RTF Retrospective – Superman Returns To End the Donnerverse!
By: Adam Basciano
Anyone who knows me, knows that for the longest time I’ve had rather mixed feelings for Bryan Singer’s 2006 film Superman Returns. With this being 12 years since the release of the film, I’ve been thinking a lot about Superman Returns. Up until now, I’ve regarded it as a film with some really good moments, however for me over all, it was a series of colossal misfires. I maintain that trying to relaunch the Superman film franchise in the continuity of the Richard Donner films of the late 70’s and early 80’s, was a mistake. Even worse, was the plot point of giving Superman a child at the outset of this relaunched franchise. What if Superman Returns isn’t looked at as the revitalization of Superman on film, but rather the finale of the “Donnerverse”? Despite Warner Brothers hoping that the film would relaunch the franchise, and despite Bryan Singer being unwilling to classify this film as an outright sequel, make no mistake, Superman Returns is essentially the finale of a Superman trilogy in the vein of what Richard Donner started in Superman: The Movie (1978), and partially continued in Superman II (1980)
When thought of in this context, some of the glaring problems I had with Superman Returns go away, yet some ultimately remain. First, why would Superman leave Earth, in the hopes of finding Krypton, when he knows it’s long gone? Well, what does he really know about Krypton? In the first Superman film, a holographic projection of his father Jor-El, tells him the planet exploded. Then in Superman II, the criminals of Krypton, who were imprisoned in the Phantom Zone, escaped and wreaked havoc on Earth. Then, five years prior to Superman Returns, astronomers reportedly found Krypton. Now, given that Superman got all his information about Krypton, from essentially a recording, I believe he would second guess the destruction of Krypton, and if there was a slight chance that his home planet wasn’t destroyed, he’d go see for himself because maybe that means he’s not Krypton’s last son….he’s not alone!
Jason White… a.k.a. the kid….a.k.a. Superman’s offspring. Many fans, including myself, weren’t fond of this monumental addition to the Superman film franchise. I feel most of the problem arose with how the situation was handled. The relaunch of the film series, is not the appropriate place to introduce the love child of Superman and Lois Lane. Yet, viewing Superman Returns as the finale of the Donner inspired universe, it seems more appropriate. The reveal of Jason’s paternity, puts Superman Returns definitively as a sequel to Superman II, the Richard Lester cut, as that is where coitus between Superman and his lady-love occurs and remains intact. This also explains Lois Lane’s shock and surprise when it becomes apparent that Jason, is Kal-El’s child. She doesn’t remember her sexual escapade with Superman in the Fortress, on that conveniently placed bed back in the 1980 film because he wiped her memory of it with a super kiss (Yes, that’s as ridiculous as it sounds). It would also explain her ambivalence to the fact that Clark Kent is Superman!
I really never had issues with Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman. In fact, I really like him. It’s become clear he was cast to play Christopher Reeve’s version of the character, which was already pre-established. I think he brought a good balance of confidence/warmth to Superman. His take on the bumbling Clark Kent was more subdued than Christopher Reeve, something which I actually preferred. He was very facially emotive and effective. I just wish he would’ve had more than seven lines of dialogue in the film. Sure that may be an exaggeration, but half of his lines were regurgitated from the 78 film, from both Reeve & Brando. Had he been freed from the shackles of playing Christopher Reeve’s iteration of the character and make the role his own, he would’ve taken the character to new heights, maybe even still playing the character today! (See DC’s Legends of Tomorrow to see how good Brandon is as The Atom)
Kate Bosworth actually did a decent job of portraying Lois’ jaded predisposition in this film. I also thought she played the tenacious go getting investigative reporter angle quite effectively. Far more effective than Margot Kidder with that aspect, in my opinion. The negative where Kate Bosworth is concerned, is her age. At 24 when she began filming, she looked far too young to be an award-winning journalist and a mother to a 5-year-old son. This showed, and pulled me out of the movie at times. Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor was the biggest misfire from performance, all the way through to the way the character was written. It’s a shame really, because on paper, Kevin Spacey should make a perfect Lex Luthor. While things have changed for Superman and Lois, Lex Luthor remains the same; obsessed with ridiculous land schemes that never work. The writers had the perfect opportunity to move Lex into the corrupted wealthy business man mode, while not hindering the previous Donner-verse lore, after he swindles Gertrude out of her fortune. But that doesn’t happen. Of course, Spacey was carrying on from Gene Hackman but severely struggled to find an appropriate balance between a ruthless criminal hardened by 5 years of prison, with the slight camp of Gene Hackman. This leads to a performance that feels stoic at times and over the top at other times. Sam Huntington is above adequate as Jimmy Olsen, but severely underused, while Frank Langella, is miscast as Perry White.
