Happy birthday, America! Jake Farley is here with a deep dive into everyone’s favorite patriotic immigrant with Superman Returns, and while the film gets a lot right about Superman, it also does an awful lot wrong.
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Welcome to my review of Bryan Singer’s modest 2006 hit Superman vs. The Friend Zone, or, as it was billed in theaters Superman Returns. Bryan Singer, as you may know, is one of the pioneer directors of our current worldwide box office obsession with superheroes, having given the genre a shot of pseudo-respectability with the one-two punch of the original X-Men in 2000, and its hit sequel X2 three years later. While he was making X2, Singer came up with an idea for a Superman movie. Really, a Superman sequel, because this movie is a direct continuation of Richard Donner’s 1980 Superman II. You see, Singer isn’t really much of a comic book guy, but he looooooves the original Richard Donner Superman movies. He loves them so much, in fact, that he dropped out of directing the third X-Men movie in order to jump on the opportunity to make this Superman movie, which means Bryan Singer is responsible both for this boring mess, and for the brutal slog that X3 became in the wake of his sudden absence. (I recently re-reviewed X3 for this very blog, in fact, and calling it a “brutal slog” is something of a kind description for Brett Ratner’s cinematic version of a Hot Pocket stomach ache.)

Now, before we get too much farther, I’d like to mention something—I like Superman. A lot of people don’t! A lot of people will tell you that he’s too powerful, that he’s boring, that he’s kind of a dork. They’ll say these things as though they are self-evidently bad, as opposed to simply character traits that can be used in service of either an interesting story or a bad story, depending on the talents of the writers involved. It’s very true that, in a physical contest, there’s little tension as to whether Superman will win or not—of course he will. He’s Superman. That’s why the best Superman stories confront him with challenges that cannot be defeated physically, challenges that tax Superman’s emotional might, or his intellectual might. Does this take a little more imagination and thought than just having Superman punch something? Yes of course, but it also means that stories involving Superman could be about ANYTHING, and thus have a limitless capacity to amaze. For instance, there is a Superman comic where Superman’s head is replaced with that of a lion. He retains his normal personality and powers and capacity for speech, but the lion-head thing is the kind of problem he can’t just punch away. How will Superman stop having a lion’s head? Better pick up the issue to find out! That’s good Superman storytelling right there.

(Tragically, Superman retains Brandon Routh’s deeply uncharismatic head throughout pretty much the entirety of the film Superman Returns.)

Beyond all that, though, the reason Superman endures for us is that he is genuinely good. He is a being infused with power beyond the imagination of any mortal, yet he consistently chooses to use that power in service of others. Superman knows in his heart the lesson that Spider-Man’s uncle had to die to impart to Spider-Man—with great power comes great responsibility. The best versions of Superman exemplify that philosophy on a vast scale, and it’s easy to see why the recent cinematic versions of Superman have cast him as a sort of secular super-Jesus. (It’s also a lazy and irksome choice to draw such a direct parallel, in my opinion, but Bryan Singer and Zack Snyder are not exactly renowned for their subtlety and nuance as storytellers.) Superman is a powerfully totemic figure that inspires us to do the right thing even when it’s hard.

Anyway, that’s the thing about Superman—he’ll always make the right choice, and he’s always respectful. That, not coincidentally, is also where this movie completely falls on its face when it depicts Superman as an angsty spurned lover who uses his X-Ray vision and super-hearing to spy on his ex-girlfriend’s new relationship and pout about it. It is for this very reason that I first left the theater in 2006 feeling, shall we say, deflated. It’s depressing to watch Superman act so petty. This movie does an awful lot right about Superman, but it also does an awful lot wrong, and the first misstep is that it’s a 25-years-late sequel to a movie that was just OK to begin with.

So, uh, yeah, let’s get into Superman Returns.

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First off, this movie is too long. I’m not even sure why it’s so long. In my memory, Superman Returns is a crispy 90 minutes, but in reality, it’s a fairly punishing two-and-a-half hours. It certainly doesn’t have 2+ hours-worth of plot. I think most of the rest of the time is taken up with slo-mo shots of Superman with his arms spread as though he were on the cross.

It opens in space, where we see what would seem to be a flashback to the planet Krypton just before its destruction. Oh, in case you have never before been exposed to Superman, here’s his origin—Superman comes from a planet called Krypton, which blew up. Before it exploded, Superman’s scientist dad put Superman in a rocket and shot him off into space, where he eventually landed in a farmer’s backyard in Kansas. The radiation from our yellow sun supercharged the boy’s cells and granted him mighty powers, which he combined with the moral values imparted by his modest small-town upbringing to defend his adopted homeworld. Ok? Great.

