Gods and Monsters

Meryl Streep, dressed as Runway editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly.Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

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.

People who believe in simplicity and integrity do not make movies like The Devil Wears Prada, with its predictable Princess Diaries–goes–to–Condé Nast template, unearned moral superiority, ubiquitous pop-song-infused montages, and ugly-duckling heroine who is neither ugly nor a duckling. It’s bizarre when all the Runway employees wrinkle their noses at Andrea instead of realizing that, with her long legs and neck and skinny face and big, dark eyes, she’s pure Runway. Hathaway overdoes the girlish wonderment and isn’t up to her big, to-hell-with-the-devil scene, but she certainly carries off the clothes. They enhance her and damn her. On cue, her rumpled-dreamboat sous-chef boyfriend (Adrian Grenier) rejects her for becoming one of them and neglecting her friends—preposterous when you consider the hostagelike existence of restaurant underlings, as portrayed in Bill Buford’s Heat.

For all the movie’s dopiness, the director, David Frankel, knows how to accessorize. As the heroine’s snooty rival, the brilliant English actress Emily Blunt is a marvel at conveying the terror beneath the hauteur; Stanley Tucci makes the magazine’s gay art director a ghostly, fatalistic presence, a smart man who long ago stopped thinking for himself.

And Streep? She gives a fabulous minimalist performance. She’s not playing the brusque, speed-freaky Wintour, but a softer, more measured ogre, her silver hair brushed back, her anger signaled in the tiny tensing of a single facial muscle, her eviscerating dismissals fluted with an airy flick of the hand. In rare moments, she lets us see the child under the gorgon visage, but she doesn’t sentimentalize the woman. I’m not sure this Miranda makes as much psychological sense as the book’s Wintour dervish—but I wouldn’t want to work for either one.

Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly is the most faithful film adaptation ever of a Philip K. Dick novel—and also, strangely, the most muted. It’s a pity it doesn’t have more oomph, because the book is arguably Dick’s masterpiece, and as brain-rattling today as when it came out in 1977. The protagonist is a deep-cover agent living among addicts of Substance D, a hallucinogen with amphetamine-like properties. The twist is that his superiors don’t know his true identity—he visits them wearing a “scramble suit.” As his sense of reality begins to splinter from drug abuse, he’s ordered to spy onhimself; and so many of Dick’s pet themes coalesce—the mutability of identity, the fear of government, and the ability of drugs both to liberate the mind and destroy it.

As in Waking Life, Linklater uses “interpolated rotoscoping”: He shoots the film with real actors (here they include Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., and Winona Ryder) and then animates them—the upshot being that all the outlines wiggle, the molecules of reality in constant motion. It’s the perfect language for Dick, but just when the film should take off into the delusional-paranoid ether, it becomes rather static and remote. It’s terribly frustrating when one’s Dick is at arm’s length.

Superman Returnswould seem to mark the megaplex return of Kevin Spacey, but he’s recently said that he’s “not interested in [having a movie career] at all now” (which should please critics of Beyond the Sea). Instead, he’s committed to London, where he’s controversially presiding as artistic director of the Old Vic theater. Still, he had a blast as Lex Luthor, even souping up his on-set golf cart. “We tied a Superman doll on the back with a chain, so I just dragged it around,” he told the Website Dark Horizons, adding that he’d scream into a bullhorn, “Superman must die!”

Superman Returns
Directed by Bryan Singer. Warner Bros. PG-13.

The Devil Wears Prada
Directed by David Frankel. 20th Century Fox. PG-13.

A Scanner Darkly
Directed by Richard Linklater. Warner Independent Pictures. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Gods and Monsters