Personally, I adore it, but wouldn't it have been improved by a giant mechanical spider? (If not, then how about a pair of better actors in the lead roles? No?)
Directed by Bryan Singer
Written by Dan Harris, Michael Dougherty, and Bryan Singer
With Brandon Routh (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Kate Bosworth (Lois Lane), James Marsden (Richard White), Tristan Lake Leabu (Jason White), Frank Langella (Perry White), Sam Huntington (Jimmy Olsen), Marlon Brando's digital ghost (Jor-El), Parker Posey (Kitty Kowalski), and Kevin Spacey (Lex Luthor)
Spoiler alert: high
In the nearly two decades between Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and its distant (pseudo-)sequel, a whole lot of ideas wound up getting thrown against the wall—and not a one of them ultimately stuck, possibly because they were all, in some way, unbelievably awful. So: before it became apparent that Superman IV had bombed, Cannon Films had toyed with the idea of their own sequel, which came to nothing. Then, Ilya Salkind, who had produced the first three films, and presently found himself back in control of the rights to Superman after Cannon let their option lapse, wrote his treatment for Superman V, prefiguring The Death of Superman with its own version of the Man of Tomorrow's death and rebirth. (It also would've involved the Bottle City of Kandor—for clearly Salkind was never going to give up on trying to bring his bastardized version of Brainiac to the big screen). Warners soon bought the rights back, but if their Superman Reborn was going to be better than Salkind's effort, God only knows how it would have come to pass: early drafts involved Superman's lifeforce impregnating Lois Lane, thereby literalizing the Reborn in the title in the grossest way that I, personally, can think of. Soon enough, this metamorphosized into the giant mechanical spider-centric Superman Lives. It was to be directed by Tim Burton (!), with a certain Nicolas Cage as our hero (?!), and it was rewritten from producer Jon Peters' original screenplay by none other than Kevin Smith—whose nauseous incredulity at Peters' notions of what would make a good Superman movie is, of course, a matter of public record. When Superman Lives finally died, Wolfgang Petersen was approached for a whole new project for the Kryptonian hero: Batman vs. Superman. (And that sounds eerily familiar...) Reportedly, Petersen considered casting the central role with Josh Hartnett, apparently due to a German translation error, leading Petersen to believe that what he was actually looking for was a Man of Wood. Well, after that fell through, there was still J.J. Abrams' Superman project, Flyby—this being the one where Krypton never actually blew up. And, heck, I suppose that this one would've at least had the benefit of being unexpected.
But then, in the early 2000s, something concrete finally happened. Bryan Singer, who'd made his name with those first two X-Men movies that everyone seems to love—and who had not yet brought them back to the brink of complete irrelevancy with X-Men: Apocalypse—was invited to give his pitch to Warner Bros. They bought it, and Singer left 20th Century Fox, placing their X-franchise in the obviously capable hands of old Brett Ratner (who had himself been briefly attached to Flyby, although one assumes not for very long). Thus empowered, Singer was bound and determined to make his Superman movie his way—and one suspects that when he made his Superman, Singer did it with virtually no really serious industrial oversight whatsoever, for the results of the film he delivered speak for themselves, with deviations from the Superman formula that can stand against anything in any of the projects which Warners had ultimately abandoned. Pure fatigue probably had something to do with it. ("Just release something," somebody in the Warners C-suite must've said.) But more likely, it was thanks to the director's proven reputation for making serious-but-not-too-serious superhero blockbusters that (quite miraculously) pleased critics, comic book fans, and general audiences all at once—and, naturally, made tons and tons of money by doing exactly that. And so it came to pass, in 2006, that Singer dropped his Superman movie—a little number called Superman Returns—and, obviously, it understates the matter quite a bit to say that it didn't totally work out.
The biggest thing to remember about Singer's Superman is that it both is and isn't a sequel to the first wave of Superman films that ended in 1987; it follows Superman II (yet only loosely), and disregards both the pictures that came afterward. With that in mind, we further learn from an opening title card that Kal-El has left our world to seek out the ruins of his own—though we only learn from a deleted scene on the blu-ray release, years after the fact, exactly what he found.
(And seriously: even as long as Returns is—indeed, even as completely unnecessary as Superman's brief exploration of shattered Krypton winds up being to the plot—cutting it was obviously one of Singer's very worst moves here. Needless to say, this little piece of multi-million-dollar scene-setting is one whole hell of a lot more engaging than his Goddamned title card—even if the rest of those credits are pretty impressive all by themselves.)
