Page to Screen: Superman Returns (2006)

Superman Returns
based on characters by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster

While I wasn’t a big comic book reader as a kid, I was fond of Superman because of The Adventures of Lois & Clark, a sweetly silly adventure show about Lois, Clark, and their adventures as reporters (with spots of superheroics, of course!). A lot of what I love about Superman comes from that show—he’s an alien, but that’s not a big deal, Martha Kent is awesome, Dean Cain is now and forever Superman to me, and the Clark/Lois dynamic is goodhearted dope and hard-nosed snarker, respectively. Despite that, I wasn’t intrigued by this movie when it came out, and mostly knew it as a Superman movie that failed to create a franchise. But I was feeling kindly towards it in recent months, so I thought it was time to see if it really was that disappointing.

Superman Returns picks up—kind of?—where Superman and Superman II left off. Let it not be said that X-Men: First Class came up with weird continuity in reboots/remakes/whatevers. After five years of exploring space for the last remains of Krypton, Clark Kent returns home to a very changed Earth. His father is dead, and Lois Lane, former love interest, is now involved with someone else with a kid and a Pulitzer of her very own, about why the world doesn’t need Superman. But then again, perhaps things aren’t all that changed: Lex Luthor has gotten himself out of prison, stolen alien technology, and is ready to capitalize on it… even if it takes out a considerable portion of the population. And, of course, only Superman can stop him. Good thing he’s back.

On Twitter, as I lazily live-tweeted my reaction to the film (only real tweet of note: “CLARK THAT DOG IS OLD. Don’t toss the tennis ball a mile away. Jerk.”), I was informed that Superman Returns cribs substantially from the original Superman series. I haven’t seen those movies, so I can’t comment on that yet, but I think, like any reboot/remake/whatever, the studio who owns the property is free to rummage around in its own innards, especially when it’s stuff that works. Now, it might be too close for comfort, but there’s a comfortable enough gap between the films to feel merely perturbed, instead of cheated, and this film has problems of its own, although not as many as I expected.

I was impressed with the plot of Superman Returns—not specifically the major events that occur, but rather the fact that Singer takes the time to explore the emotional consequences for these characters, even moreso than he does in X-2, the best movie in the early aughts X-Men trilogy. Keep in mind, this came out in 2006; Batman Begins, which I recall as a stylish but straightforward Batman flick, had come out the year before, and Iron Man was two years away. Superhero movies weren’t the jokes they were in the late nineties, but we were still moving uphill on that roller coaster. Clark deals with the world changing on him, although his character development is more or less fixed, but it’s Lois, in particular, that I loved. In any other adaptation, I think, James Marsden (who, let’s face it, usually plays the other guy) would have been abandoned in a heartbeat, but she’s trying to keep her life together, fight for the articles she wants to write (she’s sick of working on Superman stories), and deal with the fact that Superman is back in her life. In short, she feels like a real person, the kind of ambitious, capable woman that Clark would be utterly in love with. And the climax of the film is about the rest of the world dealing with Superman’s situation. Despite its frankly impressive action sequences, this is actually one of the quieter superhero films, because it focuses a great deal on the internality of all of its characters.

And Brandon Routh really sells that. Poor Brandon Routh! He deserved a much bigger career boost from this movie than what he got. I’m of the school that thinks that Superman is Clark’s secret identity, instead of the other way around, and Routh is, in my opinion, a brilliant Clark. There’s a scene in the middle of the movie, where Clark and Lois are in a busy elevator. Clark excitedly waves and mouths “hi” endearingly, while Lois nods and rolls her eyes. He absolutely nails being Clark, the good-hearted overgrown Boy Scout from the Midwest who also happens to be a superhero. I really can’t get over fantastically he does it. The rest of the cast is good, although Bosworth is a little young to be this Lois. My only quibble was Piper Perabo as Kitty, Lex’s own personal henchgirl. While Spacey’s “snidely campy” Lex works, she takes it the shrieking camp bit over the top, although I appreciate that she takes to a cannibal Pomeranian. (There’s two spots of dark dog humor in this film, and I’m not sure whether I like them or not.)

It’s by no means perfect: Singer awkwardly tries to cover the origin story in a single title card instead of simply starting with Clark’s journey home and going from there, delivering pertinent information as necessary, while simultaneously assuming that you’ve seen Superman and Superman II. I’m also not a huge fan of Superman stories that focus on his alien nature, although that’s only flirted with here. But its quietness and emotional richness makes it a unique and thoughtful superhero film.

Bottom line: While it’s by no means perfect, Superman Returns isn’t the disappointment I thought it was—with Brandon Routh absolutely owning the part of Clark Kent and a thoughtful, internally focused approach to the characters, it’s a unique, quiet, and emotionally rich superhero film. Worth a shot!

I rented this DVD from the public library.

6 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Superman Returns (2006)

  1. I thought this movie was really underrated. Yes, Kate Bosworth is not a great Lois Lane, or great in anything really. But I loved Routh, Spacey and Langella. The part where Superman flies above the clouds to bathe in sunlight and heal himself is breathtaking.

    I’m pretty stoked for the new Superman movie, especially since Lois Lane will be played by Amy Adams. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Superman adaptation where Lois was well-portrayed. I really didn’t care for Margot Kidder or Teri Hatcher.

    • I have to agree with you, Bitsy. Lois is a character that seems hard to realize, though I think Teri Hatcher did a decent job in the first couple of seasons of Lois & Clark.

      I am incredibly excited about Man of Steel since I think it’ll be the breath of fresh air Superman needs. I think it’s going to shed a lot of the old trappings and just be about Superman instead of being another Superman movie based on [fill in the blank here]. It should be good.

      • I’m excited because they’re going to cover his origins. I know the Reeve Superman movie did that, but it was 1978 and really cheesy. It’s definitely time for an update.

        However I think this film was wise not to try to start over with Superman. I like that it’s basically a one-off film and pseudo-sequel to the Reeve movies, since those really were pretty good. Just that he was “returning” after something like 25 years was exciting.

    • I haven’t seen the original Superman (that’s a thought; my Page to Screen buffer just ran out and it is on Netflix…), but Hatcher is my formative Lois Lane (give or take the concept of “can the modern woman of the nineties have it all?”). I’m not too excited about Man of Steel, since I think the tone is wrong for everyone’s favorite overgrown Boy Scout and I think Adams might not be able to bring enough… Lois to the role, but I hope I’m proven wrong.

      Pulling Shore’s score from The Lord of the Rings for the trailer, though, is not endearing me to it.

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