Mytho-poeticism is the chord most frequently struck by Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, a spiritual successor to Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (right down to its use of John Williams’ theme) filled with so many grandly iconic images that it’s rather easy to dismiss the film’s not-inconsiderable shortcomings. From its recurring, yet rarely excessive, Christ symbolism (replete with a Passion of the Christ thrashing) to a beautifully understated shot casting the Man of Steel as Atlas, this reverent and often rousing revisitation of the Superman saga trades in the stuff of allegorical legend, casting Superman’s return to Earth after a five years absence – during which he vainly searched for the remnants of destroyed homeworld Krypton – as a quasi-Biblical epic about the burden of responsibility, the bittersweet anguish of impossible love, and the vital, impregnable bond between fathers and sons. It’s a lofty goal, and one partially undercut by a clunky set-up full of unnecessary exposition (highlighted by a listing of Superman’s well-known strengths and weaknesses), too few instances of jaw-dropping action (save for a Space Shuttle rescue mission), and Lex Luthor’s (Kevin Spacey) underwhelmingly evil scheme.
Yet Singer, far more than with his dialogue-driven X-Men pics, expresses his hero’s majesty and isolated grief through sumptuously visual means. Via a series of superb compositions (including an X-Ray vision image of an elevator and a rotating nighttime flight past the Daily Planet globe), the director brings melancholic heft to the complicated relationship between Superman and go-getting reporter Lois Lane (a slightly too nondescript Kate Bosworth), the latter of whom has, during Supes’ unexplained disappearance, apparently had a son with editor Perry White’s (Frank Langella) nephew Richard (James Marsden). Cutting a commanding (if occasionally blank) figure as the Big S, Brandon Routh fills Christopher Reeve’s tights more successfully than Spacey does Gene Hackman’s toupees, his Luthor an amusing but bantamweight villain whose psychotic sadism only begins to flourish at film’s conclusion. But it’s Singer’s knack for illustrative expressiveness that ultimately allows Superman Returns to transcend its deficiencies, never more so than with a shot of Superman hovering above Earth listening to humanity’s distressed cries for help – a moment that eloquently encapsulates how the reluctant savior’s extraordinary powers simultaneously bind him to, and alienate him from, his fellow man.