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Talking Movies [Superman Month]: Superman Returns

In 2013, DC Comics declared the 12th of June as “Superman Day”, a day for fans of the Man of Steel the world over to celebrate Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, the superpowered virtue of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” who is widely regarded as the first ever costumed superhero. This year, I’m spending every Monday of June celebrating the Man of Steel as I expand Superman Day to “Superman Month“.

This review has been supported by Chiara Cooper.
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Released: 28 June 2006
Director: Bryan Singer
Warner Bros. Pictures
$270 million
Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Parker Posey, Tristan Lake Leabu, James Marsden, and Kevin Spacey

The Plot:
Returning to Earth after five years in deep space investigating the remains of his home planet, Krypton, Clark Kent/Superman (Routh) returns to find former flame Lois Lane (Bosworth) married and with a young son. However, as he struggles to acclimatise to a world that may no longer need him, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Spacey) steals Kryptonian technology and enacts a diabolical plot avenge himself on the Man of Steel.

The Background:
Those that have read my reviews will know that my opinions of the four live-action Superman feature films produced between 1978 and 1987 are somewhat dismissive. There are elements from each of them that I enjoy, and obviously I enjoy Christopher Reeve’s iconic portrayal of the title character, but overall I feel they haven’t really aged well at all and often hold back reinterpretations of the character. After Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (Furie, 1987) turned out to be a dismal financial and critical failure, Superman was persona non grata from cinema screens for nearly twenty years. Oh, sure, he had a few live-action and animated shows to tide him over and some pretty big comic book events in the intervening years but Warner Bros. struggled to get a new feature film off the ground. After attempts by the likes of writer/director Kevin Smith and Tim Burton failed to materialise and cost the studio millions in production costs, director Bryan Singer conceived of and pitched the general idea of Superman Returns during filming of X2: X-Men 2/X-Men United (Singer, 2003). Wishing to recapture the magic of Richard Donner’s original film, Singer cast relative unknown Brandon Routh in the title role because of his many similarities to the late Christopher Reeve, acquired permission to repurpose Marlon Brandon’s footage from the first two Superman movies, and envisioned the film as a continuation of Donner’s films. Superman Returns was supposed to be a pretty big deal for DC Comics, Warner Bros. and Superman in general but, while the film’s $391.1 million gross meant that it was a financial success, the film was met with mixed reviews and even Bryan Singer later expressed regret with the direction and marketing of the film. This all sank plans for a sequel and Superman wouldn’t return to cinema screens for another seven years, though Routh did return to the role as an aged version of Superman in “Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part Two” (Belsey, 2019).

The Review:
Superhero cinema was in an interesting place in the early 2000s; the X-Men (Singer; Ratner, 2000 to 2006) and Spider-Man (Raimi, 2002 to 2007) trilogies were proving to be big box office hits, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a mere pipedream at that point despite the growing influx of adaptations produced year after year. While Marvel adaptations were undoubtably popular and successful, and had proven that the genre could be critically and commercial successful, it was Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005) that arguably turned the most heads when it came to bringing prestige to the genre. Ignoring its camp, cartoony predecessor in favour of a dark, serious take on the character and bolstered by a reputable cast, Batman Begins took the source material seriously and so anticipation was quite high when Superman Returns was announced as the character had similarly stagnated since his last ridiculous onscreen appearance. In a move I found surprising considering I grew up with the Post-Crisis John Byrne version of the Man of Steel, who was (initially) quite different from his more ludicrous Golden and Silver Age counterpart, Superman Returns opted not to reboot the character like in Batman Begins, but to position itself as a continuation of Richard Donner’s films, one that ignored (or presumably ignored) all of the sequels after the first film save for some tenuous links to Superman II (Lester, 1980) and sought to bring Christopher Reeves’ iconic version of the Man of Steel into a post-9/11 world following a lengthy absence.

Superman returns from a five year absence to find the world has moved on without him.

