I don’t think Superman Returns is a bad movie. It’s an interesting character study, a solid drama, and a fresh perspective on the comic book genre. But that doesn’t necessarily add up to a great Superman movie. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, I’ll talk about what this movie did right.
The Soaring Score
When I first saw Superman Returns, I was thrilled to see my favorite superhero back on the silver screen. I knew I would at least like this movie before I even saw it because the music was already perfect. It hearkened back to the Planet Krypton theme and the Superman March from the original almost immediately. From the nostalgic opening credits I was hooked. I was ready to be entertained.
John Ottman’s score is amazing! He manages to blend John Williams’ iconic themes with his own dramatic take on the material, creating something that feels both familiar and delightfully new. This is especially true of the flying sequence with Superman and Lois Lane. This scene is a great homage to Superman: The Movie’s flying sequence, and it managed to throw in enough new things to avoid being a blatant ripoff like Superman IV. As they fly, the music takes on a melancholy tone, showing that the characters and their relationship have changed since the last time we saw them. But then right at the end of their flight, the music soars with the visuals and does a superb rendition of the original Love Theme.
I actually prefer Lex Luthor’s theme in this movie over the one in the original. Superman: The Movie had a campy theme for Lex Luthor, which unfortunately negated a lot of his menace. But in Superman Returns there is a sense of danger that permeates the air when Lex Luthor is at work. This makes him much more threatening.
Superman: The Drama
I heard a lot of complaints that this movie is seriously lacking in action and is too heavy on drama. I actually don’t mind that aspect of the movie. It makes sense to have a slow buildup to the action in the second half. It follows the pattern of the original film. We get to know the characters and understand all of their problems before seeing them in peril so we’re heavily invested in their survival. That’s called drama, and it’s a good thing.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is after Superman is rejected by Lois and he flies away into the sky. At first I thought I understood that he was so lonely that he wanted to get away from everyone and everything. But then we see him floating in space with his eyes closed and we hear what he hears – a mess of overlapping voices, shouts, gunshots, alarms and countless other sounds. And that was when I realized he isn’t running away; he’s going to work. That is a great moment that summarizes who Superman is and what he stands for. Even when he isn’t feeling good about himself, he helps other people. That’s one of the reasons why he’s the greatest superhero.
A Clever Twist
You’ve got to hand it to Bryan Singer. He took a few ideas that were never really delved into in the first two Superman films and he put them to great use in this film. I assumed in Superman: The Movie that Kent went to the North Pole to build the Fortress of Solitude because it would be isolated and similar to his home world Krypton. But I never thought that building his Fortress of Solitude could actually have detrimental side effects like an electromagnetic pulse. That was a clever idea that fits just fine into the world of the original Superman films. Also, the idea that the crystals in the Fortress of Solitude could create entire continents out of the surrounding minerals makes sense since the green one could build a house out of ice. Singer brought plenty of clever twists to the material he was given.
The World Is on His Shoulders
There is a long, LONG production history surrounding Superman Returns. Big-name Hollywood directors like Tim Burton, Michael Bay and even McG were all attached at one time or another to direct the Man of Steel’s return to the big screen in the 1990s and early 2000s. Comic book aficionado Kevin Smith and then-newcomer J.J. Abrams submitted scripts to try to breathe new life into the character. They all tried and failed. So I have to give props to Singer for coming in with a unique vision and bringing that vision to life where so many others had given up.
Superman deserves a filmmaker who loves his character, not one who is just trying to sell as many toys as possible. Like how The Dark Knight is night and day (pardon the pun) better than Batman & Robin, Superman Returns is a much better movie than some of the other ones that were being planned.
Two scenes in the movie show Superman lifting something large on his shoulders. The first thing is the globe on top of the Daily Planet Building, and the other is the continent Luthor created from one of the Kryptonian crystals. Both of these scenes represent not only what the character is struggling with in the film, but what the film is struggling to do with the character. Superman feels alienated from those he loves in this film, but he still does his best to serve them. Superman Returns tries to be entertaining and respectful to the character’s long history. It mostly succeeds at both of those things, but the more I watch it the more I can see the cracks in its good intentions.
