Why the audience didn’t need Superman Returns (2006)

The gap between Batman & Robin and Batman Begins was regarded as a long one for such a storied character and movie franchise. However, that pales in comparison to how long the Superman film series had been dormant: nineteen years. It would have seemed to come back at an auspicious time, when comic book-based movies were experiencing a wave of success, with the X-Men series, Spider-Man series, and rebooted Batman movies with Christian Bale all going strong at that point. Superman Returns was a logical addition to that list, a character with an unmatched legacy and place in popular culture. It also came during a time when the character was experiencing moderate success on television with Smallville.

I had been too young to see the original Christopher Reeve films in theaters, and I was very much looking forward to what would be “my” Superman film, to follow in pre-release news and see in theaters. I went to see the movie, anticipation growing during the opening credits, which wisely made use of John Williams’ terrific and iconic score. And then I sat back, initially intrigued by where the movie was going with various ideas and subplots, until it suddenly hit me after about the first hour: The movie was going precisely nowhere. It was just sort of sitting there, an impressive-looking, expensive paperweight of a film.

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Looking back, what strikes me is how the movie had all the ingredients going for it, yet somehow failed. Superman Returns is the Rudy Giuliani 2008 presidential campaign of superhero movies: impressive on paper, but a flop in execution. As Giuliani had the “America’s mayor” title, 9/11 hero status, the socially moderate image, and a blue-state background for crossover appeal going for him, yet couldn’t win a single primary, Superman Returns had a good Kevin Spacey performance, an inspired premise, good-looking special effects, etc., and yet they failed to come together in a satisfying way.

Before I dive into the abundant pool of what went wrong with this film, let me take the time to acknowledge what they did right. First, Bryan Singer, who had been director of the first two X-Men films, was a fine choice to direct and contribute to writing Superman Returns. Kevin Spacey was a solid choice to play Lex Luthor, and the decision to go away from the campier portrayal of the character done by Gene Hackman was a good one. I thought that Frank Langella as Perry White worked as well. And there are some great individual scenes in the movie, although they’re mostly in the first half. The good ones include Superman rescuing the plane, stopping Kitty in the out of control car, and deflecting bullets during the heist diversion.

Why the audience didn't need Superman Returns (2006)

Also, as I wrote above, many of the individual plot elements of the film are great points for a film to jump off successfully from. Superman’s been gone for five years, leaving a resentful Lois Lane? That opens up a lot of potential doors. Lex Luthor with access to the Fortress of Solitude, and its technology and secrets? Full of possibilities. Superman’s got a kid with Lois, one that he didn’t know about? All of these plot points could be used to write three good Superman films. It is a waste that we didn’t even get one.

Why the audience didn't need Superman Returns (2006)

I don’t know which reviewer wrote this line about this movie, but it was a great one: “Superman Returns doesn’t know whether it’s a reboot, remake, or sequel.” I mean, sure, it seems to be a sequel (one that tactfully ignores Supeman III and Superman IV), with Luthor breaking out, Superman and Lois having a kid because of their romance in Superman II, etc. but then the casting sort of detracts from that. Routh and Bosworth both look much younger than the characters should have been, were a sequel the intention (Lois Lane is supposedly a veteran, seasoned reporter here with an extensive past history with Superman, yet she looks as if her college graduation was only a few weeks ago).

Why the audience didn't need Superman Returns (2006)

Furthermore, the movie seems to repeat key elements from the earlier films, and Luthor’s destructive real estate-oriented plan is very similar to the one he had in the first movie, except this time he uses magic Kryptonian crystals (excuse me, science-y crystals) instead of missiles. The movie, with its combination of rehashed plot elements, deliberate homage, baffling casting choices, and half-finished feel make it seem like some kind of weird hybrid of remake, reboot, and sequel.

Moreover, this movie is slow. I don’t just mean slow, I mean an extra-inning, multiple-pitching change, three rain-delay baseball game slow. It’s about two and a half hours, but feels easily an hour over that. And yet remarkably, very little has actually happened when it’s over. The credits roll and you feel exhausted and also confused because you’re wondering where the rest of the movie is. You wonder if you accidentally taped over the ending, before you realize that you didn’t watch it on VHS. So much time is spent on Superman brooding over Lois, and Lex’s plan takes so long to develop, that after a promising opening hour, the movie just sort of limps along, the strangely somber tone not helping matters.

