Was there ever a better time to be a superhero fan? Not since June 1938 when that first, 10¢ issue of Action Comics rolled off the press into the hands of all-American kids everywhere has the world had so many caped crusaders. From X-Men to Batman Begins to The Incredibles, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the world didn’t need another hero. And you’d be right... unless that hero was The Man of Steel.
Yes, Superman has returned. And what a heroic effort it took. The production story itself deserves a tell-all book the size of War And Peace: 17 years of nervous studio deal brokering; directors attached then detached (Tim Burton, McG, Michael Bay, Brett Ratner); rumour (Anthony Hopkins as Lex Luthor) giving way to counter rumour (Johnny Depp as Luthor, or maybe Jor-El); and all the time in the background the insistent, ever-gathering hum of that score... Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a phoenix rising up, up and away from the ashes of development hell.
Other movies might have buckled under the weight of expectation, but Superman Returns barely breaks sweat as it bears this mammoth franchise on its shoulders. Jumping ship from the X-Men series, Bryan Singer proves as comfortable around the familiar as the iconoclastic; his re-imagining is simultaneously a retro sequel and a progressive prequel to Richard Donner’s original 1978 Superman. It could have been a soulless, cynical cash-in. Instead, it lovingly wraps itself in Christopher Reeves’ still-warm cape.
The casting of Brandon Routh is inspired. Here is an actor who not only looks like his departed fellow thesp but also matches his bumbling humanity as Clark Kent and majestic, graceful strength as Superman. It’s not just Routh that evokes the Superman of yesterday: digital trickery returns Brando to the series, Kevin Spacey’s evil genius Lex Luthor (“Krrr-rrypt-onite!”) making a seamless link to Gene Hackman’s much-loved villain. It’s a return full of new beginnings, Superman pitching up after five lost years to find things have changed. On a personal level, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth, far too young and not quite sparky enough) has a child and a new beau (James Marsden); on an epoch-shifting level, the Twin Towers have fallen.
This is a post-9/11 Superman, his absence in his adopted country’s greatest hour of need a black stain on his red and blue outfit. It’s no accident that the biggest and best of the set-pieces is Superman saving an inaugural shuttle flight, hefting the flying machine out of its crash collision course in a scene that’s full of retroactive wish-fulfilment. He should have been there for America on that fateful day in September. To make amends, he suffers The Passion Of The Super Christ, nailed by Singer’s religious allegory (“The son becomes the father. And the father, the son”), Kryptonite-crucified by Luthor then resurrected to save the world. No wonder those old standbys truth, justice and the American Way don’t get a mention: this is Superman reborn not as an American icon but as the saviour of mankind.
By now you’re probably wondering why we haven’t mentioned the extras. Sadly, we can’t tell you about them. Not because we’ve been sworn to secrecy but because they simply weren’t ready when we went to press. From what we can gather, though, this isn’t quite the super-powered disc we wanted. There’s no chat-tracks or in-depth docs, just eight paltry-sounding featurettes covering everything from Superman’s design (The Crystal Method) to Spacey’s role (The Joy Of Lex) and bringing Brando back from beyond the grave (Resurrecting Jor-El).
Now we know you can’t judge an extra by its title, but unless these are meatier than they sound, this disc could well prove a super-disappointment. But then, to misquote Daily Planet editor Perry White: “Three things sell DVDs: tragedy, sex and Superman.” Extras or no extras, expect this disc to fly off shelves faster than a speeding bullet.