Rediscovering a Classic: Superman Returns
by Marianne Paluso (@Marianne_P81)
Now that the latest Superman film Man of Steel has opened, it seems like an apropos time to watch and rediscover as many things in the Superman universe as possible whether it is Lois & Clark, Smallville, or the films from the 1970s and early 1980s. One film that certainly deserves some attention is Superman Returns, the ever maligned film by Bryan Singer that was released in 2006. This film, while somewhat successful, resulted in polarizing reactions and did not earn enough at the box office to garner a sequel. Consequently, it stands alone as a pseudo-sequel of sorts to Richard Donner’s films, Superman and Superman II. This film was eagerly anticipated, and had tremendous expectations to fulfill, and many were disappointed in it. However, those who feel this way have also unfairly asserted that it is universally known as a bad film. I think it is simply a matter of taste, sensibility, and specific expectations of what a “Superman” or “superhero” movie should be. If you watch Superman Returns with an open heart and mind you may see what I see: a beautiful, poignant film that perfectly balances action and romance and expresses themes about family, loss, and forgiveness.
In a recent interview, Bryan Singer said all of his choices were deliberately trying to evoke a nostalgic and romantic tone including the cast, photography, rich sets and designs. These choices encapsulate what I love about Superman Returns. If you enjoy the Donner Superman movies, then Singer’s film is probably for you. But if like me, you only vaguely remember them, and watch with no preconceived notions, that can also allow you to enjoy Singer’s film that is reminiscent of the past and nostalgic in feel, but still feels new and fresh. I was unaware the many lines of dialogue and specific scenes were a nod to those iconic Donner films. But I digress. This is about what Superman Return has to offer viewers.
First of all, the cast is all top notch. Chuck alum Brandon Routh plays the duality of the Superman and Clark Kent personas exceptionally well. Routh portrays him with shades of melancholy loss and uncertainty about whether he is still wanted. The world he’s returned to has changed–Lois Lane has moved on with another man, is a mother, and has won the Pulitzer Prize for an article entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Superman might be invulnerable physically to everything but Kryptonite, but he can still suffer from emotional turmoil and heartbreak. Lois Lane is portrayed by Kate Bosworth, who some felt seemed too young for the part. She is also a little subdued, but that is due to the somber material. I unfortunately always seem to do what I say you should not do–compare. My favorite Lois Lane was Teri Hartcher’s feisty and tenacious go-get-’em reporter. But comparisons like this are not really fair. Bosworth does a good job and has a nice rapport with both Routh and James Marsden, who plays her fiancé Richard White. Speaking of Marsden, he is really the unsung hero of the film. His character is decent, steadfast, and believable. A lesser actor may have made his character unlikable despite these attributes. The villainous Lex Luthor is in the capable hands of Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, whose performance had mixed reactions. I think it works well. He is not scary and creepy in a conventional or flashy way. Rather, what makes him terrifying is that his insanity and maniacal plot to create his own continent and kill millions of innocent people is played in such a matter of fact, calm manner. Rounding out the cast are Frank Langella as Perry White, Sam Huntingon as Jimmy Olsen, and Parker Posey as Luthor’s moll Kitty, all of whom slip into their roles perfectly. Huntington especially displays that wide-eyed, “aw shucks” persona that Jimmy is known for to a tea.
Another appealing aspect to Superman Returns is the balance between action and romantic, quieter moments. Moreover, both types of scenes always serve a purpose. Superman saving an airplane from crashing is one of the best movie moments I have ever seen. And like the film’s other action sequences, these sections do not go on too long and emotionally tie into the bigger story arcs. Action and character are intertwined, and connected to the romantic thread between Superman and Lois. Speaking of which, another one of the film’s best moments is when the two characters fly over Metropolis, a scene I’ve discovered is reminiscent of one from Richard Donner’s Superman. But the tone here is completely different. Superman apologizes for leaving Lois and the feeling of love, sadness, and regret are ever present.
Other enjoyable qualities hearken back to that idea of the particular taste you possess. Superman Returns is for those who appreciate subtlety and nuance in both performance and the way the film is photographed. Just because it is an action, super hero movie doesn’t mean everything must be so in your face. In one scene I particularly like, Clark helps Lois picks up some items that have fallen out her purse and his glasses fall off. She is not paying close attention and fails to notice that he hesitates putting them back on. The gesture and subtle look on his face conveys so much. You can see the longing for her to look up and see him as Superman, the man she pretends to have gotten over. You then see his frustration when he puts back on his “disguise” and she walks away. Other scenes are appealing in their deliberate lack of what you may expect- volume. For example, without giving away the climax of the film, let’s just say a scene which could have been loud and unnecessarily bombastic is instead very quiet except for an emotional musical queue. Three cheers, by the way, to composer John Ottman whose score is fantastic and memorable.
Bryan Singer is a very deliberate director. Every frame and artistic choice has meaning and adds to the richness of the film. Superman Returns may not be for everyone, but over the years it has been ever maligned and unjustly so. You may disagree with me and that is fine. Different opinions are what make the world go round. But there are many who loved Singer’s elegant and emotional Superman film. Along with Captain America and The Rocketeer (if that one counts), Superman Returns is my favorite superhero flick. There may not be many who lay claim to that opinion, but we are out there. And if you have yet to see this film, I implore you to give it a chance. Superman Returns just may dazzle you.