About halfway through Superman Returns, the Man of Steel says to Lois Lane: “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a saviour, but every day I hear people crying for one.” It’s pretty deep, and taps into the Jesus Christ analogy we’re all so used to with this character; but let’s take it out of context for a moment. We’re in 2014 now, Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice is on its way and last year we were “treated” to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. If internet forums are to be believed: every day, people are crying out for a Superman film that does the last son of Krypton justice. It seems as good a time as any then, to revisit Warner Bros.’ 2006 attempt, Superman Returns.
Ignoring Superman III and IV (because wouldn’t you?), Superman Returns acts as a quasi-sequel to Superman II, picking up on plot strands left at the end of that film, but moving the action forward in time to 2006. Deliberate nods to the original 1978 version include a cameo voiceover and archive footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El, and the uncanny resemblance of Brandon Routh and Christopher Reeve.
The film was, for the most part, critically acclaimed; Rolling Stone said it ‘perfectly updated Superman’, Empire said it ‘reinvigorated an American icon’. It has a 76% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie made $400 million worldwide but the planned sequel was scrapped because apparently the film didn’t perform as expected (!?). Audiences clearly saw it in their droves, yet no one can really quite remember it now.
Let’s start with the new boy in blue, Brandon Routh, who perhaps had the hardest job of all. He pulls it off though, providing us with a lovely homage to the much-missed Reeve. He’s an excellent Superman – steely glares, righteousness and safety tips all included – whilst continuing the theme of Clark Kent as a mild-mannered klutz to great effect; something sorely lacking in Snyder’s humourless Man of Steel. Admittedly, Kate Bosworth was far too young – at 22 – to play the role of Lois Lane, now a mother and a Pulitzer Prize-winning veteran journalist; but she is the only misfire, really. Frank Langella’s Perry White is softer than previous incarnations only because Warner Bros. wanted to avoid any comparisons to J.K. Simmons’ now legendary portrayal of J. Jonah Jameson. Ironically of course, Perry White existed long before Jameson, with the latter in fact being inspired by the former in the first place! Plus, he’s still funny (Clark: “Thanks for giving me old job back” – Perry: “Don’t thank me, thank Norm Parker for dying”).
We need to talk about Kevin. The shiny-pated Spacey is a joy, and once again relishes playing the villain. It was also a masterstroke of casting, not least from a marketing perspective. Spacey was really the only “name” in this film; recognisable to international audiences, and he had a proven track record of success with Singer. In amongst all the general antipathy towards this film, Kevin Spacey stands out as a sinister highlight – and deservedly so. He was apparently not enough to distract people from the plot though. Luthor’s plan is – as you might expect – absurdly fiendish (he’s still obsessed with real estate), and, yes, it involves Kryptonite. There has been a lot said of how boring it was to see Superman face off against Lex Luthor again, with Lex using Kryptonite to subdue his nemesis again. People also criticised the lack of action and the emphasis on emotions. In defense of Singer and the writers though: in the complex juggling-act that is reintroducing an iconic character to the movies, this was the best plan.
Superman hadn’t had a cinema outing in nearly twenty years, and 2006’s audience was used to tormented X-Men, the troubled Spider-Man and, to a lesser extent, the gruff, sardonic Hellboy. It makes sense to win over the new audience unfamiliar with Richard Donner’s take, to keep the plot on familiar ground, and thus we get Lex Luthor as the villain (he’s the Joker to Superman’s Dark Knight) and a plot device so recognisable that people use it as a synonym for weakness in everyday discussion. Then, to help Supes fit in with all the other superheroes currently filling the slate and doing so well, give him some kind of personal crisis. In this case, Clark Kent has to deal with the fact that the love of his life – Lois – has moved on in the five years he’s been away, and is now engaged to the dashing Richard White (nephew to Perry). Also, she has a kid. Instead of flying around the Earth at the speed of light and throwing nuclear missiles out of harm’s way, we get a Superman moping over his unrequited love. It’s actually quite brilliant; an unexpected and not easy “adversary” for Superman to defeat.
In this sense then, the film succeeds in introducing Superman to a contemporary audience, in the same way that Singer’s X-Men succeeded in introducing decades-old mutants to the cinemagoing public. Indeed, considering the success of the X-Men franchise under Singer’s stewardship, it is always interesting to wonder what might have been had Superman Returns got its sequel. Singer had definite – intriguing – ideas here, that much is obvious, and he’s spoken recently about the sequel and what he had planned. It’s a shame we’ll never see it. Superman Returns gives us human drama and feelings, long before RDJ’s angsty Iron Man, and with far more humour than Nolan’s moody Batman. It shows Superman having to deal with disasters all over the entire planet and not just Metropolis. The tone, the scope, the characterisation: it’s all there, it’s perfect. It’s what a superhero film in 2006 should have been.
If you’re still not convinced, look at it this way: Superman Returns is the third most well-received Superman film to date. Admittedly, it didn’t have much competition in the form of Superman III or IV, but it sure is better than the miserable, over-serious snooze-fest that is Man of Steel. Bryan Singer said that, in retrospect his film “wasn’t what [Superman] needed to be”. He’s wrong. We didn’t deserve that Superman movie, but it is most certainly the Superman film we needed.