Almost Like He Never Left (Except Not Really)
Even since Tim Burton unleashed the Batdance on the world (with Batman '89), Warner Bros. had been looking for some way to bring SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. back to the big screen. It had been only two years since Superman IV: The Quest for Peace had face-planted at the Box office, and the studio heads expected that some kind of reboot would be needed since superheros were still, clearly, big business.
So the studio worked on various pitches for the next Superman film. Kevin Smith famously had his turn with Big Blue, cranking out a script in the 1990s for Superman Lives, Tim Burton took over the project, threw out that script, did his own thing, and then the project crashed and burned. There were pitches for movies based on Doomsday, on a fight between Superman and BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. (and it feels like now, in retrospect, all of those awful ideas ended up in Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League down the road).
When it finally came to someone figuring out a pitch that the studio was happy with they decided to go back to the well from so long ago: a sequel to Superman & Superman II. That man was Bryan Singer, himself just coming off the first two very successful X-MenLaunched in 1963 and written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men featured heroes distinctly different from those featured in the pages of DC Comics. Mutants who didn't ask for their powers (and very often didn't want them), these heroes, who constantly fought against humans who didn't want "muties" around, served as metaphors for oppression and racism. Their powerful stories would form this group into one of the most recognizable superhero teams in comics (and a successful series of movies as well). films, and the studio hoped he could do for Big Blue what he'd done for Marvel's Mutants. And, well... he certainly cranked out a movie that was desperately in love with the classic Christopher Reeve films. Being a good movie, though, simply wasn't in the cards this time around.
It might not be fair to call Superman Returns objectively bad, but there is certainly something rotten at its very core. The film misunderstands Superman, it misunderstands Lois, it really doesn't get Lex Luthor. When it comes to production values and generally copying the feel of the classic films this movie is aces, but when it comes to actually producing a good movie about Superman and the other lead characters, this film falls just as flat on its face as Superman IV, and that film had a tight budget that had been slashed even further during production. Superman Returns has no such excuse for its awfulness.
The film opens with text saying that astronomers had discovered the rocky remains of Kryptonite and Superman (now played by Brandon Routh), thinking there might have been survivors, decided to fly off (in a Kryptonian ship) to see what was left of his planet. His journey took five years and, in the process, he found not a trace of his people, just a bunch of rocks (so a real wasted effort). Back on Earth after all that time he finds that a lot of stuff changed in his absence. (Cue up the audience going, "oh, you're talking about how long it's been since the last Superman film. That's... is clever the right word? It's not really clever but... okay"). Now, back on Earth, he has to settle into a life where Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is a mother (of a cute little four-year-old), is engaged to a man, Richard White (James Marsden), and, in general, it doesn't seem like the world really needs a Superman.
But, of course, there's always danger and, once he's back, Superman goes back to being Superman. One person not at all happy to see Superman return (we see what you did there) is Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey). Lex, who got out of prison because Superman wasn't around to appear at an appeal, had hooked up with an old lady while in prison and, once out, setup shop in her mansion, getting her billions when she died. Now, flush with a vast fortune, Lex wants to go back to what he's (supposedly) good at: land schemes that involve many, many casualties. All he needs now is a way to get Superman out of the way...
Let's be blunt, there's a lot that's wrong with this film. First and foremost is the casting of a couple of the leads. I actually like Brandon Routh here as it does feel like he has the proper, plucky, boy scout qualities the character needs. Superman is supposed to be an ideal and, at least in performance, Routh nailed that (there are other part of the Superman character the film absolutely fails, but we'll get to that). On the flip side, though, Bosworth's Lois Lane is a complete bore. Original actress Margot Kidder had fire and spunk as Lois but Bosworth brings none of that, being a blander and much less memorable version of the character. Meanwhile Lex is put into the hands of absolute creeper Spacey and while, at the time, we might not have known how bad Spacey was in real life it taints all of his scenes now and you simply don't want to watch him. Yes, he's evil, but Lex Luthor has standards and Spacey is too slimy to be in the same league.
As far as plotting goes, Lex's plan is complete idiocy. He wants to use the crystals at the Fortress of Solitude to create an entirely new land mass so he can be rich and powerful. Thing is he's already rich and powerful because he essentially stole (legally) the entire fortune of a billionaire widow. Everything he was always trying for, the money and respect he so desperately craved, he had without having to create a new land mass and kill billions of people. There was absolutely no reason for his plan at all, not that he would have been allowed to keep his land mass since, you know, he would have killed billions of people to make it and the governments of the world would have nuked him into oblivion before he had a chance to defend himself. It's a stupid plan from a stupid man.
