Forgotten Classics: Superman Returns

For many years now, I have asked myself a question; a question that I can never seem to get an answer to. Well that’s not entirely true, I have just never really found an answer that has truly satisfied me. That question is; why is Superman Returns considered to be a bad film?

I have heard people say that it is boring, that the film does not have enough action, the film rips off the first Superman, as well as arguments of the character’s irrelevancy in a modern context. However, to me, these arguments have all rang hollow every time I sit down to watch this film.

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For those who are unaware, the plot of Superman Returns focuses on Superman’s return to Earth. The film is, somewhat, of a sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve films. For the past five years Superman journeyed into space, to find the remnants of Krypton, in the hope that he may find some survivors. However, this search results in him finding no one.

Superman returns to Metropolis and returns to work at The Daily Planet Newspaper, in his secret identity as Clark Kent. However, he soon discovers that the world that has moved on. People have gotten on with their lives, tragedies have occurred that the world has dealt with without him and his former love, Lois Lane, has not only moved on, but she is about to receive The Pulitzer Prize for an article entitled, Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”.

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While all of this is going on, Lex Luthor is attempting to use crystals from Superman’s home world for nefarious means. Clark has to deal with Lex threat, while also attempting to answer the question, is he truly needed?

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Lets start from the beginning here. I absolutely love this story. I love that the film flat out confronts the question, what is the point of Superman, and makes it the crux of its story. The film allows Superman to make a case for himself, which is epitomised in the line, “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a saviour, but everyday I hear people crying for one”.

For me, this is the reason most people did not like this film. This was the first time that Superman had been on big screen in 19 years. Since then, technology had come on dramatically, and people wanted to see a story in which Superman got to fully display his powers. On top of this, Superman doesn’t truly have a physical threat he can go toe to toe with, a la General Zod.

While it is true that Superman does not have someone to fight physically, I feel that the film does have a number of rousing moments where he does make full use of his powers. However, these scenes are used sparingly and only to further the story of Superman in a world that feels it no longer needs him. There were a lot of risks taken with this script and I feel that Dan Harris, Michael Dougherty and Bryan Singer all deserve credit for it’s crafting.

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Michael Dougherty, Bryan Singer and Dan Harris

Speaking of Bryan Singer, I feel that Singer, along with his Cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigil, have crafted a film that, to this day, still is stunning to behold. There are some truly beautiful scenes in this film that stick with me. The scene of the plane falling from the sky, Superman flying through Metropolis, saving people as the city begins to crumble and the lifting of an island are all so beautifully shot. The fact that they are rarely talked about still confuses me almost ten years later.

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This all leads me to another complaint levied against the film. That it is a rip off of the first Christopher Reeve Superman film. While I will admit that some scenes are similar, I would not go as far as to call it a rip off.

One of the scenes, that is frequently referred to, is the scene in which Superman flies through Metropolis with Lois. While the scene does mirror the flying scene from the first film, the important thing that many seem to forget, is that the context of the scene has changed dramatically.

In the first film, the scene is a purely romantic scene, but in Superman Returns, the scene is laced with nostalgia, but also the realisation that they are two people in very different situations than they were in all those years ago. Lois, in particular, is in a relationship and has a child. During this scene, it feels like a reminder that no matter how much either character may want to, they can’t go back.

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Time has moved on for Lois and Clark

The performances in the film are all very good. Brandon Routh (Legends of Tomorrow) has a particularly difficult job in the role of Superman. Routh has to have a similar aura to Christopher Reeve’s immortal portrayal of the character, while also trying to take it in new directions. While Routh is not as good as Reeve (no one will ever be) he brings enough of his own take to the character to make a compelling performance

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Brandon Routh as Superman

Kate Bosworth (Beyond the Sea) has just as unenviable task as Routh. However, the big difference is that Lois is in such a radically different position, than when Margot Kidder played the character, that it allows Bosworth the freedom to craft her own take on the character, while retaining what worked from before.

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Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane

As for Kevin Spacey, nothing needs to be said. Spacey is incredible in the role of Lex Luthor. Even people who hate this film think that Spacey is a great Luthor. However, there is one problem I do have with this role. I feel that Spacey has his own take on Luthor, but at certain points he feels beholden to Gene Hackman’s performance. This can lead to some truly dark moments from the character, followed up by some out of place comedy. However, these moments are few and far between and do not take away from the majesty that is Spacey in this role.

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Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor

One character that I feel is always forgotten about in this film is James Marsden (X-Men) as Richard White and is one of its greatest strengths. For those who are unaware, Richard White is Lois’ boyfriend throughout the movie. In a lesser film, this character would be some two dimensional obstacle for Superman to overcome. However, the filmmakers made the wise decision of making him a fully formed character.

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James Marsden as Richard White

Throughout the film, he shows himself to be a good, caring and brave man. In many ways, he has similar characteristics to Superman, but without the powers. You can understand why Lois loves him and he comes across as a truly great man.

It goes without saying that there are great performances in the film from the likes of Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) as Perry White and Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront) as Martha Kent, but there is no need to go into these performances. They are great actors and they deliver great performances. There is absolutely no shock in this.

Frank Langella as Perry White and Eva Marie Saint as Martha Kent

Superman Returns stands as a testament to me of the importance of Superman and why he is still a relevant character almost 80 years after his creation. In the face of a world that has grown progressively darker, it shows us that, even in the face of this, there is still light. In 1978, the tagline for Richard Donner’s Superman was, “You will believe a man can fly”. With Superman Returns you will still believe this, but you will believe he can feel as well.

Superman Returns Trailer

Written By James Campbell

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