I watched Superman Returns for the first time in some years the other night. I remember that after 19 years away from the silver screen it was a thrill to see Superman back on it in 2006. Such was my excitement at the end of the film that I ran out of the theatre carrying my girlfriend, singing the theme and wearing her red pashmina as a cape (much to the amusement of the doorman).
Was it the joy of hearing John William’s thunderous score alive again? Was it that Brandon Routh bore such an uncanny resemblance to the late, great Christopher Reeve that you felt the good guys were back on form? It thrilled at the time because it was the definitive Superman back in a damn good homage.
I’m still a sucker for the film, namely because I grew up with Williams and Reeves in my head whenever anyone mentioned Superman. The films and his incarnation have never been bettered, even after nearly 40 years. Returns always tugs at the heartstrings because Reeve, despite a critical injury, seemed to be back to the elation of millions.
That said, despite positive reviews, the film is considered a box office failure and the return was short lived. 2013’s Man of Steel rebooted the franchise with a new Superman and a very contemporary take from Zack Snyder,who directed the iconoclastic, hero busting, Watchmen.
So with the trailer for Steel’s sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, promising a gladiatorial struggle and an explosion of the DC Universe onto the big screen next year, how does Returns hold up retrospectively? Nine years on and in the cold light of day, not too well. In the film, Superman has returned from five years away and Lois Lane has not only moved on with her life with a fiancé and a son but, to add salt to the wound, has also penned a Pulitzer Prize winning article titled “Why the world doesn’t need Superman.”
The funny thing is that’s the film’s epitaph. Never has the overgrown boy scout put-down seemed so spot on. Superman, stalwart and perennial, is dressed like a Halloween knock-off of halcyon days past with a cape that’s too small and red trunks which are anachronistic in a way that Reeve’s portrayal never was.
The preceding six years saw X-Men (2000), Spiderman (2002) and Daredevil (2003) take on the silver screen and they were suited and booted with a contemporary take on their classic comic book garb. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins blew them all out of the water and ushered in an age of explicable, purposeful uniforms and technology that remains the benchmark of how seriously we take their character.
It wasn’t just the pastiche cosplay suit. Superman was always the quintessential American hero and in a decade wrought by American belligerence and arrogance, the character moved from being seen as the exemplar of the American way of life to a patronising goody two-shoes. This had been explored in comic books before, notably, The Dark Knight Returns where Superman is simply a puppet of the Reagan administration, but it is apparent Returns didn’t mean to open this debate.
This is coupled with the intense dislike most have of having religious sentiment forced upon them, particularly in a subliminal manner, and Superman Returns isn’t short of it.
In the original film, Jor-El having white hair and sending his only son to Earth is part and parcel of the story. That he communicates sagely advice via holograms is sadder than nether-worldly because it hits home how the character is truly alone in , you guessed it, a ‘Fortress of Solitude’.
But Returns injects steroids into any previous stretch-of-the-imagination-religious-parallels and turns them into Christian vignettes. Luthor’s betrayal of Jor-El’s only son doesn’t require weeks of scrutiny to see the Judas analogy as humanity betraying God. Superman is stabbed in his side like the Roman soldier stabbed Jesus Christ and he’s kicked and humiliated by a gang of thugs, bearing his ‘S’ like Jesus bore the cross. He dies, falling back to the Earth with hands outspread in a crucifixion pose and dies. While the cameras pan to thousands praying for Superman to survive, a female nurse walks into his hospital room to find him gone, like Jesus’ tomb was found empty by his female followers. It’s gratingly conspicuous.
The irony is of course that for all these grand allegories there’s a soap opera subplot about ‘who’s the daddy’ and mummy’s affair. The two narrative threads are wholly incompatible in this telling.
If that’s not enough to make you scratch your head here’s the clincher: Superman Returns jumps over and pretends Superman III and IV never happened. Superman II ends with Superman kissing Lois Lane to erase her memory of knowing his secret identity and, as collateral damage, her recent memory including the fact they slept together.
Upon realising that her son Jason a. doesn’t like kryptonite and b. can throw a piano across the room, is Lois Lane going to think it’s a virginal birth or, as Kevin Smith brilliantly points out, that Superman raped her? Lane’s confusion would surely confirm the latter point when Routh’s Superman, who has never seen more alien and aloof, starts x-raying through her house and eavesdropping and coming out with lines like “I’m always around.” Either way, it’s never addressed.
