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WHY THE WORLD NEEDS SUPERMAN: A Retrospective on Superman Returns (2006)

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I’ll always be around Lois.

With these words, Brandon Routh flew into the sky, up into space, past camera and soared away, never to be Superman again. It worked out okay, he ended up getting himself another DC Comics gig eight years later and a lead role in a major CW/DC television series, but every time I watch Superman Returns, I feel the pang of sadness that this most wonderful actor never got another shot at the big blue boy scout and that Bryan Singer’s reverential and deeply loving take on the character, a sequel/reboot of the series initiated by Richard Donner and the Salkind family, never got the sequel it deserved.

Common wisdom will tell you that Superman Returns was a massive disappointment, a flop if you will, the same common wisdom that tells you the same thing about On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or Licence to Kill, two James Bond movies that actually made healthy profits and history would dictate are actually the best instalments of that series, especially the former which is regarded by many as THE best James Bond film.

Superman Returns has fallen into a similar pattern as the Lazenby Bond film. Regarded by some as terrible, but by its fans as not only one of the best Superman movies but also one of the best superhero movies. I definitely, with a full heart, fall into the latter camp and make no apologies for the positive tone of this retrospective.

I remember going to see it in the summer of 2006. It was the second weekend of release and at the time the word was that the film was great. Empire Magazine, a movie magazine I’ve been buying since my teens, gave it a five-star rating, whilst many other reviews at the time were generally very positive. At the time of writing the film carries a 76% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a higher rating than Man of Steel and considerably higher than Batman v Superman:Dawn of Justice.

It was well-reviewed and well-liked, and about a year after it, they started to be down on it.
Brandon Routh, MTV Interview, 2013.

The turn was drastic and mean and has seemingly gotten meaner ever since. Superman Returns was deeply reverential. A quasi-sequel to the first two movies from 1978 and 1980, directed by Richard Donner and Richard Lester respectively, the film effectively kept the continuity going from both those movies, ignoring films three and four, which weren’t so well received, whilst remaking elements from the first film, in particular Lex Luthor’s obsession with destroying part of the United States and claiming the land for himself. Here it’s taken to a more epic degree with the use of Kryptonian technology. The story picks up five years after Superman has left Earth to seek out the remains of Krypton, having simply vanished. Returning after those five years, Clark tries to pick up where he left off, only to find that Earth is a little wary of him, whilst Lois Lane has moved on, gotten engaged and had a son. It’s a story of epic scope and deeply emotional undercurrents, as Superman tries to adjust to life back home, giving the character an arc and longing that is deeply heartbreaking, making this the most emotionally vulnerable Superman to be portrayed on-screen to date. Whilst some have criticised it’s portrayal of the character as depressing, it still is, in the end, a barrel of laughs in comparison to how the character has been portrayed in his last two movie appearances under the eye of Zack Snyder.

One of the main aspects of Superman that marks him for easy criticism is his ability to be unrelatable, but Bryan Singer, working from a story and screenplay by himself and Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty, make the character more human than portrayed previously, and whilst certain aspects did leave the film open to criticism, such as his using his x-ray vision to watch Lois and her family at dinner which, to some, came across as borderline stalker behaviour, it was never the intention and I believe the film keeps these aspects on the right side. Besides, this wasn’t the first time we saw Superman use his powers to watch Lois in this way. Remarkably the pilot episode of Lois and Clark:The New Adventures of Superman did something similar, and yet that never gets mentioned, strangely.

Brandon Routh, who comes across as very similar to Christopher Reeve, puts in a performance that is deeply sympathetic and charming, and gets to the heart of the character that makes him a worthy successor to Reeve, since he is effectively taking over his iteration of the role. There is a lot going on here that makes Clark complex and nuanced, with Routh’s Superman carrying in effect the weight of the world on his shoulders, literally as is the case come the movie’s climax. Yes, there are Christ metaphors in this one, but more subtle and effective than the way they were hammered home in Man of Steel and while it’s easy to see why some may believe the movie and its portrayal of Clark/Superman and its story telling as depressing, it’s actually not a drag to watch, or at least that’s my take on it anyway. It’s a film that puts a deep emotional portrayal of its lead character at the centre and deals with Superman’s feelings and thoughts in a way that had been very rarely handled on screen up to this point. It may be a continuation of the Donner/Lester films, but it’s definitely putting greater emphasis on emotional themes in a way that was not attempted before.

