‘Superman Returns’ an Elegant, Epic Triumph

by Eric Melin on December 5, 2011

in Columns,Overlooked Movie Monday

Think what you will about men in tights who fly around beating up bad guys, but superheroes are our modern-day equivalents of ancient Greek Gods.

superman-returns-2006-posterWith the overlooked movie Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) abandoned the X-Men franchise after two movies to take the squarest and ironically most powerful of all the costumed outcasts and revitalize his story like Christopher Nolan did with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Those who wanted nonstop action groused nonstop about the movie when it opened in 2006, and despite decent critical acclaim and $391 million worldwide, the movie turned out to be a one-off for Bryan Singer and star Brandon Routh, who aren’t involved in the upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel, helmed by Zack Snyder and starring Henry Cavill.

But Superman Returns has way more going for it than a simple action movie. By emphasizing Superman’s virtual omnipotence and also his sense of eternal heartbreak and loss, Bryan Singer’s epic and lyrical sequel-of-sorts to 1980′s Superman II has some of the same poignancy of a classic Greek tragedy.

superman-returns-2006-earthSuperman (Brandon Routh) may care deeply for the flawed people of Earth, but he is not human after all, and the script, penned by Singer with Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, takes great pains to articulate both his “divinity” and the crushing effect on his psyche of a futile search for his past. After returning to his adopted home of Earth after five fruitless years looking for survivors from destroyed home planet Krypton, he realizes now, more than ever, that he is the last remaining being of an extinct alien race.

Alienation is a big theme in Superman Returns, as a word on a Scrabble board in the home of his Earth mother, Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint), literally tells us.  She welcomes him back with open arms, but it is not long before he leaves the family farm and Superman’s reserved alter ego Clark Kent is back at work at the Daily Planet. The return of the Man of Steel isn’t that simple for the woman that he has left behind, even after his insanely spectacular mid-air rescue of her plane. Career-minded ex-flame Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has not only a fiance and a child, but also a Pulitzer Prize for writing an editorial called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Talk about awkward reunions.

superman-returns-luthor-2006To make matters worse, arch-enemy Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from jail because Superman was not around to appear as a witness at his trial. The evil mastermind, played by Spacey with a potent mix of sadism and sarcasm, has not forgotten who put him in prison in the first place.

“Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind,” he says.

Like many of the ancient dieties, Superman has another weakness besides his affinity for humans. After a visit to his hidden retreat the Fortress of Solitude, Luthor learns all of Krypton’s secrets from a hologram of his long-departed father Jor-El, played by the late Marlon Brando, in a nimble bit of movie trickery featuring unused dialogue from the 1978 original.

superman-returns-fortress-of-solitude-2006As the spectacle factor continues to increase in modern superhero fantasies, so does the care and respect that some filmmakers as talented as Singer put into preserving the mythos of their main characters. With audiences’ easier acceptance of outrageous premises comes the requirement that the superhero’s plight be taken absolutely seriously. In a time when any feat of superhuman strength or power can be replicated by ever-advancing CGI graphics, Singer knows that this treatment is the only way that befits the first comic book legend.

One unfortunate casualty of this approach is the old-fashioned slapstick rapport between Clark and Lois that Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder shared in the first two Superman films. I wonder if this is because Singer thought modern audiences would find the humor too campy and unfairly dismiss the movie as lightweight, or whether whether the actors weren’t up to it. Brandon Routh is certainly able to deliver similarly, but Kate Bosworth proves otherwise in several scenes. Clark and Lois barely share any screen time together in Superman Returns, and the story’s focus on themes of hurt and regret give the movie an overall somber yet appropriate tone.

superman-returns-2006-lois-clark-daily-planetThe elegant look of the film more than makes up for what the script lacks in sparkling wit. It may be the most expensive movie of the 2006, and every dollar is up on the screen. Amazing images and sumptuous production design populate every single frame. Metropolis obviously resembles New York City, but its buildings and cars run the design gamut from the 1930s up to present day, like the spinning globe perched on the Daily Planet that recalls the old RKO Studios logo. One scene in particular cleverly blends the new and the old, when a young boy takes a photo of Superman holding a vintage car above his head (like the cover of Action Comics #1 in 1938) on his cell phone.

Action-Comics-No-1-superman-returnsFrom the most cataclysmic disaster scene (a spreading fault line barreling towards the city) to the subtlest sequence (Lois “floating” to the roof in an elevator as seen through Superman’s X-Ray vision), Superman Returns is filled with detailed and inspired imagination from Bryan Singer. Come Oscar time, its sumptuous art design was unjustly ignored by the Academy Awards because of a simple-minded prejudice against superhero fantasies.

