Matthew Kresal returns.
2006 was a big year for the man of steel. Nearly twenty years after Superman IV: The Quest For Peace brought about the end of the Christopher Reeve Superman film series, the writers and directors behind the X-Men films brought him into the 21st century. Appropriately titled Superman Returns, the film looked sure to relaunch the franchise, yet despite good box-office and strong critical reviews it seemed to have stalled. While it's become all too easy to look back at the film and write it off, looking at Superman Returns itself that's hard to do.
The casting was by and large good. Newcomer Brandon Routh (who already auditioned for the role via the TV series Smallville) seemed to slip into the role rather well thanks in large part to being a good physical match for the part and for Reeve especially. Reeve's ghost can be felt in Routh's performance, from his interactions with Lois and Luthor to playing the clumsy, almost geeky, Clark Kent. There are strong echoes of Reeve there though Routh has plenty of moments to make the part his own, from the early scenes with Ma Kent through to the closing scenes. Given that we only got the one outing, Routh does pretty good and it seems a shame that we never quite got the chance to see more of him in the role.
And there is of course Kevin Spacey. If there was anyone out there who could possibly pull off the role of Lex Luthor, it would be Spacey, and he does it well. Spacey makes the role his own in more ways then one, bringing a more humorous touch, and also menace. When he has to be, Spacey can be more menacing then Hackman's Luthor ever was, as demonstrated on the Krypton Island during one of the film's most shocking scenes. Spacey shows the promise that could have been there had a sequel ever materialized, but like Routh's Superman, we're left with only a tantalizing glimpse.
Less successful is Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. Seeing the film twice in cinemas during the summer of 2006, I had very little issues with Bosworth's Lois despite noting that she lacked the spunk that Margot Kidder had brought to the role nearly two decades prior. Looking at the film now, it isn't difficult to see why Bosworth's Lois hasn't been better appreciated over time. Bosworth, then 23, was far too young for the part, and while it was stretching credibility to have someone so young as a Pulitzer Prize winner, it was definitely pushing it to give her a young child to boot. Bosworth does decently with the material she's handed and she has some good chemistry with Routh, though putting her onscreen with either Spacey or Frank Langella tends to show the differences in her performance. Out of the cast though, Bosworth is really the only sour note.
Moving on from them, there's a good supporting cast. Frank Langella slipped well into the part of Perry White, playing the role with what seems an admirable ease as both a foil for Lois and as the viewer's barometer about the excitement of Superman's return. James Marsden does well in the role of Lois' boyfriend Richard Perry, though his character does at time become more nagging and annoying than anything. Sam Huntington brings a lot of comic relief to the movie in the role of Jimmy Olson while Parker Posey is effectively wasted playing the film's equivalent of Miss Teschmacher. Rounding off the cast is Eva Marie Saint who makes a welcomed appearance as Martha Kent and does very well in her scenes which effectively bookend the film. Combined with cameos from a number of Superman alumni including Jack Larson and Noel Neill from the 1950s Adventures Of Superman TV series and small roles played by Kal Penn and a posthumous Marlon Brando as Jor-El, the result is as solid a cast as you're likely to find in any superhero film either past or present.
Having mentioned the ghost of past Superman films, there's an elephant in the room with this film that might have something to do with its reputation in the decade since its release. Bryan Singer, along with the writers of the first two X-Men films, effectively created a love letter to the Reeves films and Superman: The Movie in particular. From the film's opening credits done in the style of Superman: The Movie, Marlon Brando's brief appearance, echoes of sets such as the Fortress Of Solitude and the inclusion of John Williams' iconic themes all make it clear that Superman Returns was both a sequel and homage. Something that was both helpful and a hindrance.
It was helpful because the film had a world to be a part of and it gave it a sense of history. Superman Return's plot, picking up five years after Superman's disappearance at the end of what may or may not have been the original cinema release of Superman II, was an inspired choice, and it makes references both strong and subtle to the original films including recycling Luthor's plot though on a grander scale. This sense can be most strongly felt in the updating of the designs for the Fortress of Solitude, while this film's designer Guy Hendrix Dyas takes the Art Deco influences of Superman: The Movie when creating new versions of both the Daily Planet and Metropolis itself, representing the infusing of the new with the old to create something that was at once familiar It's in the music that the greatest homage can be found. The opening minutes immediately echo Superman: The Movie with its combination of John Williams' Krypton theme and Marlon Brando's narration. From there Superman Returns goes into a full out rendition of the classic Superman March that had not heard in full force since 1978. Throughout the film various themes can be heard, such as the classic love theme which is often meant to add majesty and wonder like it did back in the day. Yet composer John Ottman also brings out new material to accompany the classic Williams pieces such as new action cues and a theme for Luthor who never really had one previously. It's a wonderful mixing of new and old with the score perhaps being the best thing to come out of the entire film.
Yet all of this creates something of a problem. Superman Returns does at times feel less like a superhero movie and more like a nostalgia piece that is often more interested in trying to recreate the magic of the original film than in telling its own story. The fact that it effectively recycles Luthor's plot from that film (albeit with the added Kryptonian twist) speaks to that fact. Even the film's action sequences can arguably be viewed as being derivative of those from Superman: The Movie, in particular the plane crash where Superman makes his return known, fighting bank robbers, saving Metropolis from destruction and even the confrontations with Luthor. On another level, the film becomes too caught up in exploring the consequences of the first two Reeve films, including Lois' son Jason and the 'is he or isn't he Superman's son?' that becomes a sub-plot in the last part and is a reference to the events of Superman II. Superman Returns becomes less about the return of an icon and more about creating a sequel to a film that was already nearly thirty years old and that many (such as myself) had likely not seen since childhood.
Which isn't to say that the film was a failure. Far from it in fact, on almost every level. The film did good money at the box-office, though its budget was inflated by the tacking on of countless aborted Superman films that filled the two decades between Superman IV and Returns. It was also well reviewed, holding a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes with even mainstream reviewers such as Richard Corliss of Time magazine praising it. Superman Returns even received Academy Award and BAFTA nominations for its impressive effects work. So why has the film been viewed as a failure?
Probably because a sequel, set for a 2009 release date, never materialized. By most accounts, Warner Brothers were left unhappy by the film's nearly $400 million worldwide gross as they felt it could have earned closer to $500-$600 million. With issues about the sequel's budget being debated, Bryan Singer would eventually leave to pursue a number of projects including the Tom Cruise historical thriller Valkyrie while the 2007-2008 Writers Guild strike pushed production even further into the future. In the end, contracts for Routh and all the main cast expired before a sequel was made, and the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was to lead Warners and DC to push in that direction with 2013 seeing Superman coming back in Man Of Steel. By which time the reputation of Superman Returns as something of a failure, though ill-founded had been established.
While it may never have gotten the sequel it deserved, Superman Returns holds up well. The love for the Christopher Reeve films that proceeded it is obvious throughout, sometimes perhaps too much. Yet as much as it looked to the past, the film also looked forward and should have been the beginning of a new era for the man of steel on screen. Instead we were left with a tantalizing glimpse of what was and what might have been.
Superman returned but it seems he sadly wasn't meant to stay.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.