This, for me, meant that the film started on rocky ground right from the off; as much as I enjoyed Donner’s original version of Superman, I never understood the decision to resurrect that character rather than reboot it from scratch. After all, it’s not as if Batman Begins was a prequel to Batman (Burton, 1989) so it just seemed like a shameless cash-in on the iconography and success of Donner’s influential first film. The film’s premise is that, after becoming the world’s foremost superpowered protector and opposing the mad schemes of Lex Luthor, Superman abandoned the world to its own devices when astronomers discovered Krypton’s remains many light-years away. Even in a repurposed Kryptonian spacecraft, the trip there and back takes Superman five years and, obviously, results only in Superman finding the shattered remains of his home world. So, right away there’s a lot of questions here: why did Superman feel compelled to go and see this when he knew from the words of his long-dead father, Jor-El (Marlon Brando), that Krypton was destroyed? What was he hoping to gain from this? There’s a sense that he wanted closure but…why? He seemed perfectly happy to accept that Krypton was dead and that the Earth was his true home, so suddenly taking off like that really doesn’t make any sense at all, especially considering Superman and Superman II made such a big deal about his attachments and importance to humanity. When Superman returns, the world has largely moved on without him; not only that, Lex Luthor has spent the intervening years showing elderly Gertrude Vanderworth (Noel Neill) “pleasures that [she’s] never felt” in order to con her out of her vast wealth and return himself to a position of power and prominence. Clark’s own elderly mother, Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint) is still alive, however, and has been covering for his lengthy absence by sending regular letters and postcards to his Daily Planet colleagues while maintaining his old childhood farm home in Smallville and stockpiling newspapers and reports so he can catch up on what he missed.

Clark is stunned to find Lois has settled down with a family and feels a resentment towards Superman.

Superman’s absence had two very important side effects for both his personal life and the entire world; first was that intrepid reporter Lois Lane won a Pulitzer Prize for her article “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” and has established a family of her own with fiancé Richard White (Marsden) and son Jason (Leabu) and the second is that Luthor was even able to get out of prison in the first place. Thanks to his disregard for due process and missing a vital court appearance, Superman was indirectly responsible for Luthor being remanded into Gertrude’s custody and released back into the civilised world, and his abandonment of his duties and responsibilities is only part of the reason why Lois acts so cold towards him. She learned to live without him, as did the rest of the world but, while everyone else applauds his long-awaited return, she is resentful of him because she feels he abandoned her as much as anything (or anyone) else. Richard is the pilot nephew of Daily Planet editor Perry White (the masterful, and completely wasted Frank Langella) and his characterisation seems to boil down to him being a nice guy who’s supportive of his wife, loves his child, and is jealous of Superman and Lois’s obvious fascination with him. Otherwise, he’s just kind of there and only really comes into prominence when questioning Lois’s previous relationship with Superman and in the climax, when his convenient piloting skills help rescue Superman for his big finale, and I can’t help but feel like Marsden made a mistake abandoning his role as Scott Summers/Cyclops in the X-Men films for such an inconsequential role. As for Lois, she’s noticeably different from the Margot Kidder version in many ways, but no less daring and inquisitive; she continually puts herself right at the forefront of big stories, even if it means she’s placed in mortal danger, and has her world (and her heart) turned upside down when Superman returns. As ever, she barely even registers that Clark is back and is instead constantly distracted by Superman, to the point where she confronts him directly. Thankfully, the two don’t end up going for a long, awkward flight with a cheesy song this time around, and she warms towards him after learning of his reasons for leaving.

Despite his personal drama, Clark continues his façade as a bungling reporter and saving lives as Superman.

