It was thought that Superman Returns was going to restart the Superman franchise after an absence of nearly twenty years following the abysmal and in many ways, horrifying Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Having as its director Bryan Singer (who had brought the second-tier comic book heroes X-Men to two successful films) was most assuring to comic book fans. Well, guess again.
Superman Returns may have done well at the box office, and may have pleased most critics, but its cold, remote manner, its heavy symbolism and seriousness, coupled with some really idiotic decisions in front and behind the camera, killed off any chance that this Superman Returns for more adventures, at least with this group. In short, Superman Returns is a fiasco in so many ways: artistically, story-wise, and even in entertainment value.
Superman has disappeared for five years. According to the legend (the text that comes before the opening credits), we're told that astronomers may have located what might be Krypton, so Superman has flown off into deep space. Apparently finding nothing, he comes back.
(As a side note, I figure it took 2 1/2 years both ways, leading to many questions about food and rest and possible adventures...as well as how Superman returned in a virtual spaceship, but now I digress).
Coincidentally (although no one else apparently noticed), Clark Kent also disappeared for five years, and now Clark (Brandon Routh) has found his way back to the Metropolis Daily Planet newspaper after some time with Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint), his adoptive mother. His return thrills junior photographer Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington), but apart from him no one seems to care. Lois isn't there to see Clark: she's covering the launch of a new super-jet aboard said jet. Clark learns that Lois wouldn't be happy about his alter ego returning either. She won a Pulitzer for the editorial Why the World Doesn't Need Superman (which might have been a good name for the movie, but now I am jumping ahead). Needless to say, she wouldn't be thrilled to meet the Kryptonian she loved and lost.
Needless to say also, she needs rescuing when her plane is in trouble. For that, we have to back up a bit. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), Superman's arch-nemesis, has come into a boat-load of money (pun intended)...the film suggests he did so by "entering"... I mean, "entertaining" a wealthy widow "with the pleasures of his charms". Put that in your mind...Lex Luthor boffing a woman old enough to be his GRANDMOTHER in exchange for cash (making the greatest criminal mind of our age just a run-of-the-mill hooker)! In any case, as a result of his fortune, he takes his mistress Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) and henchmen to the North Pole where he either knows or doesn't know about the Fortress of Solitude. There, he learns the power of the crystals from Jor-El (Marlon Brando via clips from Superman).
Luthor had gone down to his Old Lady's mansion (pun unintended), where one of his henchmen (Kal Penn) cuts just a tiny sliver of a crystal to drop in the lake of the massive toy train set located in the basement. This one little bit of crystal is enough to knock out the power all throughout Metropolis, the Eastern Seaboard, and even out into the super-plane and the Air Force jet it's riding on. Hence, when the super-jet goes crazy, Superman comes to save the day.
Once Lois does come back to the Daily Planet, she's obviously not thrilled to find the Man of Steel has returned. However, she does have some comforts: a fiancée, Richard White (James Marsden), who is the nephew of Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella). She also has a son. Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu), who is extremely delicate (he has an inhaler and is allergic to so many foods). Clark is not too happy about this development, but not much he can do about it, can he?
In any case, Luthor, also learning that Superman Returns, decides to kill two birds with one stone: he will steal Kryptonite from a museum while Kitty serves as a diversion for Superman to rescue. Luthor will also create a new continent with the crystals (while said continent will apparently wipe out the eastern United States, but that's a small price). Lois, who snuck into Luthor's massive yatch with Jason in tow, learns of this scheme. However, Luthor becomes suspicious when little Jason has a strong reaction to the Kryptonite. All doubts about Jason's true parentage are dispensed when he is able to throw a piano across the ballroom to save Lois from another henchman.
Superman saves Lois, Jason, and Richard (who has flown in for a failed rescue attempt...must have been directed by Jimmy Carter), then attempts to confront Luthor on his Lonely Island. However, since the island contains Kryptonite, Superman is weak and cannot fight back. Luthor stabs him with pure Kryptonite and throws him into the sea. Lois however gets Richard to go back for him, pulls out the Kryptonite, and with him restored by the power of the Sun, he goes back, carries the island into space...the same island brimming with Kryptonite that makes him too weak to throw a punch but strong enough to lift it into outer space. This forces the evil group to flee, killing the henchmen in the process. Still, the weight of the world (figuratively and literally I imagine) weakens him so that he crashes onto Earth.
