What Bryan Singer has done, with Superman Returns, is to create something lastingly sublime.
For all the changes Singer has wrought, Superman has never been more Superman. He has never been more comfortable and at ease with his godlike powers, yet he has never been more human — and it is in this humanity that Superman Returns, surprisingly, finds its real strength.
Superficially, Singer has created a film that is at once a big-budget super-hero movie, a fantasy, an action flick, a disaster film, a romance with characters with butterflies in their stomachs, and a touching tale of adult feelings about legacies, children, fathers and sons, love, and regret. The film has sequences that outdo any number of action movies and big-budget super-hero films, including Singer’s own. What is far more amazing is that these different elements do not butt up against one another, but blend almost seamlessly into a whole. The sum is more than the total of its parts — it has that elusive movie magic.
What Singer has done is to create something so fused with Donner’s work as to be astounding simply as an artistic exercise. Yet Singer has managed to infuse this exercise with genuine emotion, with genuine freshness and wonder. The characters are obviously those of the Donner version, right down to the tiniest idiosyncrasy. Even the way Singer cuts from one shot to the next echoes Donner. But as impossibly close as each and every character is to Donner’s version, the characters are allowed to evolve. They change. Within the film, this is a theme: Superman has returned after five years, and life has gone on without him, with all the changes that brings. Outside the film, however, Singer has accomplished the impossible — fusing a new work with Donner’s, yet allowing that new work to breathe, to live and evolve as its own.
Here, then, is all the humor of the Donner films, that humor that made Siegel and Shuster’s strongman so unique in 1938. When it wants to be, Superman Returns is a remarkably funny film. Even in this, Singer has gotten Donner right or even outdone the original. The humor does not drag the film down, does not lessen the action or the very real feelings. Even better than Donner, Singer deftly balances the humor with the drama so as never to lapse into camp.
But if Singer has composed a remarkable love letter to Donner, he has also transcended Donner in some way. Brandon Routh not only succeeds at playing Christopher Reeve’s Superman, but somehow – impossibly — Routh feels like the definitive Superman. He looks the part even better than Reeve, and as we worry for Superman as never before on celluloid, we realize that it is Routh’s Superman, not Reeve’s, that we are feeling for.
More surprisingly, Singer moves the drama of the character into new and deeply touching terrain. For all of his masterful grace as he hovers above the planet and effortlessly stops crime after crime, Superman has also never been so utterly human, so sublime in his emotions, so capable of recognizing his own capacity for mistakes without screaming and turning the Earth backwards to undo some horror, as he did in the 1978 original. Singer’s Superman is even more unapproachable, even more unimaginably powerful than he has even been on film, yet we feel for him and identify with him as never before.
Singer may have used the super-hero as an action vehicle in his X-Men films, tingeing the action with feelings of youthful alienation and minority persecution, but in Superman Returns he has turned the super-hero into a parable about growing up, about learning to see outside of your own eyes through what you pass to your children, and about the way joys and sorrows blend in love and its fantasies.
When Lois and Richard, her fiancé, realize without saying it that no man can ever compare in a world with a Superman, it is more than simple deconstructive super-heroics the likes of which comic book readers have known for two decades. Here, there is a pathos, but without being pathetic. There is nothing cheap about it. Instead of humor, or superficial cleverness, or outright pathos, we get something sublime: the recognition of remainders in love, that we never compare with our supermen, or first loves, but that we love each other nonetheless and go on, generally without crying about it. It is here, as in many other scenes, that the film achieves the sublime, that bittersweet blending of sadness or regret with acceptance or even happiness. The film pauses, but only to let you think and feel its implications. It does not put up a rhetorical neon sign to tell you what it has just done, how clever it is or mature it is. Instead, as is always the case with the sublime, it simply is.
Consider Superman’s flight with Lois, a sequence that deliberately parallels their classic flight together in Donner’s original Superman. It is a phenomenally risky maneuver, given that this was one of the most memorable sequences in the original. Yet here the flight is tinged with regret, with nostalgia for the original and the simpler, earlier attraction between Lois and Superman. Still, it is phenomenally beautiful — in some ways more beautiful than the original, as Superman shares how he hears all the cries for help from the cityscape below, or as Lois reaches out to the skin of the water as they fly just above it. Singer knows that one can’t go home again, that one can’t redo Donner any more than Superman and Lois can just go back to how things were before he left. What Singer gives us is something also beautiful, but more sublime, meant to be appreciated in a more mature way. When the love theme from the original finally comes in, it is both wonderful for the love it signals, for how long it was noticeably and painfully absent, and also terribly sad because of how things have changed.
We weep. We marvel. The audience cheered as I have never seen it cheer at something intelligent, something legitimately affecting. Yet when the music and the dialogue quiets in the film, you could hear a pin drop and literally could feel how everyone is holding their breath.
What Bryan Singer has done is nothing less than a triumph, a super-hero film with great fun and shocking subtlety and more heart than just about any movie out there — and just about any Superman story ever made.
It is, in brief, a masterpiece.
For more on Superman Returns, consider my look at the prequel comics.