Gods Among Us: Revisiting Superman Returns

Sarah offers her own take on Bryan Singer’s much-maligned superhero adventure. 

Variety is the spice of life. Those six words aren’t used nearly enough, but they should be. As human beings, we need multiple choices. We aren’t content with just circling “A,” choosing McDonald’s, and playing Fallout 4. Some of us want option “B,” Burger King, and to sit on the couch and stream Jessica Jones on Netflix. There are over seven billion people inhabiting this planet, so how can we not? Because that’s over seven billion people with differing beliefs and opinions. We need the ability to choose. What works for one person won’t work for Joe Schmoe down the street, and vice versa. Sometimes you need a bit of variety. Sometimes you need Superman Returns.

Directed by Bryan Singer in 2006, Superman Returns saw the prolific Godfather of the X-Men movie franchise helming what many now consider to be a narcissistic trip down Richard Donner lane. Homaging not only Superman: The Movie but also Superman: The Animated Series, the comics, and everything else vital to the Man of Steel’s identity, Superman Returns is an exercise in heavy romanticism, and yet… it chooses to be something else as well. It chooses to be more gentle and subdued. It finds its foundation in the past, but what it builds on top of it is solely of the present.

The movie takes place in a post-Donner and Christopher Reeve world. Everyone knows a man can fly just as well as they know their own names. They know Superman. They’ve humanised him as much as mortals could possibly humanise a God-like figure. When Superman saves people in this movie, they cheer, but it’s not because of how he saves them but rather the rescues themselves. The phrase is no longer, “Look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” It’s, “Oh thank God, another successful save. Thank you for your service, Superman, we owe you one.” Yes, it’s impossible to completely remove the wonder and shock from such a scenario, this is true. A plane descends from the sky, or the globe atop the Daily Planet falls, and you would be insane not to drop your jaw and stare, but that’s because of the fantastical act itself. At the core of it all, there is Superman, and Superman is basically a cop or a firefighter. A public servant. And all public servants deal with fantastical issues from time to time. It’s nothing new.

The world understands who Superman is. This is further exemplified by Lois Lane, who slips out of her heels and steps onto Superman’s boots, before holding him tight and allowing him to take her for a romantic and contemplative flight through the night sky. These are small gestures, but they show a Lois Lane who isn’t starstruck. She’s done this before. She knows the routine.

And just like with a cop or a firefighter, when Superman crashes to Earth at the end of the movie after saving the world from Lex Luthor’s Kryptonite-infested island, we mortals swoop in and bring him to our very mortal hospital, knowing full well that this is a God, but being undeterred, because, dammit, we’re going to save him! He’s one of us. He’s human at his core. And in the end, they do save him. They remove the shard of Kryptonite from his steel skin, allowing him to recover.

The lesson is that Superman needs the world just as much as the world needs Superman. It’s a relationship founded in the teachings of Yin and Yang. And ultimately, just as the world understands Superman, he understands us. He doesn’t throw a single punch throughout the movie. He’s a veteran of the game, and understands that violence isn’t always needed. He could bring in a crook using just his pinky.

What all of this creates is a movie that is gentler and more subdued. More mature and, dare I say, refined. This is both a Superman who’s lived through it all and a world that has taken the journey with him. It’s not an origin story like Man of Steel. It’s not an exercise in blowing minds like Superman: The Movie was all those years ago. It’s a movie set in the aftermath of all of these things. It’s familiar but different. It does its own thing while still homaging the Supermen of old.

It’s a cinematic allegory. An aging, weathered man who is trying to look for the missing piece in the puzzle of his life. He feels empty, like there’s something missing. But what he realises is that, in his search for something different, he’s turned his back on the ones he loved, and on the things he knew. That’s when he remembers the glory days. That’s when he decides to shake off the dust and put on the mantle he once wore. The result is an awakening. The world welcomes the man back with open arms, and there are some who don’t, but that’s only natural. This man is strong. From his point of view, the world is a much more somber place now because he is somber himself in his attempts to readjust. Yet, at the same time, it’s a world of romance. The allure of returning to routines and people he once loved and will love again. From this man’s perspective, from Superman’s perspective, the world has changed. He looks upon it with fresh eyes born of experience and time spent away. But in the end, Superman returns, and all is right with the world.

