Fortress of platitude

Superman Returns

Underneath the suit, he’s just a man. Or a bunch of pixels?

Underneath the suit, he’s just a man. Or a bunch of pixels?

Rated 3.0

The handsome, vacantly appealing, formerly obscure actor Brandon Routh is said to be a native Iowan, and an erstwhile bit-part player on a few TV shows. But we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that he was created entirely by a computer. How, otherwise, could Routh seem so blithely, inoffensively correct for the title role in director Bryan Singer’s much-anticipated Superman Returns?

Sure, Christopher Reeve also seemed to come from nowhere and to be just right for the first Superman movie in 1978. But that was another era, before bullets bouncing off of eyeballs in slow-mo; before mile-long CG-enhanced camera sweeps through vast crystalline fortresses; before the universal understanding that whatever the season, one’s preferred material for capes and tights should always be Kevlar. This isn’t me getting nostalgic. I’m just suggesting that blithely inoffensive is exactly what Singer was going for—that his imagery favors synthetic textures and the matte sheen of computerization, now commonplace in the movies, and that Routh fits into it all too well.

So does Superman, actually. He always was rather plain as icons go, a sort of blank screen onto which we projected none but the most earnest and white-bread of heroic fantasies—before deciding, inevitably, to move on. Singer’s movie, written by himself, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, concedes that our having moved on is the unfortunate circumstance to which Superman returns.

After a needed soul-searching getaway, the Man of Steel leaps single-bound right back into his duties as a full-time newspaper reporter (in the coy, klutzy guise of Clark Kent) and a freelance savior of humanity (in the Kevlar). And what does he find? Not only does the love of his life, Lois Lane, have a child and a fiancé, but she also has a Pulitzer Prize, for an essay called “Why the world doesn’t need Superman.” He reacts stoically (you’ll recall that he was raised as a Midwesterner). He hovers, literally, eavesdropping on her with his super senses. This could get sketchy, but there are signs that she’s still interested. Make no mistake, though: The kid will complicate things.

The movie takes a while to begin, and to end; middling isn’t a problem. In more ways than one, it’s full of soft, weirdly protracted takeoffs and landings. Set pieces range widely in scope, from a thrilling jetliner rescue to a near-throwaway bit about Clark getting his old newsroom job back; there’s only an opening, he’s told, because another guy died. It’s a nervy little moment, which makes the end-credits dedication, “with love and respect to Christopher Reeve and Dana Reeve,” seem like a disclaimer. On the other hand, upon requiring his hero to hoist an entire kryptonite island into space and succumb to its depleting effects, Singer can’t resist going crazy with Christ imagery when a simple Sisyphus would do.

There’s also a reunion with the diabolical billionaire Lex Luthor, who has cleverly combined his principal interests—land development and the defeat of Superman—into a single wack-job scheme of world domination. For this character, who affects a manner of playacted dignity to curb his compulsion for egomaniacal tantrums, the natural choice was Kevin Spacey. Singer has made a shrewd, honest assessment of Spacey’s true gift, which is a sort of arch cartoonishness; where Gene Hackman had to stoop into the Luthor role, albeit pleasurably, Spacey rises to it.

Lois, by the way, is played by Kate Bosworth, whose career credits as “herself” outnumber those as fictional characters and therefore qualify her as Routh’s equal: more of a media presence than an actor. I was surprised to hear a colleague call Bosworth the best Lois Lane ever, just as I’d prepared to pronounce her the blandest. Give me that nutty Margot Kidder any day. (This is me getting nostalgic.)

But we can save these arguments for the chat room or the conference room; meanwhile, Singer can be proud that they persist at all. That must have been the plan behind his Kentian mock shyness and calculated decorum all along. Yes, Superman Returns seems mechanically safe and mild-mannered, but it’s got some heart and some muscle, too, for which you’ll come to appreciate having it around—even if you thought you’d already moved on.