4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“How many F’s in ‘catastrophic’?” — Superman Returns

By 2006, Bryan Singer was a hot property. He put himself on the map with The Usual Suspects, a movie that had some of the best word-of-mouth of the 1990s, one that made “Keyser Söze” a household name. Then he added to his own legend by providing the first Marvel movie to be a mainstream success. It’s easy to forget now, eighteen years later when “Marvel Cinematic Universe” is synonymous with “the most popular movies on the planet,” how impossible that sounded at the turn of the century (though I think this rewatch has illuminated the wasteland that had been Marvel’s movie oeuvre of the 20th century).

Prior to X-Men, the only superheroes that were true mainstream successes starred either Superman or Batman—but it had also been two decades since there was a Superman movie. Warner Bros. wanted to change that, and they turned to the man who had done the impossible to do so.

Warner had been trying to do a new Superman film ever since the immensely successful “Death of Superman” storyline in 1992, but the only actual movie to come out of that was Steel. Several scripts were commissioned over the course of the next decade, including two that would riff on the death of Superman, one by Jonathan Lemkin, the other by Kevin Smith. Tim Burton was brought on to direct Smith’s script, entitled Superman Lives, though Burton brought in Wesley Strick to rewrite it, and Nicolas Cage was cast in the title role. Warner hired another writer, Dan Gilroy, to rewrite the script into something cheaper, and then Burton quit, and the project died. (The entire sordid tale of that film can be found in the documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?)

A Batman/Superman team-up film was started and stalled, and then there was to be Superman: Flyby, written by J.J. Abrams and directed by McG, which also fell apart.

Into this wasteland, Singer stepped. While never really a superhero fan prior to taking on the X-Men, he’d always listed the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films as major influences on him, and he and writers Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris sat down to do a story that would be a sequel to those two films. To that end, Brandon Routh was cast primarily on the basis of his resemblance to a young Christopher Reeve, and Kevin Spacey’s performance as Lex Luthor was specifically done as a riff on Gene Hackman’s portrayal in those first two films.

Frank Langella was cast as Perry White after Hugh Laurie was forced to turn down the role due to his shooting schedule on the TV show House (also a Bryan Singer production). Kate Bosworth was cast as Lois Lane on Spacey’s recommendation. As an homage to the past, Adventures of Superman co-stars Noel Neill and Jack Larson were cast as, respectively, the old woman Luthor marries and a bartender.

While the film made almost $400 million worldwide, it also cost almost that much to make, between movie budget and marketing. As a result, the planned sequel never got off the ground, and the Superman franchise was restarted again in 2013 with Man of Steel. Routh would go on to play another DC character, this time on the small screen: Ray Palmer a.k.a. the Atom in Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow.

 

“Three things sell this newspaper: tragedy, sex, and Superman”

Superman Returns
Written by Bryan Singer & Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris
Directed by Bryan Singer
Produced by Bryan Singer and Gilbert Adler and Jon Peters
Original release date: June 28, 2006

A title card reveals that astronomers found evidence that Krypton was still intact. Superman leaves Earth in the ship that took him away from Krypton to investigate this, only to discover that, no, it’s still destroyed. This trip takes five years, and he returns to the same Kansas farm he landed in the first time, rescued once again by Martha Kent, who is very glad to see her son back.

Lex Luthor’s fifth appeal succeeded in getting him out of jail, especially since Superman wasn’t there to testify. He’s married an elderly rich woman who leaves him everything right before she dies. (Well, actually, she dies before she can sign the will, but Luthor fakes it.) He uses her yacht to head up to the Arctic so he can mine the Fortress of Solitude for all its secrets.

Clark Kent was gone on sabbatical for the exact time that Superman was gone. Nobody comments on this. Perry White gives him his job back as a reporter for the Daily Planet only because a reporter died recently. He learns that Lois Lane is in a relationship with White’s nephew Richard, and they have a son named Jason. Lane is also about to receive the Pulitzer Prize for her article “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Kent appears to be visibly disturbed by the fact that Lane didn’t just sit around for five years pining for him, never mind that Superman never actually said goodbye to her.

