Superman Returns (review)

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Geek Revival

It never really occurred to me before, not even the many times I sat through the second Star Wars trilogy, but John Williams’s music was the soundtrack of my geeky childhood. The music that accompanied the things I loved as a kid — from Jaws to Star Wars to Raiders of the Lost Ark to E.T. — it’s all his. And as Superman Returns started to roll, with Williams’s original theme swelling over swooping opening credits that are so like the 1978 film’s, well… I was hooked anew.

As with the new Star Wars flicks, I can’t really be anything near objective about Superman Returns, far less so than I could be about stuff like Smallville or Lois and Clark, which spun the tale of the man from Krypton in new directions, because this just sorta picks right up from Superman II (Bryan Singer pretty much pretends that movies III and IV didn’t happen, and isn’t that what we all do?) and carries on with the still surprisingly effective combination of charmingly dorky humor (like about the disguising power of a pair of nerd eyeglasses) and comic-book-engaging pseudo-deep mythologizing (like the Christ metaphor of the only son of a godlike alien being sent to Earth to save people). Singer and his screenwriters, X2 vets Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, don’t remake the original films — they assume the audience knows that backstory and they continue on, mixing geek appreciation of the Superman saga as a whole with a clear abiding love for the ’78 and ’80 films in particular.
As with so much pop culture made by geeks for geeks these days, that may make it feel a bit exclusionary to nongeeks, particularly when there are some problems with the film, speaking from as much of an objective perspective as I can muster. The biggest issue is that Kate Bosworth (Beyond the Sea, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!) is no snarky Margot Kidder — Bosworth is, alas, bland and boring, and it’s hard to see what Clark finds so irresistibly attractive about her Lois Lane, who is rather unattractively petulant and whiny; and there’s no screen chemistry at all between Bosworth and the big-screen newcomer playing Clark/Superman, Brandon Routh. And of course it’s fine to have some fun with the traditional, longstanding ridiculousness of the Superman story, as Singer & Co. do here: How the hell does no one put Clark and Superman together, particularly when Superman just so happens to show up again after five unexplained years of absence just at the precise moment when Clark, who has allegedly been on a loooong around-the-world trip or something, returns to Metropolis and his job at the Daily Planet? But another absurdity of the script is less easy to dismiss: It’s impossible to believe that Clark is so much a gentleman that it has completely slipped his mind that before his disappearance, he and Lois spent a hot night at his icy Fortress of Solitude. How could he meet Lois’s, ahem, just-about-five-year-old son and not wonder if the kid could be his? It’s pretty much the first thing that occurs to Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey: Beyond the Sea, The Life of David Gale) when he meets the adorable tyke (Tristan Lake Leabu). “Who is this boy’s father?” he demands of Lois, and you’re like, Yes! Finally, someone is asking this all-important question! Of course Lois thinks his father is Cyclops– I mean, James Marsden’s (X-Men: The Last Stand, Heights) Richard White, her Daily Planet coworker and son of her boss, Perry White (Frank Langella: Good Night, and Good Luck., House of D). We know, from Superman II, that she’s got no memory of her super night with Superman. But surely Superman himself does. The only night with the woman you adore — how do you forget that?

But as part of the intended audience, I don’t much care. There’s so much geek love emanating from Superman Returns that it’s more than enough for me. Routh is delightful as Clark/Superman — he looks and sounds so much like poor departed Christopher Reeve that it’s a bit eerie. But he’s his own charming self, too, with a sense of vulnerability that is at once sweeter and edgier than Reeve’s was. The audience knows that Clark’s five-year absence has been taken up with a visit to the remains of Krypton in search of any other survivors — there are none, of course, at least not that he can find, and one scene early in the film, after he returns “home” to Earth and to Smallville and laments to his Ma (Eva Marie Saint: Because of Winn-Dixie) about his loneliness, sets up the undercurrent of poignant isolation that characterizes this version of Clark/Superman. There’s plenty of humor in Superman Returns, but this isn’t so much an overt comedy as the ’78 Superman was. This is a very geeky movie in the sense that it takes this shit seriously while it has its fun — Superman is here much more a figure of pathos than maybe any other Superman has been before. He’s facing outright rejection even from the women he loves — Lois, in his absence, has won a freakin’ Pulitzer Prize for an editorial called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” and why doesn’t she just rip his little alien heart out and stomp on it while she’s at it? Even something as simple as the little bit of intimacy Superman is able to snatch with Lois, when he takes her on an evening flight over Metropolis (which of course harkens back to the ’78 film), is an opportunity for Singer to highlight his alienness: “I forgot how warm you were,” Lois says as he takes her into his arms — his Kryptonian metabolism working overtime, maybe?