Why the audience didn't need Superman Returns (2006)

There are deeper problems beyond just the strange casting choices, tone, length, and shortage of action. The movie brings up potentially fascinating ideas for the character and then does nothing with them, and does so repeatedly. Take, for example, the article that Lois writes, titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”. The movie seems to be trying to say something on the issue of whether a super-powerful being who swoops in and solves crises at the drop of a hat is problematic in some ways. This is hardly new territory for the character (check out the story “Must There Be a Superman?” from the ‘70s, for example), but it was at least a new one for the movies, with the possible exception of IV.

Why the audience didn't need Superman Returns (2006)

And yet, the movie ends with Lois having changed her mind, writing an article on why Superman is needed. Okay, so Superman is needed to… lift giant Kryptonite-infused continents out into space and away from being a threat? I had assumed that the issue was meant to be one that had some relevance from a non-comic book perspective; otherwise, it’s pointless. I had thought that something would be said about Superman as a symbol, and about his ideals, as Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy had delved into with Batman. Of course Superman is needed to combat potent, otherworldly threats like the one we see in the movie. So that particular thread seems to be more about an expression of Lois’ pique at Superman (“we didn’t need you anyway!”) than anything else.

Let me then consider the whole “returning” angle. Superman has been away for five years, abandoning the people he had been saving and protecting, yet apart from Lois and a brief flash of anger from Ma Kent, that issue isn’t really addressed. With a super-powered individual and one not from Earth as well, there’s already potential for mistrust. Now you’ve got the added possibility that this being is unreliable on top of that. The problem is that the movie doesn’t want to take things it in that direction, so we get brief images of cheering crowds, an excited newsroom at the Daily Planet, and everyone’s thrilled about it.

And it’s like that with the Superman/Lois/Richard triangle, and Superman’s kid’s plotlines as well. Apart from scenes of Superman brooding and some uncomfortable ones of him eavesdropping, there’s not much in the way of directly dealing with these things. Superman takes Lois up for a flight, but they don’t share much of substance. Superman doesn’t interact much with Lois’ son except for a few brief scenes, and both Superman and Richard are too nice to allow much conflict over Lois.

Why the audience didn't need Superman Returns (2006)

Speaking of potential squandered, Lex’s evil plot and revenge scheme are frustratingly missed opportunities. I would argue that maybe the movie series could have done with a change in villain as a fresh angle, but that’s irrelevant. Singer wanted a sequel of sorts, and so Lex makes sense. The problem is that the threat in this movie is too abstract and goofy to work effectively. Again, consider the possibilities of Lex finding an unusual weapon, robot, or being of some exotic form within the Fortress. And the dramatic possibilities of a confrontation between Lex and Superman after all this time are discarded as well. This is an embittered, less campy Lex and a Superman with reason to blame himself for Lex’s release. And yet, they share the screen for maybe five minutes and have very little dialogue between them. Somehow, that’s fitting for this movie.

Why the audience didn't need Superman Returns (2006)

I want to address the issue of the challenges of writing a character like Superman, because that’s been used as an excuse at times. Superman is not necessarily a difficult character to write. Sure, he’s so powerful that developing a credible threat for him or depicting a sense of vulnerability can be tricky, but that’s only one dimension. In my opinion, Superman’s most interesting features or qualities aren’t his powers, but the duality of his nature in also being Clark Kent, and it doesn’t matter to me whether you embrace the pre-Crisis “Clark is a disguise” view, or the post-Crisis one that sees Clark as the more genuine side of him.

Why the audience didn't need Superman Returns (2006)

There are also the opportunities present in the conflict between Superman’s old-school, unshakeable values, and what happens when they collide with considerations of pragmatism or enemies or allies that don’t embrace them. However, this movie just doesn’t seem very interested in Superman as a character, instead mostly showing how others react around him to his presence and deeds. Clark Kent in particular is mostly ignored here, receiving little in the way of screen time or development. In contrast to the first two Reeve films, I got the impression that this movie and Singer just didn’t care about Superman/Clark all that much, or just didn’t know how to handle him.

