Nineteen years. The world changed substantially between 1987 and 2006. One thing did not change: The desire to bring Superman back to the Silver Screen. After the disastrous Superman IV, it looked as though the Man of Steel would be on sabbatical. That was fine because 1989 brought a different superhero to the Silver Screen. Batman, starring Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton, written by Sam Hamm, and directed by Tim Burton, was one of the most anticipated movies of 1989. Don’t think that Superman still wasn’t on people’s minds, though. 1988 saw the worldwide celebration of Superman’s 50th birthday, he appeared on the cover of Time, and the Salkinds returned to him…kinda-sorta. They produced a syndicated television series of Superboy that lasted between 1988 and 1992. But the word on Batman was good. People were looking forward to it and the Warner Bros. marketing machine went into overtime. And when the movie finally opened on June 23rd, 1989, it was a blockbuster. A new era in the comic book movie had dawned and Superman seemed like a relic.
The success of Batman and its 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, as well as the general popularity in comic books that resulted, made the comic book movie seem like a legitimate film genre. Despite Superman appearing on television in a new series in 1993, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which promised at the outset a more grown-up Moonlighting feel but quickly descended into a juvenile adventure show, the idea of bringing Superman back to the Big Screen was very much on the minds of Warner Bros. Jon Peters, the famed former-hair-dresser-turned-Big-Time-Hollywood-Producer and one of the producers of Batman and Batman Returns, wanted to bring Superman to the Silver Screen in a big, big way. And that is how the Superman Lives fiasco came about. The film, written by Kevin Smith, directed by Tim Burton, and starring Nicolas Cage as Clark Kent/Superman seems to be a near-miss for Superman fans. Peters kept at it, though, and so did Warner Bros. I won’t go much more into it but a simple Internet search for Superman movies will bring you a lot of information.
Besides, by the late-1990s, the comic book movie genre had pretty much died. Aside from the Batman movies, no other movie hit its mark. There was a lot of development but little actual production. What movies were made looked horrible, weren’t taken seriously, and died a quick death. Television was a little kinder with the Warner Bros. Animated series of Batman, Superman, and Justice League.
And then in 2000 came X-Men. With a story by Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer, a screenplay by David Hayter, and direction by Singer, the film adaptation of one of Marvel Comics’s most popular teams hit all the right chords and was a mega-hit. The idea that Bryan Singer would have gotten involved was shocking. He was an up-and-coming indie film director and his film The Usual Suspects was an Oscar darling. What he brought with him was the knowledge that the characters were important, that without strong characters, these films could have as much spectacle as anyone could put in them but it wouldn’t mean a thing.
X-Men rejuvenated the comic book movie genre, but it took Sam Raimi’s adaptation of Spider-Man to really get it going.
I loved these movies, but not being a Marvel kid, I kept waiting for DC’s triumphant return while skipping the 2001-2012 TV series Smallville. With Batman Begins (2005), DC returned to the Silver Screen in a triumphant way. Using the model set up by the Marvel Entertainment movies, Warner Bros. went with Christopher Nolan, who’d gained tons of attention for his indie thriller Memento. So it wasn’t a shock that Warner Bros. would have a new Superman movie for the following year. What was the shock was the director: Bryan Singer. After two successful X-Men films, who would’ve called him jumping ship for Superman?
So in June 2006, I found myself with a friend whom I liked a lot sitting in a local movie theater eagerly awaiting Superman Returns. With a story by Singer, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris, and screenplay by Dougherty and Harris (who’d written the screenplay for the great X-Men sequel X2), there was no doubt the movie would be great. Although I’d seen the trailers and wondered about a few things–Marlon Brando’s posthumous return as well as the use of John Williams’s original theme–I was pretty excited.
It was a movie that I was truly looking forward to. Things hadn’t been so great for me starting in 2003 but were beginning to take an upswing. I would be starting a new job at the end of the summer as a teaching assistant. Though I was pretty depressed, I knew that I was on the road to recovery. Things were looking up. And there was a new Superman.
