A look back: Superman Returns (2006)

supermanreturns20061Since it premiered in 2006, I have viewed Superman Returns four or five times. I don’t usually revisit movies so often over so short a span, but something about this picture kept pulling me back.  By the end of the fourth viewing, I think I figured it out. 

I was looking for a reason to like it.

Superman Returns has, over the course of those repeated viewings, become more difficult to enjoy, and the reasons have stacked to the point that I have to, well, purge. Hence, this out-of-the-blue post. 

Warner Bros. had, for years, attempted to reignite the Superman franchise, and dir. Bryan Singer seemed to strike a near perfect note with his premise—the Man of Steel returns after a five year absence to a world that has learned to live without him.  Five years removed from 9/11, it seemed fortuitous. Superman had always represented that immovable, indestructible American psyche that, in the wake of 9/11, received a serious blow.  Heroes wore dirty yellow coats emblazoned with FDNY, not blue tights and a red S.  I looked forward to the film, hoping to see it recapture some of that perceived former strength through a story that dealt with a new awareness of vulnerability.

The film, though it attempts at points to touch on such weighty themes, never quite gets there.  While I could write this off as mere disappointment that the story’s narrative never fulfilled my expectations, certain flaws contribute to weakening the story that is, regardless of whether it ever told the one I wanted.

I imagine Superman as a difficult character for whom to build a story. Once you’ve proven you can turn back the clock and undo all the doom, where else can the story go?  He is virtually indestructible, save for Kryptonite, without which villains have little chance of success once Supes catches wind of their schemes.  Since stories cannot move without conflict, an event-driven Superman would pose an enormous challenge, unless the conflict involved high stakes, and a clear objective.  Dir. Richard Donner succeeded in the first Superman film (1978) when he decided to make the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane central to the film’s narrative. Though Kryptonite makes an appearance, it poses less a threat to Superman than that of Lois’s imminent doom. 

Superman Returns never settles on a clear, specific goal for its protagonists to achieve.  Among all the conflicts vying for attention—Lois’s involvement with another man, the possibility her son is the result of her liaison with Superman, and Lex Luthor’s latest bid to rule the world—neither ever earns the audience’s real concern.  The over reliance on a previous film’s plot thread (yet another Casa del Lex real estate gamble) doesn’t help. With no goal to achieve, the film’s ending, an unabashed appeal for a sequel, drags the film into ambiguity hell.  

Weak character development further contributes to the narrative’s inherent flaws.  A relationship as intimate as the one implied between Lois and Superman requires a certain amount of subtext, and Lois’s despair over Superman’s return sounds a little on the nose.

The decision to cast younger performers to portray Superman and Lois contribute to the problem. It’s not that the writing is bad (well, some of it is), but an actress with a touch more age and experience than Kate Bosworth may have pulled it off.  But, Singer wanted actors who would age well into sequels. Thus, Superman looks more like Superboy, and Lois much less the part of someone about to receive the Pulitzer. 

In what I can only assume was an attempt to bring the Superman mythos into the postmodern age, the hero’s axiom of truth, justice, and the American Way receives a tactless adjustment.  Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White peppers his writers, does he still stand for truth, justice—wait for it—all that stuff?  “All that stuff?” It struck me then, and sticks with me still, as an intentional jab at undercutting the idea that Superman is America’s superhero.  The problem is, he IS America’s superhero.  That’s his iconic legacy.  Instead of advancing the character’s mythos, it comes across more like a deliberate decision to ignore America’s cultural narrative in favor of looking more “progressive.” 

The potential of Singer’s original premise lent to the hope of a grand story.  What we received was a $200 million movie-of-the-week.  We were told in 1978 that we would believe a man could fly.  That was the promise—verisimilitude. Christopher Reeve made me believe a man could fly. Brandon Routh just looks like a man suspended by wires.


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