Superman Returned

In the autumn of 1997, while flicking through an in-flight magazine, I read the first reports hinting at a new Superman film. Despite the rather worrying prospect of Nicolas Cage in the suit, it was then that I started looking forward to a new big screen outing for my favourite superhero. Nine years, many directors, stars and false starts1 later, and Superman Returns opened last Friday. And, thank goodness, it was worth waiting for.

Spoiler break…

Superman PosterI’ve seen it twice. As a fan you enter with expectations and hopes that you try to suppress, and part of you knows you’ll always be disappointed by something. It’s very difficult with Superman as there are multiple versions of the character in various media, all with subtly different interpretations. I happened to grow up with the comics’ ‘John Byrne revamp’ universe and origin, which is different from the modern comic interpretation as well as the original series of films, and can’t help but consider this the ‘proper’ story. I tried to put this out of my mind, and just see what happened.

Superman Returns uses the first two movies as a rough pre-story, although isn’t reliant upon the audience having seen them. In fact, it comes very close to being a modern remake of the first – maybe a remake in spirit is the best way to describe it. There are many homages to the original, including direct lifting of dialogue at times. This mostly works well, although I personally thought famous-newspaper-reporter Lois Lane fainting after meeting Superman was bad enough the first time. And she can spell, too. See what I mean about getting attached to certain viewpoints?

The good news is: Superman doesn’t turn back time by flying around the Earth backwards. Woohoo! The ending actually makes sense, at least once you realise that he’s lifting large amounts of bedrock underneath the island, so the kryptonite doesn’t affect him for just long enough to finish the job.

I needed a second screening to properly appreciate the film as a whole. The first time I was watching the acting, thinking about the plot and generally thinking ‘please don’t suck, please don’t suck’. I left the cinema not quite sure what I thought, to be honest. I knew I liked it, but there were too many different areas to parse…The second time around was much, much better. I knew it didn’t suck, so relaxed. I found it to be a thoroughly decent film, and certainly the best big-screen Superman adaptation to-date.

The superheroics were just great. You really felt it when he collided with the wing during the Shuttle rescue, and the stadium landing was a lovely touch. I liked the two slow-motion chain-gun scene, too and then there was the globe-catch…Heck, I could go on all day 🙂 The original films did a good job at the time, and there’s possibly nothing quite as exciting as the original’s helicopter catch, but modern special effects let you add so much more to the story. Superman and Lois’ night-flight, for example, looked wonderful – a definite improvement over the show-stopping original. I thought the love story between Lois and Clark was well-handled, too. She didn’t fall back into his arms, and he didn’t go after her. There was no easy resolution, and in fact everything became far more complex at the end.

It was hard to fault the acting, too. I knew Brandon Routh looked the part, but could he deliver the lines? Happily, yes. His Superman had gravitas without being pompous, and had just the right tone of voice. His Clark Kent was less bumbling than other interpretations, but I personally liked that. He was also very Christopher Reeve-like at times. However, I thought the major surprise was Kate Bosworth. She gave a spot-on, seemingly effortless performance, and it was hard to take your eyes off her. She was far more like Teri Hatcher than Margot Kidder, if you ignore the whole fainting business, and this fits far more with how I’ve always seen Lois. Kevin Spacey was, as ever, cool indeed, but much more menacing than Gene Hackman’s comedy interpretation. Lex was also nicely understated – this probably had as much to do with the direction, but he could easily have stolen the show.

Although John Williams didn’t compose the music, his original score was kept and recognisable elements were blended in throughout. I liked this. The original music is iconic, and it would make little sense to try and top it.

Possibly my favourite aspect of the film, though, was that everything looked right. This is obviously subjective, but I thought New York as Metropolis was perfect. The Daily Planet offices and building were just how newspaper offices should be. Even the clothes were great – a blend of modern and fantasy newspaperman-retro: Clark’s costume as he ran down the street before his first appearance; Lois smart yet subtly sexy throughout.

Obviously there was one major surprise that even the film’s novelization apparently doesn’t include: Superman’s child. A very, very ballsy move. Even the comics haven’t risked that as yet (outside of alternate universes etc.) and it’s probably because it would be incredibly easy to make Superman’s child the most annoying thing in the history of anything, ever. Lois & Clark ended on a cliffhanger with a superbaby delivered to their door – this made no sense, incidentally – and the leaks of plans for the fifth season were as you’d expect: a super-powered baby throwing tantrums. I just can’t see that working. You’d also risk reducing Lois to simply performing motherly duties when she’s a fantastic character in her own right. Smallville has handled the neurotic teenaged Superman and it’s hard to see what other ground there is.

However, I thought this film played him very well. Jason saved Lois almost by accident, but nothing else. I wondered whether he was going to break out of the sinking boat, or lift the sea-plane into the air, but happily he didn’t. The only real issue I have is that Superman must have slept with Lois without telling her his real identity, which he wouldn’t do2. Still, it’s not a magic cellophane s-shield and is certainly forgivable. They’ll need a hell of a writer to pull off the sequel, though, and you wonder whether Jason’ll make it out alive…

I think that children will view this as a classic movie, as I think of Back to the Future or Indiana Jones. The original Superman movie hasn’t aged well, but Bryan Singer’s brought it into the modern age in spectacular style. As director and co-writer I think he must get much of the credit, especially with what I’ve seen of previous’ directors ideas. Obviously it’s hard to say how much is down to him, but Superman Returns certainly shares its high quality with the first two X-Men movies, which seems like more than coincidence. I’m very much hoping he’ll sign on for the sequel, as he’s hinted, and summer 2009 is the current plan. I’m excited already. A three year wait? That’s nothing.

  1. one-time scriptwriter Kevin Smith later described how the producer had demanded Superman lose the suit, not be able to fly, and fight a giant spider. I read this script. It was bad. This producer is actually listed on Superman Returns, but it must be in name only. []
  2. unless, of course, this happened during the unpowered segment of Superman 2, after which she forgot about his real identity due to a magic kiss (ugh) []