Mar 20, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.