In Defense Of - Superman Returns
It occurred to me as I popped Superman Returns into my Blu-Ray player that the film will be 10 years old this June. Wow. But instead of looking back just yet, let’s pick up where we left off with Superman IV: The Quest for a Bigger Budget and cover the nearly 20 years there wasn’t a Superman film. As we have already covered, Superman IV opened in 1987 and bombed…hard. A couple of years later as Cannon Films found themselves in dire financial straits, they were able to sell the film rights…not to Warners or DC…but not too far from that. No, they sold the rights to Jon Peters, who, in 1989, was making money well-coifed hand over scarred fist thanks to the first Batman film. [I can’t be the only one that is still finding it hard to digest that his claims of being in over 500 street fights is true, can I??? – Ed.] The most known attempt to bring Superman back to the big screen is highlighted in Jon Schnepp’s excellent documentary, reviewed here, so we won’t repeat ourselves. There were other attempts after that failed, with names like J.J. Abrams, McG, and Brett Ratner attached. [And even if you HAVEN’T watched Schnepp’s documentary, just two of those names on there would make you long for the Burton/Cage project getting off the ground! – Ed.] Then, hot off the first two X-Men films, comes Bryan Singer. At this point in Comic Book Cinema history, yes, the genre is starting to relaunch…but two names quickly separate themselves from the pack, those being Sam Raimi, thanks to his work on Spider-Man, and Singer. So this seemed like the ultimate win for DC and Warners. But…let us simply say the result isn’t what most were hoping for. Superman Returns is far from being a perfect movie and has some identity issues, but by and large the negative reaction to the film is due mainly to the audience not understanding the kind of film that it is and Warners’ advertising campaign that was, in some significant ways, misleading.
Right off the bat, Superman Returns gets off to a great start. No, I’m not talking about the actual film just yet, I’m going to the very core of the idea…well, one of them anyway: Let’s pretend that Superman III and IV DIDN’T HAPPEN. Having just had to sit through them, I can tell you that this is a stroke of genius and will help shorten my already incredibly long laundry list of items for me to discuss with my shrink. [That poor woman. Who’d she piss off to get stuck having to sort out your baked noodle? – Ed.] It’s the other core concept behind the film, however, is where audiences flee and flee in droves…making it difficult, if not nearly impossible to find someone that even just likes the film…much less one willing to defend it. And I have to admit, it’s weird having to type out a defense for a film that has a 76% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Three out of four critics liked it…and yet bring this movie up on the internet…I dare you. Why do comic book nerds react to Superman Returns the same way a 6 year old boy reacts to when he’s forced to go down the Barbie aisle in Toys R Us? Well, as my analogy should have tipped you off, Bryan Singer actually succeeded in making the very first Comic Book Chick Flick…because the other core concept to this film is, as he put it, “What happens when a great love of your life comes back?” That, very clearly, is NOT a question on comic book nerd minds. Sure, Lex Luthor is in the movie…but the central conflict in the film is not between him and Superman, but instead is the strange love rhomboid between Superman, Clark, Lois and Richard White…Lois’s current fiancé and supposed father to Jason, her son. [Look, this is the only time we’re going to tip-toe around the kid’s identity. Given that the film is coming up on 10 years old, and hello, the internet, I think this falls out of the statute of limitations for ‘spoilers’. – Ed.] The film’s marketing only briefly touched on this, maybe showing a glimpse of the meeting between Lois and Superman on the roof of the Daily Planet, but otherwise focused on the more action-y aspects of the film: the airplane crash, the bank robbery and the conflict with Lex Luthor. The first two, while being set pieces, are more akin story-wise to the “Superman’s First Night” sequence from the first movie and the third, while it’s a plot thread that does indeed run the entire film, factoring into the aforementioned plane crash, it is a very solid B plot. The core plot to this movie is what happens when Superman, gone for five years, returns to find that Lois has moved on to a new man and has a child? Then…what happens when the child actually turns out to be his? Remove Superman’s name from the above two sentences and you’ve got yourself the topic of any number of romantic dramas out there. And very simply, that is not the sort of thing comic book audiences then, or likely even now, want to see.
