MEN OF STEEL #9: Superman Returns (2006)

Is Bryan Singer’s thematic sequel to Superman II still a disaster seven years later? Kal-El detractor Dylan gives it a fresh perspective. 

Who made it?: Bryan Singer (Director/Co-Producer), Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris (Writers), Gilbert Adler, Jon Peters, Stephen Jones (Co-Producers), Warner Bros. Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington.

Tagline: None.

IMDb rating: 6.2/10.

For the second time this summer, I’m looking at a movie franchise I’m not au fait with. The 70s Superman movies were never a part of my childhood. I don’t have any intrinsic problems with them, it’s just they don’t hold any emotional weight for me as a piece of nostalgia. This made looking at Superman Returns a rather strange experience. Director Bryan Singer’s picture is absolutely and unashamedly a sequel to Richard Donner’s universe. The main theme is the same, and Returns isn’t just a tagged on moniker but the basis of the narrative. It’s a brave decision to make such a clear follow-up to a thirty-year-old movie, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one introduced to the series here. So does the gamble pay-off? Did Singer achieve the success of the original with state-of-the-art visuals?

The plot follows Clark Kent/Superman (Brandon Routh) as he returns to Earth after a five-year absence. His girlfriend, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), is married with a child, and his worst enemy, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), is recently out of prison. Kal-El must readjust to life on our planet and stop Luthor from destroying the globe with his schemes. In the broadest sense, that is all Returns is actually about, but there is a lot more to it than that. This is from the man who made The Usual Suspects, so a lot here is left to subtext and nuance. That’s either bold or boring.

What struck me most is how visual the storytelling is. Although the saying “show don’t tell” is a lynchpin of cinema, Singer pushes the mantra as far as it can go in this genre. Five-minutes will go by with only one or two lines of dialogue, and I honestly believe the film could’ve worked as a silent movie. This would be fine if the set-pieces weren’t so hokey. Some are superb, like the scene where a car goes from crashing to floating mid-shot (faithfully replicating the character’s first cover appearance). But for a lot of the running time, decisions are made purely for the visual effect rather than how they fit into the plot, and they become naff and illogical. There’s that bit when Clark throws a ball for his dog that goes on for miles, or when Luthor drops a penny in a donation box that suggests ten dollars as he robs a museum. They feel like “wouldn’t it be funny?” moments rather than “what would Superman do?” The less said about Luthor’s train set, and the scene with the piano-playing henchman, the better.

It also creates the problem that you don’t get enough of the characters in the first half. The Man of Steel barely speaks, and we learn little about what motivates him. It’s very frustrating for someone not overly familiar with the franchise, who this film had to appeal to as a relaunch. When heavy dialogue scenes are needed, the flick falls back on devices like the villain explaining the plot to the damsel in distress. The movie is so focused on making everything pretty that it loses sight of whether the plot is strong enough to make the cinematography interesting in the first place. There is an intrinsic campiness to the movie that, in a age when comic books have become respected source material, feels out-of-date. Simply put, the world of Superman Returns is old-fashioned. From the newsroom setting to the costume design, there’s very little to suggest the present day. When someone uses a mobile phone to take a photo, it’s the first sign that the movie isn’t set in an alternative 1970s. But it isn’t quite stylistic enough. If they were going for a nostalgic tone, every frame should scream it; here the design changes between old and new when the plot requires it.

I hope this review isn’t coming across as too negative since there are aspects to truly appreciate. I love Routh’s only performance as Superman. He plays Kal-El as a weird alien and it works. This doesn’t feel like a man dressed up in a suit, but an alien observing our planet. There is a real distance between him and everyone else that speaks to the roots of the character. Spacey is just as effective. He is so entertaining as Luthor, and though this is the Golden Age and goofy interpretation of the character, he is always brilliant to watch.

Also, the SFX more than hold up today. The scenes with the Man of Steel flying look great, the “bullet in the eye” scene is still brilliant, and the plane rescue is by far the stand-out moment of the film. But by making Lois and Clark’s relationship the centre of the movie, Singer very cleverly adds weakness to a character that, for most of the film, is invincible. It’s just a shame the scenes between them are a so schmaltzy and that the far-too-young Bosworth is epically miscast as Lois. She just doesn’t have the drive, determination or spunk of the icon we remember.

For me, there is just something missing overall. There aren’t enough set-pieces in the first half to suck you in, and the script isn’t strong enough to make you care for the characters without them. I was astonished to discover that a scene where Superman explores a destroyed Krypton was left on the cutting room floor. It’s what was needed to get the film going, and without it the movie lacks a dynamic prologue.

Superman Returns is a movie made with love, and I loathe to tear it apart so much. When you consider the movie that could’ve been (those who have seen the Kevin Smith anecdote about writing “Superman Lives” will understand), it is definitely an attempt to create something interesting, dynamic and entertaining. Singer is clearly a huge fan of the original movies, and it succeeds as an homage. Some of my opinion may be biased because I have no intrinsic love for the originals, but what I found most interesting about Returns is that it doesn’t feel dated because it is a sequel, but because it is a 70s movie. It feels dated because the movie climate has already moved on so much. This should have been a cinematic interpretation of the comic book character and not a continuation.

This small but crucial difference makes it slick and professional from a filmmaking perspective, but ultimately unsatisfying. These days, that simply doesn’t cut it – you need love for the source material as well. There isn’t one particular problem with Singer’s picture, and no one element is particularly dreadful or cynical. They produced a film on the cusp of geek culture becoming fashionable, and Superman Returns suffered greatly for missing the boat. Kal-El returned to the big screen but the cinematic landscape, like Metropolis, had already moved on without him…

“Look! Up in the sky…”

The plane rescue brings the characters together nicely and still looks great today.

Trivial Issues

(Via IMDb)
  • Bryan Singer is on record as saying Superman Returns is a loose follow-up to Superman and Superman II, but does not follow those movies’ continuity strictly. It ignores Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. However, there is a reference to Supergirl, which was released between the later two: a radio announcer reports Superman is off on a space mission to a far away galaxy.
  • The reappearance of Superman in Metropolis by saving an crashing airplane is a direct nod to an episode of Paul Dini’s Superman cartoons titled: “The Last Son of Krypton Part 2″ as well as an episode of the Max Fleischer series called “Japoteurs.”
  • During filming, Kevin Spacey would drive around in a golf cart (“Lex’s Super Buster”) dragging a stuffed Superman doll behind on a rope and yell “Superman Must Die” with a megaphone.
  • Frank Langella’s character, Perry White, was played on The New Adventures of Superman by Lane Smith. This is actually the second part the actors have shared. Previously, they both played former President Richard Nixon.

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama

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  1. cobrazombie says:

    That plane sequence is genuinely exciting and maybe the best Superman has looked in cinema since that missile sequence in the original Movie. Only thing that ruins it for me is the passengers on board the jet (particularly Bosworth’s character) are not sweating or bloodied or seemingly injured in any way after being tossed around the cabin.

    And, sorry, but I’m just damn tired of Lex Luthor.

    • Dylan Spicer says:

      Thanks for the comment! Yeah it’s great, just not indicative of the film as a whole. What do you think of Cranston for MOS2?

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