Much like Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) is a mega-budget love letter to films of his youth, in this case Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980). Singer’s film pretends that Superman III (1983) and IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) don’t exist and attempts to pick up where the second film left off. Sadly, he was obsessed way too much with paying homage to Donner’s films and not enough on making his film be its own thing. While Singer certainly had his heart in the right place, he failed to make some crucial, proper choices, like generating a better screenplay and casting the right person in the right role. As it stands, Superman Returns is a fascinating flawed effort, an intriguing, misguided movie where one gets the sense that there’s a good film in there, somewhere, trying to get out.
The impetus for Singer to make Superman Returns was to create a more romantic film. “What I had noticed is that there weren’t a lot of women lining up to see a comic book movie, but they were going to line up to see The Devil Wears Prada, which may have been something I wanted to address … I really do think I was making the film for that The Devil Wears Prada audience of women who wouldn’t normally come to a superhero film.” While that is an admirable goal, he ended up alienating the rather sizable fanbase by creating a film that didn’t have the right balance, which is deadly if the goal is to reach the largest audience possible and this is reflected in its decent, but ultimately disappointing (by studio expectations) box office returns.
Set after Superman II, Singer’s film finds the Man of Steel (Brandon Routh) still off in outer space looking for remnants of his home world, Krypton. Right from the get-go, Singer announces his intentions by using some of Marlon Brando’s leftover dialogue from the original film and then the exact same font and John Williams’ iconic theme music over the opening credits. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is up to his usual evil ways, conning a wealthy old woman out of her vast fortune. He soon revisits Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and figures out how to operate his databank of crystals that store all the knowledge that his people accrued before their world was destroyed.
Superman returns to Earth in exactly the same fashion as when he first arrived in Donner’s film only this time Ma Kent (Eva Marie Saint) is around to find him. She nurses her adopted son back to health and he begins to realize how much things have changed in the five years since he’s been away. Superman has no idea just how different things are until he arrives in Metropolis in his Clark Kent guise and is only able to get his old job back because someone else on the staff of the Daily Planet died. At least Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) welcomes him back with a smile and a partially eaten cake. Most shockingly, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has gotten engaged and given birth to a little boy named Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu) – a revelation that rocks Superman’s world, which Brandon Routh does a nice job of conveying. To add insult to injury, Lois’ fiancé Richard White (James Marsden) also works at the Daily Planet and is Perry White’s nephew. He’s a nice guy who loves Lois and is great with their slightly sickly child. For a change, it is Superman that is the “other guy.”
Routh wisely doesn’t try to replicate what Christopher Reeve did as Kent or Superman and tries his best to make the iconic role his own. With Superman, he nails the otherworldly quality of the son of Krypton. The actor doesn’t let us forget that Superman is an alien and Routh conveys that in the way he looks at everyone and everything. Superman is an outsider and it will always be that way. It’s the price he must pay for being who he is. While playing Kent, Routh doesn’t make him the endearing nerd from Reeve’s films, but more on the awkward side, like he doesn’t say or do the right things all the time. It’s not as broad a performance and Routh pulls it off quite well.
I’m sorry Kate Bosworth, but dying your hair does not make you Lois Lane. I just don’t buy her as the character. She lacks the conviction and tenacity that are essential traits to Lois. Bosworth is a rather bland Lois and this hurts the film. She is easily the most wrong-footed casting choice along with Sam Huntington. Jimmy’s earnestness feels faked and forced, like Huntington is trying to do an imitation of Marc McClure’s memorable take on Jimmy Olsen. You believed his earnest gee-whiz-isms because it felt real and authentic and Huntington is unable to be as convincing, but this is also due to the material he has to work with. I like him and Bosworth, and in the right roles (Bosworth in Blue Crush and Worthington in Being Human) they can be good, but they are simply miscast in Superman Returns.
On the plus side, the always watchable James Marsden (X-Men) is excellent as Lois’ fiancé, Richard White. Thankfully, Singer resists the temptation to make him a bad guy because we’re supposed to root for Lois and Superman to get together. Instead, Marsden plays Richard as a kind, loving man who wastes no time going after Lois when she gets in trouble and is fiercely protective of her and their son. The actor is so good that I wanted to see more of him and his character’s relationship with Lois.
