To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, the Flickering Myth writing team are looking back over Superman’s previous screen adventures; next up is Rohan Morbey with a defense of 2006’s Superman Returns….
On June 28th 2006, Superman, after an absence of nearly two decades from cinema screens, returned. The director of the hugely popular X-Men films, Bryan Singer, was at the helm and the film was reported to be one of the most expensive ever made, with a budget of over $200 million. Warner Bros. scored a huge hit the previous summer with Batman Begins and all eyes were now on The Man of Steel to raise the bar for the studio and rival the financial success of the Spider-Man series and spawn another two films. The world awaited an exciting, gripping and action-packed blockbuster of epic proportions. What Bryan Singer delivered was not what the masses expected or demanded. It was not a reboot or origin story. It was not crammed full of action and explosions and money shots to justify its budget to the financiers and accountants. On opening day in the UK I sat two rows from the front in a packed cinema only to leave thoroughly disappointed by the lack of excitement this summer tentpole release gave me. It was only several years later after a DVD re-watching that I realised that what Bryan Singer has actually released back in the summer of 2006 was a film so beautiful and steeped in Superman’s past that it was beyond me. It was better than me. I wasn’t worthy of this film.
Seven years and numerous viewings (on what is still the best Blu-ray transfer I have seen) later, there is no better time than with the imminent release of Man of Steel to finally write about Superman Returns, why I love it, and what it means to me as a film lover.
What I appreciate above all else is not simply the movie’s connection to the original 1978 and 1980 films, but the fact that a $200 million production dares to assume its audience is familiar with the original films. I know about those films, as may you reading this, but would the majority of audiences in 2006? How would the young kids, whose repeated viewings would be paramount to the film’s financial success or failure, know what happened between Lois Lane and Superman in a film which came out over 25 years ago? This film transcends the usual ‘popcorn picture’ and forgoes fanboy service; it wants to be part of the Superman mythology, not merely an add-on to the franchise for the sake of selling some merchandise.
The love Singer has for the Richard Donner films which he loved growing up lends to a unique vision for Superman Returns which no one expected or were ready for. This is the same Superman, Lois, and Jimmy Olsen that we saw in 1978, not a reboot of them – it’s just the actors who have changed. When we saw Superman and Lois fall in love, take their flight, make love… that’s the same characters we see now and those emotions, built up over 5 years in the context of this film but over 25 years in the time passed between films (Singer rightly ignores parts III and IV) is ever-present in this film. It is the most adult and mature big budget, high-profile film I think I have ever seen.
The decisions the film takes to place character, story, and emotion over action, spectacle, and hero vs. villain battles is brave and gutsy and sets the film apart from any other comic book film. This is a romantic yet deeply sad film where the lead characters have real-life issues, which just happens to include some eye-popping special effects and state of the art CGI; the themes of loss, sacrifice, find one’s place in the world, and father and son relationships are what drive this film beyond the realms of pure entertainment and into a film which deserves and earns criticism and deeper readings.
Some may say the homage this film pays to the original films goes too far and is merely a copy or ‘love letter’ to what Richard Donner created. I say that is nonsense for no film which is devoid of its own ideas could move me like Superman Returns; Superman comes back to a world which has changed from the world Donner showed and he no longer has a place here, compounded by the Pulitzer Prize winning article, ‘Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman’ written by his unattainable love, Lois Lane. She has moved on since we saw her in Superman II - she is betrayed and hurt and has found a new man; these are not emotions we are used to seeing in a film of this size and these are emotions which run throughout the duration of the film, not just thrown in for a brief dramatic effect only to be ignored in favour of the next set-piece. Moreover, Lois’ new man, Richard, is a good, honest man who deserves her and isn’t an idiot who the audience can easily root against and hope that Superman will push aside now that he’s back on Earth. Just look at the scene where Superman floats outside the home of Richard and Lois:
Richard: “Were you in love with him?
Lois: “He was Superman. Everyone was in love with him.”
Richard: “But were you…?
Singer breaks both Richard and Superman’s heart here and we can only watch. The most powerful thing to ever walk on Earth is broken by one simple word, ‘no’ and with that he flies up above the clouds to face his isolation and the consequences of having left this planet which he calls home to go on his own quest; a quest which in itself only led to furthermore destruction of his heart. As for poor Richard, he knows he isn’t the only man in his wife’s heart and that is a fact no man could live in comfort with.
