EDITORIAL: The Case for the Defence of SUPERMAN RETURNS

EDITORIAL: The Case for the Defence of SUPERMAN RETURNS

EDITORIAL: The Case for the Defence of SUPERMAN RETURNS

Often maligned and hated on the internet but liked by me, I take a look at the 2006 entry into the Superman franchise -- SUPERMAN RETURNS

While everyone is hating and debating our current Superman from Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice let me cast your mind back to 2006 when everyone was hating and debating the Superman from Superman Returns – the more things change the more they stay the same. Now, I have to admit something that is a dangerous thing to admit on the internet —  I adore Superman Returns.

That isn’t the hipster wannabe spoutings of a contrarian man barely in his 20’s, I think there’s a great deal to love about Superman Returns and I understand why people don’t care for it and why it wasn’t the film audiences wanted it to be at the time. Coming a year after Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Singer did the opposite of that film – instead of reinventing and forging new ground he instead went back, dove tailing off of the end of the 1980 fim Superman II and becoming a love letter to the Richard Donner Superman.


Indeed a lot was said at the time how much Brandon Routh looked like Christopher Reeve and while some say he simply apes Reeve’s performance (and he absolutely owns the way Reeve’s does the confident “Lois”) he is, on his own, a really good casting for Superman, in fact I think we’ve yet to have had a poor casting for the Man of Steel. Routh has an innocence and a kidness and a warmth in his eyes and smile — he feels like a boy scout, he looks right in that suit (though I have been continually informed that the “S” is too small) and when faced with the realisation that the world and Lois have moved on and rejected him and being overwhelmed with the cries of the world you get the sense that he really would save all of us if he could and the fact he can’t upsets him.

On the other side of the aisle as it were, Kevin Spacey is also our best live-action Lex Luthor, he’s charming and a little bit camp and while he’s not quite House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood he still manages to have menace and intellect and while his scheme in this film really leaves something to be desired (no ones going to want to live on that island) his portrayal is fantastic from talking about the titan Prometheus, steely asking for Jor El to show him everything when he breaks into the Fortress of Solitude, shouting WRONG at Lois and stabbing Superman in the side with a kryptonite shiv and with a relishing malevolence that no other Lex has shown, whispering in his ear “now fly”.

There are a few flat notes, Kate Bosworth sometimes feels like a child pretending to play a grown up in a school play (though in fairness Margot Kidder’s take on the character is also horrible) and for a film that puts a lot of stock on the romance of Lois and Kal, the chemistry between Bosworth and Routh isn’t as strong as it could be but when he’s in that costume and she’s in his arms as they float above the dream like art deco of the Daily Planet roof and John Ottman score swells, it doesn’t matter. It’s all there.


Those are the moments that Superman Returns does so well, as a love letter to an older time it is visually and orchestrally (John Ottman on scoring duties), a beautifully crafted snapshot of a forgotten Americana. It is at once classic but current, a true romantic timelessness which is what you get when you have cinematographer and director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel who makes every frame either twinkle with cold moonlight wonder or shine with sepia toned warmth and hope.

Now that may sound pretentious and old fashioned and even cheesy – to that I allow Patty Jenkins director of Wonder Woman to respond to that for me:

“…Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.” – Patty Jenkins.


I want to talk a little bit about the world and about relevancy, Superman is always critiqued for being too good and not relevant anymore and while the ideals and actions that he inhabits and exhibits are certainly no longer commonplace I argue that makes them all the more important and relevant.

Let’s think about the time Superman Returns was released, it was 2006. Which is a not insignificant time in American history. It was the year of the Great American Boycott where nearly 3 million people across the country closed businesses and marched in demand of immigration reform. The war in Iraq was heading into it’s 3rd year, the US war in Afghanistan in it’s 6th, the “War on Terror” as we knew it then was at it’s height, the Bush administration embracing a doctrine of unitary executive, the justification of battling a new kind of war led to significant and alarming overreach of government and presidential authority, domestic surveillance was sanctioned by congress, civil liberties were swept aside, legislation had sweeping changes removing protection of whistblowers, black sites were in full affect and as we found out later torture was readily used and war crimes committed.

It was a time when America was it’s most Un-American since McCarthy and a time when writing a sentence like that could land you in deep water. That is the time this film emerged in, this story of an immigrant from the stars, a symbol of a bygone era not just in the sense that it’s continuing Donner’s film but in that maybe this figure doesn’t belong in this world anymore.

That’s who this Superman is and that’s a question that our current Superman is dealing with as well but whereas Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice does it through a dour Wagner-esque opera mixed with a niestzchean tragedy of some description and never fully answers the question of whether we deserve a hero like Kal El or if we can be saved (which I find interesting and compelling don’t get me wrong) but this Superman film has a more hopeful outlook, here we don’t have Johnathan Kent talking about flooding a farm and drowning horses here we hear Jor-El again played by Brando a voice from past in both real life and in fiction reminding Clark and ourselves “they can be a great people Kal-El, they wish to be. They merely lack the light to show the way”


Narratively too he literally returns from the end of Superman II stepping out of the past into a world that’s moved on, kind of like this film did, a world that he may not be able to live in — and Lex’s scheme is literal manifestation of that idea, he is literally attempting build that world but in doing so he also risks destroying it —  because it’s a world that needs him still but just doesn’t know it and in this film he’s alone and he’s shunned and he’s burdened but he doesn’t shirk his responsibility, he wallows at times and is affected by the world crying out for a savior but he acts, in spite of who we’ve become he’s still there .

He’s always around.

And he makes you believe we can join him in the sun.

Now that’s Superman.


Now these themes and ideas can’t be the only elements of a superhero film granted and a great deal of detractions from this film is in response to it’s lack of action (“He doesn’t punch anything!” they criticise of this film and also rather ironically “He punches everything!” they critique of Man of Steel) and while it’s true that Superman Returns doesnt have much in the way of action what it has, is spectacle. The standout being a stirring and heroic sequence not rivaled until the No Man’s Land / Town Liberation scenes from this years Wonder Woman that involve Superman rescuing a shuttle and landing it down on a baseball field — the most triumphant and Superman thing to occur in any of the films.

Then we have the bank heist scene where mini gun rounds ricochet from his chest and Superman is shot in the eye and the bullet deflects off of it in great Max Fleicher glory, and the car chase with Parker Posey’s Kitty culminating in the recreation of 1938 Action Comics #1 cover, its not him fighting through buildings and blowing untold number of things up but who says that Superman has to have that kind of actionevery time, the Zod fight in Man of Steel goes on far too long and gets tedious and really adds nothing, the exciting acts of spectacle in this film all service themes and character.


Speaking of, this film has one of the most interesting character moments for Superman, in the capacity of his son  (which I know the idea of randomly giving a superhero a child can seem a somewhat asinine one — though interestingly he now has one in DC’s Rebirth comics line) but that choice at the end with Jason is how you challenge Superman. Not with feats of strength but by forcing him to make a decision and balance what he wants with whats best and having it play out here as the next cycle of the Son becomes the Father and the Father the Son is really quite great.

We’ll never know where that cycle goes next however but while Henry Cavill’s Superman will return to our screens later this year in the DCEU’s Justice League and hopefully continue on to furter and future success so too do I hope that Superman Returns is afforded some retroactive glory. Rediscovered through the fog of time and forgiven some of its shortcomings and remembered with fondness so as not be resigned to the forgotten space between Superman: The Movie‘s respect and Superman IV: Quest for Peace‘s ridicule but to – in an ideal world – perhaps the retconned praise of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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