Lane herself isn’t in the office—she’s on a 777 that has a space shuttle attached to it. The notion is to launch the shuttle from 40,000 feet in the air from the plane.

Luthor, after getting a crash course from the interactive recording of Jor-El about how Kryptonian crystal tech works, brings a crystal back to his mansion and activates it. Doing so results in an electromagnetic pulse that stops all electronics for several seconds on the entire eastern seaboard. The temporary blackout glitches the shuttle, and it winds up firing its rockets despite still being clamped to the 777.

Superman flies into action, using his heat vision to detach the shuttle and let it fly safely into space. However, the damage has been done to the plane, which was not designed to fly at those speeds. The wings are sheared off, the plane is on fire, and is spinning out of control. Superman manages to slow the plane’s descent enough so that he can place it gently down in the middle of a crowded baseball stadium, thus announcing his return on the jumbotron. Superman gives the same speech about how safe flying is that he gave in Superman, and just like then, Lane faints.

Superman foils assorted bits of crime and saves folks, including Kitty, Luthor’s henchwoman, who’s driving a car with no brakes that has gone out of control. While Kitty is careening down the streets of Metropolis, Luthor and his gang steal a shard of Kryptonite from the Metropolis Museum, secure in the knowledge that Superman is too busy rescuing Kitty. (Kitty later complains that Luthor actually cut the brakes instead of her faking it like they planned. Luthor points out that Superman would notice if they faked it, and given his X-ray vision, he would.)

In addition, Superman spies on the Lane/White household, which is totally creepy, and sees that they’re all nice and happy together.

Luthor’s plan is to raise a continent in the Atlantic using Kryptonian technology. This will wipe out most of the eastern seaboard, and also make Luthor the richest man in the world. Sure, why not?

White wants Lane to run with the Superman story, but she’s sick of being “the Superman reporter,” and would rather cover the blackout. White instead puts Kent on the blackout story and orders Lane to interview Superman. Kent helps her out by changing into Superman and talking to her when she goes to the roof for a cigarette break.

Lane tracks down where the blackout started—the mansion Luthor now owns—and checks it out with Jason while en route to the Pulitzer ceremony. She stumbles across Luthor brushing his teeth and she and her son become his prisoner. Everyone is surprised when Luthor’s shard of Kryptonite reacts to Jason’s presence, leading Luthor (and the audience) to question the boy’s parentage.

Lane tries to get a message via FAX to the Planet while Jason distracts the guard with his excellent piano playing. When she’s discovered, Jason throws the piano at the guard. The pair are then locked in a room.

The FAX, however, did make it through to the Planet. Richard goes out on his seaplane to rescue them.

Superman would rescue them, but he’s too busy saving the city, as Luthor has started raising his continent and the shockwave is causing tremendous damage all over Metropolis.

The shockwave also damages the yacht, and Richard, Jason, and Lane wind up trapped in a room that is filling with water, with Lane unconscious. Superman rescues them and puts them on Richard’s plane, then goes to confront Luthor. Lane wakes up and insists they go back, as Superman doesn’t know that Luthor has Kryptonite.

Superman finds this out the hard way, as Luthor and his thugs beat the holy crap out of him and dump him in the water. Lane manages to pull his corpus from the water and get him away from the Kryptonite, and he flies into space to recharge from the sun. He then goes deep underwater and picks up the new continent and flies it into space, thus saving the east coast from a tidal wave. However, the Kryptonite that Luthor has laced the continent with takes its toll, and Superman plummets to Earth, unconscious. Luthor and Kitty, meanwhile, are stranded on a desert island with a helicopter that is out of gas.

