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The Once and (sadly) Future Superman

Superman Returns (film)


Look up in the Bird, it’s a sky, and yeah, it is rather plain…Yeah, yeah well you know the song…

Superman really deserves a better film
Superman really deserves a better film
Warner Bros.
He should have stayed away
Warner Bros.

Superman Returns: PG-13 (154 minutes)

Starring: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Eva Marie Saint

Directed by: Bryan Singer

This is one of those films that someone like us (that is to say a card-carrying superhero-men-in-tights worshiping (in a completely heterosexual way mind you — not that there’s anything wrong with that) kind of guy wants to love. Especially considering as it is a film about the spiritual Godfather of our industry. So, yeah, we attended the 10:00 p.m. preview showing of the film the night before it actually premiered back in 2006 with all of the other funnybook fanboy geeks in town.

So, let’s cut to the chase; when we first viewed the film we believed Superman Returns to be a wonderful film that hit all of its marks, and paid respect to all of its proper source materials. It was (we believed upon exiting the theater) everything that us hero-worshiping men-in-tights guys and gals wanted it to be, and it was up there on the big screen so we could ooh and ahh in all the right places. Only afterwards, and upon reflection, we have to admit that the Superman film we got wasn’t actually the Superman film we actually wanted (more on all of that later).

For now, though we’ll talk about the one we did get. Here, we have Superman, returning to Earth after a five-year absence (wherein he so obviously missed out on the disastrous Superman III and the “hey, did they really make a #IV (Quest for Peace)”). As the film reveals, when Earth astronomers discovered the remains of Krypton, the planet’s last native son couldn’t resist returning to the homeland (like a pigeon to Capistrano, one would imagine). Only, once there, all he discovered was the burnt out husk of a dead world that we all knew he would find.

Upon returning to his adopted planet, he (along with his alter ego, Clark Kent), discovered that apparently, a number of years had passed and his once main squeeze Ace Reporter Lois “how do you spell that again” Lane, had not only a fiancé, but, heavens to Betsy, a five-year-old boy as well (Hey, how long has it been since a non-powered Supes and Lois did the nasty in Superman II? Humm; let me break out the abacus for this one…1980, divided by “movie time” plus The New 52…OK, we’ll come back to this.) Furthermore, that follicle-challenged villain, Lex Luthor had managed to somehow beat the rap (of attempting to sink California into the Pacific Ocean), and was now out and about once again (and attempting to sink the East Coast into the Atlantic, how, ah, original, eh?) Lex has also managed to get his hands on not only some of Superman’s old magic Kryptonian crystals, but some Kryptonite as well. (The better to kill you with Superman!)

All of this is well and good, with the film not only lifting the plot and villain from #1, but also liberally sprinkling its 2.5 (twoandafrigginhalf!) hour length with a metric ton of visual, verbal, references and homages to not only the comicbook, but the original serials, the TV show, the Christopher Reeve films, as well as to the old TV show Superboy TV show. That’s right kids, the dying woman at the onset of the film, is none other than Noel Neill, who not only played Lois Lane in the original Superman serials from the ‘40s, but reprised her role in the TV show, and then appeared both in the 1978 film as well as an episode of Smallville.

The film is clearly set in the modern day (faxes, cell phones computers and flat-screen Plasma TVs) but purposefully evokes a very retro style (what with the Art Deco sets, men in overcoats, suspenders, and bow ties, and women in clingy, slit-up-the-side evening gowns and skirts). We even get to hear Daily Planet editor Perry White utter “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” (Something only the TV Perry ever did). Then there was the image of Superman gently hoisting a runaway car overhead (swiped directly from Action Comics #1, the very first appearance of the Big Blue Cheese). I could go on (but then this review would wind up being as long as the film), suffice it to say that director Bryan Singer went all out to make this as respectful to the source material as the previous two films were forgettable (a friend of mine suggested that he probably had to field daily calls from DC Comic Brass throughout the entire production who kept reciting the mantra “Don’t screw it up! Don’t screw it up! Don’t, Don’t, Don’t screw it up! Nananananananana…”)

Yes, the film had everything any fan could possibly have wanted (except for perhaps Inspector Henderson, who was created specifically for the TV show, so that both Clark and Superman would have someone to talk to explain what was going on around everyone). Only, if this is so, then why are we still wistfully pining away for the Superman film that never was? You know the one we’re talking about, the one with all of the cool villains (think General Zod) with dark overtones, and edgy action like Singer gave us in X I & II, we wanted to watch a dynamic, Summer popcorn rollercoaster flick that filled us with the same kind of “gosh wow!” Goosebumps thrill we got when we first discovered comicbooks and the superheroes they contained way back in ‘62 or thereabouts like Sam Raimi served up in Spider-Man 1 & 2.

No boys and girls, what we got instead was a hushed tone of slavish reverence, as if we were entering into a house of worship (not entirely a far-fetched analogy, to be sure). So, yeah, we did (sorta) like Superman Returns, but again, we should have LOVED it. It was a good film, unfortunately, it wasn’t a great one (Batman Begins was a great film, Spider-Man was an extraordinary film, Catwoman blew chunks). This friends, is where we all got on, the doorway through which we all entered, and yeah, sure, it was a quantum leap above the previous two Superman films, still, it should have knocked our socks off, curled our hair, and blown us through the back wall of the theater (anyone remember how you felt in 1977 the first time you saw Star Wars (now re-titled Star Wars: A New Hope, Episode IV)? Yea, that’s how Superman Returns should have left us, only instead, we walked out of it feeling more like I did in ‘79 when we walked out of Star Trek, The Motion Picture. This film was ponderous pachyderm plodding majestically across the plains, when it should have been a swiftly sprinting cheetah streaking pell-mell across the lush green African veldt.

All of which goes to prove (to this reviewer, at least) that this film is not so much the story of the Man of Steel’s triumphant return to both Earth and the Silver Screen, but how DC Comics was able to play out the long gamble as it attempted to put its flagship character back on the top of the superhero heap. Superman was brilliantly revived in 1978, and again (as Superboy with Smallville on the small screen) in 2001. The in 2006, with the aid of professional fanboy Singer, they have managed a cinematic hat-trick, and done it again. So, yes Virginia, there will be a new Superman flick in the not too distant future. Hopefully, that one will be the one that we wanted (and deserved) to see this time around.

Thus, in the final analysis, as we said at the onset, we really wanted to love this film, and — on quite a few levels — we truly did, only, what Superman (and us fans) truly deserved, was something that was flashier and slightly less reverential. Unfortunately, the “next time” Superman hit the big screen, we did get something a bit edgier, only we really didn’t so much like that version so much either.


Robert J. Sodaro has been reviewing films for some 30 years. During that time, his movie reviews and articles have appeared in numerous print publications, as well as on the web. Subscribe to receive regular articles and movie reviews.