Superman Returns

In celebration of the release of Man of Steel, we will be publishing a series of articles that take a look back at Superman’s cinematic roots, analyze his successes and failures and hopefully add some context to your Superman-centric movie week. We begin with another splendid guest editorial from The Bitter Script Reader.

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If everything had gone to plan, this summer we’d probably be getting the concluding chapter of a Bryan Singer-helmed Superman trilogy. Indeed, for a while, it appeared we might get it. The film opened in Summer 2006 to a bigger 5-day opening than Batman Begins had a year earlier. Its worldwide gross was also about $17 million more than the Nolan Batman prequel as well. It even earned a decent amount of critical acclaim, coming in at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes. So while the film might not have been a Spider-Man-sized hit, it was a promising debut by some of the more superficial standards the industry uses to measure success. The film certainly was far from being an outright bomb.

Some time ago, Quentin Tarantino mentioned that he was writing a 20-page review of Superman Returns, explaining why he loved it so much. We’re still waiting on that, and since I’m about one-fourth the filmmaker he is, it seems fitting that my own review is that much shorter.

I really enjoyed this movie the first time I saw it and the passage of seven years has done little to dampen that feeling. This is why it’s been so hard to see the narrative shift to the point where it’s assumed this movie was a horrible bomb. There are people I know who loved it in 2006 who have since taken up the anti-Superman talking points, just because it’s cool. Here’s where I blame Warner Bros a little bit. I think if they had pushed forward with a sequel and released another solid film three years later, Returns would be a lot better regarded today. Instead, they dragged their feet for a few years, the momentum dissipated and by the time Christopher Nolan was announced as producer, the internet had decided that whatever its merits, Superman Returns must be a bad movie simply because it failed to spawn a sequel.

Superman Returns is sometimes knocked for being too reverent to the Reeve movies, but that assessment overlooks what Singer accomplished by tying this movie to the Richard Donner continuity. For starters, it means he can side-step having to retell the origin. Not only was the first Superman film pretty well embedded in the collective consciousness, but at the time Smallville was already five years into telling its own origin story.

The approach Singer took was not unlike how the Bond movies used to handle their continuity. We’ve seen earlier adventures and we assume that some version of them is considered the backstory of whatever Bond we happened to be watching. (At least until the hard reboot with Daniel Craig.) It builds on the past, while maintaining ties to it. After all, it doesn’t bother me when the Bond movies haul out the Aston Martin, or when the familiar, 50 year-old Bond theme kicks in on the soundtrack. By and large, it’s an approach that served Bond well and I think it works here too.

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The film’s conceit is that Superman has been away for five years on a wild goose chase to the ruins of Krypton. I know that some take issue with this, wondering why he’d go there when he “knows” Krypton exploded. Does he? We saw it explode – all Superman has is a recording from his father, which was made before the explosion. If you opened your email to YouTube link to a video of your father saying “Son, I’m about to die in a car crash,” would you take it as gospel that actually came to pass?

I’ve also heard complaints that Superman would “never” abandon Earth. I think it’s always dicey territory to lock oneself into a belief of what a character would “never” do. People make mistakes, people act out of character – all it takes is the proper motivation. In Superman II (which may or may not be in this film’s continuity, not that it matters), Superman forsakes his powers for a relationship with Lois. He shirks his duty for something that matters more to him – true love and human connection. It’s that quest for connection – to find what might be other survivors – that drives him out into space. He’s searching for family, but only finds (in his own words) “That place was a graveyard.”

The tragedy of that loss is compounded further. By the time he returns to Earth, the world has moved on without him. This cruel injustice is most keenly felt when he learns that Lois Lane is not only engaged, but has a five year-old son and is about to win a Pulitzer for an article entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” It’s a great dilemma to drop Superman in the middle of, as it forces him to question his place in the world, and his relevancy in the modern day.

One flaw I will concede is that the film doesn’t go far enough in showing us Lois’s side of the argument. I would have liked to have a stronger sense of how the world realized it didn’t need Superman once he’d left. Some of the most powerful Superman stories deal with him having to accept that his role as a perpetual guardian angel might actually be stunting the world’s progress. That’s not a question the film pursues, though, and it’s unfortunate because Lois’s argument of “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” never really gets a hearing. Indeed, once Superman is pulling off all manner of super-feats to save the day, it feels like Lois really is reaching to make a case.

