Superman Returns by Bryan Singer (Review)

Superman Returns feels lacking in so much of the spirit that I long for in any movie featuring costumed do-gooders.
Superman Returns

As my wife and I discussed Superman Returns after seeing it, we found ourselves reflecting on several reasons why the film didn’t work nearly as well as we’d hoped or thought it might. Mind you, we still enjoyed it, but like X‑Men: The Last Stand, it felt lacking in some rather substantial ways.

While I normally try to avoid spoilers whenever I’m writing about a movie, I might cross the line at certain points within this entry. Consider yourself warned.

First off, I will be blunt; I have never really found Superman all that compelling as a hero. And not just because I am/was more of a Marvel Comics fan. Superman was never that compelling to me as a hero because, well, he was just too heroic. Too godlike. Too infallible. Too perfect. Simply put, he was too good at his job.

This is something that resounds throughout the movie. As such, there’s never any threat, any danger, any chance that things will go horribly, horribly wrong — which is the crux of any heroic saga. With Superman, at least as presented in Superman Returns, the day will always be saved.

Of course, being well-nigh invincible has something to do with that. I think that’s why I’ve always preferred Batman (and why I get such a kick out of the beatdown Batman hands Superman in The Dark Knight Returns). For all of his deeds of derring-do, all of his training, all of his fabulous gadgets and uber-cool costumes, Batman is still just a mere mortal. And as such, there’s always a chance that he’ll fail. He can’t be everywhere at once, he can’t stop speeding bullets, and he could very well be killed in any encounter by even the lowest of thugs.

With Superman, no such problem. Now, it does look cool when Supes walks through a hail of gunfire, bullets ricocheting off his chest, and when his eyeball stops a bullet at point-blank range, but seriously, it’s Superman. You know he’s never in danger, and so what makes us care? What makes us hope? Again, it looks really cool when he’s flying through walls of fire, disintegrating shards of glass with his heat vision, saving people from falling to their death, etc. But if you ask me, it feels more like Superman is just checking things off a “To Do” list.

And it doesn’t help that the main villain of the movie, the illustrious Lex Luthor, isn’t all that, well, villainous. Sure, he has a plan that will kill billions, but for starters, his villainous plan involves — gasp — real estate! That’s the evil, nefarious deed?!? Not too compelling or “leave me quaking in my boots” if you ask me. And for supposedly being Superman’s arch-nemesis, full of hatred and spite for the Man of Steel, he’s not too hot in that category either. There’s the inevitable showdown, but it certainly lacks the punch, thrills, and danger of say, Spider-Man’s confrontation with the Green Goblin.

In that scenario, Spidey is forced to make a most difficult choice: save the woman he loves, or save a bunch of innocent bystanders. And it’s in overcoming that dilemma that the ol’ webslinger proves his heroism, his courage, and his strength. In confronting Luthor, Supes is barely forced to break a sweat, even when he’s lifting an entire continent. For all of his hatred for Supes, does Luthor do anything particularly distressing?

He grabs the requisite kryptonite, but that’s practically a given. But if I were Lex, I’d hit Supes where it truly hurt the most. I’d terrorize him, not by picking up some radioactive shards of his homeworld, but by going after those he loves. I’d start with Lois Lane and go from there. I’d pull an Owen Davian, and promise to hurt those people, while still going about my other plan for world domination. While the Lex Luthor of the movie does get eventually get Lane in his clutches, it’s by sheer accident, not any criminal moxie on Luthor’s part. For all of his conniving and megalomania, Luthor shows fairly little initiative and sheer “love to hate him” wickedness. At least, not the kind that’s on par with his supposed burning hatred of Superman.

Naturally, this being a Superman movie, the day is saved (not that there was any doubt). But do you really feel like the world is a better place? In another recent superhero movie, The Incredibles, the return of the superheroes was something to celebrate. The world suddenly seemed more exciting, more mysterious, more hopeful. But with Superman back, so what? Yes, the world cries out for a savior, as Superman so eloquently states, but is this the sort of savior the world wants? A guy whose so good, his heroism doesn’t inspire any… well… anything?

There are other things about Superman Returns that fall flat as well, such as the over-reliance on the audience’s knowledge of the first two films and the underwhelming case for Superman’s guilt at leaving Earth in the first place. Both of which make me think that the film would have been better as a new origins movie that completely rebooted the franchise, rather than one that tries to pick up where things left off 26 years ago.

However, I think my ultimate beef with the movie is that it wants to have its cake and eat it to. It wants to be both a mythic hero story and a big-budget summer blockbuster action-packed flick. And while it’s somewhat successful at the latter, it’s ultimately lackluster on both counts.

I still get tears and goosebumps while watching the first Superman Returns trailer, what with its subtle use of John Williams’ classic score and more importantly, Marlon Brando’s magnificent dialog. It resonates with me, due in no small part to the blatant Christian imagery and language. And it speaks to the one aspect that I really do like about Superman, the character’s otherworldly mythic-ness. Which, sadly, gets something of a short shrift in the actual movie.

Sure, there’s a smattering of Marlon Brando’s words that encourage the discombobulated and doubt-ridden Superman, but they feel more like afterthoughts. Or even worse, a rather blatant attempt to tap into the nostalgia of the first two Superman films (of which Superman Returns is a loose continuation). They fail to resonate, at least with me, or help to elevate Superman to the sort of savior-like figure that he’s so obviously intended to be. In short, the movie never inspired, moved, or captivated me nearly as much as that original trailer.

As for the action being something of a letdown, I will say that on a purely visual level, it was fantastic. The adrenaline certainly was pumping when Superman makes his big reappearance and saves a doomed airplane full of journalists. Those shots of Superman punching through flaming wreckage… those were the film’s money shots, IMHO.

But then you realize, thanks to Superman’s infallibility, that such deeds are just going to be par for the course, and that he’ll always pull off some miracle, all the while probably stifling a yawn.

In the pantheon of recent superhero movies, I place Superman Returns towards the lower half. Probably just below the first X‑Men movie, just above the most recent X‑Men movie, and well above Daredevil, if that helps. I did enjoy it as a three-and-a-half-star film. But compared to all of the recent films featuring costumed crusaders, of which there have been so many stellar instances (something that has the inner junior higher in me jumping for joy), Superman Returns feels lacking in so much of the spirit that I long for in any movie featuring costumed do-gooders.

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