Released on June 28, 2006, Superman Returns was the first Superman film to hit the big screen since Superman IV: The Quest For Peace back in 1987. It starred Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman, Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, Eva Marie Saint as Martha Kent, Frank Langella as Perry White, James Marsden as Richard White, Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen, Parker Posey as Kitty Kowalski, and Marlin Brando as Jor-El (courtesy of restored archive images).
The Man of Steel has been missing for five years. After hearing news that his home planet Krypton may have somehow survived its destruction, Superman vanishes from the public eye. When he returns to Earth, he faces a world that has moved on without him, including the heart-breaking realization that Lois Lane has moved on with her life. In the five years since he disappeared, Lois gave birth to a son, is engaged to Perry White’s nephew, and has won a Pulitzer for an article called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”
Superman faces the struggle of finding his place in a society that has learned to survive without him, and at the same time tries to make things right between him and Lois. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor hatches a plan that will destroy millions of lives and put the world’s nations at his mercy with a little help of an object from Superman’s home… and hopes to destroy the Man of Steel once and for all.
Director Bryan Singer, known at the time for X-Men, X2: X-Men United, and The Usual Suspects, was quoted to have been highly influenced by Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman, starring Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. During a publicity tour for X2, Singer pitched the idea for a Superman film to Donner, whose wife Lauren was a producer of the first two X-Men films. Singer told Donner if he ever had the opportunity to make a Superman movie, he would not remake Donner’s film, but rather “place it in a kind of ‘vague history’ and begin from there.” Singer viewed the 1978 movie as a classic, believing that most moviegoers would be familiar with that origin story and that he didn’t need to re-tell Superman’s origins.
Donner approved of the story and Singer eventually pitched the idea to Warner Bros. The studio liked the idea and signed Singer to helm their Superman property, which had been in development hell dating back to the failed Tim Burton/Nicholas Cage movie. Singer’s first move was bringing along X2 writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris to write the script. The new film, under the code name “Red Sun,” was intended to be a modern day “loose sequel” to the first two Reeve films, ignoring the events of Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. It would also act as a reboot to re-launch the franchise for a new generation.
Initially, Superman Returns was labeled as a success. It topped the Box Office its opening weekend, earning $52.5 million domestically and $84.2 million globally over five days, which was a record for Warner Bros. at the time. It went on to gross $200 million in North America and approximately $391 million worldwide, ranking as the sixth highest grossing film of 2006.
The critics’ consensus was mostly positive, but Superman fans and movie-goers were divided. Many embraced the film as the best since Richard Donner’s Superman, while others criticized the film’s plot, castings, and “lack of action.”
Despite the mixed audience reaction, a sequel was still planned on being released in the summer of 2009. In response to the lack of action criticism, Singer promised that the next movie, tentatively titled Superman: The Man of Steel, would have more action and make for an explosive sequel.
That plan changed after the release of The Dark Knight in 2008. Director Christopher Nolan’s second entry of his Batman film series exploded at the box office for $158 million on its opening weekend. Despite initially being labeled as a success by the studio, including several positive critical reviews from the press, Warner Bros. decided to toss Superman Returns into the trash, describing Returns as a disappointing Box Office return (the film made about $391 Million, $17 Million more than Batman Begins made the year before). With this claim, Warner Bros. Pictures decided in August of 2008 to reboot the franchise, abandoning Bryan Singer’s continuation of the Christopher Reeve films in favor of a grittier and darker Man of Steel. Under the producing eye of Christopher Nolan and director Zack Snyder, Warner Bros. tabbed them to present the character in a modern context, making him more relatable in a darker, more realistic world depicted in the Dark Knight trilogy.
In recent years, many more viewers who originally liked the film changed their tone, bashing the film to be as bad as Ang Lee’s Hulk.
But is it really that bad of a film?
My Opinion of Superman Returns:
Excluding the original 1978 film, this is my favorite Superman film. Even after the release of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (both of which I enjoyed), my opinion and stance on Superman Returns has not changed in 10 years.
I remember the anticipation I felt in the months leading up to the film’s release that summer. Superman has always been my favorite superhero for as long as I remember. As a little kid, I used to watch re-runs of the 50’s Adventures of Superman TV series starring George Reeves, which led me to becoming a Superman fan. Even after all these years, I remain a fan of the Man of Steel, even with people jumping on Marvel Cinematic Universe train as the end-all-be-all choice for favorite superheroes in recent years.
I saw Returns a day after it came out with a group of friends. I remember the excited feeling in my chest as I went to sit in the back row; I couldn’t wait to see Superman on the big screen for the first time in my life. I’d seen all the Christopher Reeve films and was bummed I never had the opportunity to see a movie on the big screen. When Returns ended, I remember feeling like I had been blown away and that it went above and beyond my expectations. I thought it was on par with the original film, with a beautiful score by composer John Ottman that was a perfect homage to John Williams’s original score.
I fell in love with the film, purchasing the soundtrack and just about every book on the film from visual guides, to the shooting script, and even the novelization. I saw it more than once, including on the IMAX screen, which I felt was one of the best films I’d ever seen on the IMAX. I couldn’t wait to see a sequel. I wanted to know what was going to happen next, and waited in anticipation for what would come next when 2009 rolled around.