So the lights dimmed, and I was transported away for my first Superman movie viewing on the Big Screen….
The opening title sequence. Though I’d seen all the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, I’d seen none of them in theaters. So to see the opening title sequences for the first two films recreated on the Big Screen gave me chills. John Williams’s music has been a part of my life seemingly forever, so sitting there and seeing a “new” version of the old credits with his music just blew me away and brought tears to my eyes.
The special effects were astounding. Superman’s flying effects were as real as anything done to that point. It wasn’t just the flying effects that were good, either, but all of the effects. A little too good, perhaps. In the sequence when Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is covering a space shuttle test on an airplane and the plane ends up plummeting from the sky until Superman (Brandon Routh) saves it, I actually had a panic attack brought on by the uber-realistic effects, both visual and sound. It is a scene that started me wondering if maybe special effects are too good these days.
The story wasn’t bad. It took the material seriously and did its best to give the characters pathos. It honored what came before but went off in a different direction. And it took some bold risks in the adaptation. It’s not perfect, which we’ll get to, but it’s a valiant attempt with some good moments.
Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor is perfect. He comes across as arrogant enough, and cold enough, to be Lex Luthor. Besides being one of the best actors working today, he embodied what a modern Lex Luthor would be like. And, unlike Gene Hackman, Spacey was willing to shave his head for the role.
The Phantom Zone
This is a tough one. I’d like to talk about the rest of the cast, but I don’t feel like they should be placed under The Kryptonite, so I’m placing them in The Phantom Zone. Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman, Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, Parker Posey, and James Marsden were all actors I had some issues with, especially upon rewatching this movie. Marsden plays Richard White, Perry White’s (Frank Langella) nephew. Look, I’m not a fan of Marsden. I’m not sure what it is exactly, though I’ve liked him in some stuff I’ve seen him in. He was great as Cyclops in the X-Men movies, but here I didn’t particularly care for him. He plays Lois’s boyfriend–partner? fiancé?–her not-husband and seemingly the father of her child. He has some good moments in this movie, but there’s something about him that just doesn’t sit well with me. Parker Posey is another actor who I think is great but who got on my nerves here as Miss Tesch–er…um…Kitty Kowalski. She’s obviously supposed to be the modern Miss Teschmacher except she’s not…how to put in a Politically Correct way? Aw, to hell with it. She’s not sexy enough. Valerie Perrine, I’m sure, got many a young men started on the road to puberty in 1978. Parker Posey? Not so much. She’s attractive in different ways and I think her talents are under-utilized in this role. She’s not bad, she actually brings a lot of emotion to the part, but she just doesn’t feel right to me.
Which brings me to Kate Bosworth and Brandon Routh. As the two most important characters in the movie, their roles are essential. Both look too young to be in their roles. Considering both look (and, according to Wikipedia, were) in their early-to-mid 20s, it’s hard to believe they were together five years before this story for any substantial amount of time in Metropolis. They’d be better cast as young Superman and young Lois Lane first meeting, but even that wouldn’t be ideal since Lois was already established as an up-and-coming major reporter. Bosworth lacks some of the toughness that Margot Kidder had that made Lois Lane believable. Whether it’s 1948, 1978, or 2006, being a woman reporter is difficult because the news agencies are boys’ clubs. Lois Lane needs to be tough-as-nails while still being soft and, sometimes, vulnerable. Bosworth doesn’t sell me on the tough part. She’s cute, she’s a capable actress, I guess, but I had trouble buying her as Lois Lane. Not only that, but I never sensed any onscreen chemistry with Brandon Routh. The chemistry is essential to the part.