(Oh, and Routh? Singer found a guy to play his superfarmboy who is not only actually from Iowa, but he’s a geek, too. Routh’s being quoted all over the place as saying he made himself “sick with excitement” over the prospect of seeing the ’78 Superman on TV when he was a kid. And he even won a Halloween contest just a few years ago for dressing up as Clark Kent. What a dork. And you know I mean that as the highest possible compliment. And like Super Grover, he is cute, too.)

But even the comedy, much of which is concerned with Lex Luthor, is undercut by something dark. Spacey is a hoot as the mad genius, but there’s a coil of genuine wickedness in his Luthor, too. His hatred of Superman is far more uncomfortable to watch in action than Gene Hackman’s was — kicking a superhero when he’s down isn’t just an expression for this Luthor — and Spacey imbues his evil plans for world domination, which once again, hee hee, involve beachfront property, with something malevolent and almost lecherous. Some of that is tied up in the fact that his evil plans literally rattle downtown Manhattan– er, Metropolis, which has obviously been hit with terrorism, because Metropolis’s Twin Towers are missing, too. (And it makes you wonder: if Lois Lane had been in Tower 2 on that day, would Superman have found a way to rush back from Krypton to save her?) But mostly it’s Spacey, who’s having a ball with Luthor but also finding a kind of furious glee in mass destruction that feels more real after 9/11 than it would have before.

There’s a kind of hugeness to Superman Returns, and I’m not talking about the huge and unprecedentedly expensive FX, though they are indeed gorgeous and impressive. It’s a personal hugeness, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron: the film takes Superman to new places and puts him through some big things, some of which can be undone, and some of which can’t. It lays new meaning on the character, tearing him between a fictional world in which he feels lonelier and less needed than ever and our real world, in which we can’t help but wish even harder for a champion like him.

It makes you wanna believe a man can fly.

See also:
“Superman gay? no way, honey”

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Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Wed, Jun 28, 2006 8:37pm

Yes, I liked this movie too.

It does, however, make it increasing difficult for me to maintain any affection I once had for “X-Men III.” Now this is how you make a sequel, Mr. Radner…

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Wed, Jun 28, 2006 8:39pm

Excuse me, I meant “Ratner”…

Wed, Jun 28, 2006 11:19pm

Finally, someone makes a true Comic book movie for the comic book fans. Many of the scenes looked lifted straight from a graphic novel, the flying up and regenerating in the Sun, the fall to earth, the entering of his lair, and more. I’m also so glad he didn’t re-hash the back story, hollywood always feels like they need to do that. Only “Sin City” and maybe the “Spiderman” movies have been able to truly lift life from the comic pages so until now.

Thu, Jun 29, 2006 3:09am

Just back from an evening screening here in SF…loved it.

The airplane/space shuttle rescue was, as Stan Lee would have said, “pulse- pounding.” Viscerally exciting in a way that few movies are any more. To me, at least.

In a way the fim both further mythologizes Supes (references to Prometheus, Atlas, and the classic cover of the first issue of Action Comics) and de-mythologizes him (the brutal beatings he suffers at Luthor’s hands, and the more-believable emotional content). Anyway, I grew up on the first two Reeve movies, just like everyone else, and this deserves to sit on the same shelf.

Thu, Jun 29, 2006 11:02am


Yes, “Superman Returns” is a movie I liked. But I am
so tired of Clark Kent being a bufoon. It’s old, it’s tiresome and expected.

Come on, if he was that nerdy, who would hire him as a reporter? I was hoping for a different viewpoint from Brandon Routh, but it seems like he mimics Christopher Reeve’s portrayal much too much.

Maybe, I am just hooked on “Smallville” and the interesting psychological twists and turns and the reasons for those twists and turns. And I like the wayClark Kent “naturally” seems to mess up while the youngLois Lane takes all the credit – it makes more sense and its believable – I was hoping the director might have taken some cues from “Smallville”, but he played it safe.

The little boy? It’s a move too modernize the world this Superman inhabits. Does it work? Not really.

David C
Thu, Jun 29, 2006 11:16am

This really *is* a sequel to the Richard Donner movies in more ways than I expected, and very similar. Including a combination of the perfect, wonderful choices with a bunch of mildly annoying “I wouldn’t have done it that way” stuff.

