Movies: The Gospel of Superman

The Man of Steel goes godly in a mythic parable that--don't worry--delivers the action-film goods

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A big summer action movie! About the very first comic-book hero! From the director of X-Men! The arrival of Bryan Singer's Superman Returns is exciting news to three groups: the very young, the perpetually adolescent and those cautious folk in the film industry who believe that the best way to make a box-office bundle is to clone the old Man of Steel story for a new generation of consumers.

It turns out that Singer and writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris had excellent reason to re-create the Superman saga, dreamed up in the '30s by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and elaborated on in countless comics, movie serials, TV shows and feature films. Singer, Dougherty and Harris went back to the story's premise, reviving it by revising it. Beneath the artifacts of camp and cape, they located a rich lode of myth. Just as important, they resolved to take it seriously. The result is an action adventure that's as thrilling for what it means as for what it shows.

The film is a kind of stepchild to the Superman movies of 1978 and '80. Superman (Brandon Routh) has been away from Metropolis for five years, searching for remains of his home planet, Krypton. He's back on Earth just in time, since his very arch enemy, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), has been sprung from prison and has a plan--diabolical, of course--to debilitate Superman using kryptonite crystals and, with the big guy out of the way, make the world miserable and profit from it.

Returning to his cover ID as Clark Kent, Daily Planet reporter, our hero has an awkward reunion with Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who loved him as Superman but not as Clark. Lois has three new acquisitions: a Pulitzer Prize for her editorial "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman" (clearly, she was in deep denial over the fellow who deserted her), a boyfriend named Richard (James Marsden) and a young son, Jason (Tristan Leabu).

Who is Jason's father? If you don't want to know just yet, read no further.

But we must discuss it, for this is where the movie displays its impressive ambition and cunning. Earlier versions of Superman stressed the hero's humanity: his attachment to his Earth parents, his country-boy clumsiness around Lois. The Singer version emphasizes his divinity. He is not a super man; he is a god (named Kal-El), sent by his heavenly father (Jor-El) to protect Earth. That is a mission that takes more than muscles; it requires sacrifice, perhaps of his own life. So he is no simple comic-book hunk. He is Earth's savior: Jesus Christ Superman.

Using snippets of Marlon Brando's performance as Jor-El from the 1978 Super-man movie, in which Brando passes on the wisdom "The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son," Singer establishes his own film's central relationship. It is not romantic, between Lois and Clark. It's familial--the bond of two sets of fathers and sons: Jor-El and Superman, then Superman and Jason. Each parent tells his child that he must surpass the old man's feats, improve on Dad's legend. Poignantly, this strength, this divinity, isolates Superman from Earth's humans. He can save them but not be one of them. Lois can love him but never understand him.

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