People say Singer should have made his own Superman movie instead of copying-and-pasting from what came before. People have called him every name under the sun for making this movie, and none of them are pretty. One descriptor I mentioned before is “narcissist,” because surely this man must have thought that putting his own desires before everyone else’s, and thinking he could make a replica better than he could an original product, must have driven him to make what we have now. But Superman Returns is his own movie. As of 2015, there are six movies under the hero’s name (including this one), with another coming out next year. But out of all of these, none of them have gone the route that Superman Returns has. It acts as a sequel to Superman: The Movie and Superman II. It serves to bring the art deco aesthetic of Superman: The Animated Series to live-action. It combines all of this whilst taking it a step further. This is the first movie to show Superman and the world as veterans of the game. To really dial in on that aspect of the franchise. There’s growth and maturity there. It’s Singer having his cake and eating it, too. He’s not a narcissist, he simply understood how to make something that could honor older material and that would allow him to put his own stamp on the Man of Steel as well. That’s what he’s done.

I’d also like to expand on the thought of Superman not throwing a single punch throughout the movie, because, in my mind, this is another thing Singer has gotten right about the iconic hero. A “No-Punch” rule allows for situations that perfectly capture the inspiration and hope embodied within the Big Boy Scout. The methodology may be different from other Superman movies, with a Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robot approach being tossed aside in favour of awe-inspiring rescues, but the end result is still the same as it was in, say, Man of Steel, where we all praised Kal-El for saving the entire world on his first day on the job. Singer’s Superman has had years of experience under his belt, however, and some which he was absent for entirely. As a reminder, he’s been gone for five years before the start of Returns. But in all that time, there hasn’t been a single incident involving aliens from outer space, giant robots, supernatural deviants, or even serial killers with fancy gadgets and mech-suits. The worst things this universe has to offer are Lex Luthor and a bankrobber with a machine gun turret, who seems to have waltzed directly out of a comic book. There is no talk of anything else. If there was, then someone would have surely mentioned it in passing, or told Superman about it, or the crazed killer would have made their presence known to him. Even when Superman floats above Earth, hearing the thoughts and chatter of everyone on the planet, there is still no mention of superpowered beings rising from the woodwork and causing havoc. Superman had afforded them the perfect opportunity thanks to his absence. At the very least, Luthor could have created his own version of Brainiac, or he could have made Metallo, or he could have built himself a mech-suit. But no, he’s stubbornly stuck in the past trying to get his real estate scheme off the ground. I’m fine with that, but it’s something that may have been better left as a backup plan to what a being like Brainiac or Metallo could have given him instead.

So, what’s an enforcer of justice to do when the only people he can punch are made of fine china and there aren’t any walls to bust through? He saves lives. By removing otherworldly threats from the equation, Singer has created a world of vicarious, soul-stirring joy. We aren’t the ones saving people from danger, but we witness a person who is. He elicits an uproar of cheers and smiles from everyone around him, and is featured on the news for his heroics. He is what everyone wants to be and more. We feed off that. We feel like we’re actually him. And for the most part, this is due to it being sort-of realistic and within reach for ourselves. Yes, a plane freefalling to Earth is something none of us could stop on our own, nor could we have prevented the globe atop the Daily Planet from crushing everything in sight, and I’m pretty sure a runaway car would be hard to stop as well. But at the core of these heroic acts is a simple truth – anyone can be a good Samaritan. As stated previously in this review, Superman is a public servant just like any other. It’s just that he’s capable of doing more. But what he does only exists within the realm of comic books, movies, TV shows, and the imagination. It’s what he inspires and challenges us to do that matters. That’s who Superman is. He’s a shining beacon of hope, freedom, and justice. He is what we all aspire to be. If Returns had filled its action quota with earth-shattering fight sequences instead of breathtaking saves, then sure, it would have looked impressive and would have been very entertaining as well, but by reserving that time for high-flying heroics of a different nature, we are shown the most important side of our beloved hero. Anyone can throw a punch and be violent. It takes a special person to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others, and to be civil.

The only scene that comes close to a fight is when Lex is pummeling Superman, then stabs him in the back with a Kryptonite shiv. Although that wasn’t exactly a fight. But it was an opportunity that Singer didn’t miss. The use of the shiv was symbolic of Lex clipping Superman’s proverbial wings, then allowing him to fall from a great height into the treacherous waters below. What this does is further cement Kal-El’s place as being one of us. Even a God can fall. Even a God can be lured into a trap. Even a God can be made the victim of a mortal man with a crude, prison-like instrument. And, as I stated previously, even a God can be saved by mere mortals.