That’s a damn shame. First, because there’s some really good, interesting questions and story beats here that have never before and likely never since been addressed by a comic book film. Superman Returns, long before Marvel did it to such success, showed that you can tell any type of story with superheroes…in this case, a romantic drama. If you want to take it a step further, since the folks behind DC Comics usually tout their heroes as being a modern day replacement for mythology, here’s the first time we really get into the meat of what ancient Greek and Roman mythologies were all about…Gods having sex with regular humans resulting in demigods or…wait for it…heroes. [They weren’t ALL about that. Just the good ones. – Ed.] It’s kinda weird…everyone has been assuming that Superman and Lois get together…even going so far as having them get married in the comics in the late 90s…and yet everyone complains about taking the next natural step? If they’re going to eventually get together, yes, there may or may not be the potential for an offspring (see the next paragraph). And wouldn’t what that kid would be like, the progeny of two worlds, half-human, half-kryptonian, wouldn’t that open up TONS of story material? And, let’s face it, comic book readership has been skewing older since the 90s…as such, this seems like just the sort of thing for them to address. Thus, it also tackles, although not in the way comic book fans wanted, that age old complaint of Superman not being relatable. Superman Returns is brave enough to put Superman in a very human situation…and one that even he is COMPLETELY vulnerable in. In one scene, just on the expression on Brandon Routh’s face, you can see that one word can do more damage to Superman than all the kryptonite that has ever made its way to Earth.
Since I’ve tip-toed around a couple of major fan-boy bitching points, let’s address those now. First up, and usually the loudest, the “deadbeat dad” argument. In both cuts of Superman II, Supes and Lois got it on. In the Lester Cut, the Superkiss wiped out her memory of the event while in the Donner Cut, turning back the world kinda sorta made it not happen. Now, clearly in the Lester Cut, she may have forgotten about it, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Things become trickier in the Donner Cut, where time is rewound, such that Lois may not have done it, yet just like in the first film, the things Superman did remain, well, did. Thus…did he or didn’t he? Only The Doctor would know for sure…but since we have the kid in the film…the answer is obvious. So why didn’t Superman know? Well, just reading the above, it’s pretty damn certain that Lois didn’t know! At least, not till the morning sickness kicked in. Couldn’t he have sensed it with his super hearing or x-ray vision or whatever? Sure…if he’d been looking for it, but given that he’s being bombarded with sounds and reflexively ignores those that aren’t pertinent in his protection of truth, justice and the American way, I’m gonna go ahead and guess that his senses were otherwise occupied. Superseding all of those though is a very basic scientific fact: how would either of them know that human DNA and Kryptonian DNA were compatible? We’re talking about vastly different genomes here! The chances of an embryo resulting in this kind of fusion? Let’s put it this way, if there were Vegas odds on this sort of thing, whoever bet on this actually happening would essentially have ALL OF THE MONEY. And I mean dollars, pounds, euros, rubles, bottle caps…EVERYTHING. That’s how miniscule the chances would be. All of that taken into account, when Superman gets information about astronomers finding the remains of Krypton and goes to check it out…why on earth would it cross either of their minds that Superman might have just become a dad? The answer? It wouldn’t. Hell, it barely crosses the minds of teens anywhere…and they’re human! Second, “Stalker Superman”. Now, I’m going to admit here that my experience in romantic dramas isn’t there…I mean, after all, I have testicles. [And if you actually flashed them as much as you flaunt them in writing, you’d either still be in prison or a registered sex offender. – Ed.] From what little I know, there’s usually a scene or two where either the guy or girl is sneaking looks or eavesdropping or what-have-you on their object of affection. In the context of the movie, it’s usually portrayed as sweet and innocent. [Don’t forget love songs. Geez, some of those can get downright wrong! – Ed.] When you take the act out of context…you’re goddamn right, it’s creepy and stalker-y as all hell. And, referring to the scene I mentioned in the last paragraph, Superman pays the price, overhearing something Lois says to Richard in order to comfort him and assuage his ego (yet we the viewers are given enough clues throughout the film to know it’s not true)…and it stabs Superman more