For almost 80 years, Superman has been a household name across the world with people of all ages, genders and ethnicities. An alien with god-like powers, Superman is defined by his morals, ethics and ideals which resonate deeply with every human being — from Jerry Seinfeld to Shaquille O'Neal. While Superman is ingrained in the international lexicon, his big screen adaptations haven't been quite as beloved.
After the success of Superman and it’s first sequel in the late 1970s, Christopher Reeve became synonymous with the Man of Steel. Unfortunately, even with superstar comedian Richard Pryor’s help, Superman III couldn’t sustain the momentum, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace quickly became one of the most maligned sequels ever. With that the series went on hiatus until 2006’s Superman Returns, bringing the Last Son of Krypton back to the big screen after 19 years. Unfortunately, the movie didn’t prove worth the wait and left fans wanting more.
With the highly anticipated release of Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice mere weeks away, we look back at where director Brian Singer went wrong with How Superman Returns Screwed Up the Man of Steel.
One of the most important things about Superman’s story is the city he calls home, Metropolis. The iconic fictional location is based on (a somewhat idealized) New York City, and Superman Returns does it’s best to establish these similarities, mostly successfully. The issue Metropolis has in the film is that the city doesn’t seem to particularly care for Superman. Sure, they need him to stop Lex Luthor’s insane scheme, but they certainly don’t seem exceedingly thankful for his actions. The Man of Steel has returned after a five year absence, and yet when the story is established it doesn’t seem like he’s been missed at all. If anything, Superman’s return brings misfortune upon a city that seems fine without him.
If it wasn’t for a few newspaper articles and the standing ovation that Superman is seen receiving after saving an airplane, it would seem that the population couldn’t care less about his presence. Perhaps Singer was working with the New York stereotype of hostile, workaholic citizens always in a hurry, but who could ever be in too much of a hurry to care about the Man of Steel?
It takes thirty long minutes for Superman Returns to unleash its first big action scene. In a movie that’s supposed to be a continuation of a series, taking this long to get into an exciting sequence is unacceptable. The film’s action scenes occur far too sparingly, and when at last they do, they seem more like a chore than the exhilarating moment they should be. Another issue: Superman doesn’t punch anyone or anything in the movie. Not once, even when he is being beaten by Lex Luthor's goons. No, Superman is relegated to lifting heavy objects, though we will concede that the objects do get heavier as the movie progresses. The film's climax, where her's seen lifting a huge land mass partially composed of kryptonite, was particularly impressive, even for Supes.
Credit has to be given for the spectacular plane sequence, which still holds up today, ten years later. Unfortunately, this is the only “super” moment throughout the picture. Though with the release of Batman Begins a year prior setting a new precedent for action in superhero films, audiences were underwhelmed with what they got in attending Superman Returns. Zack Snyder’s brutal Man of Steel received plenty of criticism itself, with some outright saying that the level of violence and destruction was just too much. Perhaps Batman v Superman can find a happy medium between the two.
Superman Returns was essentially Superman 2.5 from the Christopher Reeve movies, loosely following the continuity developed in the first two films while ignoring the existence of Superman III and IV. The film vaguely references the original movies to show a connection while masquerading as its own film. To fit the theme, star Brandon Routh actually beat out current Superman Henry Cavill for the role supposedly due to his closer physical resemblance to Reeve.
From the opening credits, it was apparent that Bryan Singer’s affection for the films he watched as a child were going to heavily influence Superman Returns. The homage didn't stop at the credits, as seemingly every scene is laced with the same feel of Reeve's previous adventures. There was even recycled dialogue and plot elements. The admiration Singer showed for these films clearly stifled his ability to create a vibrant, new, and unique Superman film. It likely would have been a far better film if he did a straight reboot, cutting ties from the previous entries. Singer actually echoed this sentiment following the release of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel:
I don’t know what would have helped. Probably nothing. If I could go again, I would do an origin. I would reboot it.
As the movie pays homage to products of a different time, the tone of the film suffers. While the enthralling character drama of the original movies entertained audiences, Superman Returns’ take on this formula comes across as glum and lacklustre. The main issue is that the actors in the film just aren’t as charismatic or skilled as the originals, and with that it becomes tedious for audiences to watch their interactions. Singer should have realised that more sequels to that franchise were a bad idea, especially given the terrible reception of III and IV.
Some of the plot holes in Superman Returns would be more accurately described as plot black holes, enveloping everything around them until there is nothing else left. A wall of text at the film’s beginning explains that Superman has been away from Earth for five years, visiting his home planet of Krypton. Not only is his absence glossed over and left unexplained, the audience is meant to believe that a room full of reporters don’t find it strange that both Clark Kent and Superman return at the exact same time. Those iconic glasses can't hide that much; talk about suspension of disbelief!
The connection to the previous Superman movies caused problems for the plot too, leaving audiences with more questions than answers. How exactly did Lois’ child get super powers if at his conception Superman was “exactly like humans” during Superman II? Superman wiped her memory in the final moments of that film, so how would she even know that she slept with, let alone had a child with, Superman?
Real estate mogul Lex Luthor’s plan makes no sense either, as he uses kryptonite to raise up a new continent in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, flooding most of the populated world. Then he’ll own all the real estate and conquer the world. You know what they say, location, location! Let’s forget that the jagged landscape he creates couldn’t sustain a pack of wild animals, and wouldn’t be habitable for years. What does he do once he goes through with his plan? It’s doubtful his handful of henchmen can withstand the world’s armed forces.
And that's not to mention the fact that Superman, on the brink of death, is able to lift a kryptonite-based continent into outer space. Guess we'll just chalk that one up to willpower.
