The infuriating thing about Superman is that the mythology of his origin – two Jewish boys (Siegel and Shuster) reacting to Naziism by creating a golem – is far more interesting than the hero they created.

Superman is a hero so hollow and untouchable that writers must constantly fall back on improbable gimmicks (fifty-seven flavours of Kryptonite) to inject any element of physical drama. Superman could bring rain to the desert and end world hunger, he could destroy every tyranny on the planet. He doesn’t because there are, apparently some problems mankind has to work out for itself. Why those problems don’t include crime against property in Metropolis or engineering failures on planes remains unexplained.

Then there’s Superman’s boundless self-sacrifice. He could have anything, and yet he never uses his powers for his own advancement. Superman isn’t a real character, he’s a cipher: incorruptible, unknowable will all the intrinsic charisma of the lumps of clay that are used in the creation of a golem.

None of this is addressed in Superman Returns. Brian Singer is a film-maker I’ve admired for a long time. Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil and the X-Men films are well-made entertainments from a director with considerable skill and vision.

But all that is missing here. Singer has approached Superman Returns with a stodgy, fanboy reverence that abandons critical thinking in favour of obeisance before an over-familiar mythos.

There is no perspective on the character, no sense of what he might be for or what he might signify in a world where the exercise of power and the ideals of “truth and justice” have long since fallen out of synch. Instead Singer crow-bars his film into the continuity of Richard Donner’s first Superman (1978) – as if nothing has changed in thirty years. Then he beats the viewer over the head with facile references to Christ and resurrection, imbuing the whole thing with a po-faced drabness that even Luthor’s (Kevin Spacey) flashes of lunacy can’t dispel.

The acting doesn’t help. Spacey is entertaining, but the rest of the look as though they’ve been prescribed a heavy dose of downers.

The majority of screen time is devoted to the pretty but vacant Routh as Clark Kent/Superman. Yes, he does look a bit like Christopher Reeve, but that’s not enough. Bosworth, meanwhile, is the least convincing Lois Lane I’ve ever seen and (and perhaps this is an indication of a general backwards slide in Hollywood) she is notably less able, less spunky and less independent than Margo Kidder was thirty years ago in Donner’s film.

But most annoying is the fact the entire plot of this film relies on the fact that everyone is stupid.

If Superman uses his powers to their full extent, or even if he takes some basic precautions, Lex Luthor’s plans can’t work. It is only because Superman behaves like a buffoon that there is any drama in this story at all. Superman leaves Earth and his “Fortress of Solitude” – with all the information of an advanced alien civilisation – and not only does he not lock the front door (if there is one), but he doesn’t even have a password protecting all that dangerous information.  When he learns Luthor (his great nemesis) is free, he doesn’t keep one x-ray eye on his scheming to ensure his own safety or that of the people of Metropolis. Instead he ignores him, too busy mooning over Lois Lane. Then, when he finally meets Luthor, Superman doesn’t bother to check whether his implacable foe is holding anything that might be dangerous, he just walks up to him – arrogantly certain of his own invulnerability – and lets a middle-aged man stab him with a Kryptonite blade. So much for x-ray vision and super-speed!

This Superman is arrogant, lazy and stupid – and so are the film-makers. These characteristics may be essential to move a weak script forward, but it hardly makes the film or the character more appealing.

Meanwhile a room full of crack reporters can’t tie together the mysterious return of Superman with the reappearance of Clark Kent and Luthor, the supposed genius, sets out to create a new continent no one could possibly live on and with Superman at his mercy, fails to finish him off,

Some of these problems are an inherent part of the nature of the almost omnipotent character created by Siegel and Shuster and would plague any film-maker. Superman is capable of almost anything, so devising real plot devices that provide him with an actual challenge him is almost impossible, so creators have to fudge things. They have to make Superman incompetent and ignorant – or assume that the audience are idiots – to generate any tension. However, perhaps because of the uncritically fannish nature of this production, no one seems to have been interested in even acknowledging that such problems might exist.

In the end, desperate for some sort of emotional punch to this sterile toss, Singer resorts to that tried and tested Hollywood stand-by – he turns everything into a parable about the relationship between a son and his father – even going so far as to give Superman his very own illegitimate son. Both Superman’s fathers (Jor-El and Pa Kent) are dead, so obviously Clark/Kal-El feels abandoned – which no doubt leaves Ma Kent feeling suitably devalued – but luckily he learns he’s not really alone and so has a little bit of wisdom to pass on to his sleeping child in a final, vomit-inducing monologue.

This moment is a crass attempt at emotional exploitation wedged into a film that, otherwise, has nothing original or interesting to say. Its cloying sentimentality is the final nail in the coffin of an underpowered, unrewarding movie.

There are one or two nice touches in Superman Returns (I liked the extended destruction of the railway model recalling the earthquake sequence in the Donner film) but it isn’t a patch on Christopher Nolan’s recent Batman movie, Sam Raimi’s Spider-man films or Singer’s own X-Men outings. It is too long, too slow and too pathetically reverent.

The closest thing Superman Returns has to a moment of genuine emotion is the opening credits, when John Williams fantastic, familiar theme thumps out triumphantly. It’s all downhill from there.

(Originally published in Matrix 180, Aug/Sept 2006)

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