painfully than a kryptonite shiv. But come on…you mean to tell me if you could see though anything and could focus your hearing on damn near hear anything…you’re NOT going to listen in to what someone you care about has to say? Look, I’ll agree that the depiction in the film, with Superman seemingly RIGHT OUTSIDE HER GODDAMN WINDOW is mind-bogglingly creepy and wrong…especially since he can do that shit from a distance…but we’re all human. Okay, he’s Kryptonian, but he was raised human…so he’s got human sensibilities, character traits and flaws. You’re going to sit there and tell me you wouldn’t do something like this? Bullshit. I’ll admit it, yeah, I totally would [His girlfriend will vouch for that. Oh, and by the way, she says that if you guys ever break up, a restraining order is totally in the cards, so don’t be surprised. – Ed.]…and if you’re honest with yourself…you would too. Hell, most of us wouldn’t stop there…cough x-ray vision cough. The last fan-boy gripe isn’t illegitimate, but not entirely the movie’s fault...this being the lack of action. Again, Warners didn’t know how to sell this movie and as such, marketed it just like any other comic book movie…as an action piece. And, as anyone who’s sat through the movie will tell you…it ain’t that. But that’s not the movie’s fault. It is what it is, a romantic drama. Yes, there are a couple of action beats here and there, but, again, at its core, there is no bad guy that needs to be punched in the face to solve everything. The core conflict in the movie, how to move on from a great love when there’s a fruit from that relationship, well, that’s shit we’re still struggling with and will always struggle with. So for Superman to solve that by punching Lex and Richard…well, that just cheapens everything, doesn’t it? And that’s why the film doesn’t feel very satisfying to most…there is no clear resolution. Sure, Lex is stuck on a deserted island (ironic given his longing for beachfront property), but the clearest depiction of things being unresolved is Lois’s computer screen near the end of the movie. She’s working on an article, ‘Why the World Needs Superman’, and it’s blank. She knows that we need him and that she needs him, but given how complicated things are around his return, it’s hard to figure out just where he belongs now…where he’s needed. And in moving from the microcosm to the macrocosm…well, that more than describes Superman’s place in popular culture these days, doesn’t it? You can see his logo everywhere and his is the foundation from which every superhero springs from and yet…he doesn’t fit anymore, does he? I’d go on, but that’s a rant for another time.
All that being said, it feels like the natural segue is to discuss where the movie actually does fail. It’s safe to say that given how much Donner’s original Superman: The Movie influenced EVERYONE’S perception of the Man of Steel…even the folks at DC Comics…so to use that as a foundation is a fantastic place to start. The key words there…’TO START’. Unfortunately, for the bulk of the film, Superman’s world isn’t allowed to evolve beyond that first film. That’s a shame given the narrative tool that we’re given, a five year gap. Those five years could’ve given us the soft reboot this movie may have been trying to be. Those five years could’ve seen Lex Luthor evolve from his land scheme in the 1978 film to the businessman that he’s portrayed as in pretty much EVERY OTHER bit of Superman media out there…comics, cartoons, TV shows, video games…everything. But no, the ways and means have been upgraded, but Lex is still chasing after his beachfront property. Clark is still a bumbler that you really can’t believe is a serious journalist. Look, I’m not saying to completely jettison that characteristic…you can’t with this being a sequel to the first two films…but you can maybe tone it down a bit. And it isn’t just characterizations…the story itself has significant chunks that feel like they are slight updates from the Donner film just plunked right down in there. The space shuttle/airplane rescue echoes the Air Force One rescue. The bank robbery and surrounding events echo the “Superman’s First Night” montage. The earthquakes at the end of both films and the devastation associated with them, the Superman Returns version is almost the exact same thing, just with updated visuals. Even gags are reused. Lois and Clark getting stuck together in the revolving door. “Statistically speaking, flying is still the safest way to travel.” And there are more that I’m not listing here. Look, it’s one thing to homage, it’s one thing to wink and nod at previous films…but this? This is too much. This is not having faith enough in either your character, your story or your approach to let it stand up on its own. Sadly, this is not uncommon amongst DC’s films and, as first evidenced by Superman III, definitely not uncommon in its Superman franchise.