But then Superman doesn't fare much better. When making this film Singer specifically stated that it was a sequel just to the first two Superman films, with Superman III and Superman IV (and presumably Supergirl) had no place in this new continuity. That's great except for the fact (and credit to the old site Poobala for pointing this out) that at the end of Superman II, after he'd been gone for a few days to get lucky with Lois as a normal man and evil Kryptonians had attacked the world, Superman swore to the President of the United States that, "I'll never leave again." And then he packs up in a spaceship and flies off for five years. That alone is dickish enough.
It gets worse over the course of the film, though, as Superman is revealed to be a creepy stalker. Clark is still in love with Lois, a move that she hadn't once reciprocated when she thought he was just nebbish Clark. She only liked him when he was Big Blue, and she hooked up with him (in the first sequel) once she learned who he really was. Then he kissed away her memories (dumb power) and she's back to not caring about Clark. But, like an MRA creeper, Clark seems to still think he can get her love just being "himself" and he follows her around, pining after her every chance he can get. And yes that includes flying to her house, floating outside, and watching/listening to her with his super-powers. Ew.
The movie even manages to ratchet it up right at the end when Lois reveals that her son, Jason, was actually Superman's kid. First, she has no memory of when they boned, remember, so she has to think it's pretty weird that she had a super-powered kid, right? No, she's fine with apparently getting date raped by Superman. And then, when she tells him that he has a son, he flies to the house, breaks into the kids room, and stands over him giving the kid the speech Kal-El got from his holographic father. Then he flies away and Lois sees all this and is fine with it. There are so many levels of sketch here and the movie plays it off like, "oh, he's Superman. It's okay!" No.
It's a weird angle for the film to take, to be sure. But then when you remember that Bryan Singer is a creepy sexual abuser (as came out around the same time that Spacey's own sins were revealed quite publicly) you have to sit there and go, "well, okay, I guess I can understand how he thinks this is okay." It's not okay but you get why Bryan Singer wouldn't see that. Maybe someone else on his staff should have said something, though, because a lot of this movie is just hard to watch (and it was, even back when it came out).
So what actually does work about the film? Well, aside from Routh being a great Clark Kent, the film does have a few good side characters. Marsden's Richard White is a pretty solid guy, well written and well acted. One thing I do like about this film is you can tell the director wanted to get Lois back with Superman, not here but down the line, but instead of giving her a guy you could hate they made Richard White, a stand up dude who you actually like and respect. The film could have easily let you know what was going to happen with Clark and Lois but, instead, it crafted a pretty solid couple that doesn't actually involved Superman at all. I liked that.
Meanwhile, I do really enjoy Jimmy Olsen in this film. The character is played by Sam Huntington (of Being Human U.S. fame) and he's hilarious here. Jimmy doesn't get a lot of scenes but when he does pop up he has some fantastic one-liners that really add zest to the film. Meanwhile, Frank Langella is great as Perry White. Again, the film doesn't really provide the character with a lot of time but Langella gives White the same kind of gravitas that he always brings to his roles (he is the best Dracula, bar none).
Most of the rest of what works about this film is simply taken from the better movies directed by Joel Silver. The opening action sequence of Superman flying off to save a plane (and Lois in the process) feels like a bigger version of the helicopter sequence from Superman: The Movie (complete with Superman's little speech at the end, ripped word-for-word from that movie). Then there's a montage of his righting the wrongs of Metropolis, just like in the original film. Hell, Lex's land grab idea is basically just a bigger version of his stupid land grab idea in the original film. This movie isn't so much a sequel in a lot of respect as just a nice looking remake of the original film. New ideas be damned, apparently.
I think that's a big reason why this film was considered something of a failure. With all the production time leading into it, and the number of failed attempts that cost money to produce before this film, the budget of the film essentially ballooned to $223 Mil. After that, the film "only" making $391 meant that Warners probably didn't recoup much cash in the end (not after marketing and everything else that went along with the film's release). This movie ended up being a dud, not really well liked by audiences and, soon after it came out it fizzled away, like a vast fortune in Lex Luthor's hands. Ever since the WB has been trying, largely unsuccessfully, to find the right magic to bring the Man of Steel to the big screen (such as in Man of Steel). While they have made a fair bit of money on Big Blue, his films have yet to hit the mark after this fiasco.