Superman Returns opened in 2006 and was directed by the very talented Bryan Singer who has brought us films as diverse as X-Men and Valkyrie. It stars the then unknown Brandon Routh as Clark Kent / Superman, Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, Frank Langella as Perry White and Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen.
The story is that Superman left Earth five years earlier after the remnants of his home planet, Krypton, are detected by scientists so he sets off to see what is left. He returns to Earth with a bang while Lex Luthor has wormed his way into the affections of a rich lady who we see die at the start of the film having signed over her entire fortune to Luthor. The rest of the film sees Clark Kent / Superman trying to reintegrate into society while Luther plans to make himself very rich and powerful with his biggest scheme to date.
The first thing that must be stated is that this film is widely considered to have bombed. It took $391m worldwide but it had a reported $270m production budget so it lost the Studio money and was generally not well received by audiences. This is why the franchise was rebooted from scratch with Man of Steel. I accept these facts but I don’t care. This is the best Superman film of them all. It maintains the best features of the original Christopher Reeve outings and brings the franchise up to date with a more modern sensibility.
Superman Returns is a clear homage to the 1970’s / 80’s Richard Donner classics. The film opens with the most emotive music from the previous incarnation and then leads into the classic title music from the John Williams score with matching opening credits. At this point I’m fully on board and emotionally invested and I haven’t seen any action yet. Bryan Singer clearly loves the character of Superman and this is the films biggest strength – it is full of passion and soul.
It is the lack of passion and soul that I think led me to hate the Man of Steel so much. That’s right haters, I detest the Man of Steel. It’s the worst film I have ever seen and the only film I have ever walked out on before the end. I don’t care if it took the best part of $700m, Transformers: Age of Exstinksion has taken over $1bn. The lack of compassion that Superman shows in Man of Steel beggars belief as tens of thousands die around him as one building after another are demolished. That is not Superman. Even Batman would have balked at going this far to get The Joker. Don’t even get me started about the Dungeons and Dragons opening – flying dragons, REALLY!!!
I really enjoyed the central performance of Brandon Routh who was unjustly criticised as he did an excellent job of picking up the Reeve mannerisms while bringing something of himself to the role. He clearly expressed the emotions of the character throughout the film and showed real pain and distress towards the end in his final encounter with Luthor. He goes on a journey through the film, at the beginning having to adjust to the new Earth that he left behind and then having to deal with new revelations about the love of his life Lois Lane.
His character has to come to terms with being Superman again and realise that on some level he will always be an outsider before reaching some kind of acceptance of his fate as the end credits start to roll. There are clear parallels to be drawn with Peter Parker / Spider-Man who in the excellent Sam Raimi trilogy fought the same demons and just about won.
I really enjoyed the slightly muted, sepia tones that Singer brought to the film. They lent a certain period character to the film enforced with the grand architecture of The Daily Planet building, the waistcoat worn by Perry White and the bow tie worn by Jimmy Olsen. I checked and found some old cartoon images on the Internet that show White in the waistcoat and Olsen with a bow tie. The attention to detail is excellent.
Kate Bosworth is superb as Lois Lane who is given her own story arc by the writers. At the start of the film she is presented as the confident Pullitzer price winning journalist who has moved on from Kent / Superman and has a settled young family. The return of Superman then throws those certainties into the air as she grapples with old emotions and new revelations about her family. She and the Earth clearly need Superman and what he stands for more than they realise as demonstrated by the crowds who gather towards the end.
I’m not going to claim that this is a perfect film, it’s not Star Wars after all. I didn’t think that Kevin Spacey was the perfect choice to play Lex Luthor. The end drags a little and the story line about Lois’s son is a little difficult to take although it did open up exciting possibilities for future sequels but sadly we will never know.
Overall this is top class film making with excellent performances and an emotionally satisfactory core. This is not a film for those who crave constant action despite a stunning set piece involving a crashing plane. It’s all about the narrative and the characters and as such needs to be thought of as not just a comic book film. The final shot is reminiscent of the first film as Superman flies above the Earth towards the Sun and is cinematic perfection.