Things that really stand out as positives in this movie, include the plane sequence, which at the time of this writing, is still the best Superman rescue sequence committed to film, for me at least. The sequence where he separates New Krypton out of Earth and lifts it into space was awe-inspiring. While it remains highly implausible, given that the land mass is riddled with kryptonite, and Superman himself has remnants of a Kryptonite shiv in his side. At this point Superman knows that doing this will kill him, so he flies up to the sun for one last shot of Vitamin D, boosts his powers to full capacity one last time, ready to endure a final sacrifice to secure humanity’s safety.
Superman’s flight with Lois, delivered one of the most emotional lines of dialogue ever in a Superman movie! The line I’m referring to, is the “What do you hear” exchange. No matter what you think of the film, if that didn’t give you goosebumps, seek help. Superman’s listening post scene above Earth, perfectly transplanted an Alex Ross image to the screen. The cinematography and set design was beautifully detailed. The Daily Planet and Fortress of Solitude look fantastic. For the first several viewings, the colour palate of the film felt off. Of course, it had to change because decades had passed from the first two films. Recently as I watched my 8 Disc Superman Blu-Ray collection, I was watching some of the Fleischer Superman cartoons. And there it was….Superman Returns looks and feels like a live action Fleischer cartoon! While I’m not sure it works entirely, given the films continuity, it’s unique seeing that era of Superman depicted in some small way in live action. I also enjoyed John Ottman’s musical score of the film, which has a great blend of John Williams original themes, mixed with brand new themes that emotionally invest the viewer in the film and with the characters.
Looking further into my dislikes of this film, I have to go back to Lex Luthor’s master plan because it’s repetitive and downright ridiculous. Several times Lex Luthor mentions how the Kryptonian crystal technology can create advanced weaponry. Here’s an idea, why not use that technology to create weaponry or even a version of Kryptonian Armor to combat Superman yourself, since you’re clearly hell-bent on getting revenge on him? The film would’ve greatly benefited by showing the audience and elaborating on where Superman was, and why he left Earth. Leaving that Return to Krypton sequence in the film and using comic book panels to explain the events of the first to films, as originally intended, would’ve been a great idea. I mean sure, diehard Superman fans know what happens, but there’s a whole new generation of movie goers who haven’t seen the previous Superman films, shocking as that may seem. Given what I said previously, calling Superman a dead-beat or absentee father isn’t fair, because he didn’t know the kid was his, until the third act; but having a scene where Superman lurks outside Lois Lane’s home, watching her, her fiancée, and her son is borderline stalking, and felt completely inappropriate and out of character! People always talk about deleted scenes; well I wish I could delete that scene from the movie!
For me, Superman Returns fails as a reboot of the Superman film series. Still, when looked at as the finale to a Donner-Verse trilogy, Superman Returns is a flawed but heart-felt love letter to a series of films that captivated several generations of Superman fans. It also brings that version of the characters story full circle; “You will be different, sometimes you’ll feel like an outcast, but you’ll never be alone. You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father and the father becomes the son.” Superman is literally walking in his father’s shoes. Through unforeseen circumstances, he was separated from his son, who is being raised by an earth couple. Similarly, Superman can only guide and watch his son from a far. While it’s not the Superman film I wanted, it was far more entertaining and respectful to Christopher Reeve and his legacy, then Superman III & Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ever were.