Kevin Spacey’s version of Lex Luthor is essentially an over-the-top impersonation of Gene Hackman, though the former is much more sadistic. Some people seem to enjoy Spacey’s more twisted, dark demeanour as the iconic Lex, though many have taken issue with his interpretation of the character. The issue is that in a film that is overly dour and bland, Lex is played almost comedically. If Superman Returns had a lighter tone, his performance probably wouldn’t stick out so much. But alas, it didn't, and it does.
A much repeated sentiment when critiquing this film, comparisons to the original characters hampered the success of the new ones. Instead of creating a different take on the classic villain, Spacey was forced into doing his version of Hackman's performance. The two-time Academy Award winner is undoubtedly a great actor, but the sneering malevolence of his and Singer’s creation doesn’t come across favourably in the movie.
And, as we've already mentioned, his plot to take over the world was...lacking. It's hard to take Lex seriously as a criminal mastermind when his plan for world domination is so asinine.
We've covered Singer’s slave-ish adherence to the tone and feel of the original films. In these, Reeve plays the the quiet, conscientious, and affable Clark to perfection. Unfortunately, Routh’s take on the character, much like the rest of the movie, was a dreary shell of former greatness. Looking more like a fresh-faced college graduate than a veteran reporter, Clark is reduced to a monosyllabic presence in his own movie. While Routh was serviceable in the role, his wooden on-screen presence and the film’s close relation to the originals constantly remind viewers that the part has been better played in the past.
Ultimately, the golden age characterisation of Clark Kent was something that modern audiences had perhaps outgrown. In the almost twenty years since the original films, there had been a vast array of stories which had taken chances and produced refreshing takes on the classic "boy scout" Superman. Perhaps Superman Returns would have been more successful if they had taken a chance on a new interpretation of the classic material. Once again, it seems clear that Singer’s loyalty and love for the original franchise is to blame for a lacking aspect of the film. Routh may have payed the greatest price of all for this particular misstep, because as much as we've enjoyed him as Ray Palmer/Atom on Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, his first run as a superhero was very nearly a career killer for the promising young actor.
Lois Lane is one of the strongest, most well developed fictional women of all time, one who was portrayed perfectly by Margot Kidder in the first two films. Then-23 year old Kate Bosworth doesn’t hold up a flame to her predecessor, and her interpretation of the character never captures the independent, veteran career woman feel that makes Lois so universally loved.
There's a scene in the original Superman where Clark and Lois are pulled into an alley and confronted by a robber. Lois proceeds to kick the gun out of the robber’s hand, nearly getting shot in the process — but Clark catches the bullet. This is an awesome scene, which sums up Lois’ characterization in a matter of seconds. In Singer’s film, the story meanders around her throughout, and she is reduced to little more than a damsel-in-distress. The choice to make her a mother backfired, as she didn’t come across as a particularly good one. Plus, her son was critically panned as being just about the worst thing about the movie (she can only really take 50 percent of the blame on that one, though).
Brandon Routh may have been cast because he looked like Christopher Reeve, but at times he shares a closer resemblance to an action figure. His Superman is uncharismatic and dreary, and while it’s not entirely his doing, it’s disconcerting how little he actually speaks. The filmmakers must have sacrificed scenes with dialogue to maximize the scenes in which Superman looks pained and feels sorry for himself. He even chooses to glumly fly around the city instead of helping the citizens of Metropolis.
The issue is that Superman is having such a tough time emotionally, that his morality strays while he works through his issues. Does using his powers to spy on an engaged couple seem like something Superman would do? Or how about when he takes Lois, an engaged woman, on a secret romantic flight around the skies. Superman has oft been criticized for being too clean cut and boring, but no one expected (or wanted) him to act like this.
With the film’s close relationship to the classic Superman movies, it’s hard not to remember the great chemistry between stars Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, which is why it's so infuriating to see Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth’s attempts to recreate the magic of their predecessor's. After Superman/Clark’s five year absence, Lois doesn’t seem to even care too much that he's returned, and there’s certainly no inkling of romantic feelings. Their relationship involves awkward smalltalk and looking at each other yearningly, though the script never justifies why they would be doing so. As the story progresses, it's nearly impossible to care about their relationship.
Their awkwardly forced relationship is bookended by scenes of Superman longingly gazing at Lois from afar, usually while she’s at home with her fiancé and child. Supposedly existing to show how much he missed and cared for Lois, these scenes tend to portray the Man of Steel as more of a creepy stalker.
Widely regarded as the worst element of the film is the son of Lois and Superman, Jason, played by Tristan Lake Leabu. Leabu’s screen presence consists of vacantly staring at people like a child of the corn. The audience knows who his father is, and Lois knows, but he calls Richard (James Marsden) his father. Tricking a man into raising a child that isn't his own aside — somewhere in the world, Kanye West was left shaking his head at that one — the real issue is how inconsequential he was to the story. Jason does kill a guy with piano at one point(which isn't very Superman-ly, by the way), but otherwise, he just stares dough-eyed at the other characters, looking like someone’s bratty little cousin had somehow wandered on set.
Similarly to the trend of sitcoms of the '80s and '90s, the cute child feels like he was brought into the movie to attempt to freshen things up. It’s just a shame that they didn’t actually fully commit to this, which seems to be a recurring theme in the production. It might have been enjoyable and fun to have a sassy little offspring of Lois and the Man of Steel, and make him part of the plot. But, here he is a useless, glum and distracting element to an already lackluster movie.
What were your thoughts on Superman Returns? Is there anything else that they screwed up that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments below!