So…why is this film worth defending? Aside from what I’ve already said earlier in the review, I’ll make like the writers and crib from Richard Donner when he was talking about his own film: “The cast alone validated the picture.” And that applies here. Brandon Routh is excellent as Superman, channeling Reeve perfectly, yet refining it slightly. Kate Bosworth seems a little young for the role of Lois, particularly Lois as a mom, but fits in an idealized comic book sort of way and, in that vein, goes some way to soothe the bitter taste that was Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane. And, since I’ve already mentioned testicles in this review, she certainly looks a far cry better…falling behind only Erica Durance and Teri Hatcher in my mind as far as attractive Lois Lanes go. Kevin Spacey is superb as Lex Luthor and, being straddled with the same old land scheme as Gene Hackman in the original, I have to admit he feels a bit wasted here. I think the businessman Luthor would have suited Spacey’s performance much, much more. Although he doesn’t have that big of a part, it’s also worth mentioning that Frank Langella as Perry White was inspired casting. Lastly, James Marsden…man…I feel for the guy. He got the shaft as Cyclops in the X-Men movies and here, as Richard White, he portrays a guy that is super…but not Super. In the big story of Superman and Lois…you know Richard’s…well…not in that story. And it’s a shame, because we’re shown that he’s a great guy…and yeah, he certainly could’ve pulled off the Man of Steel looks-wise. But you just had the feeling that if Superman Returns had gotten a sequel…well…I highly doubt he’d have seen the end credits vertically, if you know what I mean and I think you do. Not just him, but with everyone I’ve mentioned here…it is a shame that this is the only stab at their roles they’ll ever get. The film also serves as a very fitting close to a trilogy consisting of Superman: The Movie, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut and Superman Returns. While the events that ‘echo’ really didn’t so much feel like echoes…instead feeling more like ‘copy/paste’…the concept was sound. Of course, the concept seemed sound for the Star Wars Prequels and look how that ended up. And for as much complaining about the fact that Jason even exists, he does fit as a closure to the Kryptonian Prophecy that serves as the basis of Donner’s two films: the son becomes the father, the father becomes the son. In the first film, we see Brando’s Jor-El initiate the cycle as he sends baby Kal-El to Earth, in Donner’s cut of II, we see Jor-El’s role end in order to restore Superman’s powers and lastly in Superman Returns, we see that it is Kal-El’s turn to start the cycle anew with his son, Jason. In THAT, there’s successful echoing.
Although the film hobbles itself in keeping one foot strictly in the Pre-Crisis sensibilities of the first Superman film, all the while conversely asking its audience to ponder adult themes far beyond those even in the current slate of comic book films, it’s this thematic evolution that makes Superman Returns worth revisiting and re-evaluating. Yes, the writers retreat to tropes from the first film when their confidence in their own themes starts to wane, but ultimately this film succeeds in doing what so many of Superman’s villains have failed to do; put him in a situation where he simply cannot win. The film should be rewarded for that, in that it brought Superman a level of sophistication that has never been associated with the character. Had audiences known back in 2006 what type of film they were lining up to see, not a standard comic book actioner as the trailers had promised but a romance and drama on the level of myths that our current generation of superheroes grew from…well, honestly, the grosses would’ve probably been worse. But, at the very least, the choruses of “Hit Something!” might have been lessened.
And, as our next entry just might prove…nerds should be careful of what they ask for…