And yes, even a God can impregnate a mortal woman and allow her the means to give birth to a child of both worlds. A love triangle may seem awkward and elicit groans in any other movie, but here it works. Here it is used, along with the child Superman left behind, to show his humanity. It’s a very human predicament as well. By leaving earth for five years in search of any possible shred of his heritage and race, he is human. By not thinking through the consequences of leaving Earth undefended for five years, he is human. Of course, there was a time when there was no Superman and they got on just fine without him, but that’s beside the point. What kind of hero would do such a thing? The human sort. The point being that this is a God anchored in the mortal realm who has to deal with mortal issues and who makes mortal mistakes. Who can be as blind as the rest of us, and who doesn’t know the answer to every problem, but who tries his very best to do right by people and clean up his messes and the messes of those around him. Who never, ever gives up. That’s Superman in a nutshell. That’s Singer giving us Superman on a silver platter. He knows exactly who this man is. He understands exactly what it is that makes him tick.

I haven’t even mentioned just how utterly gorgeous the movie is to look at. This is equally important to the movie’s overall identity. Shades of blue, orange, grey, and brown are brought together to form a visual aesthetic that elicits feelings of warmth and coziness, much like paying a visit to grandma’s house. There’s a fullness there, as if you’re looking at actual paintings as opposed to scenes in a movie. These aid as the biggest representation of the movie’s good old-fashioned art deco nature. That, and the overall production design, with the gorgeously crafted Daily Planet being an absolute driving force of the movie’s visual identity. Yet there is modernisation there as well, represented not only by the rest of Metropolis, but also Lois’ house as well. The mixture of old and new creates a sense of timelessness for the movie, allowing it a space away from everything else. The colours are thematic and necessary, and they bring the movie to vivid life. They’re used to represent Superman and his world visually. Everything is fine-tuned to be a showcase. A war on all fronts.

Of course, Superman: The Movie didn’t have much in the way of fight scenes either. It served as both a foundation and a taste of what would come next in Superman II, in which the action was appropriately amplified. General Zod and company returned to wreak havoc, and Superman finally had someone to punch. Thus, Superman: The Movie served as a lead-in to something grander. It was the setup in a two-part story. In Superman Returns, however, the action is very much thematic. He lifts and hurtles the Kryptonite landmass into space, falls to Earth, and is rushed to a hospital. It’s not a setup, it’s a statement. A one-off story. Both scenarios work, of course, and neither one is inherently bad. The point is that they are similar in execution, with rescues being used in favour of fights, and yet the ultimate goals and outcomes behind each movie were vastly different.

I suppose you could argue that this is all semantics, and I do agree that no movie is entirely original anymore. There will always be some overlap between what is shown and what is heard and what is felt as a result. But the point is not to be entirely original either. The point is to at least try. Returns took the hearts of previous Supermen and their worlds of old and put them into a new but familiar body. It tried.

It is one of my all-time favorite movies. When I was little, my dad would take me to a library in the city which had a teen center located in the very far back, away from the hustle and bustle of everyone else. It was a large, white oval room, full of posh furniture, neat paintings, and lots and lots of comic books. I would park myself on a sofa in the corner with a mountain of the latter. There was the Bat Family and all of their glorious and definitive adventures of the 90s and early 2000s. There was the Birds of Prey, which immediately became my favorite superhero team. And, among a slew of others, there was Superman. Then in 2006, there was Superman Returns. As someone who couldn’t get into the Superman movies of the past and who grew up with The Animated Series, Returns was a gift. I love it.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • When Bryan Singer became interested in possibly hiring Brandon Routh, he arranged for them to meet in a coffee shop. When they met at their table, Routh stumbled and spilled hot coffee all over the table. Although he panicked, thinking he had just lost the part, Singer laughed and said it actually helped him get the part. The incident convinced Singer that Routh could pull off the clumsy, bumbling Clark Kent.
  • Amy Adams auditioned for the role of Lois Lane. She later eventually played Lois in Man of Steel (2013).
  • When Clark is walking around the office with the TVs displaying news reports (after Luthor steals the Kryptonite), they can be heard mentioning Gotham City.
  • 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 yelling “Superman Must Die” with a megaphone.

Sarah Bishop

Art lover. Food lover. Connoisseur of weirdness.

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1 Comment

  1. SilverJaguar says:

    I often see movies and end up either:

    1. Liking it more with following views (Fantastic Four 2015 (still not a good FF movie), Quantum of Solace) or

    2. Disliking it more with repeated viewings (TDKR, Spectre)

    Returns is def in the latter. I liked it at first bc it was a Superman film, and I don’t hate it BUT it’s not a good Superhero film in my eyes. I did like your article but some of the things you point out are some of its weaknesses imo

    Great article though, nice to see another viewpoint

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