Instead, the film ends up exploring how Clark is even more of an outsider than he was before. Here’s where I think Brandon Routh doesn’t get enough credit. He might not draw such extreme distinctions between his Clark and his Superman that Christopher Reeve did, but by dialing down his Clark’s nerdiness, he makes him a more believable person. In the Reeve films, the conceit usually was that any time we saw Clark, Superman was hamming his performance up.

What Routh does is he largely makes Clark the “real” guy and turns Superman into the mask that can hide those insecurities. Examine moments such as when Clark probes Jimmy about Lois in the bar, or when he later is talking to Lois and trips over trying to explain Superman’s motivations. Little flourishes like that give Clark a reliability that Reeve’s version wasn’t often allowed.

It’s become fashionable to dismiss this film with the scoff that “Superman didn’t punch anything!” Do me a favor – the next time you hear someone offer this opinion as if it means anything, please punch them! I’m pretty sure if you go back into the lore that the George Reeves Superman didn’t punch anyone either, and even Reeve’s Superman rarely threw a punch. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I prefer that the movies I watch be about something. Was Batman Begins a great film because of it’s deep exploration of Bruce Wayne’s character, or was it awesome solely by virtue of the fact that Batman uses some thugs for boxing practice?

Superman Returns

And so what’s Superman Returns about? In a great many ways, it’s the story of a father and son.

Richard Donner’s vision was very much in the same spirit. Jor-El has a crucial line in early in the Donner film, one which is called back to not only in Superman Returns, but in a pivotal scene in the Donner Cut version of Superman II: “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son.” Not insignificantly, this is in the voiceover that opens Superman Returns, and Marlon Brando’s visage reappears in the Fortress of Solitude, reminding us of Superman’s last link to his homeworld.

Partway through the film, Superman finds himself at an emotional crossroads and he heads to the Fortress. Presumably he’s seeking guidance from the Jor-El program – but he finds… nothing. The crystals that gave him access to that program have been taken by Lex Luthor. Lex perverts them into the instruments of his scheme and by the end of the movie, the surviving crystals are lost forever. The first film featured Jor-El’s physical death and now, and here he undergoes a sort of spiritual death. In myth, the death of the father is often necessary to motivate the hero’s ultimate maturation and the loss of the crystals seems to symbolize this in part.

But as Superman loses a father, he gains a son. This is understandably one of the more controversial aspects of the film. I think some people reject the plot on its face simply because it had never been done before in the Superman mythos. I have to admit, even though I’m a massive Superman fan, this is one of the reasons I dig it. Another oft-heard ignorant dismissal of this film is that Superman is a “deadbeat dad.” That’s a pretty unfair characterization considering he’s not even aware of his son until the final moments of the film.

The moment that pulls all of this together for me is when Superman pays a visit to his sleeping son, aware for the first time of his connection to the boy. He echoes his own father’s words and he tells the boy that he will be different from everyone else, but that he will take his father’s strength as his own, gaining the benefit of Superman’s experience while Superman will watch over him, perhaps also learning something in the bargain. “The son becomes the father, and the father…” he trails off.

It’s the perfect way to close the circle, as Superman leaving his son to be raised by Richard White and Lois Lane directly parallels Jor-El sending Kal-El away to be raised by the Kents. It’s for the boy’s benefit. The Whites already are a family and it would be wrong for Superman to disrupt that, but it’s clear he’s going to be a part of the boy’s life. As he tells Lois, “I’m always around.”

Superman explores Krypton in search of more of his kind, and much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, returns home find that it has what he’s been looking for all along. He is not the last of his kind. Not anymore.

Let’s not overlook some of the other virtues of Superman Returns. I would be remiss if I didn’t single out James Marsden for special praise. Through and through, Richard White proves himself to be every bit the hero that Superman is. Marsden also imbues the guy with an abundance of charisma and integrity. He’s absolutely worthy of Lois, which is a pretty bold writing choice when it would have a lot easier to make him a cad whom Superman overshadows. The script didn’t need to make Richard an antagonist, not when Superman already has his hands full with Lex.

I’ve heard some critics deride Kevin Spacey’s performance as “campy,” and often while tarring Hackman’s performance with the same brush. I dispute both charges. You want to see camp? Watch the Batman TV series. That massive overacting that King Tut does? That’s camp. The ridiculously serious speeches given by Batman and Commissioner Gordon? That’s camp.

