Throughout this blog I’ve taken lots of shots at Superman Returns. Until now, I’ve never had the heart to write a formal rebuttal to the unfortunate stain this misguided disaster of a film has left on the Superman mythology, much less offer any suggestions for how I wish it would’ve been done.
So let’s do this.
What Superman Returns gives us is a hero who values neither responsibility nor accountability. In my book, that makes him not a hero at all. At the beginning of the film, we’re told that Superman has been absent from Earth for five years. He decided to run off into space to see if anything — or anyone — remained in the wake of his home planet’s destruction. But given that 30 years or more have surely passed since Krypton exploded, why go now? What did he expect to find in the first place? It’s such a weak concept and there’s no attempt in the film to justify or explain it.
In 2005, Batman Begins revitalized Batman with a film that sent Bruce Wayne back to the drawing board. It was a massive success to both critics and fans, erasing the mistakes of past Batman films by building a new Gotham City full of infinite possibilities and adventures. It got to the heart of Bruce Wayne without taking anything away from the seriousness of Batman.
Director Bryan Singer, however, had a different plan for Superman.
Rather than kicking off a new franchise with a new take on the Man of Steel for a new generation, Singer decided to make a sequel to Superman 2, which opened 26 years before Superman Returns debuted. In doing so, his selective sequel would effectively ignore Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (which, despite massive flaws, at least had its heart in the right place).
In Superman II, Superman gave up his powers to share a normal, mortal life with Lois Lane. During this time, the newly human Clark made love to Lois and all was right in his world. In our world, however, things weren’t so good. With Superman powerless, General Zod and his Kryptonian cronies arrived from the Phantom Zone to put the big bad hurt on planet Earth. Superman got his powers back in just enough time to save the day, but the damage had been done.
And so, at the end of the film, he leaves us with a promise. “Sorry I’ve been away so long. I won’t let you down again.”
But in Superman Returns, the Superman who’d just promised that he’d never let us down again turns right around and … lets us down again.
He doesn’t tell the world.
He doesn’t tell Lois.
He simply hops in his little spaceship and runs off for five years, leaving a world that needs him to go search for the ruins of a planet he knows isn’t going to be there anyway. (Even if his mission had merit, I think Lois and the world would have understood if he’d said, “Hey, I have to go do this thing, but I’ll be back as quickly as I can. In the meantime, always brush your teeth at least twice a day. And kids, stay in school.”)
The only person who knew about his five-year field trip was poor Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint), who found baby Kal-El all those years ago and raised him as Clark Kent with her late husband, Jonathan. When Martha asks Clark if he found anything, he tells her he found nothing but a graveyard.
And so Clark leaves his widowed mother alone on the big old farm — yet again! — to return to Metropolis, reclaim his old job at The Daily Planet and hop back in the sack with sweet, sweet Lois.
But there’s a problem. Lois — who got her grief out of her system by writing a Pulitzer-winning editorial about why the world doesn’t need Superman — is now engaged to Daily Planet editor Perry White’s nephew, Richard. She also has a sweet, clumsy, illness-prone five-year-old son named Jason.
(Superman was gone for five years … Jason is five years old … gee … I wonder how that will turn out.)
The math is obvious to the audience, but Superman doesn’t care about Richard or the kid. All he wants is a hot piece of Lois. In the scene where he ambushes her on the roof of The Daily Planet, he lifts her gently into the air.
“Richard takes me flying all the time,” she tells him. (Richard has an airplane.)
“Not like this,” he replies while making goo-goo eyes. And so he takes her flying, just like in the old days before he was a coward and a deadbeat dad.
He flies them right past the happy home she shares with Richard and Jason, as if to say, “Hey, look at his tiny little airplane down there! Look at big super me up here! I win!” And how does he know where Lois and Richard live? Because earlier in the film he flew there and hid behind a tree and used his x-ray vision and his super-hearing to spy on them.
When they get back to The Daily Planet and almost share a kiss that Lois thankfully pulls the plug on, Superman uses his super-speed to get back to the conference room before Lois does. By the time she arrives, Clark is sitting there sharing burritos with Richard and Jason.
