Superman Returns is a pleasant enough piece of hackwork, anonymous in all the right ways so that it neither offends nor thrills. Like the massive model train set on which Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) demonstrates his latest plan for world domination (think An Inconvenient Truth by rent stabilized way of The Abyss), the film is little more than a crystalline maquette spit-polished to an illusive glow, a hollowed-out fortress of solitude that collapses in the face of any emotional expression above tentative (so best restrain the urge, fellow fanboys, to shout out “Kneel before Zod!”). On some level it’s preferable that director Bryan Singer stays out of the material’s way to the extent that he does, but after a distended two-and-a-half hours I was longing for the homo hauteur to let fly with his patented queer-release sledgehammer (in such ample use during the eye-candy X-Men pictures) and whack me hard upside the cremaster. At his root Superman is a decidedly non-sexual character (he’s more an idealized and unattainable confluence of traits both Aryan and exotic), though as embodied here by stunning newcomer Brandon Routh his beauty comes across as particularly oppressive and fascistic. There’s an Ayn Rand joke just waiting to be made in the image of Superman bearing The Daily Planet globe upon his shoulders and when the camera rises to join our tights-and-cape clad hero in the heavens it quite humorously suggests a digitized, Technicolor rendering of Patricia Neal’s memorable ascent into Gary Cooper’s crotch at the close of King Vidor’s The Fountainhead. Yet aside from a reverse-motion shot of Superman inhaling the inverted and impossible breath of a Busby Berkeley extra while lifting a sunken ship out of the ocean, the themes and characters in Superman Returns remain frustratingly conceptual (reducing Harold & Kumar’s Kal Penn to a mute, drool-jawed bystander is one egregious error out of the film’s many). Singer steals amply from Spielberg’s recent output, most notably in Superman Returns’ recurrent half-glimpsed 9/11 imagery (prepare yourself for the eventual video bootleg that appends the film’s first-act plane crash set piece onto the finale of United 93) and in some half-baked father/son shenanigans (complete with Sky Captain-esque resurrection of Marlon Brando) that I would have more readily accepted had the film had the cojones to play its climactic scenes as the straight-male weepie version of Longtime Companion that they threaten to become.
- Bryan Singer
- Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris
- Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Eva Marie Saint, Kal Penn, Noel Neill, Jack Larson, Marlon Brando
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