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Is anyone else out there drumming their fingers waiting for the superhero craze to be over? I mean, it's not impossible. Westerns had their day in the sun and now are revisited mainly as genre curiosities (or when there's something really hip to do with them, as in HBO's Deadwood). Musicals came and went, as did films about mutant insects turned giant by atomic radiation. But 28 years after Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie, the No. 1 mythical archetype at the box office—with the possible exception of the Italian gangster—is still the dude in a cape with the secret powers and the schleppy everyday life.
At this late stage, a comic-book-based blockbuster has to be genius on toast to rouse me from my summer slumbers. Both Spider-Man movies managed the trick, whether because of the appealing casting of Tobey Maguire or the genuine underdog quality of the Peter Parker character. Somehow Spidey really did seem to be flying by the seat of his red-and-blue unitard, making up the whole superhero gig as he went along. But Superman is such a hopeless goody-two-shoes, so filial and hardworking and clean-living, that awaiting the next installment of his adventures is like looking forward to the Sunday-school picnic.
In Superman Returns (Warner Bros.), Clark Kent/Kal-El/the Man of Steel (Brandon Routh) returns from a five-year sabbatical from world-saving by landing in his adoptive mother's (Eva Marie Saint) cornfield in a blaze of fire and upthrust crystals. Why did he decide to come back? We never know, really, but his arrival dovetails nicely with the newly hatched plans of Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) to rule the world by—well, the specifics of Luthor's plan don't really matter. Like everything else in this movie, it involves crystals. Crystals are a world-ruling strategy, a means of conveyance, and a kind of transhistorical iPod that, inserted just so into other crystals, allow Luthor to revisit the final words of Jor-El (Marlon Brando), Superman's long-dead father. A clip from the original Donner film has been repurposed here as an interactive home video of sorts, in which Jor-El tells his son the story of his origin, along with a hell of a lot of information about … crystals.
While Luthor bones up on the whole crystal thing, nagged by his shrill moll Kitty (Parker Posey, in full-on Cruella de Ville mode), Clark Kent returns to his job as a reporter at the Daily Planet, where he's coolly welcomed by Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). Bosworth is certainly pretty enough to be the object of a super-crush, but her broad, creamy face admits no ingress. She has none of the neurotic vulnerability of Margot Kidder's tightly wound Lois—which would be fine if Bosworth had taken the trouble to reinvent the character. Instead, she's banking on decades of comic-book history to make us care: We must love Lois, because Superman does.
The writers also saddle Lois with a serious moral blind spot in the character of her "fiance," Richard (James Marsden), with whom she's raising a child that may or may not be Superman's. I guess by keeping these two unmarried, the writers felt they could preserve our respect for Lois as she gives Richard the blatant second-banana treatment, even requiring him to pilot the plane that rescues her hero from near-extinction. I guess if your romantic rival is the world's strongest and nicest person, you're supposed to bow out gracefully, but I was waiting to see Richard finally blow a gasket. There's a lot of faintly sexual innuendo about Richard's ability to fly a plane versus Superman's ability to, well, fly. "Richard takes me up all the time," Lois informs the Man of Steel. "Not like this," he assures her, swooping skyward with her nestled in his arms. Point taken.
The film's most striking repeated effect, in which the caped hero dangles dejectedly in space as the Earth turns below him, emphasizes the passivity and loneliness of the character: This Superman's version of flight seems almost indistinguishable from a helpless freefall. Fair enough, but what's he got to be so existentially glum about? I know melancholic superheroes are all the rage at the box office these days, but thwarted love, painful as it may be, hardly seems commensurate with this endless mopey floating. Perhaps the odd advance rumor that this would be the "gay Superman" came from an attempt to explain the origin of his cosmic depression. Or maybe all Brandon Routh is mourning up there in the ether is the same thing we're thinking down below: He's no Christopher Reeve.