For all these moments of pure gold can still be found. Knowing that this was Superman’s first proper foray into modern special effects makes it a bit special and it’s impossible not to smile when you hear Williams’ score in those heroic moments. From the epically large but only slightly updated visuals from the 1978 film to Marlon Brando’s likeness being used, you really do feel Superman is back, not rebooted. Most films that only had their logo as their poster campaign and a simple ‘Returns’ underneath it are few and far between and most would he laughed at. After seeing Superman fly off smiling at the camera at the end of the movie just like Reeve did, the hubris felt entirely justified.
The Man of Steel had of course been on the screen before with the admirable Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (BBC 1, the 1990s, Noel’s House Party and Due South, anyone?) and most recently Smallville. Somehow none of it ever created the same excitement as the big screen treatment, probably because it was the first time my generation got to enjoy the character there. The bullet to the eye scene, the flying and the classic shirt-ripping all lived up to expectation, but watching it again and it is let down by the incongruous and overly mushy family drama that’s shoehorned in.
There was much to be optimistic about. Director Bryan Singer’s on the record saying that he would “go all Wrath of Khan on [the sequel]”. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was a visually stunning inaugural movie for Star Trek, but sacrificed an exciting plot in favour of slow visual montages and showing what the effects could do for the franchise. The sequel, The Wrath of Khan is widely hailed across the board (for fans and non-fans of Trek) as a layered, thrilling and deeply emotional sci-fi sequel that stands leagues apart from the first film
The critical reaction to Returns was positive but box office returns, while high, didn’t hit the summer blockbuster status Warner Bros. had anticipated. The scheduled 2009 follow-up was shelved.
The shame of Superman Returns is it was unusually well cast. Perry White was grumptious as ever but was played by the wonderful Frank Langella. James Marsden (of Scott Summers/Cyclops fame) actually made a rather kind, arguably more decent fiancé to Ms Lane than she deserves. Then again his characters seem to have a history of being bested by more interesting ones (cough, Wolverine).
Kate Bosworth had more bite and was a bit less deferential and hapless than Margot Kidder, despite the fact that Kidder is four years older than Reeve she was always very immature. Yet the confusion as to what Bosworth’s Lane remembers and what she doesn’t clouds her honesty and actually makes her a suspicious, slightly duplicitous character. It’s an interesting take not seen before but, as a child of the 1990s, Teri Hatcher will always be my Lois Lane; bright, sexy and intellect with the inference that she figured out on her own that young Clark and Superman were one and the same.
It is not unfair to say Brandon Routh was chosen because of his remarkable similarity to Christopher Reeve. Singer even said he was the embodiment of “our collective memory of Superman.” Routh is often dismissed because he was a model and did nothing substantial thereafter, but he brings a genuinely alien quality to the character. He’s closed off, emotionally distant and the moments he shares with Lois Lane not only have chemistry but a lonely awkwardness that you imagine would happen between people of different worlds. The isolation is reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera. Instead of a physical deformity separating the two lovers, it’s species.
Indeed, with Routh, as with Reeve, the Kent/Superman dichotomy is actually believable if undesirable. Kent is the clumsy façade, the creation that Kal-El lives for most hours of the day. This implication is seldom given much scrutiny, but for novel narrative purposes, it’s a satisfying divide, particularly when Lane’s son realises who he is and has an asthma attack. The problem will always be how can intelligent characters like White and Lane, the best investigative reporters in their field, not see through such a simple disguise as glasses and hair? Cognitive dissonance; something so unlikely that it could be before your eyes and you wouldn’t spot it, is quite understandable with Routh playing the part.
To help in all of this, particularly in the more tragically sentimental moments, John Ottoman’s score is emotional and minimal and perfectly matches the small scale human elements of the picture. It stands in beautiful contrast to the grandly sweeping use of Williams’ music use for the superhuman elements of the film, just as it did in the previous films.
The foil in all of this is Kevin Spacey’s take on Lex Luthor. Modelled off of Gene Hackman’s more campy take, Spacey has forgone the humour and is tempestuously psychotic. If there is a setback it’s his motivation for detesting the Man of Steel is never made clear beyond thinking he’s a Promethean God who refuses to share his power. The character is bitter from prison, but his loathing is visceral and it’s a shame a developed backstory is never given.