While he lays in a coma Lois, with Richard's blessing, goes to him. In the end, her faith and love in Superman restored, Lois looks up to see her Man of Steel. He in turn goes to the one he now finds is the Grandson of Krypton, who for me shall go by his Kryptonian name of Isra-El.
Superman Returns is a bad film through and through. We know it even before the credits roll because it just throws us in the middle of the story without ever bothering to set up or tell the audience anything. Throughout Superman Returns I kept thinking that screenwriters Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty (who with director Bryan Singer created the story) A.) either expected the audience to know everything surrounding the Superman mythos already or B.) wanted us to basically figure it out for ourselves.
How can I put it? We as the audience were never formally introduced. Instead, we just jump into the story and are never offered any reason or explanation as to who any of these people were or why they are the way they are. What are their relations to each other? Why is Jimmy so happy to see Clark back? What about Lois? While we know she isn't happy Superman is back (and really, what girl is pleased to see the guy who screwed her and then screwed her over AND left her with a kid to boot), what are her feelings for/about Clark? I don't think the film ever addressed that.
Here is where we start running into so many problems story-wise. WHO is Lex Luthor? Other than that he was sent to prison because of Superman, what real grudge does he have against the Man of Steel? I'm sure many people were imprisoned because of Superman, so what makes Luthor so important? (As a side note, we're told he was set free because Superman didn't show up to testify against him? SERIOUSLY...Superman was the ONLY witness or evidence the state had against Luthor? What kind of world is Metropolis?). Why should we believe Luthor is some sort of master-criminal when his master plan is to create a continent that makes Devil's Island look like the Bahamas? (Really, it was a stupid plan from the get-go, and no criminal mastermind...or sensible screenwriter...would have thought up anything so comically inept). Who are these henchmen (and why is Penn silent throughout the film? Yes, he's not a good actor, but that's beside the point at this juncture)?
WHY is there a massive toy train set in the basement of Luthor's mansion? One can't seriously imagine Lex Luthor, criminal mastermind, playing with toy trains. One can't imagine the Grandma Moses whom Luthor has been screwing figuratively and literally using toy trains either. So who used it, why, and why here? You'd think Luthor could have gone anywhere to test out his oddball crystal theories, so why in the basement holding toy trains?
Again and again Superman Returns never bothers to stop and either show or tell us who these people are, why we should care about them, or really what is going on. Why should we care for Clark or Superman since we don't even know him? Same goes for any of our characters. Superman Returns in this respect feels like we've entered in the middle of the show rather than the start (or restart) of something, and given its two-and-a-half hour running time, there was more than enough opportunity to introduce the story and characters.
Further, Superman Returns does a wild disservice to Lane's character. Exactly HOW does one forget that she got knocked up by the Last Son of Krypton? Further, since Richard (and apparently Lois) believe Jason to be Richard's son, does this mean she was sleeping with BOTH of them at the same time? It just doesn't make any sense. This 'shocking' twist was thrown in just to throw it in, to give Kal-El a way to tie him to Lois on a more permanent basis and attempt to put in Isra-El for the hoped-for sequel.
The revelation as to Jason's true identity is not a shock. It really is a cheat. WE are never told, let alone shown, just how far the relationship entre Lois et Superman ever went. Whenever Lois accidentally suggests that theirs was more than a friendship, she quickly shuts that line of thought down. Now we're being told that Jason is Superman's SON?! Lois never suggests or apparently thinks that Kal-El has anything to do with little Isra-El (as I lovingly call him). It would have been one thing if she weren't engaged or if Richard knew that Jason wasn't his son, but what kind of woman would pass off someone else's kid to a man as his own? Maybe...a slut, or an incredibly stupid woman.
Then again, given nobody made the connection between Superman and Clark's simultaneous disappearance, perhaps everyone in Metropolis is an imbecile.
The performances are almost all universally awful. I once thought that Brandon Routh was actually not bad as the Man of Steel. Certain things have altered by idea. First, there was his abysmal performance in the abysmal Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (please, whatever you do, don't watch it). Second, there was my second viewing of Superman Returns. When Routh is standing or posing as Superman, he is imposing. Whenever he speaks as Superman however, he is stiff, unconvincing, flat, lifeless. There is no emotion in anything he does as either Superman or Clark Kent. It's one thing to give a bad performance. It's quite another to see what Routh managed to do: give a bad performance in TWO roles. He is unconvincing as the bumbling, shy Clark or the strong and sure Man of Steel.
