Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Brandon Routh, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth
What a difference a decade can make. Since shortly after its release in 2006, Superman Returns has seemed like a strange hybrid of success and failure. Overall, it was critically well-received with a 72 Metacritic score that puts it well ahead of Man of Steel's 52 score and Batman v. Superman: The Dawn of Justice's 44, and it managed to take in $200 million at the domestic box office (albeit on a production budget of $270 million). Yet it is less than fondly remembered, having left little to no cultural mark, and plans for a sequel petered out fairly quickly, with Warner Bros. deciding in 2008 to simply reboot the character rather than try to carry on the series that had started in 1978, with the late Christopher Reeve in the title role. It's interesting to think how this film, which does the exact opposite of so many of the things that the DC comic book movies have been criticized for doing in the past few years, might have been received were it released in 2016 instead of 2006. Its an effort that would still pale in comparison to the complex work that the Marvel films have been consistently doing, but I wonder if the gap between Marvel and DC would seem less pronounced if this had been the film to set the shared universe's tone, rather than Man of Steel. Superman Returns is merely an okay movie, but it's a fascinating "what if?"
Superman Returns opens with Superman (Brandon Routh) returning to Earth after a five year absence, during which he has journeyed through space searching for the remains of his home planet, Krypton. Upon his return, he learns that the world, and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), in particular, has moved on from Superman, though at least one person remains obsessed with the man of steel: Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), who has been released from prison, married an elderly heiress to gain her fortune, and has used his new fortune to make an expedition to the Fortress of Solitude, where he discovers the Kryptonian technology that Superman left behind. While Superman/Clark Kent struggles with the knowledge that Lois is engaged and raising a son with her fiancee, Lex is planning to unleash a plot which will result in the creation of a new continent that he will be entirely in control of, the emergence of which will have the side result of sinking North America unless Superman can stop him.
The Good: "Despite its acute awareness of what’s come before, “Superman Returns” is never self-consciously hip, ironic, post-modern or camp. To the contrary, it’s quite sincere, with an artistic elegance and a genuine emotional investment in the material that creates renewed engagement in these long-familiar characters and a well-earned payoff after 2½ hours spent with them." - Todd McCarthy, Variety
The Bad: "From the start, Superman Returns has a pall that it never shakes off: Even the superheroics seem like stopgap measures in a world slipping grimly into the abyss." - David Edelstein, New York Magazine
From the perspective of 2016, the most interesting thing about Superman Returns is how it fits in to the current conversation about what superhero movies should be, what issues they should address, and what sort of fan service they should perform. Consider some of the most frequent criticisms of the DC movies since Zack Snyder was handed the reigns in creating a shared universe: the mass destruction of property and number of bystander deaths is antithetical to what a superhero (particularly one as wholesome as Superman) is supposed to represent; superheros are supposed to be above murdering people, even the villains; the desaturated color scheme only serves to underscore how grim the overall projects are. Now consider what Superman Returns does: far from destroying Metropolis in the process of saving it, Superman actually goes out of his way to prevent Metropolis from being destroyed and bystanders from being hurt, detouring away from the big disaster that's happening in order to prevent a bunch of smaller disasters from happening (including putting out a bunch of fires that start as a result of a gas leak and preventing the icon atop the Daily Planet building from falling to the street and crushing everyone standing there) and then going back to the big event; though some of Lex's henchmen die, Superman's role in their deaths is more incidental than anything and he does not directly kill anyone, even Lex, who gets to escape into a buffoon's ending (though, I suppose it should be noted that Lois' dead-eyed kid does kill a henchman with a piano); and it's full of vibrant color. Moreover, while Roger Ebert described Superman Returns as "glum," it seems positively sprightly in comparison to Snyder's heavy vision.
In terms of other things going on in film now, Superman Returns is also interesting for its reliance on nostalgia. Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and Creed, which all found success by actively reaching back into the past and recreating the beats which started their respective franchises to such great success, Superman Returns is all about reminding fans of Superman and Superman II (not so much Superman III or Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). It opens in a way that is actively trying to recapture the magic of the first time audience were invited to "believe a man can fly," luxuriating in John Williams' classic score and recreating the original film's swooping through space opening credits, reusing footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El, and if Brandon Routh was cast for anything other than his resemblance to Christopher Reeve, I have no idea what it might be because he is otherwise completely ill-suited to the role, which is part of the reason why Superman Returns' appeal to nostalgia ultimately backfires. Even when you put aside the fact that when he's depicted in action scenes the CGI around him is so overpowering that it gives him a waxy, uncanny valley look, Routh is no Reeve, either in acting ability or in innate charisma. Meanwhile Bosworth is a poor substitute for Margot Kidder and Spacey plays Lex with a lot more malice than Gene Hackman did which ends up being at odds with the campy ending the film provides to the character.
Watching Superman Returns in 2006, nothing about it struck me so much as the fact that it really isn't a film that can be (or even seems to want to be) considered solely on its own terms and its own merits. It actively courts comparison to the Superman films that preceded it, and time has rendered it a strange counterpoint to the Superman films that have followed. It doesn't really offer anything that can be considered its own, which is perhaps why it was so easily abandoned after the moment of its release. Take away the moments and images from this film that are specifically designed as homage to the first two films and to iconic moments from the comics, and what you're left with is a film that is way too long, anchored by two actors who just aren't right for the roles, and which struggles in its effort to maintain a consistent tone. Yet, at the same time, it succeeds where Snyder's version of Superman is often said to have failed, depicting the hero as a being of uncomplicated decency whose alien nature makes him not only physically advanced from humans, but purer of heart, too. When you consider the other things, noted above, that Superman Returns manages to do that Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman didn't or couldn't, I'm left thinking that Returns had the right ideas but the wrong execution. In other words, it's a film that knows the words but not the music, and as a result is left being little more than a curious footnote in the history of Superman on film. And given that there is an alternate universe in which Nicolas Cage starred in a Tim Burton directed Superman movie, it's not even the most curious footnote in the history of Superman on film.