So the credits to this flick are in the same style as the original Donner movies, and the theme song is the original John Williams theme as well (which, to be fair, is one of the all-time great movie themes, so that’s ok I guess). Indeed, this is a theme recurrent throughout the rest of the film—if you haven’t seen the original Superman movies, you may as well piss off, because they’re not going to bother explaining anything.

Anyway, the credits end and Superman crash lands back in his parent’s cornfield again, except this time it turns out he’s a grown-ass man who just ruined his mom’s crops because he was tired (I guess?). It turns out Supes has been gone for five long years after scientists discovered the remains of his home planet of Krypton. (How did they know it was Krypton and not just some other blown-up planet? Eh, don’t worry about it.) He went to go check it out, but that turns out to have been totally pointless because it is, as he puts it, “a graveyard.” So, just to recap, it appears that Superman left Earth, flew directly to Krypton on a 2.5-year journey, got there, looked around, thought “yep, it blew up alright,” and then turned right around and made the 2.5-year journey back to Earth.

Time well spent.

In the meantime, of course, Lex Luthor has been released from prison because Superman wasn’t around to testify at Luthor’s trial. (Why was he in prison? Bryan Singer assumes that you’ve seen 1980’s Superman II quite recently is the answer to that question.) So Luthor (now played by an entertainingly energetic Kevin Spacey) bilks a dying old woman out of her fortune and funds his own expedition to the North Pole, where Superman keeps his secret crystal fortress with his dad-computer in it. (How does Luthor know about this place? For that matter, who the hell is Lex Luthor? Again, the movie assumes that you’re coming into this fresh off of a Superman movie marathon.)

Luthor breaks into Superman’s dad-computer and talks with a CG version of Marlon Brando (Superman’s dad from the original film, long-dead at this point both in-universe and out), who teaches Luthor how to use the crystal-based Wikipedia which constitutes Superman’s dad-computer.

Now, in these movies, Lex Luthor is portrayed as an amoral real estate developer, as opposed to the mad scientist/politician/man of industry he is typically portrayed as in the comics. His plots generally involve some kind of land-grab, and this is no different. Here, he learns that the crystals which make up Superman’s super-wikipedia can (for an unknown reason) be used to basically grow immense geodes. Luthor’s first experiment with this technology consists of dropping a tiny flake of the crystal into a small pool of water, where it eventually grows quite large. In the process of doing so, its growth somehow disrupts electromagnetic signatures all across the Eastern Seaboard. Hold that thought!

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Meanwhile, Superman has returned to the big city of Metropolis after spending some down time with his mom. His boss Perry White (a tragically underused Frank Langella), the editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet newspaper, charitably gives Superman (in his disguise as boring old Clark Kent) his old job back. Superman is eager to get his swerve on again with his old main squeeze Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth, in a truly thankless role as the worst possible version of Lois Lane), but is distressed to learn that in the five years he’s been gone, she has hooked up with a handsome pilot (James Marsden) and had a kid. That’s what happens when you abandon a relationship for five years, my dude—people get the fuck over your shit. That doesn’t change just because you’ve got heat vision. So Superman is sad.

Incidentally, Kate Bosworth was 22 years old during the filming of this movie and it shows. She looks very very young, and it creates the vague impression that Superman had sex with a 16-year-old (oh, uh, spoilers, but Superman is totally Lois’ kid’s dad). It’s a weird choice. Also, the movie never delves into the mechanics by which Superman and a human woman would have sex but, if you’re interested, may I recommend the classic 1969 essay by sci-fi author Larry Niven titled “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” which speculates at great detail about the grotesque injuries which would surely result from a sexual pairing between a Kryptonian and a human. It’s available to read for free online and is far more entertaining than Superman Returns.

So Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington, doing a basically perfect Jimmy Olsen—he’s a dead-on balance of annoying, earnest, and endearing) takes Clark out for a drink. Lois herself is actually on assignment elsewhere—she is personally covering the test launch of a sort of airplane-assisted space shuttle. Luthor’s experiment is occurring concurrently with this event, and the electromagnetic disruption from his tinkering results in Lois’ airplane and the space shuttle attached to it crashing to the ground. Well, almost. Good thing Superman is here!