Rather than make our hero an indestructible superhuman with no flaws, Bryan Singer presents a tortured Man of Steel. The innocent spirit commonly associated with the character becomes something that Superman wishes for but can never achieve. Lying on his back in his childhood bed, he stares at a ceiling full of stickers, little glow-in-the-dark stars that he dreamed about when he was young.

Unable to ever truly fit in on Earth, he is more comfortable floating high above the planet with his eyes closed and his cape billowing behind him, listening to all of man’s sins and cries for help.

superman-returns-2006-machine-gun-chest“You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, “ he tells Lois, “but every day I hear people crying for one.”

Such is the dilemma of a cursed God.

We’ll see if Zack Snyder is able to give people what they want out of a Superman movie in 2013 (bigger action set-pieces and bone-crunching violence, perhaps?), but one thing is certain, Snyder’s over-the-top directorial style won’t even come close to bringing the amount of poignancy that Bryan Singer achieved with the overlooked 2006 movie Superman Returns.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Reed December 5, 2011 at 7:51 am

I still don’t get your adoration for this one, Eric. I’m way more aligned with JD’s point of view. There are a myriad of flaws in this film, from Spacey’s over-the-top acting, to the inane plot driven by dumb character decisions, to the lack of anything really super. But completely ruining everything is the casting of the film’s second most important character. Kate Bosworth was just 23 when this movie was released. Are we really to believe that she has (A) a five-year old son (B) a fully developed career journalist BEFORE Superman went away and (C) the experience and reputation to win a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing? Not to mention she’s not much of an actress. This made the whole movie fall apart. There are just too many ridiculous things going on here to believe, and the Lois Lane character trumps them all. This is a fantasy of a fantasy movie.

I get your point, and I think that there is a viable movie to make with that kind of premise. It’s just that this one has too many flaws to get to that good stuff. I simply couldn’t overlook them.

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2 Eric Melin December 5, 2011 at 9:41 am

Bosworth is complete milquetoast in this movie, I’ll give you that, and when has Spacey ever been subtle? Ha! I do adore this movie, and I agree its not a perfect film, but the overall perspective and POV that Singer gets across (almost all of what’s good in the film ties back to Superman’s own struggle) is the first Supes movie to really be successful at that. The scene where he’s listening to the planet, hovering high above it is amazing. He turns Superman into kind of a Lois stalker too, better than humans but not immune to their insecurities. The way he plays with those shades of his being is really what makes the film come alive. I know its hard not to be plot-focused, and I agree that the Luthor plot is silly, but its the magnitude of what he’s doing that I understand the need for. It ain’t a perfect film, but it deserves to be recognized for being way more than people usually give it credit for.

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3 Hai December 5, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Totally agree. Thank you for writing down my thoughts for the past few years in this article. Still bummed it’s a one-off. Good article.

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4 Eric Melin December 5, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Hai- It will be interesting to see how Zack Snyder challenges himself to do something different with ‘Man of Steel.’ I’m not rooting for him to fail; I really want it to be great–but if there’s hyper-violence and tons of slo-mo, I’ll be very disappointed!

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5 joroelcapo December 7, 2011 at 8:49 am

First of all sorry for my english
I think that the big mistake here is to try to continue the Cristopher reeves films. Why? because they have success? because i liked when i was a kid? all of the themes of this movie can be treaten in a new superman film. I wasnt a fan of the old movies and i only watch the first of them, for me returns wasnt a easy film to get into. I never understand why in 2006 i have to remember a franchise from the 80s to know where the characters where before the movie started. Without that the movie was good, visually stunning and with a very different pace for this kind of comic book movies. I think that Snyder is a brave director and i like what he do in watchmen so i had hope, also is a new movie so finally we are going to get something different. We have only 1 superman in 30 years in the cinema.!!! for an understimated comic book movie im go to the hulk from ang lee, for me that is a great film, far better than the last one with edward norton and those avengers crap

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6 Derek 8-Track June 16, 2013 at 10:14 pm

I’ve always loved this movie, but this has never occurred to me until this weekend (check the significance of the comment date), I really love how Superman isn’t a murderer in this movie. I now think that’s the best part. In this movie his “S” truly does stand for Hope.

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7 Eric Melin June 17, 2013 at 8:05 am

I echo your disappointment in ‘Man of Steel.’ There’s more to having a conscience than merely saying you have one…

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