Gautaman Bhaskaran
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Saviour Superman Returns

The new American Superman is Brandon Routh. He not only flies back to earth after a long absence of nearly 20 years, but also returns to a large group of fans which would expect him to get into the red underpants of the late Christopher Reeve and play the Man of Steel to perfection.

Reeve died an icon in 2004 after a long struggle to overcome a riding accident-caused paralysis in 1995. In the 1978 “Superman: The Movie” Reeve and director Richard Donner transformed an American comic book hero into a celluloid cult figure, a Man of not just Steel, but Tomorrow.

The Superman, who first peeped out of the pages of comics in 1938, became an endearing figure in the post-War 1950s. Most American parents, who normally disliked comics, felt comfortable leaving their children with the Superman. He was seen as decent, honest and, above all, a true representative of the American way of life. If a child wanted to fantasise, it better be about the Superman, felt mothers.



Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns”, is, strictly speaking, a sequel to the first two films on him in the 1970s and the 1980s that had the late Christopher Reeve.

This work is bound to raise audience expectation and curiosity, partly because Reeve had become synonymous with the Man of Steel, and partly because of the long hiatus. “Superman Returns” comes after nearly two decades.

Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth
Singer’s work does not quite disappoint us. The $ 200-million movie cleverly balances modern technical marvel with traditional, old world charm, romance, and emotion. Even as the Superman flies from planet Krypton into earth and sees his old love, Lois lane with a cute little son and a fiancée in the comfort of a home, tears well up in the eyes of the man we thought had a heart of steel as well. “Superman Returns” has exhilarating shots of him as he jets along, sometimes high above our planet, and at other times along a fascinating city skyline, its buildings bathed in the glowing light of electric bulbs. Three dimensional special effects add a cocktail of thrill and suspense: we see the Superman gently bring down a crashing plane on a football field, and blow out a huge ball of fire as it races to destroy a city.

But beyond these high-tech magnificence lies a more heart-tugging story of the Superman’s deep love for Lois, a feeling that is warmly reciprocated. Warner Brothers and Singer have played this sentiment as more or less their trump card. That the Superman is a mortal like any of us is shown time and again. His concern for Lois, as when he asks her not to smoke, his near death in the sea, when she saves him, and his affection for his foster mother make the Superman endearingly human. But we never know why he leaves Lois in the first place, or why he comes back to her in this movie.

The story is pretty straight. Lex Luthor is out of the jail and plotting to sink a huge chunk of the U.S. to build his own continent, while Lois is a newspaper journalist who has just got a Pulitzer Prize for her essay, “Why the World Does Not Need a Superman”. The Man of Steel comes down again to lead men and save them from catastrophic events.

Kevin Spacey as the demented genius, Luthor, infuses the character with both comedy and anarchy, his best performance after “American Beauty”. Brandon Routh does not quite meet the standards laid down by Reeve, and the new man is a cross between Tom Cruise and Reeve. Kate Bosworth as Lane injects the emotional quotient into the blue body suit.

While “Superman Returns” is not strong on the acting front, the film must be seen for its broad message. With a hint of the Superman being a Messiah of mankind, Singer and two other writers, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, seem to have worked on the fear psychosis that prevails post 9/11. The aircraft sequence conveys this.

Above all, Singer succeeds in reinventing the character, making him relevant to the present day. So what if the newspaper world has a 1930s look where there is no internet, and where the cub reporters wear bow ties.


The Superman’s reputation and appeal are still in tact. Bryan Singer, who has directed the latest Superman film, “Superman Returns”, (Opens in India on June 30) told the Press: “The World may change, relationships change, things change, but the Superman endures” He may leave the earth (but come back as he does in this latest movie version), his powers may diminish and disappear (but return), and he may die (but get resurrected), but the halo around him remains steadfastly as bright as ever.

The Superman was conceived by two schoolboys in Cleveland, U.S., Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. They sold their work to a shaky comic book company, which modified the boys’ idea into an action hero with invincible strength. This Superman fought greedy corporate executives, nasty slumlords and corrupt politicians. Unlike the Superman of the cinema, the comic character did not take on super villains, and he was not totally indestructible. However, Shuster-Siegel’s creation had the same essence we are familiar with today.

And, this spirit remained undaunted even as the Superman changed mediums: the comic strips led to radio shows in the 1940s, and television serials in the 1950s before motion pictures captured him.

There, however, was a period when the Superman went into an eclipse, but in 1978, Reeve, with his sex appeal, wit and humor, revived him. The Superman story continued into the 1980s and the 1990s, albeit with different actors and concepts, some of them romantic.

“Superman Returns” is clearly yet another attempt to rejuvenate the social crusader in red underpants. And, perhaps more than that. In a world that is facing post-modern perils, the Superman is being promoted as a Messiah.

Many see the overtones of the New Testament in the story of “Superman Returns”, where he is sent to earth by his father to save humans. When the movie’s trailers were first seen early this year, comparisons with the Bible were made. A preview showed the Superman hearing his father’s voice (the scene lifted from the 1978 edition with Marlon Brando as the father) saying that he was sent to earth because men “lack the light to show the way…For this reason, I have sent them you, my only son”.

Warner Brother’s, who made “Superman Returns”, has been playing this sentiment to the hilt. Even the script appears to have been worked towards this. There is a scene where the Superman is wounded by a knife, and this reminds us of Christ being jabbed by a Roman soldier. In another shot, we see Routh standing with his arms outstretched, a copy of the crucifixion pose.

Will this ploy work? Made at a mega budget of $ 200 million, featuring top-notch special effects suitable for Imax theatres in 3-D, “Superman Returns” has a strong cast, including Oscar winner Kevin Spacey (as the villain) and Hollywood darling Kate Bosworth (as Superman’s love).

Routh is relatively unknown, but he has a heart that is going to endear him to the romantics. And, with a world that is weary of war and uneasy with even the thought of it, the Superman may well seduce us with his youthful charm and granite might that conveys, here I come to protect thee.

(Posted on this website on June 28 2006)