Moreover, the story involves Superman coming back to Earth only to discover he has a son by Lois named Jason. This is a son he can never claim to be his own and a son who will never know his real father, just like Superman never knew his. Richard is to Jason what Jonathan Kent was to a young Clark and despite his wanting, Superman won’t take that away from Richard and won’t take Jason away from a normal life.
Superman to a sleeping Jason: “You will be different, sometimes you’ll feel like an outcast, but you’ll never be alone. You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father and the father becomes the son.”
Again, the film echoes the original speech given to Superman by his father and only those who know this will truly appreciate its poignancy and beauty but that’s a risk Singer is willing to take. Without this knowledge, it still remains a beautiful scene. Moreover, this film ends fifteen minutes after the final action sequence, and also on such a sad note that it’s hard to believe the studio allowed it, but I couldn’t wish for a more perfect ending to this story as Superman tells Lois “I’ll always be around” before flying away to continue his find his place in this world.
So far I’ve touched only on the themes and relation to the original films and why that is so important to my appreciation of Superman Returns but let’s give credit to Bryan Singer’s skill as director is this 154 minute picture. The film is flawlessly directed, even if some scenes (which we’ll come to soon) should have been removed in favour for other which sadly only saw life in the Blu-ray extra. His camera move graciously in the character, emotion driven scenes; look at the air-ballet that is the ‘flying’ sequence and notice how the camera moves, taking us with the characters as they fly:
In the action scenes, Singer is just as competent. The plane rescue, which the trailer and promotional material was mostly built on, remains to this day one of the most technically-perfect CGI-reliant sequences I have seen. The speed of Superman and the plane is amazing, as is the attention to size and scope. And amidst all this panic and tension, Singer adds a one second shot of Superman flying past the window from the perspective of Lois; this is something she thought she’s never see again and to have that quick-as-a-flash moment, rather than showing the saviour when the scene is done, is what sets Singer apart from the rest. I can’t imagine many other directors taking the time to show such an important flash.
The special effects in the film are still stunning and are a perfect example of how CGI can be used to help tell a story rather than just produce a visual spectacle. High praise also goes to the score by John Ottman which takes its cue from John Williams and ties in nicely with those original compositions, and also to his excellent work as editor because every sequence in this film makes sense and doesn’t hide behind quick cuts. The art deco set design is also a thing of beauty and, again, reminds us of the era Singer so obviously has affection for.
Superman Returns is not perfect and the main detractor from it being a perfect film is, admittedly, a large chunk of the story – Lex Luthor. The story of Lex and his evil plan to create a continent and destroy other countries in the process is undeniably weak and the set pieces surrounding it do mostly involve Superman lifting or catching heavy objects; but these sequences are filmed in a way that is exciting and, most importantly, heroic. Singer’s deliberate shots of Superman (literally) carrying the world on his shoulders and setting down the car in the Action Comics #1 pose are iconic if nothing else, and are far more welcome than a shaky camera and computer game mise-en-scène. Furthermore, there are some scenes which should have been removed such as the bank robbery which is absolutely not what was needed after the beautiful sequence of Superman floating above the city hearing the cries for a saviour, and the utter silliness of Lex’s girlfriend driving out of control through the streets and sidewalks of Metropolis. The decision to add Lex’s scene where his ‘wife’ dies and leaves him her fortune should NEVER have come straight after the full-on homage credit sequence (which blew my mind when I saw it in cinemas and didn’t go un-appreciated even then) and should have led straight into Superman’s ship crashing at Kent farm, with Lex’s story following thereafter.
Criticisms aside, Superman Returns is not about Lex; he is a by-product of the need to have an antagonist in the film and the oft-true rule that a film is only as good as its villain oddly doesn’t apply here. The real conflict is in the relationships and the inner-turmoil, which is longer lasting than any stabbing with Kryptonite can be. At times in the film Superman is a superhero, but he is more often just a man with real feeling and emotions and there is nothing ‘super’ about him. He is like me and he is like you, and perhaps in this wonderful film, oddly enough, the only superhero we can truly connect with.