Not everyone sees eye-to-eye. You might love something that’s reviled by most others. When we at PoP! feel like that, we make an argument In Defense Of…
Superman movies seem to be a rather divisive subject among fandom. Richard Donner’s original film, while being the pioneering work that’s responsible for a lot of what we see on the screen today, still garners its share of giggles and snark. Superman II, while much more action-oriented, also has its detractors (which can’t be helped when you throw a giant saran-wrapped version of your symbol at any dude in any setting). III and IV…what else has to be said? Heck, Man of Steel, despite doing a lot right, has fandom split right down the middle between love and hatred
Only one movie in the Superman oeuvre seems to have fandom united in opinion. Unfortunately, it’s against the movie Superman Returns, which is seen as the biggest blight on the Superman film catalog. While certainly not without its faults – the movie can certainly drag in places – Superman Return honors a past generation of comic book films and paves the way for another. Taken in context with the first two Superman films, Superman Returns is both an emotional sendoff to a bygone era and a welcoming of the new guard.
Bryan Singer walked away from the X-Men franchise so that he could be in charge of closing the door on one generation and opening the door for the new. Singer and Brandon Routh both pay homage to the classics that gave birth to the ‘superhero’ film genre that has been dominating the box office for a decade-plus. Without the first two Superman movies, ‘superhero’ movies may not even exist – or at least have been delayed for quite some time. Superman Returns is both an homage and a farewell to those films that made movies like Avengers and The Dark Knight possible
In addition, many movie series nowadays just…go away. Some years later, we’re treated to a “reboot” that acts like the former movies never happened. Many of these “reboots” are for the better, as The Amazing Spider-Man and Batman Begins helped wash the taste of ass out of fandom’s mouth that was both Spider-Man 3 and Batman and Robin, respectively. However, the older series never seem to get a proper send-off or a “thank you” for their contributions. Superman Returns served both of those roles, as Singer and company closed the chapter on the original super-hero series and let us move on to new possibilities – in this case, Man of Steel and now “Superman Vs. Batman” (or whatever the official name may be)
Aside from its larger role as a generation gap, Superman Returns was one of the first microscopic examinations of one of the most recognizable characters in the world that was committed to film. The earlier Superman movies served as introduction and a test of physical prowess. Superman III attempted some exploration with “red kryptonite,” but the result was too silly to be taken seriously. Superman IV was entirely too political to see any kind of character development at all. Superman Returns made Kal-El and Clark Kent walk that fine line between selfish and selfless with the idea of possibly being a father. How would Superman react to having offspring, especially under the conditions that were presented in the film? Does he disrupt the lives of Lois and her new family by stepping in, or does he suffer in silence as he lets them live their own lives? Does it strengthen his resolve to be a role model, or does he focus on self instead? And what is the greater impact of Superman’s personal decision on his responsibility to his adopted home? “Does The World Need A Superman?”
Superman Returns was one of the first stories in film or TV to attempt to answer these questions. Comics had tackled this subject before with Kingdom Come, For The Man Who Has Everything, and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, among others. However, celluloid versions seem to be more interested in what he can do physically and how they can bring that to the big screen. For Superman Returns, the reaction from fans is “not nearly enough.” Indeed, one of the main criticisms against Superman Returns is that the only main action piece is the saving of a plane. On its own, this is a valid criticism – albeit one that can be answered by the overall narrative of the movie being an exploration of the man in Superman. However, this is coming from much of the same group that are now decrying the action in Man of Steel as being too much. Can we pick one of these arguments and stick with it, internet? No wonder studios seem to think it’s impossible to please you guys sometimes
The performances of Superman Returns are also top-notch. Brandon Routh honors the memory of Christopher Reeve with his uncannily spot-on portrayal of Clark Kent and Superman. As for his nemesis…who’s not raising their hand at the moment hoping Kevin Spacey gets to play a leaner, darker Lex Luthor in the next film? Kate Bosworth (Lois Lane), Frank Langella (Perry White), and Parker Posey (Kitty Kowalski) bring both humanity and reverence to their roles as well. Everyone played their part in looking at the character with a sense of reverence and simultaneous relevance so that Superman could be both a larger-than life legend and still relatable to everyone else at the same time
Overall, some of the criticisms of Superman Returns are understandable as this was a movie plagued with problems and that took a whopping 19 years to come to fruition. Fans wanted what they felt was going to be the perfect Superman movie (if they’re even sure of what that is), and instead got what fandom felt was just an over-sentimental love letter to an age of relics. Looking at the film a little closer, however, reveals a lot of heart, some bridge-building toward the future and, most importantly, a movie that truly examined an American icon and what the character means to the world at large – both the fictional one presented in the film and to the real one the movie was presented to.