Ever since it was released in 2006, I’ve always been pretty unsatisfied with “Superman Returns”. There are things I really like about this film – the special effects are great, the cast is good (particularly Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor), and the score by John Ottoman is absolutely fantastic – but as a whole, this movie feels lesser than the sum of it’s parts. “Superman Returns” is meant to be a loose sequel to “Superman” and “Superman II“, taking a few liberties here and there in regards to the timeline (notably, those films were set in the 70’s and the 80’s, while “Superman Returns” is set in 2006). Bryan Singer and the folks over at Warner Brothers decided to ignore “Superman III” and “Superman IV” and declare them non-canon to this film, because they were such a large drop in quality from the first two films. Ironically, “Superman Returns” wasn’t that well received or successful either in the long run, though it’s still nowhere near the worst of Superman’s cinematic endeavors.
A major conundrum with “Superman Returns” is that it tries to tell a story with Donnerverse characters and Donnerverse humor, but the tone and setting of this film is so somber, grey and gloomy all the time, to the point where Metropolis resembles Gotham City in “Batman Begins”, the surprise hit DC Comics had the year before. It’s like if you took the respective tones of “Superman” and “Man Of Steel” – campy and stoic – and mashed them together inorganically. It really doesn’t work, and at times, it feels strangely garrish. The end result is that a lot of scenes in “Superman Returns”, particularly during the middle act, feel very dry and dull and emotionless. Another problem this film has is that it tries way, way too hard to pay homage to “Superman” and “Superman II”. It tries to squeeze in every joke, reference and callback to the Donner films that it can, to the point where a clone of Miss Tessmacher named Kitty is created so she and Lex Luthor can have the exact same dynamic (with the exact same outcome) that Lex and Tess had. As a result, “Superman Returns” never really establishes it’s own identity, because it’s trying too hard to be like someone else’s movie. It works well enough as a finale to the Donnerverse continuity, but as it’s own film, it’s really nothing special, and considering how much money Warner Brothers and DC Comics threw at this film, that’s a shame.
Brandon Routh is portraying Christopher Reeve’s version of Superman in this movie, which means he never really gets to leave his own mark on the character the way Christopher Reeve and Henry Cavill did. However, he does fare better during his quieter, down-to-earth scenes as Clark Kent, where he seems to let his own natural charisma bleed through more, than he does as the outwardly heroic Superman. Supes is actually kind of annoying for much of this movie. As much as “Superman Returns” tries very hard to be a sequel to the Donner films, the premise ironically doesn’t work at all when you think about it. Superman’s whole character arc in “Superman II” was coming to the realization that his personal desires came second to the safety of the world, and that he couldn’t just abandon his duties whenever he liked, which he accepted by the end.
According to “Superman Returns”, Clark was apparently lying through his pearly white teeth when he promised America’s president that he wouldn’t abandon humanity again. Because not long after that, Clark decided to fly into space to check out Krypton’s remains, a round-trip journey that took him five years. He knew it would take him five years, and for whatever reason he told no one he was leaving or how long he would be gone, not even Lois. Then he feels surprised and sad that no one likes him or trusts him anymore. He has absolutely no one but himself to blame for people falling out of love with their lying, wishy-washy Superman. Adding to that, there’s a subplot of Clark growing increasingly jealous and annoyed that Lois is seeing another man, and is currently engaged to him. I’m sorry, but who was it who decided for Lois that it would be best if she forgot they even had a relationship at all, before ditching her for five years? Clark doesn’t approve so he decides to keep tabs on her, and at one point follows her home discreetly so he can spy on what Lois, Richard and Jason are saying through the walls of their house. Holy shit, dude, that’s creepy.
I know I keep harping on about this, but it really bothers me how badly this film recontextualizes “Superman II”, despite the reverence it apparently has for it. I already griped about how that film hit the reset button on Lois’s character development, but I conceded that at least Clark took something away from that whole experience. According to “Superman Returns”, “Superman II” was completely and utterly pointless. No one learned anything at all, not even the main character, and the only thing of consequence that happened in that two-hour film was Clark getting Lois pregnant and Lex Luthor discovering Clark’s Fortress of Solitude. In any case, Clark eventually realizes he has no place meddling in Lois’ personal life and her relationships when he was the one who abandoned her (twice over), so he decides to just focus on keeping Metropolis safe and winning back the people’s trust, working overtime to stop Lex’s latest plot.