The same goes for Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane. She looks bored as Lane (perhaps in an effort to match Routh's disinterest in the story too). Bosworth I confess is not one of my favorite actresses (I don't think I've ever seen a good Bosworth film) but whether expressing 'anger' or 'romantic confusion' (either with Richard or Superman) she never seems to change her expression.
One other thing about Bosworth in Superman Returns. She speaks too fast when there is no need to (for example, when telling Clark about her 'anger' that Superman just up and left...which would have been a good segway to ask Clark, 'By the way, where were YOU these past five years?').
About the only one who saves himself any embarrassment is Huntington as Jimmy Olsen. He seems to get that this is not suppose to be a Werner Herzog exploration into the dark recesses of the human soul, but a fun film. He brought the only lightness in Superman Returns and kept to the traditional portrayal of Jimmy Olsen as an eager but naive kid. Huntington has the benefit of being the comic relief, and given how somber the whole film is any sense of fun is needed.
Here is where Singer made his biggest mistake: making Superman Returns not a joyful but a somber affair. If you look at all the other actors (Marsden, Langella, Posey up to a point but certainly the silent Penn who just stares around for no reason), we can see that Singer thought of Superman Returns as a 'serious' film, a major epic to be treated with great solemnity. However, in his efforts to make it 'grand' he ended up making it dull and lifeless. Everyone (save Huntington's Olsen) treated everything in Superman Returns with such seriousness, such deep reverence, one would think they were working at a funeral home.
A prime example is when Richard asks Lois about an article she wrote many years ago. I Spent the Night With Superman (only time will tell if there's a double meaning...hint, hint...which Lane quickly dismisses). Both Marsden and Bosworth act as if they were performing Long Day's Journey Into Night rather than a long-term couple discussing the state of their relationship without actually mentioning it.
This tone of self-seriousness, this heaviness that permeates Superman Returns takes all the fun out of the film. Almost everything in Superman Returns (the performances, the story, the cinematography) suggests this is less a dark film than a sad one. The film is just so cold and remote and distant from us that it makes it impossible to really care about anything or anyone in it.
I had mentioned that it felt like we were walking into the middle of the story, and this is because Superman Returns turns out to be quite confused about its identity. The film is brazen in its use of referencing Superman and Superman II to where it suggests that it is actually a sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve films. It just isn't the opening (which not only uses John Williams' brilliant Superman Theme but the same title opening sequence) that it 'borrows' from Superman. Stretches of dialogue from Superman force their way in (in both Superman and Superman Returns the Man of Steel tells Lois, "You really shouldn't smoke, Miss Lane." In Superman, that makes sense: he is pretending not to know Lois, but in Superman Returns that is a rather odd way to address the woman he bedded and wants to win over again). When Kitty asks Luthor if he's been to the Fortress of Solitude before because he seems to know so much about it, Spacey (who is just as serious as everyone else in the film) just turns and doesn't answer...which makes it unclear what Superman Returns is suppose to be.
Having Marlon Brando appear seems to tie the Reeve films with Returns, but then we run into a mess that can't be fixed. IF Returns is a sequel to Superman and Superman II, then we can point out that Superman and Lois made love AFTER he was transformed into a fully-human being in Superman II. Therefore, he was no longer Superman (and thus, had no super-sperm). While this would tie in to Lois eventually giving birth to the Grandson of Krypton and she could have forgotten they had been lovers (which if one didn't watch Superman/Superman II one wouldn't know all this though), it also doesn't answer how Clark Kent could impregnate Lois with a child with his powers if said powers had just been removed.
Just like Twilight never answers how a vampire can produce sperm, Superman Returns (IF it is a sequel to Superman & Superman II) never answers how a mere mortal could create a child with Kryptonian powers.
I found Superman Returns neither sequel or reboot or re-imagining of the story of the Last Son of Krypton. Instead, Superman Returns is this odd hybrid that never decided exactly what it was going to be. That, more than anything Lex Luthor might have planned, killed off any hopes for a franchise with Routh as the Man of Steel, which in the end might be the only saving grace Superman Returns can grant us.
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