In 1977, Ma and Pa Kent were dead but Krypto the superdog was still alive. Jor-El looked like an extra from Buck Rogers and no-one had heard of John Byrne. Since then, the D.C Universe has been wiped out and reconstituted (twice). Superman has been portrayed as a yuppie by Byrne and as a fascist by Frank Miller. On the TV he's been one half of a romantic comedy and the lead in Little House on the Huge Pile of Kryptonite. But Bryan Singer's Superman Returns manages to ignore these developments, as if the Superman mythos was fossilized at the end of Superman II.(We're intended to pretend that Superman III and Superman IV didn't happen, instead of simply wishing that they didn't. The only difference this makes is that Martha Kent's death is reported in Superman III whereas in Superman Returns she is rather gratuitously alive.) From the opening bars of John Williams second most famous theme tune to the final image of Superman cavorting among the clouds, Singer seems obsessively unwilling to bring anything to this film which wasn't implicit in the first two movies. This is neither a sequel nor a remake: it's a collection of very reverent annotations.
Christopher Reeve is both brilliant and dead, so he is treated with the most reverence. The film is, of course, dedicated to his memory. Brandon Routh doesn't so much play Superman as play Christopher Reeve playing Superman. He doesn't look or sound very much like Reeve, but his acting style is eerily similar – especially in the Clerk persona, of which we see too little. Kevin Spacey doesn't attempt to turn in an impersonation of Gene Hackman, but he follows the zany megalomaniac persona to the letter. It's long enough since I saw the old films that I kept having to remind myself that it wasn't the same actor. (The most obvious difference is that Hackman mostly wore a wig, but Spacey is mostly bald.) Only Kate Bosworth is incongruously playing a completely different character from Margot Kidder, who admittedly never had a great deal to do with Comic Book Lois. Kidder was a career woman who had seen it all before; Bosworth seems almost to be an innocent caught up in events slightly too big for her. Jimmy Olsen and Lois seem to have aged in opposite directions.
There is nothing wrong with trying to recreate the cast list of a well-loved classic. But the characters seem fixed in pre-ordained roles; as if the earlier script circumscribes their range of actions. Not only is Lex carrying out a ridiculous real-estate scam that will kill billions of people; not only does he have a comedy moll who has a fit of conscience at the last moment; but he even reprises his "What my father told me about land" speech from Superman I. Perry repeats the "give me every possible angle on the Superman story" pep-talk. When Superman has saved the lives of the passengers on an experimental space shuttle he feels obliged to encore the old joke abut flying being statistically the safest form of transport. Is Superman a sufficiently iconic movie that today's teen audience can be assumed to have this level of familiarity with it? Over and over again, lines are given special significances because people had said them before – Superman not only greets Lois with the words "You really shouldn't smoke", but keeps blowing her cigarette out as a sort of symbolic romantic gesture. Would you automatically have remembered that that was the first thing he said to her in the old movie? And if you haven't seen Superman I in any recent decade you might very well not understand why everyone keeps quoting the speech about the father becoming the son and the son becoming the father.
The films structure also seems straitjacketed to that of the original. We get a ten minute sequence of Superman visiting his mother in the old homestead, which seems to contribute nothing to the narrative, but conforms to some rule that says that the story arc must go from Krypton to Smallville to Metropolis. At the half-way-point Superman shows off his special effects by flying Lois around the city – although, mercifully, she doesn't feel the need to recite any poetry. We get a montage of him zooming round the world doing a sequence of low-level good turns; followed by a build up to Luthor's mad scheme, and then a huge apocalyptic battle against disaster, climaxing with him turning the world backwards in the old film and bench-pressing a continent in this one.
Most curiously, every major plot event is directly extrapolated from Superman I and II – as if Singer thinks it would be blasphemy to bring anything new to the mix. In Superman I Luthor likes to make money out of real-estate; and the crystals in the Fortress of Solitude are shown to be able to grow and reproduce; so here, Luthor steals kryptonian crystals and tries to grow himself a whole new continent. (He gets into the Fortress of Solitude without much trouble. In the comic book, the door is locked with a very large key that only Superman can lift.) Even the Big Reveal -- which genuinely took me by surprise -- is a very natural development of something which happened in Superman II.
Cinematic vocabulary has moved on, and there are some very creative depictions of Superman's powers. The slowed-down-bullets thing, a monumental bore in every film since The Matrix was put to excellent use here: Superman bouncing machine gun bullets off his chest, and finally off his eyeball may have been the best scene in the whole movie. On-screen action is more frenetic compared with the old days: when Superman rescues the crashing jet, we keep cutting to very disorientating scenes inside the plane.
The film was oddly coy about iconography. The first time Clerk pulls his shirt off, we only see it for a split second; and during the first action sequence, we are not allowed many clear views of Superman. It was almost as if Singer was specifically trying to avoid a Big Moment in which Clerk reveals the "S" on his chest and launches himself into action. However, when someone snaps a photograph which looks oddly like the cover of Action Comics #1, Perry White helpfully tells us that the picture is iconic.
But the iconography of Superman isn't just lifting cars and rescuing aircraft: it's also about the Daily Planet; about Superman's double-life and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, and above all the Cyrano-like love triangle between Lois, Clerk and Superman. We see very little of this in Superman Returns. Perhaps if he'd had more screen time, we would have been unable to avoid asking how even Lois could have failed to notice that Clerk had been away for five years, and, er, Superman had also been away for five years.
At the beginning of the film, Superman stops a plane from crashing into a city. That is also now an iconic image. The posters advertising the film showed Superman swooping in front of a stricken jet over a landscape full of skyscrapers. Is the message that, if only Superman had been here, September 11th would have turned out differently: the world really does need a saviour. As with its overblown use of religious symbolism, the film is using highly charged icons to evoke emotions that it hasn't earned.
This is the heart of the problem. Singer thinks that he's allowed to use sacred images because he is approaching the character of Superman, the performance of Christopher Reeve, and the whole of the 1977 movie as something like holy writ. You can reverently illuminate it, but you can't alter it, much less have any fun with it. Superman Returns is at a very deep level, pretentious: a great deal of awe, but very little heart.