And now I go to Brandon Routh. I want to love him as Superman, and after that first screening at the Flagship Cinemas in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on July 15th, 2006 (I keep my ticket stubs), I did. I thought he was the perfect Superman. But now I’ve seen the movie three, four, maybe five times (I think it’s four) and I’m not so sure. He plays the role fine in the sense that I’m sure he did what he was directed to do or as the script called for him to. He mostly looks the part of Superman and Clark Kent, and even resembles Christopher Reeve when he smiles. But he’s too muted. He’s too serious. He’s too goddamn subdued. And because he looks so young, I had trouble believing him as Superman. His Clark Kent has nearly no personality, and his Superman only a modicum more. As a matter of fact, he hardly speaks as Superman. Again, I think it’s the performance that was asked for, and he delivered. But….
The story. Here’s one of those contradictions I enjoy employing. I mentioned what I liked about it so here’s where it rubs me the wrong way. Is it a new movie that’s paying homage to the original Donner movie(s)? Is it a follow-up to it/those? What is this beast, exactly? It has the John Williams theme, the opening title sequence, pictures of Glenn Ford as Jonathan Kent, Lex Luthor’s obsession with real estate, Lois’s article “I Spent the Night with Superman,” a consummated romance between Superman and Lois, the Kryptonian crystals forming the Fortress of Solitude, and Marlon Brando as Jor-El. It looks as though it’s a follow-up to the Donner film(s). But the fact that it takes place in modern America, with cell phones, flat screen televisions, etc., disputes that. So it seems to be a new movie with a helluva lot of homages. This is cute when you see it in the theater for the first time, but it gets old upon further viewings and once you bring your brain to the party.
The lack of wonder and fun is a problem for me. It tries for wonder, I’ll give it that. The image of New Krypton rising from the Atlantic towards space is something to behold, however, the rest of the movie falls short. In some parts, the movie is just plain boring. Maybe it’s the lack of chemistry between actors. Maybe it’s boring lines. Maybe it’s because the fact that this entire movie feels like the song “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” by Five for Fighting. Don’t get me wrong, I love the song and the ideas behind it, but I don’t want a 2hr 34 minute movie based on it. Yet, that’s exactly what it feels like. Superman spends a lot of time alone and serious. It’s not that I don’t want Superman serious, or alone, but I don’t want him emo, either. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was serious, but not slit-my-wrists-serious. Lex Luthor and his gang have some dark humor, and there’s some humor at the Daily Planet with Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and Clark, but overall the movie just went on and on and the performances and story in between action set pieces aren’t engaging enough.
Superman’s beating has always bothered me. New Krypton is made with Kryptonian crystals stolen from the Fortress of Solitude combined with Kryptonite. This means that when Superman is standing on it, he becomes powerless (and, in theory, should eventually die). Lex Luthor and his gang use this opportunity to beat the living shit out of Superman, ending with Luthor stabbing him with a shard of Kryptonite, breaking it in Superman. The beating is brutal and probably is what led to the PG-13 rating, because none of the rest of the movie really warrants it. It’s a bit overkill, really, based on everything that’s been set up so far. I know Lex Luthor is a ruthless criminal, and there’s no Otis this time bumbling around, but the beating feels out of place in this particular movie. That’s probably because the movie is so closely related, by its own cleverness, to the 1978-1980 films. Maybe I’m being too judgmental here, but I just don’t think it fits.
I’m not a fan of the new Superman suit. It’s a little too much. I don’t mind the switch away from tights/spandex, but there’s something about the costume that just doesn’t feel like Superman to me. It’s unfair, perhaps, due to the perfection of the Christopher Reeve costume when compared to the comic book version, to be so critical over the suit, but there are things that just bother me. The boots look like something from Nike, which makes me wonder how it fits into Clark Kent’s shoes. For that matter, how does the S on the chest go unnoticed under Clark’s shirt? Also, the dark red and gold aren’t right. I made an allusion to this in my essay on Superman III; Bad Superman’s red and yellow is the same color as Brandon Routh’s Superman’s, only he’s not evil (he’s barely even alive!). The shirt goes up too far, too, or something. I don’t know. I’ve just never been a fan of this costume.