Kevin Spacey nails the mischievous twinkle in Luthor’s unapologetically amoral eyes. He was an inspired casting choice to play Superman’s nemesis. He is able to go from gleefully malevolent to downright nasty on a dime, revealing Luthor’s true evil nature. It’s a meaty role that Spacey sinks his teeth into with gusto. This is particularly evident in the scene where Luthor tells Lois his master plan. It’s a terrific monologue that Spacey delivers like a consummate pro. His take on Luthor is decidedly more vicious than Gene Hackman’s version. The scene where he and his henchmen beat-up Superman is painful to watch. It’s a dark and ugly scene where Singer deviates from his hero worship of the Donner films. The veteran actor expertly conveys the criminal mastermind’s hunger for absolute power and he plays well off of Parker Posey’s Kitty Kowalski, who is a fusion of the dim-witted Otis (Ned Beatty) and the mostly harmless assistant Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) from the first film.
At times, it feels like Singer is more interested in the love triangle between Superman, Lois and Richard than Luthor’s latest power-grabbing scheme, which, to be honest, isn’t all that interesting. There’s really nothing unique about it and often feels like an afterthought while Singer focuses on the interpersonal relationships. It’s a complicated love triangle in the sense that Lois was hurt when Superman left Earth. So much so that she moved on, fell in love with someone else and had a kid. Superman comes back and expects to pick up where things left off, but as he finds out, it’s not so simple. While this is all fine and well for a character-driven drama, it really isn’t the larger than life, action-packed heroics people come to expect from their comic book superhero movies. A common criticism that was leveled against the film was that Singer spent too much time developing the relationship between Lois and Superman and not enough on the action, which is a valid complaint, but I like the complex emotions that are explored in this love triangle – pretty ambitious stuff for a summer blockbuster.
Admittedly, I’m no Superman fanboy so I don’t have the same problems folks like Peter Sanderson has with Singer’s radical deviations from the character and his mythos. Truth be told, I actually find his take on the material rather fascinating, but readily admit that it could’ve used more action sequences, especially after we’re teased with that exciting airplane rescue when Superman saves Lois. Singer manages to squeeze every bit of white knuckled tension out of this sequence as Superman struggles to save a rapidly disintegrating plane. Singer has said in retrospect that he should’ve started the film with that sequence and he’s right – it would’ve been the perfect way to get our attention.
Superman Returns is what happens when a filmmaker is too reverential to the material and loses any kind of objectivity. As a result, Singer ended up making a very expensive fan letter. The problem with paying homage to a beloved classic is that everything you do will inevitably be compared to it. As a result, the structure of Superman Returns is basically a slight tweaking of Superman: The Movie – instead of rescuing Lois from a helicopter it’s an airplane, Luthor plans to create his own continent instead of tearing a chunk of California away from the United States, Luthor’s female assistant sabotages him at a crucial point in the film, and so on. Singer and his team follow the original film too closely and don’t do enough to make their version stand on its own. He also lays on the Superman as Christ metaphor a little thick towards the end, but manages to recover with a nicely understated and poignant ending that restores the romantic vibe that started the film along with a final nod to the first Superman movie.
Recently, Singer has reflected on Superman Returns and admitted that he was “too reverential with the material. That, and I tried to put too much in.” He tried to recapture the earnestness of Donner’s movie and failed. The end result is a heartfelt, but deeply flawed film that understandably gets a raw deal from a lot of fan, but one which I quite like. Despite being blinded by his devotion, there is much to like about Singer’s Superman Returns and it’s a shame that he never got a chance to make things right with a sequel as he had originally planned. Instead, the studio decided to do a complete reboot with Man of Steel (2013), employing Christopher Nolan to produce and Zack Snyder to direct. Initial footage looks like these guys took a good, long hard look at Singer’s film and made a conscious effort not to repeat the mistakes he made on that one. It looks like a completely different film that breaks away from the past film to stand on its own, which I think is the best way for them to go.
“Bryan Singer: Awards season is over. It’s time to have some fun with a fairy tale.” Metro. March 22, 2013.
Gross, Ed. “Bryan Singer Looks Back at Superman Returns.” Comic Book Movie. March 25, 2011.