A Not-So-Clever Twist
I was shocked when I discovered Lois’ son was actually Superman’s, not her fiancée’s. I didn’t see that twist coming at all, mostly because I was paying attention to all the other drama going on. It seemed like a really clever idea at first. Superman and Lois copulated in Superman II, and a child resulted from their union. That makes sense.
Or does it? The more I thought about it, the more I wished this particular story point had been revised. Superman is the original Christ type in the comic book world. Why make him commit a sin like having a child out of wedlock, and then leaving for several years and not being a very supportive spouse or father? That’s totally out of character for him. Superman would not do any of these things.
Also, in Superman II he gave up his powers before being with Lois, so their child wouldn’t have powers, would he? And if you say that it makes sense in the Richard Donner Cut, I would respond by noting that in that film Superman destroys the Fortress of Solitude at the end, so we’re clearly not going off that version of the events in Superman Returns.
Truth, Justice and… What?!
After Superman returns to earth in grand fashion, Perry White gives a rousing speech to the Daily Planet staff, culminating in the question, “Does he still stand for truth, justice, all that stuff?” All that stuff?! Why not just say “and the American way of life?” If all three Spider-Man movies can include blatant symbols of American patriotism, why not Superman, the original comic book symbol of American exceptionalism? I don’t get it.
At the end of his pep talk to the newspaper staff, White does something that left me feeling frustrated and underwhelmed. Instead of shouting a loud “Move!” like he did in the original film, he looks around and says softly, “Come on.” That right there represented most of what I find wrong with this movie. It is too soft-spoken. Superman isn’t an arrogant jerk or anything, but he should exude confidence and leadership. He doesn’t really do that in this film. He spends so much time being unsure of himself and his place in the world that he comes across more as a helpful friend than a fearless defender of good.
Did Superman: The Movie really need a remake? Because that’s basically what Superman Returns turned out to be. I plan to talk all about this in a Movie Matchup article at some point in the future, but for now I’ll just point out a few similarities. In both movies:
- Superman leaves Krypton and comes to earth.
- Clark Kent leaves Smallville and immediately gets a job at the Daily Planet.
- Lex Luthor hatches an evil scheme to kill millions of people in the name of new real estate.
- Superman is temporarily weakened by Kryptonite, but he recovers in time to lift an entire continent and repair the damage Luthor has done.
There are many other similarities, but these four things are enough to show that the two movies are more than just passingly similar. They follow virtually the same path. I thought when I first saw Superman Returns that it was okay that there were so many similarities to the first film. Maybe it was building to a great sequel, the same way Superman: The Movie did. But it turns out there won’t be a sequel to this movie. Instead, a reboot is planned for 2013 entitled The Man of Steel. So Superman Returns is just kind of an unfinished story. That’s a shame.
A Lot to Love
There’s a lot to love about Superman Returns. Like the actor they got to play Superman and Clark Kent – Brandon Routh. His earnestness and looks fit the part perfectly. He just wasn’t given a chance to really shine as the brave, confident Man of Tomorrow we all know and love. The music is phenomenal, adding both credibility to the film and dramatic weight to its more fantastic elements. The many quotes and references to the original film are great touches that connect the two films in interesting ways.
It is wonderfully satisfying to hear Superman quote what his father told him as a baby to his own son: “The son becomes the father. The father, the son.” It’s too bad this couldn’t be in the context of actually being a father figure to the boy, but we’ll never know what the filmmakers were planning since no sequel will come.
I get the sense that it’s hard to make a movie about an invulnerable being. The Matrix movies fell apart after Neo became almost omnipotent inside the Matrix. Iron Man 2 was boring because even though Tony Stark faced a threat to his health early in the film, that problem was resolved much too easily and he never felt in peril the way he was in the first Iron Man. So Superman is no exception to this problem.
The best way to make a Superman film, in my opinion, is to give him a credible threat (preferably one who’s not named Lex Luthor) and put his friends in real danger. Give him difficult choices and let his greatness shine through as he chooses the greater good over his own personal feelings. Nobody’s perfect, but I just wish Superman Returns was a little closer to perfection.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
All photos from Superman Returns are the copyright of Warner Bros.