The newest and so far the most highly publicized blockbuster of the summer follows the pattern of the other seasonal biggies like Mission: Impossible 3, Poseidon, and The Omen in pretty much repeating the hackneyed formulas of its predecessors. Despite (or perhaps even because of) the new cast of actors in all the usual roles, watching Superman Returns rather resembles patronizing a Starbucks or a McDonald's in a strange city --- the employees change, but everything else, including the costumes, the color scheme, the lighting, the background music, and, of course, the product remains comfortingly the same.
In this new incarnation, someone named Brandon Routh, apparently chosen because he resembles the late Christopher Reeve, plays the Man of Steel, and strangely, plays him as if he were indeed imitating Reeve. Apparently a tall, well-developed young man, he employs the same slightly ironic understatement in his speaking style, practices the same winning half grin, and as his alter ego Clark Kent, behaves like the same bumbling, bespectacled ninny. Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane substitutes a sort of wide-eyed eagerness for Margot Kidder's sexy, edgy sarcasm and, lacking Gene Hackman's exuberant nastiness, Kevin Spacey, sadly, simply chews the scenery as Superman's great antagonist, LexLuthor.
The film's title refers to Superman's reappearance on Earth after a five-year absence, spent examining the remnants of his home planet, Krypton. In the meantime, as Lois Lane tells him, things have changed, people have moved on, including her new situation, which includes a relationship with a live-in boyfriend and a young son (guess who's the father). Lois has even won a Pulitzer Prize for an article denouncing the Man of Steel and insisting that the world no longer needs a savior.
That last term, which recurs throughout the movie, emphasizes a stronger and more pervasive religious implication than in the past, a subtle touch initially suggested in the original comic books, which back in the late 1930s when they began, also stressed Supes' anti-Fascism. The mysterious birth, the unearthly powers, the single striking vulnerability, however, also recall numerous figures from myth and literature --- Oedipus, Moses, Achilles, Balder --- while the special vestments, the celibacy, the constant opposition from Luthor intimate some odd connection with Roman Catholicism.
The current film stresses the hero's relationship with his father --- played by Marlon Brando via archival footage from the earlier titles --- who actually speaks of sending his only begotten son to assist the development of a higher moral sense in the people of the primitive planet Earth. Once again weakened by his only flaw, the susceptibility to kryptonite, he suffers a brutal beating at the hands of LexLuthor and his henchmen in a most unpleasant sequence, and in effect undergoes a death and resurrection, again reaffirming his resemblance to Christ.
According to the normal procedures of the movie franchise, however, Superman Returns shows the protagonist flying about saving the primitive humans from themselves, performing perhaps his most spectacular stunt in the beginning when he rescues an airplane full of reporters covering a space launch and deposits the plane gently in the middle of a baseball stadium. He somehow achieves a kind of ubiquity, doing good deeds, both large and small, all over the world, and once again becomes an international hero. His love for the vapid Lois Lane, however, remains as strong and as hopeless as ever, apparently dooming him to an all too human life of longing and regret, a not unusual penalty for greatness.
Despite the potentially fascinating religious undertones, Superman Returns generally lacks any other real substance. Retreating from the opportunity to capitalize on the themes it initially mentions, the script tends to provide portentous phrases and gestures for the characters that float through the movie without any further meaning or development. The general mawkishness of its emotional level ultimately overwhelms the somewhat greater maturity it displays at the beginning.
Despite its predictably sensational stunts, sets, pyrotechnics, camerawork, and special effects, Superman Returns sinks into a lengthy, steady, humdrum rhythm of catastrophes and rescues, interrupted by numerous, extended two-character scenes. All the cinematic wizardry in the world cannot compensate for the slow pace, the long pauses, the meaningful looks, the dull and repetitive dialogue, the unrelieved sentimentality. Even the flashiest cinema magic needs some solidity: I don't attend a burlesque show to enjoy the music.
Superman Returns (PG-13), directed by Bryan Singer, is now playing Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford Cinemas, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown (also in IMAX format), Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview 13.