Superman Returns gets a lot of crap. Around 84.6% of this crap is unwarranted nitpicking. The remaining 15.6% ignore that we could have gotten a much worse film instead. For example, in the years between Superman 4 we nearly had: A Tim Burton directed Superman starring Nic Cage, a fight with Polar Bears and a giant mechanical Spider. A film directed by McG. A film directed by Brett Ratner. Ashton Kutcher as Superman squaring off with Jay Baruchel. For some reason the cancelled Superman films always seem to involve really odd stuff. Thank God for Bryan Singer and his respect for the work of Richard Donner, because instead of Superman wearing an electric suit we got something that treated the source material with respect, could serve as a better sequel than the previous 2 films, and had zero mechanical fecking spiders. Click the link to read how I try to validate the existence of Superman Returns despite overwhelming internet raging fanboy opposition.
Superman Returns takes the fairly unique approach for a sequel of basically ignoring half the previous films outright. It is set after Superman 2, the Lester version, and makes no reference to anything that happened in Supermans 3 or 4. A good move. When I say it is set after the first 2 Reeve Superman films I mean so in the loosest sense. The film is set in the modern era, for example, rather than the 80s. We are to understand that after the events of Superman 2 Clark (Brandon Routh) decides to ignore his promise to the President to never go away and promptly flies off to Krypton to find the remains of his people after astronauts believe they have found its remains. We don’t see what happened there, although that didn’t stop Singer Spending $10million on a sequence that got cut that did exactly that. 5 years have passed and Superman has returned to a world that, according to old flame Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) doesn’t need him anymore… That’s despite Clark watching a TV showing various terrorist attacks and conflicts that have happened in the intervening years. Maybe her Pulitzer Prize winning opinion piece was ironic? Actually, how do you win a Pulitzer for an opinion piece? Isn’t it for investigative journalism?
Where was I? Right, Supes is back. Lois has moved on, has a fiancé in the form of Richard White (James Marsden) and now has a little kid that may or may not be Superman’s. I’ll come back to this plot point later. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has managed to get out of jail on a technicality that doesn’t actually exist for the type of court he was called before, so I’ve been told anyway… what do I know about courts? In the last 5 years he took on the role of a kindly young suitor for an elderly lady played by old skool Lois Lane Noel Niell. She dies and Lex inherits her estate, but most importantly he inherits her boat and train set. Well, there’s money too but as she had the boat and his goons stole all the other stuff they needed I doubt it was too important. He plans to use a few stolen crystals from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to create a new Kryptonian continent that will wipe out most of the United States. Oh and it’s fused with Ktryptonite. So yeah, a real estate scam. While Lex gets on with his evil scheme Superman stalks Lois Lane. I’ll just leave that as it is.
Despite all these random story issues I just kinda mocked Superman Returns manages to keep itself moving along… mostly. The film is slow. Really slow. Now, it’s not too slow for me. I like a slow paced film. You just have to read one of my gushing Yasujiro Ozu film reviews to know that. Feel free to do that by the way. The problem with Superman Returns being this slow moving is that this is a film about a guy that can punch holes in the Earth. A guy who can move faster than a speeding bullet. A guy that can put on a pair of glasses and alter the tone of his voice to fool everyone he knows. Now I’m not saying the appeal of Superman is his powers. In fact that can be the least interesting aspect of the character. But this film came after 19 years of there being no Superman films at a time when special effects were in the realm of being able to create anything. Yes I want to see Superman be conflicted about feelings and stuff. But I also want to see Superman punch something. There’s a handful of action beats but there’s a long mid point where it really does feel like we’re focusing a little too much on how much Superman misses Lois.
