I want to be able to tell you that Superman Returns is the best of all superhero films, truly I do. It’s just not.
Mind you, it’s no disaster. It isn’t Superman III, Batman and Robin or Catwoman. It’s much better than it might have been, given the numerous aborted attempts at reviving the Superfilm franchise over the past decade. We were spared the tender mercies of Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, Nicolas Cage and McG. (I know that there are some people who believe that having Smith or Burton involved would be a good thing. I am not one of those people.)
So, yes, Superman Returns could have been worse. And much of it is quite good. But why isn’t it better?
Certainly, director Bryan Singer has demonstrated skill with bringing superheroes to film. X-Men was a solid entry, and X2 is near the pinnacle of the subgenre. And goodness knows that he loves and respects the Man of Steel.
To some extent, his love for the first two Superman films is part of the problem. While I was thrilled to learn that Superman Returns was to be a quasi-sequel to those previous chapters, I discovered that it’s very nearly a remake of the first one. In terms of plot, it hits most of the same beats. It retains much of the look, including the zooming credits. Hell, it even repeats some of the dialogue.
That’s not entirely inappropriate, given that today’s audience may not be all that familiar with Richard Donner’s original. Still, as a follow-up it does demand some familiarity with what has come before. So, when the big climax is Superman saving the coast from an earthquake caused by one of Lex Luthor’s outlandish real estate schemes, there’s too much deja vu.
It must be said that Singer isn’t afraid to mess with the status quo, and that he introduces a new element to the Superman mythology unknown outside of non-canonical “imaginary stories.” Unlike pretty much every review of Superman Returns I read before seeing the film, I am not going to give it away without warning, so swipe the following section of inviso-text at your peril:
Begin SPOILER: Lois is saddled with a young son, and while it’s initially assumed that Jason is the handiwork of her fiance Richard, it becomes clear by story’s end that the boy has some Super-sperm to thank for his DNA. While the specifics are never mentioned, I presume that Jason was conceived during the events of Superman II. That’s interesting because at the end of that previous film, Superman hypnotized Lois so that she forgot about learning his dual identity as Clark Kent and subsequently shacking up with him at the Fortress of Solitude. So, shouldn’t Lois be a little surprised to learn that she apparently had sex with Superman? Granted, Superman Returns explicitly regards the earlier films as only a vague historical background, so it may be that here Superman and Lois got it on under different circumstances. End SPOILER.
Singer, to his credit, focuses on character work and subtext. The theme of the film directly addresses the continued relevance of Superman, and ultimately decides that yes, there’s still a place for men in blue tights. Singer takes Superman seriously, a bit too seriously. He sometimes forgets that Superman should also be fun.
Superman Returns is a darker film that I expected. It’s not Batman-dark, but neither is it as essentially optimistic as the material warrants. There are a couple of scenes of grim violence that go on perhaps a bit too long: Lois Lane being stalked by a would-be killer, and a depowered Superman being beaten by Luthor’s henchmen.
There was one moment which briefly took me completely out of the movie. We are reintroduced to Luthor in a creepy-cool scene in which he bilks a grateful widow (played by ’50s TV Lois Lane Noel Neill) out of her vast fortune. Later, he returns to the empty mansion with his gang. His moll (played by Parker Posey) notices one of the widow’s abandoned Pomeranians, and says, “Didn’t there used to be two of them?” The joke, of course, is that Lex is so callow that he left them without food. In the abstract, it’s darkly funny. At least, it would be, if you didn’t see the remaining dog sitting in a pile of fur and gnawing on something… That’s too dark by half for a Superman film.
This is not to say that there isn’t plenty of good humor in the film. Sam Huntington provides fine comic relief as Jimmy Olsen. Give that boy a Superman signal watch, stat! I’d be thrilled if the next film focused on Superman and his pal Jimmy.
There are also many moments of beauty and wonder, from the opening montage of fantastic worlds hanging in space to the joyous scene of Superman making his first public appearance gently lowering the remains of a crashing airplane into the middle of a crowded baseball stadium. Make no mistake, it’s often a gorgeous looking and uplifting film.
Still, some of the landscape is pretty bleak, especially the Kryptonian crystalscape Luthor raises in the Atlantic ocean. I realize that it’s supposed to be the dark mirror of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, but again, it’s downright grim.
Now, before I come off as overwhelmingly negative, let me say some good things about Superman Returns. First, Brandon Routh absolutely channels Christopher Reeve, and that’s no bad thing. There were times when I couldn’t quite tell where Reeve left off and Routh began. Contrary to what some reviewers have said, I found him charming in both of his roles.
Kevin Spacey now owns Lex Luthor, for my money. Playing a darker variant of Gene Hackman’s original, he effectively combines wit and menace. My only disappointment with this Luthor is that we never quite see him as a scientific genius; for cryin’ out loud, why won’t the Superman films let the man build at least one giant, bank-robbing robot?
The weak link among the main characters is Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane. I’m not familiar enough with Ms. Bosworth to know if this is her fault. I think that it may be the script. If Lois has one defining characteristic amongst her many incarnations, it’s her spunky tenaciousness. Bosworth is beautiful, but her Lois isn’t ballsy enough. Previous movie Lois Margot Kidder and Smallville‘s Erica Durance would steal her lunch money.
Ultimately, I think that what Superman Returns needed was more of Superman being super. There’s a breathtaking midair rescue sequence early in the film which was especially eyepopping in Imax 3-D, but the big stunts are relatively few and far between. The effects were fantastic, but I didn’t see $260 million on the screen.
The producers of the Imax version sprinkled 3-D sequences throughout–typically the action set pieces–and I thought it was telling that there was a long period during which we were never instructed to wear our special glasses. The sequence in and around Luthor’s new continent takes forever, and the wrap-up crawls to an end when it should soar. I think the movie could’ve easily lost 20 to 30 minutes.
Again, I don’t mean to be overwhelmingly negative. It was a good movie. It didn’t turn Superman into a joke or a self-parody, as even the revered Richard Donner film threatened to do at times. It’s a good start, assuming that the will is there to make another one. Next time I’d like to see them lighten up, have fun and let Superman punch a giant robot.
And give Jimmy a raise.