So this sequence, where Superman saves the crashing plane, is really quite good. In fact, the very end is basically Peak Superman—after he’s saved the plane and safely landed it in the middle of a baseball game, he goes inside the plane to make sure everyone is ok, then reminds everyone that, statistically, flying is still the safest form of travel. It is amazing. It’s everything I want out of Superman, for him to be the world’s corny dad who always protects you and just wants you to be the best you can be. Of course, we’ve still got about two hours left in this movie, so.

Lois’ response to seeing Superman again for the first time in five years is to faint, in case you were wondering how they were going to portray her character in this film.

Lois subsequently becomes obsessed with discovering the cause of the mysterious blackout, which frustrates her editor to no end. See, Lois is the only reporter in the world who ever landed an exclusive interview with Superman (because he wanted to have sex with her), so Perry wants her to be covering the story of Superman’s return. Lois isn’t all about that, though, because Superman saddled her with a kid and then took off for five years. She’s into the blackout. Oh, incidentally, she also won a Pulitzer for her story titled “WHY THE WORLD DOESN’T NEED SUPERMAN.” We don’t see any of the actual article (title’s a little on-the-nose, though), but I think we can safely assume it has at least something to do with Superman’s lack of commitment. The Pulitzer ceremony is in, like, a day, also. There’s no reason for that to be the case, they never actually go to the ceremony or anything, but it is a plot point that the ceremony has not happened yet. It’s also unclear if she wrote the article really recently or what. I suppose she must have if she’s just winning the Pulitzer now, but five years after he vanished seems like a long time to wait to drop your hot take about how bad Superman sucks.

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Anyway, Lois and Clark and some other nameless workers are pulling a late night at the Daily Planet. Lois goes to the roof for a smoke, when who should appear but Superman! He tries to run some game on her, but she’s basically like step off fool, you don’t get to fuck off to space for five years and then come back and expect everything to be cool. She then returns downstairs where Clark and her fiancé and boss are all eating takeout Chinese and it is at this point that I realize that Superman is totally gaslighting Lois Lane with this Clark Kent bullshit.

So Lois and her fiancé Richard return home, and Superman uses his X-ray vision and super-hearing to eavesdrop on a small argument they have wherein Richard expresses some perfectly valid concern that Superman returning means Lois might still have feelings for him. She assures Richard that Superman is old news, which makes Superman super-sad. Who cares though—stop invading people’s privacy like that, Superman. It makes you seem like a creep. In fact, it just straight-up makes you a creep.

So Lois (who is also the World’s Worst Mom) takes her five-year-old son to investigate a mysterious yacht that she thinks is connected to the blackout. Turns out it’s actually owned by arch-criminal Lex Luthor, who takes the opportunity to capture her and her son. He reveals his plan to her. It’s suitably evil, if not particularly well thought out—he’s going to use the magic Wikipedia crystals to grow a whole new continent, and then sell parcels of land on it. The new continent will occupy the same space that North America currently occupies. Luthor claims this will kill “billions,” but he may just have misread the most recent US census. Luthor also plans to infuse this new continent with Kryptonite, the radioactive mineral that kills Superman, in order to prevent Superman from being able to stop him. Luthor doesn’t seem to know or care that the new continent will thus be radioactive enough to also give everyone else on it cancer. I suppose everything gives you cancer nowadays, though. What a world.

Luthor leaves Lois and her son in the care of an evil henchman and goes off to grow his own continent. This henchman is the kind of henchman who will happily play a “Heart and Soul” piano duet with a five-year-old, but then also happily attempt to beat the five-year-old’s mother to death with a rock when he catches her trying to send a fax. This results in the manifestation of the boy’s superpowers when he throws the piano at the henchman, killing him instantly. Yes, this is a Superman movie where a child murders a man, thank you for watching.

Luthor and company abandon ship and leave Lois behind. Lois’ fiancé Richard flies his handsome self out to rescue her (she successfully faxed their coordinates to the Daily Planet office, in the one competent thing Lois Lane accomplishes in the entire movie), but they wind up trapped in the sinking ship. Superman shows up to save them, and it’s good.

Superman then tracks down Luthor, who points out that the entire island they’re standing on is made of Kryptonite and has his thugs beat the crap out of Superman. It’s sort of distressing that the one big fight scene in this movie is three guys ganging up on our hero. They really mess him up, too. Eventually, Luthor stabs Supes with a shard of Kryptonite and Superman falls into the ocean to die.