In August 2008, Warner Bros. announced they were moving forward with a Superman reboot and talked poorly about Returns for their reasoning. I was quite upset at the time; Warner Bros. was jumping ship from something they declared as a success all because the latest Batman film was earning so much praise. I remember thinking, “You’re telling me you’re going to judge a film’s performance TWO YEARS after it was labeled a success and you mentioned a sequel? What about Superman? What about Jason? Would Lois and Superman ever get back together?”
The sequel would have answered all these questions, but Warner Bros. decided those questions weren’t worth answering and threw the film (and Singer) under the bus.
But let’s try and answer the question posed earlier: was it really as bad as people claim it to be?
The film goes out of its way to establish right away that it follows in line with the Christopher Reeve films, particularly in the main titles with the “Woosh” style introduction, recapturing the magic of the 1978 film and the iconic John Williams theme. Sitting in the theater, I personally felt I was watching a loyal continuation to the original. Singer even kept the final sequence, featuring Superman flying high above the Earth and breaking the fourth wall to smile at the camera and then fly off the screen, leading into the end credits. If I wasn’t convinced that Singer was the right guy for the job, Returns basically sealed the deal for me.
I felt, and still believe, that Brandon Routh was fantastic in the role of Superman/Clark Kent. When I first heard of him, I wasn’t convinced just based on his looks. However, when I saw the film, I was sold in the first scene when he portrayed the shy, mild mannered Clark Kent. It was eerie, almost as if I were watching the ghost of Christopher Reeve on the big screen. Now, I acknowledge that Routh is no Christopher Reeve (In fact, Reeve is my all time favorite Superman), but I thought he did a wonderful tribute to the late actor. Even before her death, Dana Reeve was quoted saying that Routh “looked so much like” her late husband.
Routh’s performance was praised when the film was released, but in the years since he’s been criticized as not doing enough to stand out and make the character his own, resulting in the consensus that it was just a poor casting choice.
Let’s take a moment and consider this: Superman Returns is a semi-sequel to the Reeve movies, which means Superman/Clark Kent is going to be close to Reeve’s portrayal as possible. To say that Routh didn’t do anything to stand out is absurd; he nailed Reeve’s mannerisms, from Clark Kent’s persona to Superman’s, but he gave Superman a more human take on the character. Sure, Routh isn’t yelling like a gladiator like Henry Cavill did in Man of Steel, but he put on a wonderful performance that made it feel like it was the same character as what Reeve established. And, if you’re still not convinced, Zack Snyder considered Routh to reprise the role in his reboot, which he wouldn’t have done if he didn’t appreciate Routh’s performance.
Kate Bosworth’s casting as Lois Lane was initially mixed upon release, but has since been mostly negative. Film critics and audiences thought that Bosworth was a terrible casting choice for Lois, with a main focus of criticism of the fact that she was just too young (she was 22 at the time of filming).
Personally, I didn’t mind Bosworth’s performance. I don’t believe she was as horrible as everyone claims. In fact, her casting as Lois is one of the best performances that she’s ever done. That might not be saying much considering how Bosworth’s career has gone, but I believed she was Lois. It didn’t even cross my mind that Bosworth was 22 when watching the movie; I felt she brought maturity to the role in spite of her age. Her character also has a child, which showed a more mature, parental side of Lois, but she still had her signature M.O. for sticking her nose where she shouldn’t.
There was one comparison in a review that Lois was this film’s Lana Lang, the more drama angst character that Kristin Kreuk portrayed in Smallville. I strongly disagree with that assessment; I found Lois much more tolerable than Lana, and I honestly preferred Bosworth’s portrayal compared to Margot Kidder and Amy Adams. Bosworth doesn’t get as much appreciation to the role as she should, but one has to be open to the fact not every Lois portrayal will be that of Noel Neill, Teri Hatcher or Erica Durance.
And then there’s Kevin Spacey, who I thought was absolutely brilliant as Lex Luthor. He picks up the torch that was held by Gene Hackman in the original movies and brings the same charm, exaggerated vanity, and arrogance. While he channels the characteristics of Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Spacey said he never intended to channel that performance, but to honor the character. His portrayal of Lex still had the comedic flair, but it was less campy and more serious than the prior film incarnations. Spacey made the character darker and more bitter, which one would expect after being constantly thwarted by Superman.
Film critics praised this version of Lex, but audience members have expressed a dislike for his portrayal, calling him “too dark.” One individual I spoke to thought he was goofy compared to Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex from Smallville. Of course Spacey’s Lex is goofy—he was playing the same character as Hackman did, and audiences loved Hackman. This role was perfect for Kevin Spacey, and if he comes off as too dark, then maybe you need to stick to the Super Friends cartoons.
The film’s plot was praised as being one of the best Superman stories told, and the majority people I knew at the time thought it was a great movie. Reviews from Superman fans on the Superman Homepage website praised the film as being one of the best Superman films made, maybe even as great as the original. I remember going to a full theater at the IMAX for the film, and the majority of the people were applauding the film and talking about it afterward as a “great film.”
