Superman had to survive a lot more than the evil plotting of Lex Luthor to make it to the big screen this summer. First he had to survive the executives at Warner Bros.
Over the past ten years, rumors repeatedly flew that a new superman film was on the verge of production. Among those projects the studio gave the go ahead only to later pull the plug on were one whose screenwriter promised a “campy” treatment that would anger the “far right”; one that landed the man of steel in a psychoanalyst’s office, cracking under the pressures of being a superhero; and one that was reportedly “heavily-influenced by The Matrix.” An adaptation helmed by off-beat Batman director Tim Burton even got as far as casting, with Nicholas Cage wearing the iconic red cape and Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen.
Thank Jor-El none of those versions made it into theaters. Instead, screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris and director Bryan Singer have reincarnated a current, yet classic Superman who has no inner conflict about his mission in life and remains unwaveringly devoted to truth and justice (though, conspicuously, there is no mention of “The American Way”).
After a five-year hiatus from Earth to investigate the remains of his destroyed home planet Krypton, Kal-El a.k.a Clark Kent a.k.a Superman (newcomer Brandon Routh) returns to discover that the world, as it is wont to do, has moved on without him. His arch-nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is once again threatening national security, having received early release from prison by a lenient appeals court. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is now the mother of a five-year-old and lives with her fiancé Richard White, nephew of Daily Planet Editor-in-Chief Perry White. Worse, she has penned the prevailing media attitude toward super-heroics with her Pulitzer-prize winning article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Now not only must Superman stop Luther from killing billions in his plan to create a Krypton on Earth, he must also prove to the public that it’s his prerogative to do so.
Casting Brandon Routh as the mythological hero was a stroke of genius on the part Singer. The young actor manages to call Christopher Reeve to mind so vividly in his speech patterns and mannerisms, that his performance could almost be called a tribute. Yet Routh also makes the character his own. His Clark Kent is equally awkward and charming, as his Superman is dashing, but Routh adds a sense of melancholic depth to the man who must, by virtue of his ability, remain an outsider. This melancholy never gives way to the self doubt we’ve seen in other recent superhero films; but instead adds to Superman’s certainty that his purpose is to be a light of virtue in the world.
While this storyline is unquestionably traditional, by introducing the question of whether there is a need for Superman, Singer and his team comically deal with modern mores. The idea that the Pulitzer Prize committee would award a point of view that disparages something so fundamentally good and (previously) American as Superman is laughable, but also all too possible. It may do so only for humor’s sake, but conservative audiences won’t be able to resist a plot that introduces the argument that Superman imposes his do-gooding on the world, with Superman coming out the victor.
Similarly, rather than sidestepping the Superman/Christ connection, Singer plays it for everything its worth. As Superman tells Lois: "You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior. But every day I hear people crying for one." Later, after Lex and his thugs beat Superman down Gesthemane-style, he rises, arms spread in a cross formation to the sun as his Kryptonian father’s voice intones over the air, “It is because of their [the human race] capacity for good that I sent them my only son.”
Clerks director Kevin Smith (who was at one point during the decade-long Superman production saga commissioned to write a screenplay) reminded the W.B.’s executives that “Superman's angst is not that he doesn't want to be Superman. If he has any, it's that he can't do it all — he can't do enough to save everyone… Batman is about angst; Superman is about hope."
Smith got it exactly right and it looks like the studio listened. Mainstream Americans may have responded with gusto to the conflicted darkness of the Batman franchise, but that doesn’t mean they’re too sophisticated to embrace light as well. Add to this the fact that the film’s incredible action sequences and delightful cast also make it supremely entertaining, and it would take an audience of steel to resist this Superman.