In any event, Kal's discovery that Krypton is truly, irrevocably dead at last sends our hero back home—to Earth. Once again donning the guise of Clark Kent, he retakes his position at the Daily Planet; as Superman, he retakes his position as Earth's guardian, catching a falling airliner seconds before it smashes directly into a Metropolis stadium, saving thousands just in the nick of time.
It's what they call showmanship.
But while Superman would prefer to pick up where he left off five years ago, things have changed beyond his estimation in the time he was away. Lois Lane, for example, has won (another) Pulitzer for her blistering editorial/sad Facebook update, "Why the World Doesn't Need a Superman"—though from the snippets we get of it, it sounds positively horrid (and I think we can quite easily assume that it was of near-zero comfort to the people who actually died because Superman wasn't there). More importantly, she's gotten engaged-to-be-engaged to Richard White, clearly the coolest human guy in Metropolis—he's a pilot, he's apparently rich, he's sweet, he's brave, and (last but not least) he digs being a dad. Which leads us to the most important change in Earth's status quo, as far as Superman's concerned: Lois has a five year old child.
It does not take a genius on the scale of, say, Lex Luthor, to figure out well in advance of the reveal that young Jason is not Richard's, but Superman's, and it's been an enormous bone of contention for Returns' detractors ever since it hit theaters ten years ago. But let's talk about Jason-El later: at virtually the same moment Superman has made his way back to Earth, our aforementioned genius has (conveniently) made his way back too—to his own brand of high-concept, real estate-based supervillainy. Looting the Fortress of Solitude yet again, Luthor takes a Kryptonian crystal with him this time—and, combining it with kryptonite, fires it into the middle of the Atlantic. The result: a violent new continent that shall wipe the old ones off the map as it grows, leaving the survivors dependent upon Luthor's own dubious generosity. And, for a bonus, this new landmass is studded with just enough kryptonite to keep any Man of Steel from setting foot upon it—unless, that is, he wants to die. And so, as these things usually do, Superman's romantic entanglement with Lois and his conflict with Luthor come crashing together by way of a hostage plot; but, in the end, it's up to Superman alone to stop the madman and save the world.
And, truthfully speaking, it's a lot more like Superman and Lois' troubles are simply overwritten by Luthor's flamboyant attempt to destroy 50% of humanity and sell some beachfront property to the rest. But like I said: it's as these things always go. And, also like I said, in the aggregate it did not work for an awful lot of people.
But that isn't something that we necessarily have to hold against a movie, more than ten years after its release. So let's just get it out there upfront: in 2006, Superman Returns was easily the best Superman movie that anybody had so far made. Tonally, it was the most consistent; in terms of filmmaking, it was far and away the most lovely; and in terms of effects work, there is obviously no contest whatsoever. But, while this all might be damned close to objectively true, it was never, ever perfect. People have their reasons, and Returns always had a whole hilltop full of crosses that it was expected to bear. Frankly, it cannot bear all of them well.
And I'm not even talking about the religious imagery yet!
Instead, the first, and perhaps the heaviest, was Singer's absolute determination to continue the Donner-led duology of Superman and Superman II, while pointedly disregarding III and IV into nonexistence. Yet while nominally fitting into continuity with Donner's films, the story it deigns to tell scarcely makes any sense in context with them, starting with the unappealingly squishy timeline that has Superman's titular return take place not much more than five years after Superman II, whilst the movie itself patently takes place in 2006—albeit with many members of the cast apparently de-aged in the process—and to the extent that the screenplay originally had references to September 11th, until an adult actually read it, and suggested they be cut out. Returns thus offers the perfect recreation of the experience of being an actual DC Comics fan in the age of DC Comics' endless, asymptotic death spiral toward total fucking incomprehensibility: a soft reboot that changes about half of everything, keeps on going forward in time regardless, demands you have a deep familiarity with and affection for the stuff that came before, even though it's trashing so much of it, while slightly modifying, without sufficient explanation, all of the rest—until at last it becomes a deeply uncanny simulacrum of the original model, maybe better, maybe worse, but compromised, and not just down to its bones, but the actual uterus.
So: just how long do you have to think about Superman Returns before you ask, "Wait, so you mean Jason was conceived during Superman II?" Apparently a few seconds longer than Singer and his writing partners did. Naturally, you have your follow-up questions: "But isn't that incredibly gross?" God yes it is, and unless there's some wholly alternate Superman III and IV floating around in Singer's imagination, then Lois' little super-moppet must've been conceived when Kal-El gave up his cosmic powers, which, if nothing else, has the benefit of underlining just how terrifyingly obscene the end of Superman II actually is.