You know how I said the Donner films started the trend of portraying Superman as a messiah figure, which eventually became overdone later? “Superman Returns” is the point where it starts to get heavy-handed. Throughout the movie, Superman is presented as an aloof paragon of righteousness sent to save humanity by his wise father, who’s shunned by non-believers, beaten down and almost murdered by ignorant, jealous sinners, and eventually dies for our sins, falling back to Earth in full crucifix pose, before he later discovers he has a son who will also walk the lonely path and continue his legacy. Let’s just say the Christ metaphor gets pretty easy to spot. But out of the various problems “Superman Returns” has, arguably the biggest one is the fact that this movie is one of those rare times when I have trouble sympathizing with Clark or connecting to him as a protagonist, especially during the first half of the film.
Kate Bosworth portrays a stubborn, hard-working, intuitive and now hard-edged Lois Lane, making her her own distinct character from Margot Kidder’s Lois, even though they share the same background. Lois has to deal with her ex-lover coming back into town, after she’s tried to forget him for five years and she wants nothing to do with him currently, even if her job as a reporter demands that she at least talk to him. I can’t say I blame her for wanting to ghost him: I’m pretty sure most people in her shoes would do the same. To try to avoid that awkward confrontation, Lois follows her journalistic instincts and chases down a lead on a bewildering blackout. But despite having a nice, comfortable relationship with Richard that she’s happy with, her infatuation with Superman still remains, complicating things, and over the course of this movie, she comes to forgive him for breaking her heart.
What would normally be a simple love triangle (ala “Spider-Man 2”) also becomes a case of baby daddy drama, when Lois discovers Superman sired her son, Jason. Since Lois had her memories wiped of “Superman II”, she must be really very confused. Despite ragging on the movie’s constant gloominess, there is a constant sense throughout “Superman Returns” that the Donnerverse characters have gotten a lot older and are growing up, even if their futures aren’t quite what the audience would have wanted for them, and I appreciate that. Considering “Superman Returns” was the last film to be released in the series, it gives a nice sense of finality to this continuity. Lois drags her son, Jason, along with her on a potentially dangerous case to snoop (mother of the year, everyone) and stumbles into Lex Luthor’s scheme, which leads to a series of daring rescues. After all the times Superman has saved her, it’s fitting that for once, Lois gets to save him after he gets Kyptonite shanked by Lex Luthor.
Lois’s son, Jason, is a fairly timid and frail boy. He keeps to himself out of shyness, and he seems to be plagued by a number of illnesses like asthma, though in reality, his body is going through a metamorphosis as he adjusts to growing up under a yellow sun. Jason doesn’t actually add much to the plot for most of the film, and he mainly exists to signify how much Lois’ life has changed and to bolster both of his parents’ character arcs. In the last act, as the stakes rise, Jason gets two major contributions when he manages to save both of his parents. A spontaneous piano-playing session with one of Lex’s goons turns deadly, so he flips said piano onto said goon to save his mommy. Later, he helps rescue his other daddy from drowning in the ocean, since he has two daddies now.
Mainly, Jason exists so he can tie into Superman’s character arc, and the movie’s overarching theme of fathers and sons. It turns out Lois and Clark’s roll in the hay had bigger consequences than either of them thought at the time, and Jason is Clark’s progeny (which leads me to be wonder how the more religious Superman fans reacted to him having a kid out of wedlock with Lois). Superman went off on his fool’s mission to a dead world for five years out of loneliness and desperation at being the last of his kind, and something he learned throughout this film was the need to let go of the past to try to focus on the life he has in the present (which is later shown symbolically when Superman tosses Lex Luthor’s twisted, perverted remains of Krypton off into space). When Clark discovers the truth, he’s surprised yet excited that he’s no longer the only Kryptonian on Earth. He has a son now to share the experience with. With the open-ended place Lois and Clark’s relationship is in by the end of this movie, Clark may never be a normal father figure to the boy, but he will always be involved in his life and he will always be there to be a guiding hand to him.
