It could just be because we haven’t gotten a new solo Superman movie in seven years now and I’m desperate, or it could be because Bryan Singer actually put together a superhero genre classic after all. Lately I have found myself drifting back to Superman Returns, which I recently watched again for the first time in years. I placed this movie in the #3 slot on my Top Ten Superman Movies list since I remember loving it in theaters. Fan reactions were mixed upon release though, and as the years have gone on there have been chinks in the armor I did not see before. Was it my own nostalgia covered glasses that made me think of it favorably? How would Returns fare this time around? Let’s take a look (I love being a geek).
This film hits all the right beats. It is positive, uplifting, and fun. Above all, it is refreshing to see a world that actually likes Superman, which the film affirms consistently. The reaction around Metropolis to Superman’s airplane rescue (more on that later!) just celebrates the character and encapsulates the filmmakers’ entire approach to him. As a starting point, Superman as someone who is everyone’s friend really works. From this perspective, Singer and team had a game plan that was always going to land close to the mark.Speaking of, much has been made about Singer’s decision to make this movie a spiritual successor/sequel to Donner’s first two Superman films, but I can see why he did. The premise of Superman being gone and then coming back to the world he called home, hearkened to the fact that no Superman feature films had been released for almost 20 years. Superman Returns was a reference to what we as an audience were experiencing when he appeared again as much as the characters themselves. It’s not really an orthodox approach to moviemaking and certainly not to franchise building, but it is an interesting one.As a director, Bryan Singer brought a lot to the table. Up to this point in his career, his track record was superb, and WB must have convinced themselves that they had scored big when they wrenched him from the X-Men franchise. Singer’s camera angles and shot compositions are fairly straightforward and clean, making for an easy viewing experience. He never lets the special effects overpower the story and always keeps his characters at the center. Similar to how the first two X-Men films were about mutants finding their way in the world, Singer’s Superman is an outsider trying to find his way into the present day that has moved on without him. In the hands of a skilled director, this point of view makes for wonderful tension in an engaging story. Singer has something of his own style of filmmaking, a veneer of positivity as well as a retro and modern vibe simultaneously. He has a tendency to often use muted colors with bright lighting, a wonderful, unique look that gives his work a great deal of character. This can be seen in the case of the Daily Planet and Metropolis, especially, where the deco architecture and furniture is mixed with cell phones and flat screen TVs. His Daily Planet is more a setting out of the Fleischer cartoons of the 1940s than New York City of today, but somehow it’s believable in both. The few flashback scenes in Smallville look like they’ve been hewn out of sunlight. For Superman’s world, with so much hearkening back to a simpler time, this works great. While not perfect, there are some inspired casting choices in this movie as well. Kevin Spacey, who had achieved huge critical success with Singer on The Usual Suspects, is a fantastic Lex Luthor in the Gene Hackman vein. Eva Marie Saint as Ma Kent and Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen are wonderful, as are Parker Posey and X-Men alum James Marsden. Perhaps my favorite choice is Frank Langella as Perry White, whose class and quiet strength are a refreshing change from other performances. How people don’t talk about him more as an all time Superman great I don’t understand. Regardless of personal preference, there’s no disputing that Singer and company did their best to assemble a respected cast, filled with Oscar winners and Superman veterans.
There’s so much more that I could say about what I liked, but I’ll conclude this section with just two words:
Perhaps my favorite scene of any Superman movie, ever.
Writing, directing, casting, action… with all of this, what could possibly be left to complain about? Was there anything in the film that could be nit picked?
In 2006, Warner Bros. was throwing their full might behind getting their Superman and Batman franchises revved up and running full speed ahead. For both Batman Begins and Superman Returns, the choice was made to cast young actors in the lead roles in order to have them looking young for what they hoped would become a multi-film series. In the case of the Dark Knight it did, but unfortunately not for the Man of Steel, and sadly, the biggest weakness of Returns for me is the age of its two leads. Kate Bosworth was all of 22 years old when she played a Lois Lane who had a five year old son, who himself looks older than that in this movie. Brandon Routh was 26, yet his part included lines from Christopher Reeve’s first outing, several years in the character’s past. How old were the characters supposed to be in this film?? The two today would likely have been a better fit for the film’s story, but WB would not have wanted an aging Superman if Returns was a hit. The acting of both Routh and Bosworth is not the issue, but their ages make it tough to really get into the film, sadly. For a movie that is intended to be the third in a series and take place after a five year hiatus, it just doesn’t make sense. The aforementioned choice to have Superman and Lois have a son in the film also created a few problems. I didn’t mind Jason White’s inclusion for this movie, as I actually found it to be a nice tie-in to Superman II, and gave the movie an interesting layer. The question, however, then becomes where to go from here? In a sequel, Superman would either be irrelevant in his son’s life were his identity not revealed to him, or it would relegate the boy’s adoptive father, Richard White, if it were. In either case, you’re left with something that’s not very Superman-like behavior, and are sort of backed into a corner as a writer. I would imagine this was one of the reasons why Warner Bros. chose to do a full reboot in 2013 for Superman, rather than create sequels to Returns.
Was this movie perfect? No. Did part of my enjoying it have to do with no live action Superman in a while? Probably.
Do I care? No way!! I enjoyed the heck out of this movie! It managed to once again take the character seriously after two decades and give fans a really nice Superman adaptation. This was not because Singer borrowed so much from Richard Donner (even though John Williams’ timeless score does not hurt), it was because it was just good! Singer got a lot right about the character and his place in the world. Despite its imperfections, Superman Returns has managed to become something of a cult classic for me. The superhero movie formula has been improved upon since this film was released and Superman has been recast, but this still stands as a highly enjoyable outing with a beloved character. Some fans loved it, some didn’t, most are probably indifferent, but not this one.