I put the question to the court – is Entourage’s Ari Gold campy? Because both Hackman and Spacey’s interpretations of Lex are far closer in temperament to Ari than they are to anything on the Adam West Batman show. Here’s an exercise to try: take any scene where Hackman’s Lex berates Ned Beatty’s Otis and mentally replace them with Ari and his assistant Lloyd. You’ll find it’s pretty damn easy to cast those characters in those roles. Hackman’s Lex might be larger than life, but that’s just because he’s a conceited, egotistical megalomaniac. It’s still a far cry from “camp,” and I’d argue that Spacey’s Lex is even more restrained.

I’ll cop to the fact that Lex’s scheme isn’t perfect. I wish that the emphasis was less on how he was pulling a land swindle and more about him using the crystals to cultivate more Kryptonian technology. Imagine what “the greatest criminal mind of our time” could do with all of that at his fingertips. I think it would have been more unique than making Lex obsessed with land and it barely requires any restructuring and rewriting of the script.

Superman Returns

There seems to be some misunderstanding of exactly what Superman does to get rid of the island. Some viewers apparently walked out confused that he was able to pick up an entire island of kryptonite without feeling any ill effects for several minutes. It’s seen as a “plot hole” that the radiation doesn’t kill Superman immediately. It’s no plot hole at all – the viewers just need to be paying attention to notice:

  1. Superman has just recharged in the sun.
  2. The island is only laced with kryptonite – not made of solid kryptonite. This is actually underscored by the fact that he stands directly on it for several minutes before feeling too many ill effects.
  3. When he picks up the island, he’s actually burrowed below the construction, putting a fair amount of earth between him and the worst of it. The higher he flies, the more these extraneous chunks of earth break away, exposing him to more and more radiation.
  4. The kryptonite has a visible effect on him, but like a boxer going the distance, Superman fights through the pain. It’s not as if he defeats the fatal radiation through sheer force of will. He merely puts all of his strength into lasting just a few moments longer – long enough to complete his task. It’s nothing short of heroic that he keeps going. Tony Stark’s suicide run in The Avengers reminds me a lot of this, actually.

The effects and production design are top notch and the film has a number of great set-pieces. I feel bad for those who don’t get at least a little thrill from the plane sequence, the massive disaster sequence in Metropolis or the yacht sequence. The script reaches for real emotional resonance too. Early on, Lois wonders why Superman couldn’t even say goodbye before he left, scoffing that “It’s just one word, goodbye.” Later, Lois pleads with Superman not to go on what surely will be a suicide run. Taking a beat, Superman looks at her and Routh manages to make his reading of just one word – “Goodbye” – convey everything that needs to be said about how he feels and that he doesn’t expect to survive what he’s about to do. Superman Returns succeeds because it never forgets that it’s about these people and their relationships with each other.

It may not be a perfect film, but how often does one find such a film? Superman Returns doesn’t get enough credit for everything it does right, and for its ambitions to tell a different kind of Superman story. You can’t judge the value of a film by how many sequels it spawned or how many careers it launched. Does the fact that Henry Thomas had few notable roles after E.T. diminish the power of his performance there? Or the legacy of the film? Is Batman Begins a great film only because it beget The Dark Knight, or can we assess its creative success on its own merits? I won’t dispute that there are metrics to measure the business success of a film but it would wrong to consider only those figures while giving the film a superficial reading.

For years, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, staring one-time Bond George Lazenby, was the black sheep of the James Bond series. Its tone was different from the others, and the “new” Bond was jarring for many. The fact the next film did its best to return to more familiar ground offered fuel for the claim that OHMSS was a film best forgotten. But times eventually changed and this Bond was eventually re-evaluated with a more objective eye. I have hope that Superman Returns will eventually achieve a similar renaissance. Bryan Singer and his team made a film that they should be proud of, and it deserves to have those merits recognized.

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The Bitter Script Reader (@BittrScrptReadr) has spent many years – “perhaps too many,” he says – working in development and as a reader at production companies and agencies. For over three years, he’s blogged regularly about the missteps he’s seen writers both young and professional make, and implored his audience to avoid those same writing pitfalls. You can find him at his blog and check out his videos on his YouTube Channel.


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