Superman Returns, Revisited – A Superhero Film That Pulls Its Punches
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opened strong at the box office despite mostly negative reviews. After watching the film, it’s safe to say the reviewers might have been kind. The film is such a shallow mess, devoid of charms, character development, and a basic level of coherency that it doesn’t warrant an in-depth discussion (Madeline Kahn in Clue: The Movie sums up my feelings perfectly). My expectations were low from the start. Its predecessor, Man of Steel, was a flawed film, though I didn’t have many of the issues others did. The film’s execution aside (not necessarily a pun), it offered the promise of something greater. I’ll paraphrase Grant Morrison’s excellent All-Star Superman, when his father Jor-El says, “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal.” At the time, I hoped Man of Steel was just a rough first step toward a stronger series of films with a much more inspirational Superman. Now, with Batman v Superman released, it’s clear this series is not striving toward anything close to Jor-El’s words. The franchise is has its feet firmly planted in mediocrity.
Instead of dwelling on these films, I’ve decided to look back ten years to the last attempt to revive the Superman film franchise—Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. In the two decades leading up to Singer’s film, there were many false starts involving a who’s who of Hollywood names, but every one of these projects failed to get off the ground. Fresh from the successful first two X-Men films (which arguably launched the entire modern superhero film genre), Singer opted to take on Superman instead of doing the third X-Men film. He essentially walked away from a slam-dunk blockbuster in order to tackle a challenge at which many had already failed. The dilemma was—and still is—how to make Superman relevant in modern times with all his do-goodness and unfailing optimism.
Singer opted to go back to what worked in the past, the film classic Superman directed by Richard Donner, and build from there. He posited that Superman had been away for years, off looking for the remains of his home planet, and is now returning to a world that’s changed since he left it. He can’t seamlessly pick up where he left off, both as Superman and as Clark Kent. There were repercussions for leaving, as he soon learns. Lois Lane has won a Pulitzer Prize for an article “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” She’s also engaged to be married and has a young son. She’s still hurt that Superman left, but she refuses to let that get in the way of her life. Lex Luthor has been released from jail, partially due to the fact that Superman wasn’t around to take the stand at Luthor’s trial. On paper, this take on restoring Superman to the big screen offered promise. But it was only lukewarmly received by audiences. Instead of asking the audience if the world still needed someone like Superman, a better approach might have been explicitly show why they still needed him from the film’s start.
Playing on nostalgia is a gamble. These days it’s much more prevalent from seeing your favorite Star Wars characters thirty years older in The Force Awakens to returning to the Tanner family in Netflix’s Fuller House revival series. Opening Superman Returns with Marlon Brando’s voice and John William’s iconic score provoked much excitement, but Singer still had an uphill battle. Unlike today’s revivals, he did not have the original cast available, nor were his versions of the characters meant to be significantly older than when we last saw them. In addition to asking audiences to buy back into Donner’s world, they had to accept new actors doing their best to recreate the magic from thirty years earlier. How could anyone compare to Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, and Gene Hackman? The results were mixed. Much like Christopher Reeve before him, Brandon Routh was a relatively new face, allowing him to slip in the role. His Superman is good; his Clark Kent feels like a imitation of Reeve’s work. The role requires some heavy-lifting (more on that later) and ultimately Routh rose to the challenge. He captured Superman’s heart, which was essential. Kate Bosworth doesn’t try to mimic Kidder. She’s smart and assertive, but lacks some of the charming sarcasm and know-it-all attitude that makes Lois endearing. Kevin Spacey fairs the best as Lex Luthor, with a performance on par with Hackman’s. He navigates between a joking demeanor to a threatening one with great effect. New to the film is Luthor’s girlfriend and foil Kitty Kowalski, played pitch perfectly by Parker Posey. You can’t help smiling whenever she graces the screen. And perhaps the most under-appreciated performance comes from James Marsden as Lois’s fiance Richard, who is stuck in the unenviable position of watching Lois’s ex flame return. He exudes patience and understanding, and when necessity requires it, he’s capable of being a hero and saving his family. If Superman is the unobtainable we should strive for, Richard is who we could actually become.
The biggest fight scene in the film comes when Luthor stabs Superman with a Kryptonite shiv, breaking it off to keep the wound open. In a film without a high body count and few punches thrown, the violence is shocking and a bit gratuitous (in the way most other action films are). Within the context of the film, it’s justified. Looking back at the Donner film, Luthor hung a piece of Kryptonite around Superman’s neck. Now hardened from his time in prison, Luthor wasn’t about to risk Superman getting away from the Kryptonite so easily. The fight is the antithesis to the big climatic battles audiences have come to expect. It would almost be refreshing to see a superhero film without one these days. But when Superman Returns was released, it felt like a missed opportunity. Throughout the film, we watch Superman carry out heroic act after heroic act. He always makes it his priority to save lives, and then takes care of whatever else needs to be done. The finale followed that through-line, with the climax focusing on Superman lifting an ever-growing continent made of Kryptonite into space. This monumental accomplishment ought to have been awe-inspiring, depicting something only Superman could do. In other words, why the world still needs Superman. His strength for greater use than punches.
Much criticism was leveled at the controversial reveal that Superman is the father of Lois’s son Jason. The term “deadbeat dad” was tossed around on many comic/film discussion boards, an unfair and inelegant assessment that misses the sentiment for which Singer was striving. Superman didn’t knock up Lois and flee town. Had he known Lois was pregnant, he never would have left. He made the mistake of trading a future he would have wanted in order to chase a better understanding of his past. Lois chooses to stay with Richard, who for all intents and purposes is the child’s father. It’s bittersweet and tragic, and regrettably the parallels between Superman and his son are not a clearly drawn as they could be. Superman himself is the product of two fathers. There’s Jor-El, who he only knows via a computer representation, that gave him his genetic make-up and, therefore, his great abilities. And then there’s Jonathan Kent, the man who raised him and provided a moral compass. Both elements were needed to make Superman who he is, but I can’t help but assume Superman had a choice, he’d rather be a father like Jonathan than Jor-El. When Superman utters one of Jor-El’s last spoken words to a sleeping Jason, it represents the heartbreaking consignment to his role in the child’s life. He’ll be there to explain Jason’s abilities one day, but not get to raise him. This act isn’t shirking responsibilities, but respecting the new life Lois built for herself. And while this storyline might not seem exciting, it’s certainly modernizes Superman and offers a new perspective we have not seen.
We’re left with a nostalgic and introspective film in which Superman who doesn’t have to punch anyone. Accepting that of an audience is a huge ask. Not preparing them for the ask in the still-current climate of explosive on-screen battles is even more difficult. A month earlier, the X-Men film Singer passed up concluded with an effect-driven battle on Alcatraz Island. Superman couldn’t compete. It’s possible he needs a contrast to help audiences. Having the chance to play off a character like Batman, much the way the similarly wholesome Captain America plays off Iron Man in Marvel’s films, would have gone a long way to realizing the audience’s acceptance of Superman. Had Superman Returns been the opening salvo building toward a Justice League film series, I think we would have gotten something more exciting and meaningful than what’s in store now. Unfortunately $391 million in worldwide box office against a budget of $270 million wasn’t enough to warrant a sequel. It’s disappointing we couldn’t see what came next after the groundwork was laid. If you need a palate cleanser like I did after Batman v Superman, give Superman Returns another look. It might have been a risky way to restart a franchise, but it’s solid and refreshingly different than nearly all the superhero films that have come after it.