Superman is taken to a hospital, and Lane visits him there, whispering to his comatose self that he has a son. When he wakes up, he immediately flies to the Lane/White house and tells Jason the same thing that the recording of Jor-El told him. Lane sees him as he’s about to fly away and asks if he’ll be around. He allows as how he isn’t going anywhere.

 

“Superman will never—”
Wrong!

The decision Bryan Singer made to abandon the X-franchise in favor of a new Superman movie is one that did lasting damage to both the X-Men and Superman movies. We examined the former last week, and now we see what he did to the latter. What should have started a new era of Superman films (the way Christopher Nolan started a new era of Batman films a year previously with Batman Begins) instead has become the red-headed stepchild of Superman films, neither fish nor fowl. It isn’t iconic the way the Christopher Reeve films are, and it isn’t the vanguard of a new series of connected DC films the way Henry Cavill’s films will be in the next decade.

And that’s because we didn’t get what we were promised. We were told we’d be getting a Bryan Singer Superman film, but instead we got Richard Donner fanfic.

The entirety of Superman Returns is paying homage to what Richard Donner did on the first two Reeve films. Despite being filmed twenty-five years later (and with the concomitant advances in technology like cell phones and personal computers), this is put forward as a direct sequel to 1980’s Superman II. We even (sigh) get footage of Marlon Brando’s somnabulent performance as Jor-El from 1978’s Superman.

Except, of course, it starts out by disregarding the very last line of the film in particular and Superman’s character in general. Supposedly, Singer was not just ignoring Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (which, frankly, is fine), he was also ignoring what Richard Lester did when he took over Superman II, focusing instead on the film Donner wanted to make (which can be found on the infamous “Donner cut” of Superman II). This gets rid of the super-amnesia (which explains why Lane doesn’t ask Superman how, exactly, he got her pregnant) and the final scene where Superman says he’ll never go away again.

But even if you discount that final scene, the notion that Superman would just hare off into deep space for five years and abandon the planet he has sworn to protect is nuts, and 100% out of character. It’s even more so when he’s already abandoned his post, as it were, only to let Zod, Ursa, and Non wreak havoc in his absence. And he had to have left right after Superman II, because the timeline of Lane being pregnant with Jason doesn’t work otherwise. (Of course, in the Donner cut, Superman’s reversal of time happened in the second movie, not the first, which means he undoes everything that happened, which should include the de-powered Superman and Lane sleeping together, so how did she become pregnant by him, exactly?)

Just in general, Superman spends way too much time moping over how his life has changed—which might have some resonance if it wasn’t entirely his own stupid fault for going off-planet for five years on a fruitless quest. It’s hard to feel sorry for Superman when he made this bed himself, and then goes and spies on Lane and her family in as creepy a manner as possible thanks to X-ray vision and super-hearing. There’s something wrong with your Superman movie when the most heroic character in it isn’t Superman (it’s Richard White, who is magnificently selfless and dives right into danger more than once to save people, despite having no super-powers).

The spectre of Donner hovers over the entire production, unfortunately. Having watched Routh for several years as Ray Palmer on Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, I really wish we had gotten his interpretation of Superman, but instead, Singer has him impersonate Christopher Reeve. It’s a really good Reeve impersonation, mind you—Routh nails his delivery, his vocal intonations, his Superman body language—but it diminishes his acting work. He also doesn’t do enough to differentiate Superman from Kent, the one manner in which he fails to impersonate Reeve.

Frank Langella and Sam Huntington similarly channel Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure as White and Jimmy Olsen, respectively, while Parker Posey’s Kitty is pretty much a rerun of Valerie Perrine’s Eve Tesmacher. The only ones who don’t just impersonate their late 1970s counterparts are Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey.

It actually would’ve been nice if Bosworth had channeled Margot Kidder, as it would’ve been better than what we got. As it stands, Bosworth has the unfortunate distinction of being the least interesting Lane in the 75 years of dramatizations of Superman comics. To exacerbate the problem, one of those other actors is in the movie, and Noel Neill manages to create more of an impression in one scene laying in a bed dying than Bosworth can scrape together over the entire rest of the movie.