Lois’ fiancé, Richard White (James Marsden), is a pretty likable and dependable fellow. He’s an accomplished pilot who’s been helping Lois raise Jason for years, since he has no qualms about dating a single mother (mind you, the fact that Lois is dating her boss’ nephew must surely have gotten the gossip rags talking for months). Once Superman comes back into the picture, Richard feels insecure about his relationship with Lois, since he knows Lois and Superman have some history and she clearly still harbors feelings for the hero. Over the course of this movie, Richard gets a firsthand view that Superman is a good man (when Clark saves his entire family) and gets confirmation that they still have a strong connection, so he quietly decides that whoever Lois picks, he will accept her choice. Notably, the love triangle is never given an overt, concrete conclusion. Which man Lois chose is implied, if you pick up the significance of the two kisses she shares with them in the coda, but the movie still leaves things pretty open-ended by the finale. Personally, I’m still holding out hope for Lois x Richard.
Sam Huntington and Frank Langella slip into the roles of Jimmy Olsen and Perry White for this film, and I have to say, I like Sam Huntington’s Jimmy quite a bit more than I do Marc McClure’s; he’s a lot funnier and he seems closer to Clark in this movie than he was in the Donner films. And while he lacks the snappiness of Jackie Cooper’s Perry, Frank Langella makes the chief feel like a more grizzled and seasoned, if short-sighted, boss. “Superman Returns” finally confirms that the staff of the Daily Planet are really thick. Superman being able to fool his coworkers with the low-effort disguise of a pair of glasses is an old, established part of the mythos, but Clark Kent returning to work the same day Superman does after being gone for five years is a huge coincidence for a bunch of reporters to ignore.
When Clark wiped Lois’ mind at the end of “Superman II”, he rather stupidly didn’t think to erase Lex’s memories as well, even though Lex was a murderous criminal mastermind who now knew the location of his Fortress of Solitude. As a result, Lex returns as a major threat again in this film, weaponizing technology from Superman’s own homeworld against him. Lex manages to swindle an old woman’s entire fortune out of her on her deathbed, which means he now has the status and resources to do what he likes, along with a gang of thugs he enlisted while he was in prison. Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor shares a few traits with Gene Hackman’s, including his dry, pompous sense of humor and his cowardly, self-serving nature, but for the most part, Spacey does a lot to set his version of Lex apart from his predecessor’s. It’s implied his time in prison and his hatred towards Superman changed Lex, allowing more of his false, comical exterior to fall away, revealing the true psychopath underneath.
Lex is icy, reserved, resentful and vicious, envying Superman for his sheer power as much as he hates him. Lex is still willing to let millions of people die for his own self-gain, and he does not pass up a chance to personally shank Clark during the climax. Out of all the various callbacks to the original “Superman”, the one that works the best in my opinion is the expansion of Kryptonian lore. In that film, Krypton was portrayed as an icy, crystalline world: its technology could cause electromagnetic interference and its structures were grown out of contact with water. “Superman Returns” incorporates all those elements into the plot with Lex Luthor’s scheme, which provides some of the best action scenes in the film, like the Boeing 747 sequence. In the end, Lex’s plan is thwarted partly because he’s betrayed by his Ms. Tessmacher clone, Kitty (though to be fair to Kitty, her reasons for doing so are a lot less self-centered than Eve’s).
It would seem Bryan Singer felt more at home portraying Superman’s titanic displays of strength in this movie than the various, quiet, down-to-earth scenes of Lois and Clark’s personal lives, because the former area is definitely where his direction shines the most. The special effects in the movie look amazing, as they should, since “Superman Returns” had a budget of $200,000,000. Highlights include the main titles’s opening tour through space, Superman saving an airliner and landing it in a baseball field, Superman doing rapid-fire repairs on Metropolis during an earthquake, and Superman throwing Lex’s new continent into space.
John Ottoman’s score for “Superman Returns” is easily the best thing about this movie. He does an even better job than Ken Thorne did of updating John William’s themes and leitmotifs and seamlessly blending them in with the new material he writes, and the end result is an incredibly sublime score that elevates the mood of the movie. John stays faithful to the Superman March with his own rendition, while also giving it a significantly quicker tempo and some rousing, added percussion. “Rough Flight” cycles through a bevy of different emotions, containing just the right mix of hope, alarm and despair during the shuttle sequence, before it finally becomes almost unbearably tense as Clark races to stop the plane’s final descent towards the ground. Ottoman underscores several of Lois and Clark’s scenes with tender strings and soft, thrumming, pleasant piano keys, particularly in “Little Secrets” and “How Could You Leave Us?“. The latter cue journeys though the composer’s new, rising, somber theme representing Clark’s solitude, some haunting choral vocals, and finally the simple, exquisite elegance of the Lois and Clark love theme, as the two finally begin to reconnect after five years and for one deceptive moment, it’s almost as though Clark never left. Meanwhile, “Not Like The Train Set“, flaunts Lex’s new deliciously, stridently evil theme.
