Clocking in at 157 minutes and shackled to one of the clunkiest mythologies in American pop culture, Superman Returns is surprisingly buoyant. The movie may not be a single-bound building-leaper but Bryan Singer reconfigures the daddy of all comic-book sagas into something knowing, witty, and even sensitive.
Not that Superman Returns lacks a camp appreciation for its material: Singer opens one dark and stormy night with a dying old lady (Noel Neill, the Lois Lane of the ’40s serials) leaving her billions to an attentive young paramour: “I love you, Lex Luthor,” she gasps with her final breath. Triumphant, he tosses off his wig . . . Meanwhile, somewhere in the American heartland, another elderly woman (Eva Marie Saint) sadly gazes out her window. Then the fire-ship crash-lands and a naked man catapults into the cornfield. “Clark!!??” she quavers hopefully. Her son is back and if you don’t know what I’m talking about you can march on over to Homeland Security and surrender your green card right now.
As evil genius Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) and his moll Kitty (Parker Posey in a Betty Boop wig) penetrate Superman’s abandoned Fortress of Solitude (an ice palace designed by Albert Speer) to learn the secrets of the universe (it’s crystal), Clark “Superman” Kent (newcomer Brandon Routh) returns from a five-year sabbatical to his job at the Daily Planet. There he discovers that his erstwhile colleague and heartthrob Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is a Pulitzer laureate, for her article “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” and perhaps not coincidentally, the mother of an asthmatic little boy.
Tense and brittle, Lois has moved on. Superman, however, still has a job to do. He’ll catch a crashing plane as it hurtles to earth and stop a bullet fired point-blank at his baby-blue eyes. Nonstop urban catastrophes allow Superman to zip hither and thither, dousing geysers of flame with his super breath, but he also makes time to take Lois flying. Square-jawed and clean-cut, Routh has a tender open gaze with occasional intimations of X-ray vision; he admits to being an inadvertent spy (“I hear everything”) and is more than a bit vulnerable. Late in the day, Singer contrives to have him plunge from the heavens, accompanied by fake Wagner, his arms outstretched like a dying angel (to land, still splayed, in the ER).
With his two X-Men movies, Singer had multiple misfit personalities to play with. Here, the Michael Dougherty–Dan Harris script supplies only one— actually two (or maybe three, given Lois’s willful inability to recognize Clark Kent as Superman). But, as Superman does his best to pass for normal, Spacey’s Lex Luthor becomes a super-necessity. The pleasure he takes in trilling “kr-r-ryptoni-i-i-ite” is compounded by the cold sexual enjoyment he projects watching the weakened Man of Steel being stomped.
Stressing his protagonist’s suffering and resurrection, Singer flirts with the idea of a post-Passion superhero. Why not? Invented in the 1930s by a pair of Jewish kids from Cleveland, Superman shares a common heritage with Jesus Christ and is no less universal. “Three things sell papers,” Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella) informs Lois, “tragedy, sex, and Superman.” Metonym for the movies, Superman goes everywhere—the Planet newsroom monitors his exploits as simultaneously reported around the world—especially Germany. Singer’s pulp fictions regularly reference the Holocaust, and here Superman’s return to Krypton suggests a heritage tour to Poland: “That place was a graveyard,” he tells his adoptive mother. “I’m all that’s left.” Prominently placed in the “Metropolis”-establishing shot, just south of the absent WTC, is that monument to exile, the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Other religions are acknowledged too (Luthor dares imagine himself the new Prometheus) although there’s not much lip service paid to “truth, justice, and the American way.” Still, by the time the movie ends with Superman treading air outside Lois’s window, the Last Son of Krypton has established himself as a complete Trinity. He’s the father and the son and, hovering over Lois and child, something of an eternal spirit. “I’m always around,” he assures her—just as long as there’s sex, tragedy, and papers to sell.
If the Holy Ghost favors a vulcanized rubber cape this season, the Devil may as well wear Prada. Improving on Lauren Weisberger’s bestselling roman à clef—inspired by her stint as assistant to Vogue editor Anna Wintour—The Devil Wears Prada recounts the adventures of a young Lois Lane in thrall to superwoman Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), fearsome editrix of Runway magazine.
Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), a recent J-school grad who, knowing nothing about fashion, gets flukishly hired to be Miranda’s flunky, is constantly told that “a million girls would kill for her job.” Kill is the operative word. A onetime journalist from a newspaper family, director David Frankel establishes Runway’s atmosphere of total terror—second only to Stalin’s court. Andy works for the most demanding, judgmental boss in the history of the 40-hour week. Always on call, she’s allowed 15 minutes for lunch and assigned tasks beyond the Twelve Labors of Hercules—instantly obtaining a pre-pub copy of the new Harry Potter novel or finding her mistress a flight out of Miami mid-hurricane. “It’s some absurd weather problem,” Miranda imperiously informs her.
Thankless hardly describes the situation. There were audible gasps in the junket-enriched audience when Miranda characterized Andy as a “smart fat girl.” But that’s before Runway‘s resident fairy godmother (Stanley Tucci) teaches Andy to go glamazon. Still happy and natural even in Manolos, she teeters on the brink of falling for Miranda’s world though, still a nice girl, is uncomfortable taking the Eve Harrington role to which she’s assigned.
A veteran of Sex and the City, Frankel knows his paper-doll accoutrements and further accessorizes boring Andy with entertaining sidekicks—Tucci and, elaborating on her rich-girl turn in My Summer of Love, Emily Blunt as Miranda’s snippy senior assistant. There’s also a grungy boyfriend (Adrian Grenier), always perfectly unshaven, who, as disapproving in his way as Miranda, exists mainly to inspire sympathy for the heroine. But nothing keeps Streep from devouring the movie. At once coolly indifferent and fanatically detail-obsessed, coiffed off-white hair emphasizing a hawk’s hooded gaze, Streep is the scariest, most nuanced, funniest movie villainess since Tilda Swinton’s nazified White Witch. To hear her dulcet exasperation—”I just don’t understand”—is to experience what comic books used to call the Vault of Horror. Miranda dismisses her flunkies with a casual “that’s all”—a sign-off and trademark for the sweetest of ’20s torch singers Annette Hanshaw that slices the air like cold steel.
The worm ultimately turns, tossing her cell phone into a fountain as Gary Cooper’s marshal dropped his tin star in the dust. Cinderella resigns but rather than writing a nasty kiss-and-tell, gets a real journalistic job (at The Village Voice circa 1990 per Sunday, June 18’s Arts & Leisure section), bouncing into the sunset à la Mary Tyler Moore circa 1970. Miranda smiles to herself, as well she might. The Devil Wears Prada is a tour de force for Streep, who gives her character an unexpected measure of depth, and vindication for Anna Wintour—she who cannot be represented unless it’s by Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.