In honor of the release of Man of Steel, I thought it would be fitting to look back at a previous attempt to reboot the Superman franchise: Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.
This may be comic book sacrilege, but Superman is probably my least favorite superhero. Before you begin to post angry, vitriolic comments meant to indicate I’m an idiot and Superman’s the best, let me make my case. I have just never found Superman that interesting. He’s an alien, for starters, so already there’s something unrelatable about him. Second, he’s practically unkillable. Okay fine, he can be weakened with green kryptonite, but bullets, knives, nuclear missiles– he can brush them aside without a scratch. To make matters worse, he’s a complete boy scout, without any shade of moral ambiguity.
As a result, I always found myself drifting towards darker, more vulnerable superheroes like Batman or Spiderman. They were the more emotionally interesting characters, and as far as I was concerned, they left Superman in the dust. I don’t hate Superman, and I liked the first two Superman films, but I never had the love for them that I did for Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy or Spiderman 2. Everything is always too safe in Superman films. Someone may die, but Superman will reverse the Earth, turn back time, and prevent the death from occurring. If there’s no cost, what’s the point? That may make me a cynical, post-Nolan filmgoer, but it’s an issue that has always plagued Superman as a character, and there always seems to be little way around it. As a result, maybe I’m not the best judge of the Superman film franchise, but I was probably the perfect audience for Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.
When Bryan Singer’s dark, romantically tinged Superman Returns flew into theatres in 2006, it was met with a resounding “meh.” No one actively hated the film, and a quick glance at Rotten Tomatoes indicates the film received favorable reviews upon release, although it may surprise you to learn that Spiderman III, Quantum of Solace, and Attack of the Clones also hold “Fresh” ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, given their reputations.
The critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes for Bryan Singer’s epic was, “Bryan Singer’s reverent and visually decadent adaptation gives the Man of Steel welcome emotional complexity. The result: a satisfying stick-to-your-ribs adaptation.” However, the film failed to return a substantial profit, and plans for a franchise relaunch died on the vine. Looking at it now, the film had other issues working against it. Bryan Singer, the beloved director of the first two X-Men movies, had handed the directorial reins for X-Men: The Last Stand over to the far less respected Rush Hour director, Brett Ratner. Fans regarded Superman Returns as the movie that killed the X-Men franchise, and James Marsden (then best known as Cyclops) following Singer and reducing his X-Men: The Last Stand screen time (not to mention Singer’s X-Men screenwriters) seemed to confirm such an assumption.
I remember seeing the film opening weekend in theatres, and I have to admit, I sided with the critics. I found the film both exciting and emotionally arresting. It remained faithful to Richard Donner’s Superman and Superman II, even going so far as to drench the films in nostalgic, sepia tones to emphasize its connection to the past, while forgetting the dreadful Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ever existed. Yet it also set out to create its own take on the character.
Superman still loves humanity in much the same way as his Christopher Reeve counter-part, but he’s a more haunted, regretful version of that character. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (played with dryly comic menace by Kevin Spacey) retains the same pompous arrogance and love of real estate that defined Gene Hackman’s portrayal, but without his comic campiness.
The films takes place in the same world, right down to gorgeous design of Daily Planet headquarters, but Superman Returns pays tribute to the effect of passing time upon both the city of Metropolis and its inhabitants. It’s a bit too long, Kate Bosworth (22 yrs. old at the time) looks too young to play a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who’s five years removed from her initial Superman encounters (A Pulitzer prize winner who thinks there may be an “f” in “catastrophic,” by the way!), and Lex Luthor’s ultimate plan makes as small an amount of sense as Luthor’s plans ever did, but looking at it post-Man of Steel viewing, I find the film even more impressive that I did before. It’s about substance over flash, whereas Man of Steel definitely prefers spectacle over character development. Superman Returns has its moments of spectacle, such as our hero stopping a plane from literally wiping out a baseball game or a bullet bouncing off of Superman’s eye, but it cares more about the smaller, emotional, character moments, either to it credit or detriment, depending on your perspective.
It’s fitting that the first time we see Superman (Brandon Routh) in Superman Returns, it’s as a weakened, beaten-down, haunted individual, having crash-returned to Earth, cradled in his human mother’s lap on the Smallville farm.
