Few big-screen franchises have fallen so far or so fast as Superman, who has been absent from multiplexes for nearly two decades. “Superman Returns” provides a most satisfying resurrection, especially for those who have always regarded the Superman story as a Christ allegory.
The first two Christopher Reeve films were big hits with critics and the public in 1978 and 1981. But it’s hard to find anyone with a kind word for “Superman III” (1983) or “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (1987), both of which were so out to lunch that Superman retreated to television with “Smallville,” “Superboy,” an animated series and “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.”
Throughout the 1990s, and especially after Reeve had a paralyzing and ultimately lethal accident, it looked like television was where the franchise would stay. It certainly did in the 1950s, when George Reeves played the Man of Steel on a weekly basis.
Tim Burton, Kevin Smith and others tried and failed to get a new big-screen version off the ground. Richard Donner, who created the distinctive visual style of the 1978 and 1981 films, had gone on to his own “Lethal Weapon” series.
But a wounded franchise can be successfully revived, as Warner Bros. demonstrated last summer with “Batman Begins,” which more than lived up to the promise of its clean-slate title. In addition to a terrific cast, it benefited from a young and talented director, Christopher Nolan (“Memento”).