Superman Returns Brandon Routh

The majority of the supporting actors are well cast in their roles. Kevin Spacey makes for a darker Lex Luthor than previously portrayed by Gene Hackman. He’s more or less playing the same character of course, but with a more bitter edge than Hackman’s entertaining cartoon character from the earlier movies. Frank Langella is perfect as an old school, classy Perry White (even getting to utter the line “Great Ceaser’s ghost”), whilst Sam Huntington is the perfect combination of sincere and dorky as Jimmy Olsen. Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane is frequently the most criticised casting of the movie and to be honest, those criticisms are the most valid. It’s not that her performance is bad or anything, but she lacks the feisty, gritty spirit that comes with the role, something other Lois’ such as Margot Kidder, Teri Hatcher and Erica Durance had in droves, and she looks way too young to have actually won a Pulitzer Prize.

The movie, however, does pays gorgeous tribute to the flying scene in Superman:The Movie, and, admittedly, both Routh and Bosworth carry the romance of it very well, but here it carries a deep wealth of sadness, a romantic interlude for a couple who can never have what they had back then because life has moved on, more so for her than for him. The score from John Ottman reuses John Williams’ theme to rousing effect, but he gives the film his own sense of epic gravitas and is without doubt one of the best superhero scores of recent times, much more brilliant and rousing than the Hans Zimmer effect that permeates EVERY superhero score in this day and age. Remember those days when superhero themes were easy to hum and were scored by the likes of Danny Elfman and Jerry Goldsmith? Nowadays it tends to be endless sounds with little themes. I mean, they’re great when accompanying large-scale action sequences, but they’re never as much fun to listen to isolated away from the film. Just typing that and thinking it makes me feel like some old man, bitter about the times when we live in, but what’s a bitter old fanboy to do? Ottman’s music builds, it has scope and scale, it corresponds to the action and the characters and accompanies the movie hand in hand rather than simply just telling the audience how to feel at any given moment. Most especially brilliant is his use of John Williams’ love theme from Superman:The Movie. Once again it’s used for when Superman and Lois are flying, but it’s given a more melancholy charge that carries the scene’s sad tone of romance home in a beautiful, heartfelt way.

Superman Returns-Lois and Clark

The number one complaint about the film is that Superman never punches anyone or anything, but given the nature of the narrative and story going on here, the question is, who is there to punch? This is NOT a hateful film that tries to create conflict out of nothing. I mean, even Clark’s rival for Lois’ affections, her fiance Richard White, played by James Marsden, comes across as a lovable guy and deeply sympathetic. This is a film with a grand and epic threat behind it, but there is no General Zod, or Brainiac, characters that might have been fair game for a sequel if it had been made instead of simply being rebooted.  The film’s decision to re-imagine and “sequelize” aspects of Superman:The Movie means there is no need for punching and remember that the first Superman movie had little in the way of physical conflict either, relying more on an epic disaster for its major set piece, as does this film. The one time Superman does get into a fight, it’s when the tables are turned against him, confronting Lex Luthor and his henchmen on the kryptonite infected island that Luthor has created leaving Superman weak and susceptible to a beating that is more or less a Passion for the character. It is a very hard, difficult scene to watch.

Its things like this that makes this a truly, wonderful movie, that it doesn’t try to fall back on the same old clichés as other superhero movies that try to keep your attention span in check by resorting to never-ending action sequences. Sometimes great storytelling and character can carry you along too and that is what this movie does to brilliant effect. If Batman Begins, which had been released the year before, looked forward, charting a new rebooted direction for its character, Superman Returns looks back, to the glorious past, to the most truly iconic and brilliant portrayal of the character and tries to right the wrongs made by Superman III and Superman IV. It does so with wonderful aplomb and confidence, wanting to put its stock into emotion, characters and story. I know, I’m setting myself up for a fall with that one because its bigger naysayers will say it has none of those, but I think it does and for two and a half hours I think I would rather watch a film that tries to carry the audience with a sweeping narrative than never-ending fight scenes and destruction that get tiresome and, quite frankly, boring after a while.

Just to clarify, I don’t hate modern superhero movies at all. I love a good action sequence as much as the next person, but its nice to have a comic book movie out there that attempts to sustain itself with something OTHER than endless destruction and punch ups. Movies such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, The Avengers and Ant-Man have managed to do large-scale action and retain senses of humour, imagination and in some cases scenes of a very emotionally charged nature, but sometimes everything blurs into one and they all feel the same. Superman Returns stands out in a way that marks it as truly different and unique and wonderful and brilliant. It gives us a Superman, that most “unrelatable” of characters, and makes him feel emotionally vulnerable in a way I feel only Mark Waid has done on the page and Superman II touched upon. The world looks upon him in a way that makes him feel like an outcast and when he uses the word in one of the movie’s final scenes, it’s hits like a jack hammer, especially given who is delivering his speech to.