Upon returning to Earth, Clark immediately jumps back into his old life; he returns to work at the Daily Planet and continues putting on the act of a good-natured, bungling reporter to contrast with the confidant and heroic Superman. Considering he was a relative unknown, and such a fresh-faced young actor at the time, Brandon Routh does a masterful job of not only resembling the late, great Christopher Reeves but adopting many of the same mannerisms he showcased as both Clark and Superman. He certainly looks the part, and fills out the suit well, and I buy that he’s a slight variation of this character, but there’s something a little off about him. It’s possibly because Routh was given the monumental task of being the first big-screen Superman in twenty years and also emulating Reeves’ performance; any actor has big shoes to fill when taking on Superman, but only Routh had to literally be Reeves’ version of the character. Consequently, comparisons between the two are not only inevitable but actively encouraged by the film’s presentation as a sequel to Donner’s film, which I feel unfairly reflects on Routh’s performance here. He gives it a good shot and certainly embodies many of the moral and physical ideals of the character, but he was lumbered not just was continuing Reeves’ performance but also a diabolical script that called for him to morosely stalk his former flame and cast him in an uncomfortable light as an unreliable, overly sombre, and disappointingly stoic Superman. Routh has few moments to showcase the character’s friendlier, more trusting characteristics and this is a shame as he had a wonderful smile and exudes charisma in these moments, but Superman is so weighed down with doubts and regrets and drama that it really sucks all the life and fun out of the character (and the film). Even Clark’s bungling nature can’t really salvage these moments, again mainly because his comic book counterpart had also evolved quite a great deal since the seventies. Instead, what we’re left with is a throwback to an outdated version of the character and a sullen version of the Man of Steel who’s so distracted by his personal issues that he doesn’t realise Luthor is a threat until it’s almost too late, which is odd considering that the film makes a big deal of showing that Superman is deeply affected by the planet’s cries for a saviour and yet he somehow doesn’t pick up on Luthor’s latest plot.

Luthor flips between cold, calculating menace to unhinged mania seemingly at random.

Luthor’s grand plan this time around is, essentially, similar to that of his predecessor; namely, the acquisition of profit from real estate. Quite why this continued to be a concern for the self-professed greatest criminal mind ever to walk to Earth is beyond me, but this Luthor is noticeably more bitter and twisted than Gene Hackman’s take on the character. Finally sporting his trademark bald head and wielding Gertrude’s vast wealth, Luthor sets himself up on her fancy yacht and surrounds himself with idiotic underlings simply because he was forced to make questionable allies to survive his time in prison. Thanks to the events of Superman II, Luthor directs his crew to the Fortress of Solitude and refamiliarises himself with Jor-El and Krypton’s technology; specifically, Luthor learns of the Kryptonian crystals’ ability to expand and create landmasses, which he plans to use to create a whole new continent in the Northern Atlantic Ocean that will supplant the mainland United States, killing millions of people in the process. Aided by Kitty Kowalski (Posey), who’s essentially exactly the same character as Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), Luthor is only too eager to avenge himself on the Man of Steel when he makes his dramatic return to the spotlight and has Kitty distract Superman so that he (as in Luthor) can reacquire the chunk of Kryptonite he used in the first film in order to make his new landmass fatal to his hated enemy. While Hackman gloriously ate up the scenery in the previous films, Spacey absolutely devours it here with a wild and manic performance that shifts from cold, calculating menace to unhinged hysteria at the flip of a coin. It’s uncomfortable to praise any Kevin Spacey performance these days but he really was a pretty fantastic Lex Luthor; while I would much rather see either the mad scientist or corrupt businessman version of the character, Luthor is an enigmatic and cold-hearted villain who relishes the opportunity to bring Superman to his knees and bring about the deaths of countless innocents simply to fuel his ego and lust for power.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Perhaps the most prominent thematic inclusion here is the question of whether or not the world even needs a Superman; the world has continued on without him, and even gotten used to his absence, and both Clark and even Lois question whether he even has a place there anymore. Although Lois’s career was boosted by her anti-Superman article, Superman returns to action, saving people and solving problems the world over, because all he can hear is a world crying out for a saviour. I’m really not sure why this is such a recurring theme in Superman movies; Zack Snyder wasted a huge chunk of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (ibid, 2016) asking similar questions and it really bothers me for some reason. I haven’t read every single Superman comic book or story ever made but I’ve rarely ever come across this plot point in the source material and, while it raises interesting questions regarding the need for a God-like superhero, I can’t help but feel like it drags the already dull plot down quite a bit. Furthermore, it personally doesn’t sit well with me that the film is so closely tied to Donner’s original film; Superman’s supposed to have been gone for five years, from approximately 1980, but everyone seems younger than they were before, and the only character who even remotely seems to evoke their counterpart is Superman. As much as I enjoy Donner’s iconography, tying them together was a big mistake in my book; Superman had changed so much in the comics by this point that this felt like a massive step back and seemed way too “safe” of an option. The film wisely reuses John Williams’ iconic score, but not often enough; it’s most prominently heard in the opening credits (which are a direct homage to the original film) and Superman’s handful of action scenes. Even dusting off unused footage of Marlon Brando doesn’t help matters as the film’s weirdly stuck in the past and yet also supposed to be set in the then-modern day, which results in a confused presentation as it’s unclear which version of Superman II Superman Returns is set after, and it even confusingly seems to suggest that it’s a only direct sequel to the first film!