All that said, Bryan singer hits the notes he needs to well. Lex is a little more bitter and cruel than before but he still has his humour and incredible ego. When Superman does go into action we see him doing things in a way the Reeves films couldn’t, such as being shot point blank in his eye with the bullet just bouncing off. Singer also understands that hitting certain iconic imagery is important to hammering home the mythological status a man like Superman would have. I’ve always said, of this film, that when Singer gets it right, he is very very right. The plane rescue sequence plays out in as perfect a return for Superman as you could want. He saves a scientific breakthrough, saves a load of civilians, displays incredible strength, physically places an example of technological greatness in the heart of Americana and tops it all off by offering a few words of encouragement to the rescued folks not to let their experience put them off flying. I get chills seeing that sequence. It is perfect. To a lesser extent is the scene where we see him rescue Lex’ latest squeeze, Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey), who’s been placed in a car with no brakes as a distraction. The scene is capped off with Superman holding a car above his head mirroring the iconic cover of Detective Comics 1.
Another element Singer nails is pure shooting technique. He really takes his time to make sure every shot looks as good as it can. That the sets look the part and are littered with the sort of details Donner has always excelled at bringing to his films. The early scenes at the Kent family farm have some luscious colour tones and framing and also feature some very long quiet shots perfectly muting the tone for a moment. Sometimes, Singer’s visual style can be a little bland, sometimes he makes films that look this good. I think it depends on how many circles he wants to work into an image. Say what you will about the rest of the film but denying how good it looks and is shot is idiotic. Hell, I think this is the last Hollywood film to be made without shaking the camera.
Many people will pick holes in this film for any reason they can. I think some were disappointed that we were provided a film that was, tonally, closer to the Donner films, albeit with a little more moping, than than other superhero films of the day. There are legit complaints. Superman hanging out using X-ray vision to look into Lois’ house breaks all kinds of moral rules you’d think Superman would have. Lex’ scheme seems to ignore the fact that no-one on their right mind would want to live somewhere that looked like cross between the Giant’s Causeway and a vagrant filled alley in the back end of Soho. I’m saying it’s ugly and dirty and probably has used needles lying around. I can just about let these go because they don’t really have any larger implications to the story. Superman may be stalking Lois but she never complains when he happens to turn up every time she falls off a building. Plus, Lex was never going to win really, was he? The issue I do have is with that kid.
Now, I want to start by saying the idea of Superman having a child doesn’t bug me. It’s the execution that does. I’m not gonna be a fanboy that moans about how Human and Kryptonian DNA isn’t meant to be compatible in certain Superman universes. The issue is that Lois realises Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu) is Superman’s kid when she should have no memory of sleeping with Superman. Remember the memory erasing kiss from Superman 2? That is meant to take Lois’ memories away to a point before Clark had revealed who he was to her. Fun fact: as stupid as the memory erasing kiss was it did exist in Superman comics before the films. Anyway, she now has a son that has the power to push pianos at high velocity and doesn’t ask Superman when he impregnated her. As Kevin Smith put it “unless he’s truly are faster than a speeding bullet” she would have no memory of this. Now think about what she’d think about all those times Superman just happens to save her, or turns up just when she needs an interview. Good job she didn’t see Superman floating about outside her house a few days earlier.
So that’s Superman Returns in a nutshell… a 1,500 word nutshell. It’s a flawed film but man, I will take this Superman film over either of the later Reeve film sequels. Superman may not get to punch anything but at least it feels like a Superman film not predisposed with gags, puns and full blown illogical stupidity. Brandon Routh does a fine job as both Superman and Clark Kent, managing to hit that boyscout goodness of Superman along with the clumsy nervousness of Clark. The film has enough respect for the source material to not undermine the villains with slapstick humour or to neuter Superman’s potential with cutting budgets. When people complain about Superman Returns they’re complaining that it didn’t hit the expectations they had built in their dreams. As a film, though, it is solid enough to be what it needs to be. There’s far bigger plot issues with much more respected films. Singer could have done with cutting a few minutes of scenes and maybe chucking in an extra action scene but, really, it’s issues are no worse than the sort of problems your average summer movie has. Hell, not seen it yet, but I’d bet Man of Steel has a fair few plot issues of its own. We’ll see on Monday. Well, I will.