To have Superman/Clark/Kal-El deliver those famous words, previously delivered by Marlon Brando no less, means Brandon Routh not only has to carry a torch previously held by Christopher Reeve, but also to deliver a speech previously done so by one of the greatest actors to have ever graced the screen. That could be a tough challenge for any actor, but Routh, in only one of his first screen roles, does it magnificently. He wears the suit with pride and brilliance, he plays the bumbling aspects of Clark with a light touch, and when he shows emotion, he does so with eloquence and dignity. He is truly a great Superman for the screen and the fact that this would be his only outing in the role is dreadfully sad. As he said himself in the quote earlier, the tide turned a year later and soon the talk of a sequel, a film Bryan Singer promised to go “Wrath of Khan” on, would die away and then disappear forever. The next time we’d see Superman on-screen it would be in that inevitable dark reboot that would strip away any of the charm of the character, with not even the promise of heartfelt emotion to carry it.

For that reason I believe that Superman Returns is more important that ever. Like the James Bond movies I mentioned earlier, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Licence to Kill, Superman Returns dares to venture into story telling avenues and attitudes that somewhat goes against what’s been done before or since. In some respects you could say it’s a $200 million work of fan fiction. A director and a pair of screenwriters taking a series of movies that they love and re-imagining a sequel that is a worthier follow-up than its first two instalments ever got. The film positively bleeds its emotions every chance it gets. It builds like a grandiose epic, sweeping you along with heart, soul and dignity and does so without relying on the clichés that are abundant in the genre. Oh sure, maybe Civil War and Dawn of Justice have better action (and the former probably a more jaunty, fun tone) but Superman Returns shows that you can do serious without being dark and bitter about it. When the movie hits its darkest moments, its escape is for but a brief second, its dignified hero flying into the sky, to the sun, to gain his strength back. It is possibly the most Superman moment in the history of the character on-screen. Epic, brilliant and beautiful, probably the most cinematic moment in the history of the comic book movie genre.

Superman Returns-Superman Flies To The Sun
Has there ever been a more cinematic Superman moment on-screen than this?

You may think I’m crazy, you may think I’m wrong, but I stand by this movie, as a fan and as someone who has loved this character ever since he first caught a glimpse of Christopher Reeve in the costume, watching television on a hot sunny day off from school when he should have been outside playing, or spending his Saturday nights as a child, possibly sitting too close to the television, watching Lois and Clark flirt, banter and bicker on BBC 1.  Superman Returns is a masterpiece, and after ten years, my opinion on that has not changed. In fact, like a fine wine, I think it’s gotten better with age, and like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the James Bond movie with the one time Bond, Superman Returns, the film with the one time Superman, may just be the greatest film to feature its iconic hero, primarily because it is not afraid to take an iconic hero of pop culture into uncharted emotional territory.

It always leaves me a little sad, to see the hero of the movie, and its leading man, telling Lois he’ll always be around, fly away, into space, past camera, a version of Superman never to be seen again.

Possibly the geekiest man in all of Ireland, I have consumed too many television shows, movies, books and comics to know the difference any more between being geeky and not geeky. Very proud of my geekdom, it brought me together with my one true love, and if that’s not a great reason to be geeky, I don’t know what is. Could also beat anybody in an X Files trivia contest. True scientific fact.
  • Well written review. I agree w/ most of your points. I saw this film on it’s opening weekend with both my son’s – who were 6 and 10 years old @ the time. I loved the Original – ( which I still have on the original Laserdisc – btw- along with owning the original score on vinyl.) I so wanted to love this film. The major disappointment with this film wasn’t with either the script or the actor’s. I loved both. Even though I thought Brandon Routh looked too young for the role – he did a great job. The special effects not only didn’t suck – they were good! No, here- THE major disappoint with the film was THE suit. It looked terrible ! The cape was all 40’s. The “S” symbol on this chest was too small. The jock strap shorts were a joke. It was hard to take the character seriously in THAT suit. If this was meant to be “Superman Continues” ( which would have been a better title to the film, btw ) then they should have used the same suit that was worn by Reeve’s Superman. I was ok with the darkened colors – that really helped out a bit – but the rest of the changes reminded me of the chessy low budget early B&W serials. Really? It’s sad to say – but the whole movie gets undone by cheap underwear. Sorry.

  • Keith Lin

    A very beautiful written piece. I absolutely agree with you that “Superman Returns” has a lot of heart and classic Superman elements. While I liked what “Man of Steel” did with the ‘What if Superman exists in the real world’ concept, the filmmakers seemed to have forgotten what truly made Superman the way he is and therefore did not portray him truthfully.

    Anyways, I wrote something to defend “Superman Returns” as well. Just revisited the film recently again.

    https://www.facebook.com/notes/keith-lin/in-defense-of-superman-returns/10155600987194558/