Superman Returns is full of heavy themes but paints Superman in an uncomfortable light.

Of course, the film is also rife with themes of responsibility and parenthood. Superman is, sadly, framed very poorly here; not only did he abandon his adopted home world on a whim, he never considered the legal fallout of Luthor’s arrest and thus was absent for a critical moment in his adjudication. Even worse is the fact that Superman is characterised almost like an obsessed stalker; he uses his super hearing to eavesdrop on Lois’s conversations both at work and in the office, his super vision to watch her at home as she makes a poor effort of hiding her emotions at Superman’s return, and he generally comes across as being unable to let go of the past. Lois hides her desire for Superman behind a mask of contempt and self-reliance; she defies Perry’s order to cover Superman in favour of the blackout caused by Luthor’s experiments but continually circles back to her feelings of abandonment by her long-time crush. Even distracting herself with her sickly child doesn’t help as she’s clearly as besotted with the Man of Steel as ever, just weighed down with her responsibilities as a mother and her career. Clark is stunned to find that Lois has settled down and had a child, and unethically uses his powers to gain insight into her emotional state, which is as uncomfortable as it sounds. Still burdened by Jor-El’s decree that he be a beacon of hope for all of humanity rather than devote himself to any one person, Superman is nonetheless overjoyed to find that Jason is his son. Unfortunately, this revelation is painfully telegraphed despite the boy’s asthma and fragility, and just serves to make Superman look even worse since the implication is that he had a one night stand with Lois and then took off and left her to raise his illegitimate child alone, forcing her to turn to another man in the process. I’m not massively against the idea of Superman being a father; it’s now been the status quo in DC Comics for some time and the film takes the time to have Superman recontextualise Jor-El’s words about the son becoming the father in a heartfelt moment but, sadly, there really isn’t all that much time spent exploring what being a father means to Superman, which could have been much more interesting than watching him spy on his ex from afar.

The suit is as divisive as the lack of action as Superman is left struggling to find his way in the world.

One area where the film excels, and surprisingly still holds up, are the special effects; the Fortress of Solitude is particularly striking here and scenes of Superman flying and showcasing his physical strength are slick and presented as a visual spectacle, which is only fitting. I’m a little torn on the suit, though; overall, it looks good, appearing to be a modern take on the classic outfit, but the colour palette is very subdued and dark. The symbol is way too small; the cape fits weird and is too thick and leathery and lacks the symbol on the back (a common occurrence in modern Superman films), and it somehow looks plainer than Reeves’. And yet, Routh fills it out wonderfully with his toned physique and the film definitely aims to make every shot of him a piece of art, even including a marvellous homage to the iconic cover of Action Comics #1. As awesome as Superman’s calm confrontation with a maniacal gunman is, the plane rescue is the film’s big, memorable action piece; as others have said, it’s great how Superman has to deal with the physics of the crisis, slowing and guiding the plane to a safe landing, but sadly the film doesn’t ever even try to top this. Superman barely uses any of his additional powers; he only uses his heat vision and super breath once, and he doesn’t even throw a punch! I get that Donner’s Superman wasn’t exactly an action-packed spectacle, but times have changed since then; Superman Returns came out after The Matrix Revolutions (Wachowski Brothers, 2003), which gave a tantalising glimpse into what a new Superman might be like with its epic final fight scene that pitted two superpowered characters against each other in the skies. Sadly, Superman Returns opts not to include a superpowered foe for Superman or any kind of physical danger; instead, it’s firmly focused on exploring the drama of his return, the interpersonal conflict of his character, and his struggles to find his place in a world that has moved on from him, none of which is particularly interesting or even fitting for the character.

Superman musters the strength to stop Luthor’s plot, recovers from death, and returns to duty.

