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Gods and Monsters

Superman Returns doesn’t exactly whiz by, and The Devil Wears Prada is rather too petite.

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Meryl Streep, dressed as Runway editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly.  

From the start, Superman Returns has a pall that it never shakes off: Even the superheroics seem like stopgap measures in a world slipping grimly into the abyss. Before the credits, we learn that Superman has been absent from Earth for five years in a search for survivors from his exploded home planet, Krypton—clearly a hopeless quest, and when he gets back, he spends a lot of time in bed in his mother’s house. Marlon Brando appears as Jor-El in footage from 1978, the actor relatively sane and trim, at least compared with the barking-mad barrage-balloon he’d become: The sense of prodigious waste is inescapable. The brassy John Williams theme and the familiar flying credits signal that the series won’t be starting from scratch the way Batman did—which means no matter how good the new guy is, we’ll feel the loss of the all-too-human Christopher Reeve. As it turns out, the new guy, Brandon Routh, isn’t very good at all, and when he is, it’s because he’s channeling Reeve’s dithering, butterfingers Clark Kent and his sheepishly grinning Man of Steel. In the first scene, an elderly woman expires after leaving her fortune to Lex Luthor—and she’s played by Noel Neill, everyone’s favorite Lois Lane from the fifties TV show. RIP, Lois. To cap off the funereal opening, the new Luthor is cinema’s most convincing sadist, Kevin Spacey. Is Superman being resurrected or buried alive?

There’s nothing wrong with tortured emotion in comic-book pictures. The genre’s writers and illustrators have kept their superheroes fresh by finding dark underbellies and kinky variations. (How about that gay Batgirl?) And ever since the Tim Burton–Sam Hamm Batman of 1989, it has been de rigueur in movies to focus on the freaky alienation aspect of the superhero’s life: This is how talented people make movies for 14-year-olds while retaining their self-respect. The director of Superman Returns, Bryan Singer, mined the gay-outsider subtext in the first two X-Men movies (“Have you tried not being a mutant?” asked a teen’s distraught parent), and he must have seemed the perfect guy to give this series the depth and urgency that Sam Raimi brought to Spider-Man.

Once past the overture, there’s at least a shred of hope that Singer and the screenwriters, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, are laying the groundwork for a soaring climax. In the Daily Planet newsroom, Clark is again an amusingly impotent bystander, and these are the best moments in all the Superman sagas: the ones where you wait for the doffing of the glasses and loosening of the tie. This time, Lois has just won a Pulitzer for an editorial called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”—a thinly veiled expression of rage at being abandoned. (The superhero took off for Krypton without telling her or the world.) Could this turn into a comedy of remarriage—Superman and Lois in His Girl Friday? No chance with this Lois, Kate Bosworth, the blonde surfer-queen of Blue Crush. She isn’t a bad actress, but she’s motorless, with guileless little eyes; and the hotshot investigative reporter is now an overprotective single mom with a frail boy and an earnest fiancé (James Marsden) whom she doesn’t have the wit to manipulate.

The bigger problem is that Singer’s weighty rhythms are disastrous for Superman, and the movie actually gets heavier in its last half-hour. Spacey’s Luthor—until now less a supervillain than a clammy businessman—mutilates Superman with sociopathic relish: The sequence is so ugly that Luthor’s lame, jokey comeuppance feels monstrously inadequate. But by then the audience has moved far ahead of Singer. A scene in which Lois tries to persuade her fiancé to turn his plane around and help the disabled superhero could have been compressed into ten seconds instead of dragged out to a minute, and the final scenes would make Wagner check his watch. It’s not that the movie is 157 minutes; it’s that it feels like 157 minutes.

Superman Returns has grace notes. The computer artists make Superman’s cape billow lyrically, and there’s a gorgeous moment when Clark uses his X-ray vision to watch Lois lifting off in an elevator. As Luthor’s moll, Parker Posey is splendidly tart, although the writers don’t seem to be sure if she’s dumb or savvy. (Did they change their minds midway through?) In a witty scene, one of Luthor’s thugs joins Lois’s son in a piano duet of “Heart and Soul” while Lois surreptitiously faxes for help. But even here Singer lingers too long. How can you make a superhero movie with no pop pulse?

The film of Lauren Weisberger’s novel The Devil Wears Prada—a scantily clad revenge memoir of Weisberger’s time as Anna Wintour’s assistant at Vogue—is a fairy tale in which the good little aspiring-writer protagonist, Andrea (Anne Hathaway), is tempted by the girlie equivalent of George Lucas’s Dark Side: the wicked, fashion-obsessed queen (Meryl Streep) of a glossy monthly magazine and her mean, shallow minions. Hopelessly ethical and unmaterialistic, our heroine nonetheless proves that she can be a triumphant courtier, look better in couture than anyone at Vogue (I mean, Runway), and retain her commoner’s integrity. If there’s any drama here, it’s slender—maybe a size 2.


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