Finally, by biggest issue with Superman Returns is Jason White, played by Tristan Lake Leabu. Jason White is Lois Lane’s son, whom we think belongs to her fiancé Richard, but is actually Superman’s son. This shocker wasn’t all that shocking, which is part of the problem. The moment the audience is introduced to the asthmatic little boy it knows the kid belongs to Superman, even though they look nothing alike. The kid doesn’t look like Lois, either. The thing that made me think that maybe the kid wasn’t Superman’s was the thought that I’m sure every fan had: Oh, wow. The creators of this movie are really adapting this by giving Lois a kid. It must be Superman’s, except, who’d be that stupid? Surely fans will revolt against this. But it is Superman’s son. Which, again, throws the plot into a weird light in regards to the Donner movies. There’s no hint in this movie (other than the boy) that Lois and Superman were ever together, just that they obviously cared for each other. So the question goes back to: Are the filmmakers going back to Superman II with this, and if so, which one? The Lester Cut has Superman giving up his powers before sleeping with Lois, which would mean his sperm wouldn’t have the super powers anymore, right? The Donner Cut has Superman sleep with Lois and then lose his powers. But since most people probably wouldn’t have seen this version, isn’t that a little out there? And if it doesn’t have anything to do with those cuts, or the first Donner Superman, then how come more isn’t made of Lois and Superman’s relationship? Does she realize who Clark is? There are so many damn questions, never mind the science of two different species conceiving a child. If it’s impossible for two species of creatures on Earth to conceive, how can a humanoid creature from another planet conceive with a human woman?
And that’s not even my biggest problem! Because if it were Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder on the Big Screen, directed by Donner, with a screenplay by Mankiewicz that exhibited the same dedication to the characters that their movies did, I’d be with Superman, Jr. Or if Singer and his writers done a better job with their characters and hired actors I could get behind more, I’d be with Superman, Jr. But that’s not what happened. Their story is good, but never really finds the right balance. Their actors are all right, but I have trouble really buying them as people who’ve gone through these kinds of adventures before. And the worst of the actors is, I hate to say it, Tristan Lake Leabu. Look, I don’t want to beat up on a little kid so I won’t say it’s his talent that’s lacking, I’m sure the kid is a fine actor as he’s worked in movies and television after Superman Returns, but it’s the story and the directing. He becomes a Creepy Kid. As I wrote about Miko Hughes in the otherwise phenomenal Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Creepy Kids seem to infiltrate many movies. Why does Jason White have to walk around like a zombie? Why must he have no personality? There’s nothing charming about what this kid does in the movie. Again, I don’t think it’s the young actor so much as the way Jason White is written and Bryan Singer’s direction for the boy. When a kid is used to advance the story like this, and really doesn’t do much else to contribute to it, he’s a prop, and the filmmakers should be ashamed. It would’ve been far more interesting having the child behave like a five-year-old child, running around, getting into true mischief, than having this Golden Boy who walks catatonically through the movie to finally throw a piano at someone.
After the Battle
I left the movie theater that summer night happy, and I guess that’s what really matters. Superman had returned (for the time being) and things would be getting back on track for me, too.
If it seems as though I dislike Superman Returns it’s because I get hung up on the details that bother me. I don’t dislike it, nor do I particularly like it. It’s better than Superman IV and, overall, Superman III (though there are parts of Superman III I like better than anything in Superman Returns). I think it was a lost opportunity. On its own, I think there’s some great stuff in this movie, but I think some of the ideas going into it were flawed, as were many storytelling aspects of it. I think Brandon Routh could’ve done better in the role had the script (and direction) had him do so. I think Bosworth does as well as she can but is miscast as Lois Lane. I guess I just expected something better from the people who brought us X-Men and X2.
I still would have seen a sequel to this, though. It does intrigue me on where Singer and company would’ve gone. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.