Superman Returns (2006)
Here we are, at the end of our journey into the Superman films. All this time, I’ve only heard bad things about the final entry, Superman Returns. The complaints have ranged from “He doesn’t punch anything” to “He’s emo.” What I was most excited about seeing in the film is its complete dissolving of Superman III and Superman IV from continuity. Picking up after the events of Superman II would give it a lot of wiggle room and it can play off of the events of those two movies to create a really interesting chapter for the modern world.
Let me get this out of the way first: Superman Returns is not as bad as some people have made it out to be. True, he doesn’t punch anything, but that doesn’t have a huge impact on the quality of the film in my opinion. Plus, you can have a Superman story where he doesn’t punch, it’s almost like it was an experiment in non-violence. In all seriousness though, the film is clearly supposed to honor and continue the Richard Donnor movies, which Singer really pulls off. Superman didn’t have many punches in those movies and we don’t judge them by this same criteria.
Singer managed to take the good aspects of the original two films and build on them in a way that makes sense in a modern context. Brandon Routh for example is a great Clark Kent/Superman. He plays the character in a way that feels a lot like Christopher Reeve’s performance but has enough of his own spin that it doesn’t feel like a total rip-off. Taking a cue from the Donner films, the emphasis put on the Daily Planet staff and sequences really build the characters. Their interactions here are what make them likeable and interesting. Sam Huntington and Frank Langella’s performances as Jimmy Olsen and Perry White work really well. The two of them play the characters so they feel like modern versions of the characters from the ’70s/’80s, which I imagine is what they were going for. If there’s a weak link in the cast it’s Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane. Stepping into the shoes of Margot Kidder is no easy feat, but Bosworth simply doesn’t make herself memorable enough to really create an impact as the character.
There are places where this movie is clearly superior to the Donner films. Kevin Spacey, for example. Spacey’s Lex Luthor is great, he crushes any attempt Gene Hackman made at the character. He makes you believe that he’s Lex Luthor. He’s interesting, charismatic, smart, and not a caricature of “evil genius.” That being said, why is his plan (once again) involving land? I realize that the land he is creating is made from Kryptonite, meaning Superman couldn’t come get him, which seems to be this version of Luthor’s idea of getting rid of Superman. Throughout the years of comics and films, Luthor has always been more about controlling the world than destroying it, even at the expense of killing Superman – this plan doesn’t seem to fit in his MO. Though I’m firmly on the side of “Creators can interpret characters however they want,” it does seem like Luthor has never been fully realized on film.
While Superman Returns is clearly Bryan Singer’s attempt at crafting a character piece version of a superhero film, he’s still at his best when he’s focusing on the action beats. A lot of people focus on the “shuttle” scene as the best part of the movie, and it is really cool, but the best moment is after that. A group of men are robbing a bank and Superman flies down to intervene. For some reason, the thieves have a chain gun which they’re firing at the police. Superman walks in front of its path of fire and just takes all of the bullets. That was an amazing comic book moment come to life. To further capitalize on Superman’s bullet proof nature, when he takes a bullet to the eyeball and it smashes and falls really made me smile.
One disappointing factor about this movie is that Singer’s distinct visuals were almost wasted at certain moments. Throughout the film he recreated iconic Superman images, and I can’t imagine many people picked up on them. The easiest to spot of these is the recreation of the Action Comics #1 cover, featuring Superman lifting a car. These others you need to be paying attention for come when Luthor and company are experimenting with the Kryptonian crystals in the old woman’s basement (sidenote: why did Luthor need that old ladies’ house?). Pay close attention to the train set town at this time as Singer recreates several of the destructive moments from Superman and Superman II in the tiny diorama.
As the movie continues to build off of the Donner films, there are a few things that could have been done differently. The large gap between action sequences in the film, probably conceived as an homage to the original films where this occurs, certainly could have been shortened to accommodate the tastes of modern audiences. Another thing that could have been fixed was the plot conveniences. Yes these happen frequently in the early Superman films, but they’re way more noticeable and susceptible to criticism in the modern era. The best example of this is that there just so happens to be a “meteorite exhibit” where Luthor can get his hands on some Kryptonite. Furthermore, Luthor just romps right into the fortress of solitude (again). They seem to reference that he knew where he was going, which would have made sense, but they never outright says it, which causes it to feel coincidental.
What really harms the movie are the continued logical fallacies. One could argue that in crafting these story beats it’s only paying homage to the Donner movies where these are quite common, but I can’t imagine these were purposefully written. For example, when Lois finally figures out that her son is also Superman’s son, she’s quite calm. If you had just realized your son’s father was Superman, and you never had a physical relationship with him, it should unnerve you. Now, yes, I know that Lois and Clark shared an intimate moment during Superman II, which this film is clearly playing off of, but it doesn’t add up. In Superman II, when this child was presumably conceived, Superman was without his powers. He had given them up to be with Lois, why would his child still have the powers of a Kryptonian? Now to further cement why Lois should have been really upset, Superman planted his forgetful kiss on her and made her forget everything that happened. She literally doesn’t remember that they had a (brief) relationship.
Superman Returns is not that bad. It’s not great, but it’s not the worst superhero movie ever (as much as some people would like for you to think). It has cool moments and great performances, it’s even way more visually interesting than most of the previous movies. What really hurts it is the insistence on plot conveniences and dopey moments, which were likely thought of as Donner homages but play as poor filmmaking. I would suggest giving this movie another shot, it’s actually quite watchable.