I’m not sure about the boy, for instance, and never thought the Christ allegory (and thus making Jor-El into Yahweh, to the point he goes on and on “forbidding” this and that) should be pushed that hard. Always thought the “Moses” metaphor is more accurate.

But you’ll always get into disputes like this when dealing with movies about real people like Superman, as opposed to fictional characters….

MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Jun 29, 2006 11:49am

“The little boy? It’s a move too modernize the world this Superman inhabits. ”

What, people didn’t start having children until recently?

David C
Thu, Jun 29, 2006 3:14pm

Well, Kryptonian people didn’t. :)

Thu, Jun 29, 2006 5:02pm

I just think that with her gigantic forehead, they should have cast Bosworth as Lex Luthor. :-) Seeing it in 2 hours, front row balcony!

Fri, Jun 30, 2006 8:38am

Fab review! I totally agree with your insightful comments about a] Superman’s agony in finding a world so desperate for a hero yet so willing to reject him as well, b] not being able to be objective about the whole Super myth, and c]Bosworth being a major letdown. Ugh. I grew up wanting to be Lois Lane and seeing this person bungle up the character is just plain sacrilege!

Glenn Hauman
Tue, Jul 04, 2006 3:16am

As I wrote here, Kate Bosworth and Parker Posey should have played each other’s roles.

MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Jul 04, 2006 1:54pm

Tee-hee. You’re absolutely right, Glenn. Alternately, Supe could transport Kate Bosworth (not Lois Lane: Kate Bosworth) to the remains of Krypton and leave her there…

Wed, Jul 05, 2006 7:23am

Actually, I had reservations about the film, as much as I enjoyed it, for the exact same reasons it garnered such a rave review from you: it is definitely a sequel. I haven’t read the Superman comics or seen any of the previous movies, and the entire time I felt as if I was missing something, some essential background information treated as if it were obvious common knowledge that needed to be understood to make the fabric of the story make sense. For example, I never assumed that Lex Luther and Lois knew each other – I had figured she was familiar with the case, knew his facts and face, because she is, after all, a journalist – but I hadn’t known he would recognize -her-. Another comes at the end, when Lex takes vicious pleasure in beating up Superman when he’s down. Before the scene, in the entire movie, the two of them had never before met, never even really talked about meeting each other except in brief side conversations and references. The movie was made, naturally, for the fans Superman already had, but for those who come in only with knowledge gleaned from culture and catching the occasional 5 minutes of Smallville on TV, there were some definite problems that could have been easily solved with a brief “background” sequence at the start, the sort of ten, fifteen minute bit you get before “five years later” pops up on screen, like the beginning of The Incredibles. It felt like I’d stepped into Return of the King having only read the blurbs on the back cover of The Fellowship of the Ring.

MaryAnn Johanson
Wed, Jul 05, 2006 12:11pm

But the movie makes clear that Superman is responsible for putting Lex in jail. Lex has that little speech, too, about how Superman isn’t so good on the little things like Miranda rights and responding to supeonas. I’d have thought that’d be plenty grounding for Luthor’s animosity toward Superman.

Wed, Jul 05, 2006 1:45pm

Glenn, I notice that you mention Superman telling the president that he wouldn’t let him down again at the end of Superman II. Keep in mind that Superman Returns was based on the Donner portions of the first 2 films. IIRC, the second half of the second film was not done by Donner. :-)

Glenn Hauman
Wed, Jul 05, 2006 6:37pm

Wait a minute– now we have to figure out which halves of the film are sequels and which ones aren’t? You gotta be kidding. “Yep, everything up to Superman flying away from the battle with the Phantom Zone villains is canonical. When Superman Returns (TM), Earth has been under the reign of Zod for a half decade…”

Thu, Jul 06, 2006 1:13am


I recently saw Superman Returns and I didn’t really find it very captivating. Specifically, there are several key problems that kept the movie from being something out of the ordinary, and I’m afraid to say that they’re not small things either.

For starters, there was no initial character (and arguable continuous) character development with Superman. No time was spent between the audience and Superman alone to allow us to comprehend his motivations, needs and desires. These are fundamental to the Superman character since his emotional struggles, stemming from his human nature, are usually the things that get him into most of his dilemmas. His battles in the movie were physical and it really went against the core of what makes him Superman.