Are we supposed to laugh at this? Just moments before, Superman was trying to seduce Lois on the roof with zero regard for her fiancé and zero regard for her child. And now he’s sitting there as Clark Kent, having dinner with them.
He doesn’t even ask Lois about Jason when he makes his move on the roof. But he knows she has a child who’s just the right age to possibly be his own. And he knows she’s engaged to a good, good man who loves her very much and is a wonderful, loving father to Jason. He shows no respect for Richard, no respect for the child and no respect for Lois. Period. And that’s not Superman.
But that’s not to say that Lois is Little Miss Truth and Light. On Lex’s yacht, when Lex shows Lois and Jason a big chunk of Kryptonite, Lois freaks out and immediately and pulls Jason close to her. Why? Because she knows who Jason’s father really is!
Lex notices her reaction. “Who is this boy’s father?”
“Richard,” Lois responds way too quickly.
And there it is. Lois Lane — the one woman on the planet who could steal the heart of the hero who came to us from beyond our own solar system’s stars — reveals herself as a liar.
She’s lying to Richard, the man who fiercely loves her and the child he thinks is his (and theirs).
She’s lying to sweet little Jason, who trusts his mommy and dearly loves the man he thinks is his real father.
The only person she’s not lying to is Superman, but that’s only because he was too busy trying to get her pants off to ask about her kid.
Thrown into all of this is Richard White, who’s the true Superman in this movie. Knowing that Lois is still in love with Superman doesn’t stop Richard from risking his own life to rescue the Man of Steel. And when Superman is “dead” at the hospital, Richard fights his way through the crowd to make sure that Lois can get to Superman’s side. That’s how much he loves her.
Lois, of course, brings Jason into the hospital room with her and whispers the truth of Jason’s lineage into Superman’s ear. Before she leaves the room, she kisses him. And Jason, mimicking what he just saw his mommy do, runs up and kisses Superman, too.
The audience was too busy going “awww” to realize how awful and creepy this was; everybody’s kissing Superman while Richard — the poor guy who’s being taken advantage of and taken for granted and lied to — waits patiently for them out in the car.
Later that night, after Superman checks himself out of the hospital, he goes to Lois and Richard’s house and lets himself into Jason’s room to talk to the boy while he sleeps. It’s like the final slap in the face to Richard. “Ha, look at me! I’m sneaking around in your kid’s bedroom! And you know what else? He’s not your kid! And you know what else? If I wanted to, I could drop a school bus on your crappy little plane, biyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! I win!”
Lois catches Superman hovering away from Jason’s window and asks him if they’ll see him again. “I’m always around,” he says.
Yeah, “I’m always around your house, sneaking into our kid’s room and using my powers to spy on you and the poor sucker we’re both lying to.”
How are we supposed to have any respect for Superman and Lois? He runs away — for five years! — at the drop of a hat and takes no responsibility for the mess he left behind, and she’s taking advantage of the good love of a good man who’s trapped in a lie about the child he loves and believes is his own.
When I walked out of the movie, the only character for whom I had any respect was Richard. Even poor little Jason had become a murderer — okay, so it was technically manslaughter — by smashing one of Lex’s goons to death with a tossed piano. But don’t worry. Lois and Superman are too busy building lies and being horrible people to talk to the kid about what happened.
There’s also the matter of Lois’s smoking, which is supposed to be a funny running joke. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing funny about a mother who smokes when she’s got a severely asthmatic child. And what was up with how poorly Lois treated Clark? She dismisses him and even shows contempt for him, as if her character in this film needed to be any less likable. Since this is a sequel she’s playing Margot Kidder’s Lois, who cared about Clark and was always looking out for him. There’s none of that here. This Clark also has none of the heart we got from Reeve’s take on Superman’s alter ego. He’s just kind of there, with not a lot to do.
The ultimate crime of Superman Returns is that this is how Bryan Singer chose to reintroduce Superman to a new generation of young fans, all while delivering a swift kick to the guts of those of us who grew up loving the character. How are parents supposed to explain this movie to their children?
