Ricky Church revisits Superman Returns on its 15th anniversary…
Back in 1978, Superman: The Movie blew audiences away with the first big screen adventure of the Man of Steel. Starring Christopher Reeve as Superman from director Richard Donner, Superman became a huge film, set a benchmark for most superhero films and spawned three sequels. When the fourth film failed at the box office and garnered many negative reviews, the Superman franchise was shelved. After many false starts of sequels or reboots, it would be 19 years later when Superman soared back to the big screen with the appropriately titled Superman Returns, only this also failed to garner much attention and planned sequels were scrapped with Warner Bros. eventually deciding on a full reboot with Man of Steel. As Superman Returns celebrates its 15th anniversary, we look back on why it was a lacklustre return for Superman on the big screen.
Warner Bros. hired X-Men director Bryan Singer after he came in with a pitch that would not reboot the Superman franchise like previous attempts in the two decades, but would instead continue the continuity from the Reeve films. Singer had actually left production of his third X-Men film for Superman Returns, which also celebrated its 15th anniversary recently and funnily enough had its own very mixed reception. Written by Singer’s X2 screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, Superman Returns saw Superman come back to Earth after a 5-year absence travelling through space to the remains of Krypton. He returns to a world that has seemingly moved on without him and Lois Lane now engaged and a mother to a young boy. As the world celebrates his return, Superman’s archnemesis Lex Luthor has been released from jail and is plotting yet another deadly real estate scheme.
In place of Christopher Reeve after both his tragic accident and passing, Brandon Routh donned the ‘S’ and red cape for the film. To Routh’s credit, he does a fairly good job in his performance as both Superman and Clark Kent, particularly the latter as he captures Clark’s nerdy, bumbling persona pretty well while also showing how he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders (quite literally at one point too). As Superman, Routh displays a more introspective take than one might expect as Superman comes to grips with how much has changed for his personal life. He doesn’t quite capture the charm of Reeve’s take on the character – which is a tall order for any actor – but Routh did capture the heroic nature of Superman as he wrestled with the responsibility he felt to the planet. Where it failed wasn’t in Routh’s performance, but the characterization of Superman. It was a shame since Routh showed potential to grow in more adventures, but he at least got a chance to play Superman again in The CW’s Arrowverse crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths as an older version of this Superman helping the other heroes of the multiverse save it from destruction.
One of the main problems with the film is that this Superman just doesn’t completely feel like Superman, much less the one Reeve spent four films establishing. It’s not that Routh, Singer and others shouldn’t be allowed to take the chance to evolve the role and character, but more so this particular interpretation just falls flat for the most part in several aspects. The idea, for instance, Superman would simply leave Earth behind without telling anyone save his mother for a journey he didn’t even know he might come back from seems particularly egregious, especially where Lois Lane is concerned. Whether you count Superman III and IV as part of Returns‘ continuity or choose to follow Donner or Richard Lester’s version of Superman II, Superman and Lois had established feelings for each other which, as the story tells us, they consummated. For him to just up and leave without a word is very uncharacteristic of him. Not to mention the several times he stalks Lois and listens to her private conversations with her fiancé rather than simply talking to her right from the start. The only thing Superman Returns really gets right about Superman is his heroism as he spends a lot of time rescuing people from a variety of dangers and expresses to Lois how he hears everyone crying out for a hero and the toll that sometimes takes on him.
As for Lois Lane, while Margot Kidder’s version isn’t the strongest interpretation of Lois either, Kate Bosworth’s may rank even lower. As with Routh, it’s not completely due to Bosworth’s performance but more Lois’ characterization. She is still a tough-as-nails reporter, only now she is so overcome with bitterness and anger at Superman she wrote an article out of spite titled ‘Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman’ during his absence. To pour more salt in the wound, she even won a Pulitzer for it! Given what we discover later in the film regarding her son’s true father, it’s not surprising she feels the way she does given Superman’s actions. However, that one aspect is the only thing the film defines her by as Lois is never anything more than a bitter ex-girlfriend who is seemingly being ridiculous given all the good Superman is doing, not to mention how she will seemingly have to choose between him and her nice and understanding fiancé Richard White, played by James Marsden who unfortunately walks around with a target on his back due to his relationship with Lois. It is a far stretch from the modern Lois Lane audiences had gotten in the 20-year span from the comics and shows like Lois & Clark and Superman: The Animated Series.
And then there is Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor. Instead of revamping him to be the corrupt, ruthless businessman of the modern era, Lex is simply a continuation of Gene Hackman’s campy villain who plans land swindles in order to extort governments and regular people into paying out to him. His new plot hinges on the Kryptonian crystals found in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and using them to create a new continent that would dramatically alter the global landscape and kill millions, if not billions, of people. It’s almost a rehash of his scheme in Superman: The Movie taken to a new and deadly level. This take on Lex was just outdated and say what you will about Spacey’s now well-documented scandals, but he would have made a great modern Lex. The proof is even in the couple moments where he drops the campiness for seriousness, such as when his girl Kitty tells him he’s not a god and Lex sternly replies “Gods fly around wearing red capes and don’t share their power with mankind,” revealing his twisted worldview that Superman is even more selfish and destructive than he is.
While the characterizations of its three main characters are the film’s biggest issue, a huge point of Superman Returns failing to ignite the general audience and fanbase is also Singer’s direction. Singer, who also has his own share of scandals and investigations, just did not have the right vision for a new Superman film. As beloved as the Donner and Reeve films are, they are outdated and don’t fit the modern evolution of the hero and how he fits within the world. Singer relied too heavily on nostalgia for Returns with plenty of references made to Donner’s films like the title of Lois’ first Superman article, repeated lines, mirrored events and of course John Williams’ iconic Superman theme. Singer even includes references to famous comic covers like Superman’s very first appearance on Action Comics #1. Nostalgia does not make a compelling story. Even the ideas it presents wastes its potential. A whole film could be made about Superman trying to find Krypton (indeed, Singer actually cut a lengthy half-hour intro of Superman on the planet’s remains) and though Lois is angry about Superman abandoning her, the rest of the world quickly moves on as if he never left, completely missing the opportunity to explore how the ordinary citizen might feel now that he’s back or Superman rediscovering his place in a new world. Say what you will about Zack Snyder, but he at least brought some interesting and fresh perspectives to how Superman is viewed in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
It also doesn’t help Superman Returns is a bit of a slog to get through. Of its over 2 1/2 hour runtime, so much of that is devoted to the disappointing character work. There’s barely any action in the film and even when it does shift to the action it’s simply Superman performing various rescues instead of throwing a punch. Given Superman’s wide range of superpowered villains, the fact the film goes down the well of Superman once again zooming around trying to stop natural disasters from Lex’s scheme is rather boring. The only truly exciting part is Superman’s re-introduction to the world as he stops a plane from crashing in a sequence that shows what a modern Superman blockbuster could do with its visual effects, but sadly it doesn’t raise the bar after that.
For the first Superman film to hit the screen in nearly 20 years, Superman Returns was a massive disappointment and a huge missed opportunity to update the Man of Steel into the 21st century for a modern moviegoing audience. Its reliance on nostalgia comes off as forced and the characterizations of its cast is just too far from the mark to be completely recognizable not only from their comic counterparts, but even their previous portrayals in the Reeve and Donner films. It might not be a film worth celebrating, but it is a good lesson in what not to do for a fresh Superman film.
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