As a kid it was most easy to love 'Superman'. He was the perfect superhero, a perfect role-model for any kid mired in comicbook pop mythology- faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive, he could soar into the skies, had x-ray vision, heat rays, cold breath, never told lies, was essentially a good guy who prefered his villians incarcerated when he should have clearly broken thier necks and as a sign of absolute irrevernce wore his underwear inside out. Okay, okay.. so did Batman, Phantom et al. But nothing clashes like red and blue.
But as the years went by and it slowly dawned that the world was far more imperfect than it ever seemed, it was Superman's very infallibility and political correctness that seemed to jar. He seemed far too perfect like a first bencher who still managed to qualify for the school cricket team. The consciousness was set for the likes of the brooding Batman who didn't spare second thought on throwing villians into a vat of acid or the wild-as-hell Wolverine who seemed to share his sense of justice with the Hell's Angels and Hellboy who sometimes tended to feel too damn lethargic to fight off the demons of hell.
Superheroe movies too, more or less followed a similar pattern. The earlier movies and TV series seemed more inclined to camp and action set pieces than make a half-way decent effort to convey a story. The first 'Superman' movie (1978), helmed by action director Richard Donner was one of the first movies to strike a perfect balance between camp, action and story. Other than a ludicrous climax which stretches your common-sense like none other, the movie set a new bar for comic-book adaptations. The sequel to the movie, despite its troubled production, managed to admirably carry on the legacy of the Superman series. With the third and fourth installations however studio greed took the forefront and what percipitated was the utter ruin of a franchise that was once pregnant with promise. Since then there have been many attempts to resurface the franchise including one with Kevin Smith, Tim Burton and Nicholas Cage. It all fell apart and it was only when 'X-men' helmer Bryan Singer took on the reigns that the project began to fall in place. Singer brought along his X-team of screenwriters, editor, cinematographer and music director, signed up an unknown Brandon Routh as Superman and in a master-stroke, landed Kevin'Kaizer Souze' Spacey as everybody's favorite megalomaniac Lex Luthor. Also Singer had the brilliant if odd idea of devising 'Superman Returns' as the third installment of 'Superman' thus discounting the third and fourth films.
What is clear right from the opening credits is the reverence Singer has for the first two films. Blue blocked letters that streak across a comic-book galaxy to John William's original Superman theme. The sense of nostalgia that Singer evokes is overwhelming. After landing Luthor and cronies in prison at the end of the second film, Superman it seems didn't hang around with an annoying Richard Pryor but instead took a trip half-way across the galaxy to uncover the remains of his home planet Krypton. Five years of soul searching and the Man of Steel returns to his adopted planet only to find that much has changed. The world seems to have accepted to live in a world with it's blue-eyed saviour and flame Louis Lane is married-ish, has a kid who may or may not have a (in the words of Brodie in 'mallrats')Kryptonian biological makeup and has recieved a Pultizer for her editorial 'Why the World doesn't need Superman?' But it just so happens that Luthor has just been realsed from the prison and has teamed up with a bunch of henchmen (among them American Desi Kal Penn in a thankless role) and armcandy Kitty Kowalski (piper perabo) and has managed to secure a humungous yatcht by playing toy-boy to a dying woman. What's more is that Luthor has harnessed the power of the Kryptonian crystals which also happens to be the only substance that can bring the Man of Steel to his knees.
The Action set peices are breathtaking. Especially the one which welcomes Superman back in true-blue All-American Hero style as he guides a Spaceship onto its course while simultaneously rescuing a baseball field full of people from being pulverized by an errant airplane which also happens to contain Louis Lane. The movie is replete with preposterous 9/11 imagery (people falling of tumbling building being rescued by Superman) and allusions to the Man of Steel as a Christ-figure of sorts. Singer directs these scenes with reverence and a visual brilliance that manages to overshadow the fundamental cheesiness of it all. The movie features some spectacular scenes of great beauty like when Superman rises above the clouds, his facade beautiful and majestic against the sun.
But all the visual spectacles don't stop the movie from being much more than a technologically updated rehash of the original 'Superman'. Singer seems overawed by the movie and the refernces brim over- Superman takes Louis for a romantic flight by night, the baseball is thrown into infinity, marlon brando as the father resurected digitally, the scenes with the younger Superman running through the fields and even Luthor's final diabolical plan is pretty much similar to his plan in the 1978 movie, only this time it involves a much larger piece of real estate. It is in the quieter moments of the movie that Singer leaves an impact. He manages to give an otherwise annoyingly wholesome character some moments of introspection and remorse. That will be his lasting achievement and contribution to the Superman franchise.
As far as acting chops are concerned, Spacey steals the show. He's mischievious, funny, psychotic and oh-so-utterly-mad. Kate Bosworth as Louis Lane is about as insipid as Katie Holmes was in last year's 'Batman Begins'. Piper Perabo, usually delightful in quirky roles, somehow can't pull off Kitty Kowalski convincingly. And as for the Man in Blue, Brandon Routh fills in the iconic Christopher Reeve's cape commendably but is lacking when it comes to alter-ego Clark Kent's boots. The late Reeve's comic timing and goofball charm is missing and there are times, like when Louis kisses her new lover, I couldn't help but wonder how Reeve's Clark would have reacted.
Singer's movie is far from great but as a comeback vehicle for a new-age Superman, it's perfect. It's spectacular, humorous and sentimental. Unlike the self-referencing superhero movies of late, he has dared to come up with a real superhero movie. The movie bodes with promise, promise of a 'Super' movie in the near future.