With the exception of Tobey Maguire's brooding, troubled, deeply ambiguous Spiderman, comic book super heroes brought to life on the screen tend to suffer from a kind of bland stoicism. Call it costume-doping: the cooler the threads and capes, the more the man inside tends to fade away. Then too, the requisite feats of strength divert attention from the figure to his powers - and these days, powers are written in gorgeous special effects, utterly encouraging the suspension of disbelief.
The set pieces in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, the cinematic return of the greatest American superhero, are that gorgeous and the representation of Superman's myriad powers are beautifully rendered. I particularly loved the deft portrayal of Superman's x-ray vision: subtle, romantic, kind of scary. Then too, the melding of views of Manhattan and its rivers with computer-generated locations of Metropolis is fun for any New Yorker. Who knew there were riverfront mansions in Long Island City?
This is no classic. It's overlong, the Lois Lane-Clark Kent romance is flat, despite the ministrations of Kate Bosworth, and Brandon Routh's Superman looks more like SuperBoy (who also makes a sneaky appearance, one generation on). It would be merely fine summer fare, a good outing with the kids (the youngest in his Superman t-shirt), except for the presence of one man.
Lex Luthor. Or rather, Kevin Spacey.
This is a Spacey flick through and through, his Luthor animated by wit and violence, a true living manifestation of the great comic book villains. The plot revolves around some stolen cyrstals from Superman's Fortress of Solitude - the place is a little dusty, because the Big Man's been gone five years and the left the doors unlocked - as well as the requisite Krypnote, without which - let's face it - there would be no tension around the outcome of any villain-Superrman clash. Or as Spacey puts it: "Krrrrrryptonite!" as he fiendishly grasp the green, icy prop.
Spacey is perfectly cast as Luthor because he is, in many ways, the natural successor to the Luthor of the Christopher Reeve epics. That would be one Eugene Allen Hackman. Along with his pal Robert Duvall, Hackman is one of those titanic "everyman" actors who did their finest star turns in the 1970s but continue to work continually: nothing special to look at, thinning hair, furrowed brow, rumpled suits. Raw clay physically, but filled with talent - understated talent too, the antithesis of Pacino and DeNiro, all realistic delivery and subtle glances. They make great cops, believable victims, terrifying killers.
Spacey's Luthor is right out of the Hackman playbook - he most closely resembles the brilliant sadistic sheriff Bill Daggett in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, a movie Hackman stole. Other key parts in the Spacey filmography (and who can deny he's one of our best film actors?) resonate with Hackman's example - Jack Vincennes in LA Confidential and Quoyle in Shipping News come to mind. Recently, I picked up The Conversation, a Hackman vehicle from 1974 written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Hackman plays an obsessed surveillance expert who stumbles upon a strange corporate murder plot in San Francisco (great location shots, by the by). His character is a sexually repressed, jazz-playing Catholic investigator with a bad temper and a warped sense of justice. The force of his portrayal carries the movie; a remake would be the perfect slot for Spacey.
The great thing about actors like Hackman and Spacey is that they arrive at their roles with nothing obvious in their possession - no snarling, shouting schtick. They inhabit the characters like men slipping on fine, hand-stitched suits: the shoulders line up and the folds fall just right. In The Conversation, Hackman tells his landlady, "I don't have anything personal, nothing of value, except my keys." Exactly.