Imagine how good the film would have been if this version of Lex articulated a damning argument against Superman and actually rationalised the good vs evil struggle between them? Spacey is a wonderful actor, as House of Cards confirmed, and plays a magnificent bastard. His Luthor doesn’t suit the continuation of Hackman’s fixation on huckster real-estate scams, which is a comparably weak act of villainy. Instead, his whole ethos in this film seems to be guided by a serious bout of cape envy, which while entertaining doesn’t take Freud to figure out.
Ultimately Returns feels like the coda before the new DC Universe launched with Man of Steel. It was the last hurrah of a decade-long struggle to create a film that reconciled a boy scout’s dated morality and patriotism with the need for a burgeoning need for gritty flawed anti-heroes.
What’s surprising about Returns is just how much of a sad farewell it is knowing what we know now. Comic books that can’t transition their heroes to the real world are left on the pages. What Batman Begins did for DC comics is what Casino Royale did for James Bond and Iron Man for Marvel in 2008. The mould of superheroes being idyllic escapism is over: logical, gritty anti-heroes are the new rallying call.
People like to see the wizard behind the curtain; they like to see James Bond eating a salad at home or Bruce Wayne actually running Wayne Enterprises before the action. They don’t like being made fun of by way of an idea. Batman was needed in a system that had fallen to gang crime. Iron Man was just fun and had enemies with the same technology. Superman’s whole reason for being is to act as a caretaker humanity, as Jor-El said in the Man of Steel:
“You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”
One of the greatest books ever written, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg, tells the story of a young man’s descent into madness after obsessing and having drilled into him Calvinistic predestination dogma. The logic is that God is all knowing and thus already knows your life and destiny and whether or not you’re going to Heaven or Hell. The young man, Robert Colwan, then pings one day that if God knows this then he could do whatever he wants in the present because the future of his soul is already predetermined. It would make no difference.
Superman exposes the same great irony of the human condition and the reality of what a superhero existing really means. If you know that some quasi-religious God-like creature is on hand to save you no matter what, won’t we take on more physical risks and more cataclysmically reckless technological advances? Won’t we actually endanger ourselves even more and take excessive moral hazards knowing a protector is at hand to deal with the consequences?
But that’s the point and it makes you nostalgic watching Superman Returns. Once it was enough for people to be saved heroically, and spectacularly, without analysis or question. Returns is entertaining because it’s harking back to a time when we the audience could simply accept that he was a superhero and not challenge him on how real he seemed.
The failure of Returns it that it didn’t provide an answer as to why the world needed Superman. Like Atlas, the concept tried to bear the world on its back but the world said we don’t need you. That Man of Steel and Batman v Superman feature a Superman shrugging responsibility and a population that can’t make up its mind if he’s an omnipotent tyrant or do-gooder is a reflection of the times and of the failures of the previous film.
In the years ahead we’ll probably be crying out for a DC film like Superman Returns. The new darker elements risk obfuscating the simple joie de vivre of the originals and watching a man flying around fighting bad guys. The darker it goes, the more you remember that the art deco visuals of Returns are a romantic reminder of the character’s 1930s origins; a world that feels safer and more idealistic compared to the Batman-ass-kicking DC Universe of late.
The potential that Jason, Superman’s implied-son, offered was considerable. Yet this incarnation of Superman being a father, where the heart and soul of the character was a suit put on rather than the man at home, always felt at odds with the detached alien quality that both Reeve and Routh brought to the role. Kal-El’s father was a hologram, distant and merely a ghost. The oddly placed melodrama in Returns could have seen real characterisation where the symbol became the man thus completing an emotional journey and giving the character precisely the relationship he didn’t have himself. It was not to be.
So does the world need Superman? Yes, but it needs a Superman that comes from the life and times of the day and not a generic old fashioned boy scout. Man of Steel has picked up the gauntlet and given us a flawed character that’s been raised by humans, making clear that Clark Kent is the real man wrestling with an alien heritage. The results hold promise, most noticeably forgoing the usual Lois is ignorant to the glasses gimmick.
Superman Returns marked near twenty years since a Superman film had been in the cinema. Much had changed and even more has changed now. America has lost its moral authority in the world and having a poster boy is out of alignment with the times. The world doesn’t need a super-man from on high, it needs a champion born of its struggles to stand firm. If Superman having his ass handed to him by Batman confirms him to us as a human champion and not an alien preacher, then the character will survive another 80 years.