I brought up Superman IV: The Quest for Peace before, and it had a premise that suggested taking the character somewhere interesting, as far as Superman’s powers and responsibilities in areas where the problems aren’t a result of natural disasters, criminals, or alien threats. Unfortunately, the premise there was a tease, to be wasted by a movie without the time, quality writing, or effects to do it justice. Superman Returns had some of those things that IV lacked, but similarly wasted a fine premise.

In addition, it’s frustrating that the movie left so much unresolved with Superman and Lois, as well as Superman’s son, as it seems that Singer was leaving stuff for a sequel that ended up not taking place. Although much better than the third or fourth films in the movie series, Superman Returns for me ranks well below the first two Superman movies and the Richard Donner cut of the second, and a little below Man of Steel.

Superman Returns was a failed effort at relaunching the series. Although not a box office bomb by any stretch, it wasn’t the rousing success the studio had hoped for, and it seems to now be a strangely isolated, discarded part of the Superman mythos, not bad enough to be remembered for its awfulness, suffering instead the fate of forgettable mediocrity. I think it’s ironic that as Lois sits down to write her article at the end of the film to rebut her previous one, that we’re not shown anything more than a blank page on her computer screen. Superman Returns is a movie that at the end of its running time had nothing to say.

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  • Murry Chang

    This film was bad for the worst reason: It was just boring.

    • RockyDmoney

      Exactly. the worst sin a movie can commit

      • Gallen_Dugall

        You two do realize that is said as a slam against audiences? It’s the excuse as to why “great art films” don’t make money. That directors have to keep the dangling shiny thing moving or the audience gets bored. Boredom is a quality of an audience member being too unintelligent and uneducated to find the subject interesting which is why the movie elite expect movies like this to do well and real art to struggle. Doesn’t really apply here.
        No the problem with Superman Returns isn’t that it’s boring. The problem is that it doesn’t have a clear vision of what the film is about. Lots of interesting (not boring) things happen in the film but they lack shared context to give them weight. It is a series of scenes strung together without an overall arc to tie them together.

        • RockyDmoney

          Ah no you pretentious ass. that’s not what I was saying. It was boring because it wasnt engaging on any level. if it had good characters or an interesting plot it could have made it more entertaining. I’m not referring to a lack of action when it comes to boredom. Although to be fair, some action is expected in a comic book movie

          • Gallen_Dugall

            Just letting you know the phrase’s common usage. No need to get bitchy.

          • RockyDmoney

            I may have misinterpreted the tone of your post. I apologize

          • Gallen_Dugall

            No hard feelings, this is the internets, these things happen.
            Let’s have a good hearty laugh about it!
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Umezn9sD2cY

        • Sardu

          No, that’s not the way I’ve understood that phrase at all. I’ve always heard it interpreted as saying it’s better to be a spectacular failure that strove for something than a mediocrity. Which is what SR is. In other words, The Apple is awful but it’s far from boring, so in that sense it has more merit as a film that SR.

        • That is not what boring means in this context. A movie does not have to be loud or flashy to avoid being boring. It just has to engage the audience. There are episodes of “Breaking Bad” which are about catching a fly that is in their meth lab, there are no exotic sets, no explosions, no murder, just the two main characters talking while doing something dull. It is at no point boring because the audience is engaged.

          Lots of “Great Films” don’t get distribution because studios are headed by people who think like you do, that “boring = no loud noises”. I would argue a lot of great movies are not great because too many people have the corollary in mind “boring = smart/good”, which is just not true.

        • Wizkamridr

          Superman returns was nothing more than a remake of superman the movie. Routh was playing Reeve the whole time. People who hated MOS defend this film, even though it isn’t that good of a film. Superman fans will never be happy. Even if MOS had been goofy like a marvel film, people would still have complained because it’s superman.

  • Low Mileage Pit Woofie

    It was a movie of iconic scenes for the trailer: Superman hovering over the Earth, listening to *everything*. Letting bullets bounce off him, even his eyeball. Rescuing the plane and setting it down in the stadium. Pity they couldn’t attach those to a better (and more straightforward) story.