And that’s the problem. Bryan Singer didn’t make Superman Returns for the fans and their families. He made Bryan Singer’s Superman III for himself, treating it like some kind of gazillion-dollar vanity project.
Blame must fall in part to Warner Bros. for letting him do it in the first place. X-Men and X2 are excellent, and The Usual Suspects is a modern classic. He’s a smart director who, in the past, has done his best to emphasize character and story above all else. But the best idea he has for Superman is to turn him into a deadbeat dad?
The suits at Warner Bros. should have said, “Look, Bryan, we admire your work. We do. But rather than making a selective sequel to a movie franchise that’s older than a lot of people who’ll be seeing your movie, why don’t we do what we did with Batman Begins and start fresh with something that Superman fans from every generation can enjoy? In fact, let’s.”
Instead, we got a movie that’s weighed down not only by the baggage of its decades-old predecessors but buckles even further under new baggage of its own.
And how do you make a sequel to this movie? Any sequel to this mess has no choice but to deal with the kid. That’s the corner the franchise has already been painted into. And what are they going to do about Richard White? They could kill him off, but that would be too easy. They could turn him evil, but that would be massively out of character.
To defend himself, Singer said, “Now that the character is established, I’d like to take the opportunity to bring in a more threatening element, a more terrible, foreboding element” in the sequel.
Now that the character is established?
Superman has been established since 1938! Singer didn’t have to establish anything! All he did was reestablish Superman as a deadbeat dad and a coward! It’s pathetic and unforgivable.
And such is the hand we’ve been dealt.
Having said all that, I really did enjoy Brandon Routh as Superman. He channeled Christopher Reeve’s Superman, which was appropriate given the fact that he was playing Christopher Reeve’s Superman. Kate Bosworth — a 22-two-year old playing a character who’s got to be at least 35 given that five years passed between the events of Superman II and this movie — brought more fire and maturity to Lois Lane than the script ever gave her to work with.
Kevin Spacey was obviously having a good time as Lex Luthor. James Marsden gave everything he’s got and then some to Richard White and, as I said earlier, he’s the only character in the movie who behaves with goodness and honor.
For Singer’s part, he shot the film beautifully. But he was so caught up in the film’s kinky, convoluted story that he couldn’t elevate the film beyond his own senseless, self-imposed limitations.
And for the record, Mr. Singer, your film is not a tribute to what Christopher Reeve and original Superman: The Movie director Richard Donner started in 1978. (While the John Williams music used in this movie still gets my heart going, this terrible story doesn’t have the right to be attached to such a majestic score.) It’s a slap in the face of everything they accomplished, doing more damage to Superman’s character than the much-maligned Joel Schumacher ever did to Batman.
I’ve heard lots of people say they liked the movie. I always ask why. I usually hear something like, “Because it was awesome when he caught the crashing airplane!”
Yes. It was indeed awesome when he caught the crashing airplane. But that’s just a special effect.
In Batman Begins, Batman says, “It’s what I do that defines me.”
So. What does Superman do in Superman Returns? He runs away from the planet and the people he’d just sworn to protect, without telling anyone and without giving any explanation for his actions. He runs away from a woman he’d been sleeping with, and five years later he expects her to fall back into bed with him with no regard for the fiancé and the child who took his place in her life. And at the end of the movie, when he finds out he’s the child’s father, he once again shuns both responsibility and accountability for his actions. Superman’s a deadbeat dad and Lois is a liar. Unbelievable.
You can talk all day about how cool it was when he caught the crashing airplane, but that’s the kind of thing Superman does anyway. His deeper actions and behaviors are cowardly and deplorable. And at the end of the day, that’s what counts.
I’m not saying I could do better. But here’s how I’d try:
If I got to produce a new Superman movie, I’d take my ideas from the current comics, which thankfully have nothing to do with — and were not in any way affected by — the events of Superman Returns.