All of this distracts Superman’s focus for the majority of the film, as does solving problems both big and small all over the world. Despite being knocked sideways by Superman’s return, Lois continues to follow her hunch on the blackout, which leads her directly to Lex Luthor and at ground zero for his latest maniacal scheme. Reunited, and with a showdown with his old foe impending, Luthor descends into complete lunacy because of his unwavering arrogance at being able to outthink the Man of Steel. Not only has Luthor kept a shard of Kryptonite for himself, he’s infused his alien landmass with the substance, thus rendering Superman weakened for this inevitable confrontation. In a surprisingly harrowing scene, Luthor’s henchman brutalise Superman and Luthor vindictively stabs him, critically injuring the Man of Steel and requiring Lois and Richard’s aid to pull him from danger. However, despite his injuries, Superman bathes in the healing energies of the sun to muster the strength to lift the entire Kryptonian landmass from the ocean and fling it into space. Quite how he was able to do this is also beyond me; even after being boosted by the yellow sunlight, he’s still handling what amounts to pure Kryptonite, the very substance which just moments earlier had left him helpless to fend off Luthor’s attack. To be fair, the effort is draining for Superman; here, Singer abandons all subtlety and absolutely wallops audiences over the head with the Christ allegory as Superman not only literally falls to Earth in a crucifix pose but also dies to save us and rises some time later. I get that the “Death of Superman” (Jurgens, et al, 1992 to 1993) was a monumental story for the character but, again, I really don’t get this obsession with “killing” off the character, which was a recurring suggestion in the many unproduced drafts before this film and, again, resurfaced in Batman v Superman, where it was equally rushed and unwarranted. Here, Superman just gets better after a few days in hospital, finally takes the moral high ground and leaves Lois and her family the hell alone while promising that Jason will continue his legacy and the legacy of Krypton, and does his trademark lap of the planet before vanishing from cinema screens for another seven years.

The Summary:
Even now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to regard Superman Returns as anything other than a massive disappointment and missed opportunity. Warner Bros. had the perfect opportunity to reboot the character, or otherwise reintroduce him, to a fresh new audience eager to jump on the next big-budget superhero film but instead pandered to an aged and dated version of the character simply to cash-in on nostalgia for Christopher Reeves’ influential portrayal and to piggyback off the success of Richard Donner’s original film. Admittedly, a lot of my dislike for this film comes from my desire to move away from such outdated representations of the Man of Steel and to do something new and more akin to his Post-Crisis characterisation, and my general dislike for much of the themes and presentation of those original films. Batman got a clean slate a few years prior so it’s astounding to me that Superman didn’t get the same treatment; even more mind-boggling is the suggestion that Brandon Routh and Christian Bale would’ve crossed paths in a potential crossover movie, which would’ve just been insane to imagine as you’d be effectively pitting the same Superman who reversed time against the most grounded and realistic Batman we’d seen at that point in time. Ultimately, it’s a real shame as there’s a lot to like in Superman Returns; the film is shot beautifully, challenges Superman in interesting ways, and features some great performances. Routh was placed in an unenviable position and delivered a pretty decent performance as the Man of Steel, but I think maybe it was a little too much too soon for him; he definitely commanded the role much better when he returned to it years later, though, so I like to think he might’ve been even more impressive if Superman Returns had gotten a sequel. Sadly, though, there’s just not enough here to really sustain things; Superman’s characterisation is uncomfortably off and the film just drags all the way through. Lex Luthor showcases some maniacal cruelty when he finally gets to put a beating on Superman, but this disturbing scene really belongs in a better film and Superman Returns ends up being a big missed opportunity to have the world’s greatest superhero return to the big screen in a meaningful way in favour of simply cashing in on the nostalgia for a film that was incredibly influential, yes, but an outdated representation of the character by this point.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

Are you a fan of Superman Returns? What did you think to Brandon Routh’s portrayal of the character and his efforts to evoke Christopher Reeve? Were you also disappointed that the film was a continuation of Donner’s effort or did you enjoy the links to the classic Superman films? What did you think to Lex Luthor’s plot and the focus on interpersonal drama rather than action? What is your favourite Superman story, character, or piece of media? How are you celebrating Superman Day today? Whatever your thoughts on Superman Returns, feel free to share them below or drop a comment on my social media, and be sure to check out my other Superman content.

This post first appeared on Dr. K's Waiting Room, please read the originial post: here

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Talking Movies [Superman Month]: Superman Returns


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