What should have happened is a lot more aside time between Superman and the audience, allowing us to see him reflecting on these dilemmas and decisions: his needs and wants. There was no emotional battle for Superman in this movie. Lois was married; we didn’t know what Superman was going to do because his emotions were kept hidden from us; and any moments where he could have opened up were spent on special effects, high-speed flying and combat scenes. Superman felt cold and detached.

The storyline seemed lost, and at places unclear with its intent. For example, what does Superman want now that he’s back in Metropolis? Does he want to pursue Lois? What’s he going to do? These important questions remain mysterious and vague.

Also, the film felt very disjointed, particularly when a dramatic moment was followed by an action scene, and vice versa. The intensity of the action felt very dull, primarily because it didn’t feel as though there was any challenge or adversity for Superman to be combating against. What is he fighting for? He simply arrived, circumvented the problem and went home. When there was a dramatic moment, Superman’s lack of expressivity just made it seem like the characters were speaking with themselves. When Lois is swept away on their night-flight, Superman looks distanced and detached – alien if you will – contrary to how he is meant to be portrayed. With these two elements in play it just seemed like “stuff” was happening and that they weren’t really related to one another.

Someone commented that the film possessed a little of everything: action, drama, romance, and mystery, and I won’t argue this. The problem was that it presented them in isolation with one another, and as such that’s where the movie lost its punch.

The plot was very plain, awkward and disjointed. It was plain in that there was no real climax at the end of the movie. Moving slabs of Earth from here to there isn’t really something that captivates my emotions. There was no struggled between Lois and himself; no ongoing cat and mouse efforts between him and Lex Luther; no world in crisis. Superman just rocked up, broke stuff, saved a few people and then floated home. He didn’t really have any epic challenges worthy of a superhero.

(As an aside: Did anyone else find it strange that Superman lost his powers while on the Kryptonian land and yet after his recovery proceeds to move it into outer space? Surely for continuities sake the Kryptonite rock would have sapped his strength again, at which point he would fall to his grizzly death.)

Don’t get me wrong, I love Superman and have done so for a long time, but the film was dull and uninspiring. Superman felt dead and lifeless, more inhuman that is appropriate for a character that’s meant to be struggling with his human nature over his colossal abilities. And the one relationship could be regarded as the beating heart of Superman (that with Lois Lane) is nonexistent in the movie, as Lois Lane comments to Clark Kent, “What relationship?”



Fri, Jul 07, 2006 11:33am

Are you people on crack?? This movie is not that great…!!
The visual are nice but I didn’t come to see this movie for the effect …if I wanted that I would watch any of the great pixar movies…. So why is this movies good? story nope… Wow, I never saw a movie with so many marketing plot and lack of common sense or originality..the only thing original about this movie is the kid thing lol what a marketing trick..he is only in the movie so that they can sell toy to kid (remember Dark Vader in episode I same trick) me on that …another marketing trick didn’t you feel the Jesus reference at least two time in the movie..Savior…huh!!ok….and when he is falling for the sky he poses like Jesus on the cross lol..they tried to make the movie more interesting for the religious people out there lol… nice try… In the middle of the movie didn’t you fell like “I have seen this movie superman I lol..What are they thinking..? Lex is so evil in this movie he killed actually 0 billion people …lol and he wanted to create land that nobody would want… because of the sharp rock like qualities.. what business man..!!lol…he is a kitty cat in this movie…Lois she so weak has character..enought said…Cyclop!! why r you in this movie…why? didn’t you die in the worse x-men movie ever..X-men 3…

So what is good about this movie Brandon routh has Superman is great ..big shoe to fell trying to be Reeve …I have more respect for Reeve acting skills has Clark or sup from this point on…the emotional stuff is ok I guess…
Jimmy is great probably the best …jimmy…
Lex is great..
Overall the acting is excellent …..and the visual are good but annoying waste of time …that the good part of this it is a C+ in my book…go see you may like it..I hope …

MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Jul 07, 2006 10:25pm

Jesus as a marketing ploy? Why, I love it! Let’s run with it! We could do Holy Ghost Happy Meals! Transubstantiated Breakfast Cereal — save your soul and lower your cholesterol at the same time! My god — pardon the pun — the possibilities are endless! Old Testament Action Figures! Mosada Play Sets! GI Jesus with Throwing the Money Changers Out of the Temple-Fu Grip!

Sat, Jul 15, 2006 3:00am

I read in a profile somewhere that the elegant Mr. Spacey may have patterned his portrayal in part on Kenneth Lay …