Spacey, on the other hand, starts out doing a letter-perfect Gene Hackman, but as the movie progresses, he makes it more and more his own, and it’s a fun performance, if a bit too over-the-top. Then again, so is his plan, which is rooted in Luthor’s visit to the Fortress of Solitude in Superman II, and is—well, not thought out. Sure, he’ll have his own continent, and he’ll have Kryptonian technology, but he’ll have just destroyed a large chunk of North America. Does he really think the world’s militaries won’t respond? And will his alien tech be enough to defend himself? Then again, it’s no crazier than buying up desert property and knocking California into the ocean to make it valuable, or wanting to rule Australia, I guess…

The only actors who get to make the parts their own are the ones playing characters who weren’t in the previous films: James Marsden and Tristan Lake Leabu as Richard and Jason. The former is, as I said above, the most heroic character in the film, and is played with calm and patience by Marsden, who seems to be Singer’s go-to guy for second-banana love interest, having been the same in the X-films as Cyclops. Leabu doesn’t get much to do, but he pretty much acts just like a happy five-year-old—albeit one who happens to have super strength at unexpected times.

The script is remarkably pedestrian. Aside from a few exchanges between Luthor and Kitty, and one or two of White’s lines, none of the dialogue stands out. In any Superman production, Lane’s acidity is usually a nice balance to Superman/Kent’s earnestness, but Bosworth isn’t really up to that. Also the script just ignores the fact that Kent and Superman were both gone from Metropolis for the exact same amount of time and yet nobody seems to notice this amazing coinky-dink!

At the very least, Singer has improved his chops as an action director. After failing his saving throw versus fight scenes in X-Men, he upped his game in X2, and in Superman Returns he gives us one of the most amazingly shot Superman rescue scenes in cinematic history when he rescues the plane and shuttle. It’s magnificently done, and the only part of the movie that’s actually exciting. In fact, Singer might have been better off leading with that scene, as we would’ve been spared the endless and unnecessarily drawn-out scenes of Kent crash landing again, Kent staring into space, the utterly pointless flashback to Kent’s youth, Kent walking into the Planet and seeing that Lane has moved on, Kent having a drink with Olsen, and Lane’s lifeless exchanges with Peta Wilson’s shuttle spokesperson about the shuttle-plane trick, and I just want to gnaw my leg off at the knee waiting for something interesting to happen. The movie drags like a big giant dragging thing, and doesn’t even give us a decent Superman-Luthor confrontation. (They’re only in one scene together, and it’s far too short, and mostly consists of Superman being beaten up.)

Oh, and then there’s the Christ imagery. Gah. Yes, let’s make sure this creation of two Jews from Cleveland is splayed in a crucifixion pose after he falls into a coma in space following his rescue of the Earth from the effects of the Kryptonian continent. This after making sure we get Jor-El’s father-son speech from Superman, which is repeated by Supes to Jason at the end (“The son becomes the father and the father becomes the son”). Very subtle, Bryan, very subtle.

Even though the movie was a box-office success, it wasn’t as big a one as they were hoping, and while critical response was good, word of mouth was mediocre, and twelve years later, Routh’s role as Superman has been reduced to a trivia question, that one other guy who played Superman who’s on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t quite remember…

 

Now that we’ve entered the 21st-century renaissance in superhero films, we’ll only be looking at one movie per week rather than doubling (or tripling or quadrupling) up. Next week, we’ll look at another high-end director taking a shot at superheroes, Ang Lee’s Hulk.

Keith R.A. DeCandido urges folks to support his Patreon, which has his reviews of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Black Panther, and (coming this weekend) Jessica Jones season two, as well as more movie and TV reviews, excerpts of his works in progress, new vignettes featuring his original characters, and more.

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