“Superman Returns” is still a difficult film for me to grade as a whole. There’s just enough wrong with this movie (like poor, lazy writing) to ensure it doesn’t rank in the upper echelons of Superman movies, but it’s also nowhere near bad enough to rank in the reject pile alongside movies like “Superman IV: A Quest For Peace”. As far as Superman movies go, “Superman Returns” is pretty middle-of-the-road.
* The main titles sequence is one of my favorite scenes in the movie, and not just because the “Superman March” is always awesome. The audience is treated to Kal-El’s entire odyssey from Krypton to Earth: past supernovas, nebulas, comets, asteroid belts, quasars, wormholes, shattered worlds, our solar system, our moon, and finally our home. It’s never made clear if we’re watching Clark’s first journey as a toddler, or his second one as an adult, but my sense of wonder prefers to think it’s the former. So many humans dream about seeing the furthest reaches of space, and even the lucky few who get to be astronauts will never travel further than the moon. Clark saw a good chunk of creation when he was just a toddler, and he probably forgot it all when he grew up. It’s an excellent reminder that as human as Clark may seem sometimes, he is in fact an immigrant from across the universe.
* There are so many establishing shots of Lex’s yacht throughout this movie, it’s a pretty obvious chekov’s gun for the climax.
* “Wow, that’s really something Lex” “Wait for it” “…Wow, that’s really something, Lex. It’s freaking ‘Gone With The Wind'”.
* You just have to wince at how much Lois is tossed around during the plane crash sequence. How did she not break something?
* You know what makes the plane crash scene so thrilling? Superman not only tries to land the plane, he also does everything in his power to try to keep it from breaking apart as it falls to Earth, even when it clearly can’t handle the strain. He grabs hold of the tail and the wings, and when all else fails, he simply resorts to grabbing it by the nose like a raging bull.
* Meh, after everything’s happened in the last twenty minutes, that’s fair.
* “Lois, three things sell papers: tragedy, sex and Superman. People are sick of tragedy, we both know you can’t write a damn about sex, so that means the only one left is ‘Superman'”.
* “My heart! I have a palpitation! A heart palpitation! And a murmur! Please, take me to the hospital! Take me to the hospital!” Laying it on a bit thick there, aren’t you, Kitty?
* “Every other paper in town has already got a reporter covering the story, and you two are the one with history!” “Chief, I’ve done Superman-” *Jimmy snorts* “Covered him. You know what I mean”.
* “I was gonna pretend the breaks were out! Pretend, like we talked about! You didn’t actually have to cut them!” “Of course I did. A man can always tell when a woman is pretending, especially Superman”.
* “Listen. What do you hear?” “Nothing” “I hear everything. You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but everyday I hear people crying out for one. I’m sorry I left you, Lois. I’ll take you back now”.
* “Lex Luthor?” “Lois Lane?” “You’re bald”.
* “Come on, let me hear you say it, just once” “You’re insane” “No, not that, no. The other one, it’s dangling off the tip of your tongue” “Superman will never-” “WRONNGGG!!!!” TRIGGERED.
* “Could you help mommy open the door?”
* “Brutus is dead. He got hit by the piano” “Where’s the boy?” “With the mother, locked up in the pantry” “Oh, it’s time for us to go”.
* I probably shouldn’t have laughed when Lois got knocked out by the pantry door out of nowhere, but I did.
* When Clark is getting beaten down by Lex’s goons, you can hear him yell “I’m still Superman!” at Lex, just to let Luthor know which of them is still the bitch, even without his powers.
* Man, Jason has almost bought the farm so many times in one afternoon.
* “SUPERMAN IS DEAD” “It’s kind of morbid, Perry” “Always be prepared”.
* There’s still plenty of baby daddy drama to come in the future, when Lois, Clark and Richard have custody squabbles about the proper way to raise Superboy, and Superman’s visiting rights.
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