Unfortunately, like everything else I’ve discussed to this point, people started to complain about it afterward. The most common gripes ranged from Superman Returns being long and dull, being too much like the original, not having enough action, calling Superman a stalker and a deadbeat father, and the movie was a chick flick. If the plot and the actors weren’t criticized, there have been complaints about minor details, from the design of the Superman suit to the camera color filter that Singer used.
Superman Returns is filmed as a continuation of the first movie, so if it feels too much like the first one, that’s the point. Many people that disliked the movie seem to miss this concept. Singer’s intent was to keep the tone and feeling that made the original movie, but he still added his own directing traits that can be seen in the X-Men films. Singer even utilizes a blue/green filter, which makes the cinematography and visuals for the film absolutely stunning and beautiful. As for the length of the film, Superman Returns clocks in at 2 hours and 34 minutes. It looks long, but ends around the 2 hour and 28 minute mark, with the rest being the end credits. Like the original movie, I feel as if it sucks you in and you don’t even sense the runtime until it’s over. It’s only bad if you’re clock watching because you’ve got other things you think you need to do.
The character development of Returns was strongly praised at the time, but it gets buried beneath the fact it ‘didn’t have enough action’ or the fact Superman didn’t throw a punch. Let me pose this question: does Superman really have to throw a punch all the time? He didn’t in the original movie, and people loved that. He doesn’t have to punch people in every movie just to be super. As for the criticism about the movie not having enough action, let me ask you this: Why do movies need to have action all the time?
There is action in Superman Returns and it that doesn’t have to do solely with explosions or fighting. This isn’t a Hollywood style of action with explosions or cities getting completely leveled (case in point: Man of Steel); Returns’ action was largely character development and situations where Superman had to go into action to save Metropolis and ultimately the world. Unfortunately, enough people complain, and we end up with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, both films which were slammed for having “too much action” and not enough character development.
It gets to a point where people sound like they’re complaining to complain, and because of this, Returns gets such a bad rap. Just because it didn’t have the grit and serious tone of Nolan’s Batman films doesn’t mean all films have to have this. Returns had a fantastic blend of grit, humor, action, and a plot that actually moves you. Not every superhero movie has to be a Michael Bay style of film.
And then there’s the nitpick individuals who called Superman a deadbeat father and a stalker. First of all, if you paid attention to the plot, Superman was not a deadbeat father—he left Earth to see if Krypton still existed. That does not mean he was abandoning Lois. He didn’t know she was pregnant with their son, and he couldn’t bear to tell her he had to go see if Krypton, or his birth parents, were still out there. He didn’t know if he would come back, let alone survive the trip, so why promise a return if he wasn’t sure of it himself? It’s implied that he did it because he knew she would try and convince him not to go. This does not make him a deadbeat.
As for the stalker criticism-yes, he does raise eyebrows by going and checking out Lois and Richard’s house with X-Ray Vision. But be honest with yourself: if you were gone for a long time and wanted to know how your former lover was, wouldn’t you be curious to look? I’m sure the answer would be “yes,” and don’t you dare try and deny that.
I’ve also heard a remark that Superman ends up ditching Lois and Jason at the end of the movie by flying off into space. That remark alone is of ignorance; if you watched the original movies, you know they end with him flying into space, winking at the camera, and flying off screen. That was maintained in Returns and in no way means he ditched them.
We finally come to the dumbest complaints of the movie: the costume. If you look around the internet, you’ll see complaints of the costume looking too dark, the material of the cape, the “S” being “too small” on his chest, and dislike for the 3D emblem. I was initially skeptical about the look when I saw the first photograph of Routh in the suit, but the more I saw it, the more it grew on me. Maybe the cape wasn’t the best, but the costume as a whole was fine. The “S” Design in Returns is my favorite “S” design I’ve seen on TV or Film, and I remember how excited I was to see the “S”, and eventually the Returns suit, used in Smallville’s final season. The suit itself was fine, but if that’s your biggest complaint, then you need to re-assess your priorities.
As I stated before, I don’t hate the DC Extended Universe’s film series, let alone Cavill’s portrayal of Superman. In fact, I enjoyed both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. However, despite my strong positive opinions on them, I always look back at Superman Returns and the missed opportunities the franchise could have done. Superman Returns continues to be one of my all-time favorite movies, and I will continue to believe that it’s a better movie than people give it for. In fact, I’ll take that belief to my grave.
I still feel disappointment that the sequel, which would have involved Brainiac and revealed true destiny of Jason, was never made. I feel like it would have been an intense and fascinating story to see unfold on the screen, and I regret that I’ll never get to see it.
That said, I should point out that comic books have become a popular medium in recent years for reviving old movie/television properties. I would love to see Singer’s vision for a Superman sequel be turned into a graphic novel, and while it may never happen, I’ll continue to hold out hope for the day that his story can finally be told. Maybe then, I’ll feel the satisfaction that’s eluded me the past 10 years.