    • I thought the story was pretty straight forward. I was never confused about what was happening, Lex has weapon, Superman has to stop the use of that weapon, the B-plot of Lois, his son, and acclimating to being on Earth is fine too. I guess it is a little episodic, as the plane is unrelated to Lex’s plan, as is the robbery with all the bullet deflection, but those were set pieces to show situations in which Superman is handy to have around.

  • Greenhornet

    “…Luthor’s destructive real estate-oriented plan is very similar to the one he had in the first movie…”
    That made me want to kick this movie in the balls (If it had any, which it doers not; in any sense). The comic book Luthor had some REAL ideas and they involved “SCIENCE!” that he made himself instead of stealing it from Superman.
    This plot could have appeared on “The New Scooby Doo Movies” back in the seventies with Superman as the guest star:
    “Lets’ see who the ghost mummy really is…”
    “Criminal scientist Lex Luthor!”
    Don’t laugh, Batman, Robin, The Joker and The Penguin were on the show TWICE.

    • There have been lots of Lex Luthor interpretations. The mad scientist is the most common, but just having him be good at crime, politics, business or other things are also valid. There is a vast multiverse filled with guys named “Lex” trying to kill guys named “Clark”.

  • Greenhornet

    “…the pre-Crisis “Clark is a disguise” view…”
    Wasn’t that the “Kill Bill” scene that comic book fans call bullshit on? I know I did.
    BATMAN’s disguise is Bruce Wayne, his “public self” DIED with his parents in that alley.
    Kal El’s disguise is Superman; It’s also his public self. His real identity is CLARK KENT, it’s the one that he grew up with, he lived as Clark for decades and developed a personality as a small-town farmboy.
    That’s also why “…and the American way” was included as part of the intro for the TV show; Clark Kent was raised as an AMERICAN citizen. It’s the life he knows and is accustomed to. And even though Clark/Superman has briefly lived in other countries and on other planets, he always returns to the U.S. because for him, it’s HOME. It’s where he hangs his hat and keeps his stuff.

    • Steven Birkner

      That may be where it’s most known from now, but John Byrne’s “Man of Steel” comic book series from the ’80s that rebooted the character after “Crisis” changed the take on Clark Kent to where he was more a genuine expression of the character than he had been. Also, Reeve’s portrayal of Clark Kent(the higher-pitched voice, exaggerated clumsiness, awkwardness, etc.) clearly shows it as some sort of act/disguise compared to the natural confidence and self-assurance he showed when Superman.

      • Chris Palmer

        Yeah…remember the bit where he’s in Lois’ apartment in the first movie?

      • Greenhornet

        Oh yeah, “the voice”. It’s well known by now but I’ll mention it again because it was a cool bit by Bud Collier:
        “This looks like a job FOR SUPERMAN!”

  • The_Stig

    Incorrect. The audience needed Superman Returns. They just didn’t need the Superman Returns we got. A Bryan Singer Superman film should have been great. Awesome, even. Instead we got Bryan Singer writing a love letter to Richard Donner, which was entirely the wrong direction this movie should have taken.

  • localman22

    What Superman Returns SHOULD have been was a true sequel to Superman II, but less cartoony. Superman should have come back to Earth, not knowing that he was followed by Brainiac. We needed a totally new story that modernized Superman from the cartoonish version to a more modern interpretation. Brainiac could have been truly threatening, and allowed for some REAL action.

    Get rid of the illegitimate kid. The illegitimate kid created all kinds of logical and moral issues. If Lois was pregnant but did not remember how, thanks to the moronic “amnesia kiss,” then wouldn’t she have thought that she was raped? Wouldn’t she have gotten a DNA test done?

    • Michelle Lowther

      Unless she or Richard had been perhaps exposed to kryptonite before conception. She was sexually exposed to alien dna, maybe it’s not impossible that it could contaminate a future pregnancy from another subsequent partner? In the words of Maury, Richard is the real father.

  • writebrain

    AKA, Superman Lifts.

  • Nathan Forester

    I still say that it would have been cool if Superman Lives actually did get made.

  • Chris Palmer

    What I don’t get: the movie is set in 2006, and we can assume Routh is Reeve’s Superman and in his 30s. But that would mean that Supes was left out of the loop in 1988 (5 years away, Supes spent about 12 years in Fortress), so why is he still using “swell” when that word was dead in 1978?