Happily, Richard returns with his airplane and they pull Superman out of the water. Lois removes the biggest chunk of Kryptonite from Superman’s back (don’t do this! Removing an impaling object can result in massive blood loss, Lois!) and Superman flies away, heading up into the upper atmosphere to bask in the healing rays of the sun. By the way, if you didn’t already know that Superman derives his powers from the yellow sun of Earth, the movie is not going to clarify that for you.

Then he basically picks up the radioactive new continent and throws it into space. Consider the day saved, courtesy of Superman!

Superman passes out, though, and it’s hella sad. Everyone’s like oh no! While Superman is passed out in the hospital, Lois visits him, whispers into his ear that the kid is actually his, and then gives his recumbent form a kiss, which causes Superman to immediately wake up. (I feel like the only book Superman brought into space with him was The Game.) Superman then visits the kid while he’s asleep and recites the terribly stilted speech his dad-computer gave him way back in the original Superman movie, a bunch of corny bullshit about how the son becomes the father and the father becomes the son and finally—finally—the movie comes to an end.

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Watching it again ten years later, my opinion of Superman Returns remains largely unchanged—it’s a poor effort at a Superman story that doesn’t understand how truly creepy it is for Superman to use his powers in service of his hurt feelings. It’s got some good bits—Jimmy Olsen is good, the scenes of Superman rescuing people are great, and Kevin Spacey is quite entertaining as Luthor. Other than that, it’s too long, it lacks imagination, and Brandon Routh appears distinctly uncomfortable onscreen at all times.Superman Returns is a fair movie. It’s not the worst thing in the world. Its biggest failing is that it was made in a world before comic book movies had taken the same hold, and before it had become clear that you could make a good movie that was still a faithful adaptation of a comic. I look forward to the day when we get a Superman movie that reflects the best of his past—his optimism, his hope for humanity, his goodwill and strength—married with the best of our current comic book cinema—a respect for the original stories, quality special effects, and a real sense of fun. Until that day, I suppose I’ll just keep looking up there in the sky. For now, it’s just a bird, it’s just a plane. But maybe next time…

OTHER THOUGHTS

– On Brandon Routh’s apparent discomfort in the Supersuit—comic book author Grant Morrison talks about how he draws his inspiration for Superman from a cosplayer he once met at a convention. The man, he says, had a perfect Superman look, excellent costume, but what really impressed Morrison about the cosplayer was his attitude. The man was fully relaxed, perfectly comfortable with who and where he was, and projected an aura of total confidence. Morrison realized that this is precisely the quality that a man like Superman would have. He has no fear of pain, or rejection, or failure. He is perfectly comfortable at all times. Brandon Routh, however, is not.

– At one point Lois Lane describes Superman to Richard as being 6’4” and 125 pounds, which seems…kinda light, honestly. We rewound that scene three times, convinced she must actually be saying a larger number, but as far as we can tell, Superman is supposed to have the build of a vegan bicycling enthusiast.

– After Superman gets back to Earth at the beginning, he’s leaning on a fence when his old dog walks up to him with a tennis ball. Superman smiles, takes the ball from his old dog, and, in a total dick move, throws the ball into the stratosphere. The dog looks around sadly, because he misses his ball.

– Luthor’s sidekick is played by Parker Posey, who was pretty much hired to just be Parker Posey.

– One of Luthor’s henchmen is played by Kal Penn. He doesn’t even have any lines, but it’s still distracting to see him pop up back there. This was two years after the first Harold & Kumar movie, so basically the height of his recognizability.

– My partner Jillian coincidentally managed to be either in the kitchen or looking away from the screen during both sequences where a dog’s death is played for laughs, which was good. She would have been much less charitable to the movie had she seen one Pomeranian feasting on the bones of another.

– Luthor’s comeuppance is that his helicopter ran out of gas and he’s stranded on a tiny island with nothing but Parker Posey and her cannibal Pomeranian. Luthor proposes eating the dog. That’s it.

– You know how airlines always tell you to make sure you’re safely secured in your seat before attempting to assist others? Yeah, Lois totally disregards that during the plane-rescue sequence and as a result, absolutely gets her ass kicked up and down the avenue by gravity. I’m genuinely shocked she’s not dead. Between that scene, the scene on the boat at the end where a steel pressure door falls directly on her head and just knocks her out for a second rather than crushing her skull like an eggshell, and the fact that she survived sex with Superman, Lois Lane may actually be a secret Kryptonian.

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