In the comics, Clark and Lois have been happily married for several years. That might sound boring to some, but I think it’s brilliant — other superheroes have trouble with romance, but Clark and Lois figured it out and got it right. For example, in Superman issue 654, Kurt Busiek tells the story of a day that just happens to fall on a special anniversary for the couple. Clark’s got a huge stack of end-of-the-day newspaper deadlines to power through, but emergencies keep popping up around the city that he’s got to take care of as Superman. And he keeps getting farther and farther behind on his stories, to the point that he doesn’t get any of them done in time. When he gets home, Lois — waiting in a hot little lingerie number and holding a bottle of champagne — tells him she finished his stories for him and filed them under his name. He scoops her up in his arms and flies her up into the air as we learn that the anniversary they’re celebrating is of the first time he took her flying. That’s teamwork.
It’s a great piece of storytelling that shows how a relationship between a married couple in their late 30s can still be fun and exciting and romantic. It was 22 pages of big action, big laughs and true love. That’s the springboard I’d use to establish how I’d play the relationship between Clark and Lois in my movie.
Now I need a story. I won’t even begin to kid myself that I’ve got what it takes to make up a good Superman story, but I do know a good one when I see it. That’s why I’d adapt the current “Last Son” storyline from Action Comics, which is being co-written by Geoff Johns and … Richard Donner!
As the story begins, a spaceship not unlike the one that brought Clark to Earth crashes in Metropolis. Inside the ship is a young boy who speaks Kryptonian and possesses all of Superman’s abilities. Clark rescues the boy from the military, and he and Lois decide to try to raise him. Lois names him Christopher Kent, in a loving nod from Donner to the late, great Christopher Reeve.
But as it turns out, Chris and his little spaceship were used to punch a hole through the wall of the Phantom Zone by the boy’s true parents — General Zod and his lover/lieutenant, Ursa. Along with Non, a hulking behemoth who was once a brilliant scientist alongside Jor-El before he was lobotomized into a mindless mountain of muscle, Zod and Ursa are now free and ready to bring their super-powered war to the new home of the son of Jor-El. They also want their child back.
They’re going to have to go through Superman to get him.
It’s a great story with big heart, massive action and a kid the kids in the audience could actually relate to. Donner and Johns found a way to do what Singer couldn’t, and it’s a shame that this story didn’t get to be the movie that brought Superman back to the big screen. In other words, you can have a kid in a Superman movie without reducing Superman and Lois to cookie-cutter soap opera characters the way Singer did.
(My favorite scene from the story so far has been the one where Clark and Lois are talking about the background they’ve created for Christopher. When Clark mentions how Batman helped them fake all the paperwork, Christopher asks, “Who’s Batman?” Lois responds, “Someone you’re not meeting until you’re 16.” When Clark goes on to say that Batman created a good secret identity for Wonder Woman, Christopher asks, “Who’s Wonder Woman?” Lois responds, “Someone you’re not meeting until you’re 18.” I love it.)
I’d cast Jim Caviezel — with his laser-blue eyes and an uncanny ability to channel kindness, maturity and strong, quiet nobility — as Clark/Superman. For Lois, I’d want the curvy, confident, tough and utterly gorgeous Carla Gugino. Cast Clive Owen as Zod, Carrie-Anne Moss as Ursa and Michael Clark Duncan as Non and you’ve got yourself a feature film.
Busiek, who’s cranking out good stories left and right in the comics, could work on the script with Donner and Geoff Johns. Donner directs. And there it is.
I’ll never understand how Superman Returns got made, and I hate that Singer’s inevitable sequel will have no choice but to build upon the story corners he painted himself into at the end of the first one. I wish they’d just say, “Hey, thanks for watching Bryan Singer’s attempt at Superman III, we thank him for his efforts, that story has been told and now we’re starting over from scratch with a new take and a new direction. It worked for Batman. Now let us work for you.”
Oh, well. Check out “Last Son” right now in Action Comics, assuming that artist Adam Kubert can ever get his act together and finish his part of it. But that’s a blog for another day.
And if you managed to make it this far, thank you. It means you probably love Superman as much as I do.
More to come.