulting hint of melancholy, Singer’s tongue never strays far from his cheek. But he also doesn’t make the mistake of going camp. His intentions are writ extra-large with the film’s first major, major action sequence: recalling the 1978 scene where Superman rescues Lois from a piddling helicopter crash, here he saves her and fellow passengers in a flaming shuttle plunging down to earth. Setting the mangled fuselage gently to rest in the middle of a baseball field, Routh delivers, straight-faced and irony-free, exactly the same speech on the relative safety of flying as Reeve did in the original – Singer seamlessly reaching out to both his new audience and longstanding fans.
It’s the deftness with which the director walks this line between classic and contemporary that makes Superman Returns a success. The Daily Planet newsroom is modern and tech-savvy, but it also thrums and bustles with old-school, hold-the-front-page humanity. The Nacho Libre-like hues of Superman’s famous (but let’s face it, ridiculous) get-up have been given a 21st Century retouch, then bulked up to near-body armour proportions. Not that the guy needs anything as wussy as protective clothing – as seen in the magnificent sequence where a blizzard of bullets crumple against his unblinking eye.
Kevin Spacey hams it to the max as the high priest of comic-book evilness, clearly relishing the rampant, gloriously silly plot (he’s been sprung from prison, see, and is bent on ‘growing’ his own continent from crystals pilfered from Supes’ Fortress of Solitude, flooding most of the US in the process).
The movie’s Kryptonite is Lois Lane. She’s been recast in a far more active role, with the Clark/Lois/Superman love triangle complicated by a fiancée and a five-year-old son. Bosworth does a decent job – spunky, fighty, never shrill – but she’s too fresh and slight to convince as a hardened hack with nipper in tow.
So, what of Routh? For a newcomer, it’s a terrific performance: easy, wry, masses of inner strength to complement the looks. He carries Singer’s favourite theme (outsider torment) with an effortless zip, and his manner and image evoke a young Christopher Reeve to a spine-prickling degree. You will believe a man can fly – again.