Singer’s version of Superman exists as a man out of step with his beloved planet Earth. He’s been away for five years, searching for any signs of surviving Kryptonians, and Earth has not been anxiously awaiting his return. Much of his actions in the film are tinged with melancholy and regret. Planet Earth has moved on without him, and his beloved Lois Lane has won the Pulitzer for an article entitled, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” (If only every bitter, “I hate my boyfriend” rant could be so lucky.).
She also has a son, seemingly suffering from every mildly debilitating malady under the sun. Do you think this may be because he’s the product of two different species? Give yourself a gold star if you answered “yes.” The emotional toll such a series of revelations and the sense of emotional disconnect has on Superman is the film’s emotional heart and driving force. Superman returns to Earth because the sight of his decimated planet makes him feel alone. Returning to an Earth that may no longer see him as its champion only magnifies his feelings of despairing solitude. He may have always been an outsider, but he had been an integrated outsider (if there can be such a thing) before his five-year absence.
Now, it’s a post-9/11 world, a world forced to adapt because its protector had abandoned it, and Superman’s boy scout morality seems all the more dated. What does a world that has moved on do when its savior returns? The film cares far more for the emotional, human, Superman, rather than his supernatural abilities. Now, Superman uses his super hearing to listen in on the mundane details of human life– a life from which he must always remain disconnected, and his superhearing further emphasizes his disconnect. He’s the eternal outsider, constantly seeking connection and constantly being denied such a respite.
A lot of reviews were critical of Routh’s performance when the film was released, but I think his biggest cinematic crime may have been that he wasn’t Christopher Reeve. Reeve played Clark Kent as the male half of a screwball comedy duo, emphasizing Clark’s nerdiness and clumsiness. He was fantastic, but his performance was bigger and less grounded in the real world. Routh’s portrayal of Clark Kent is smaller, with the nerdier, klutzier elements de-emphasized in favor of a more grounded portrayal.
If most Superman stories make the claim that Clark Kent is the disguise and Superman the reality, Routh indicates Clark may be the reality and the “saviour” persona may truly be the disguise adopted to cope with his feelings of loneliness and alienation. It’s a smaller performance, but that doesn’t make it weaker. He’s far better in the film than his reputation would suggest.
If there’s a weak performance in the film, it’s Kate Bosworth’s portrayal of plucky, Superman love interest, Lois Lane. The film doesn’t give her much character development, which is one of its legitimate weaknesses, and Bosworth doesn’t make very memorable. She comes as more of a pouty whiner than a lively, aggressive investigator.
Comparing Boswirth to Margot Kidder would be unfair, but she’s largely forgettable in a role Kidder made vivacious and charming. The film’s largest plot hole also relates to her character. If this film does take place in the same narrative line as Superman II, in which Lois slept with Superman but had her memory of that rendezvous wiped from her mind, how does she know her son has Superman for a father? Did she one day realize she was pregnant and assume she had been drugged and raped? No wonder she’s so bitter towards Superman. The film never deals with that issue, leaving the viewer to ponder the trauma counseling and readjustment therapy Lois has been forced to undergo in this five-year interim.
In addition, poor James Marsden, relegated to the “other man” role is fine, but looking at the film post his roles in Enchanted and 30 Rock, he seems criminally underused. He may have been better served fully signing on to X-Men: The Last Stand, rather than the nothing role he’s given here.
Spacey brings an enjoyable sense of menace to his portrayal of the villainous Lex Luthor, keeping the sense of arrogance and wry comedy intact, while losing Hackman’s campy scenery-chewing. Luthor is out of prison, because Superman failed to show up in court (although I would have thought there would have still been enough evidence to have convicted him. I mean, this guy had to have been witnessed committing his villainy by someone besides Superman, but I’m willing to let it go for the sake of plot convenience), and Spacey imbues Luthor with a sense of bitterness and anger stemming from his prison term. It’s an effective, well-acted performance that goes along with the tone of Singer’s film.
I won’t ‘say Superman Returns is a perfect movie. It’s too long and the Superman as Christ imagery is carried a bit too far, although it’s positively subtle in comparison to some of the imagery in the new Man of Steel.
However, the fight scene between Lex and Superman on an island of Kryptonite is appropriately brutal and emotionally involving, because Superman is actually vulnerable to harm. The sequences in the hospital are also both effective and tension-filled.
The best superhero movies emphasize the burdens and consequences of being a superhero, and Superman Returns adds darkness and emotional costs to a superhero that seemed the least capable of experiencing such conflicts. For that, it should be championed.