The super-amnesia she gets without her consent, but the super-abortion he never even puts on the table? Man, he really is from Kansas.
I prefer to think that there is some missing part there, then; and it still barely works, with either Lois or Superman or both coming off as deeply problematic people, no matter which way you turn. (Though you can cut this Gordian knot, if you try very hard, for in fact there is not any actual scene in Returns where Richard makes a big deal out of Jason being his own, flesh-and-blood child. It's just very strongly implied that this is what he believes.)
But the problem is not so much any individual element: not Superman the deadbeat dad, not Richard the potential cuckold, not Lois the potential liar. No, this super-drama, rendered in the broad strokes of a faint-hearted and striving "maturity," remains just palatable enough to work on paper. But that's when that other big cross lands upon Superman Returns' shoulders, and at times brings it straight to its knees.
Indeed: much as the entire film is enslaved to Donner, in ways both bad and good (John Williams' original themes once again get a hefty workout in the score), Returns' new Superman, Brandon Routh, is himself caged within a quarter-strength impersonation of poor Chris Reeve—even when he does very, very un-Reevey things, like wistfully stalk Lois with X-ray vision and pout in outer space. (Though, if anything, the parts where he gets to move the furthest from trying to recapture Reeve are where Routh is at his best; and even then, something in the makeup, the blue contacts, the carriage of the actor, or maybe just the CGI, makes him seem bizarrely plastic, even when he's just standing there, and he doesn't ever shake off this uncanny look till, finally, Luthor savages him.)
Meanwhile, Kate Bosworth—you know, the 23 year-old Lois with the five year-old child—is imprisoned too, but at least in her case it's merely by her categorically-unacceptable youthfulness, and by a mediocre performance of the ordinary kind, rather than by a compulsory Margot Kidder impression. And, perhaps predictably, when these two titans of the screen come together, the product is the most palpable kind of nothing. Thus are you made to feel the wrongness of it, even when you're trying very hard not to—and even when Singer is trying even harder to help you, by tying the (putative) emotional heft of their scenes to superheroic visuals rather than anything like a conversation.
Ultimately, it comes down to how deliberately (and transparently) Singer is painting his Superman into a corner. He so clearly intends to tell the last Superman story with Superman Returns—his own "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", his own (metaphorical) Death of Superman, and, to his credit, it's a strikingly original take on the material—but he must have known, damned good and well, that he was never, ever going to be permitted to properly tell his last Superman story, because they don't let you tell "imaginary stories" with 200 million dollars of somebody else's money.
And this, I suspect, is how the screenplay winds up dropping its own thematic threads almost before it even manages to weave them in: it doesn't get to explain the web of relationships that led to Jason's birth, let alone really wrestle with the narrative-closing idea of Superman having sired an heir; it brings up extremely vague concepts about whether we need a God or not, and if it answers them, it answers them by saying that God would be pretty useful in any situation where God's technology is stolen by a mortal asshole; it creates the greatest showdown possible between our hero and the Donner Era version of his archenemy, and then shrugs its shoulders, permitting Lex to live to scheme another day; and, somehow, it manages to end without Superman ever owning up to Lois, and telling her that the man who ejaculated inside her and gave her a baby is also Clark Kent, her co-worker, so, please, let's work this out.
It therefore redounds to Superman Returns' legacy forever that its qualified box office failure meant that it never got a sequel, because there was simply nowhere for its sequel to go—other than to family court. It puts a cap on the adventure, ending it in fatherhood, in what amounts to a broken marriage for Superman and a new beginning for Lois and her new family. And, at last, it ends it in Superman's re-commitment to doing the right thing (even if it does slightly drop that last particular ball). That's not nothing for a superhero movie to do, and, ten years later, it has the melancholy feel of finality. If I loved it then, I love it even more now.
But that was never why I loved it in the first place. It's still not even close to the most important reason. In fact, I can take-or-leave nearly everything that involves either Routh and Bosworth in the first 90 minutes of the movie, with its half-assed exposition and equally half-assed emotions. But there is one man who is everything this movie needs him to be, and, while he's not the only factor, he could have redeemed it all by himself:
Let me hear you say it.
No, Hackman's Luthor never quite won me over. Most of this, obviously, was the scripting, which seemed determined to force Hackman into a neverending battle against buffoonery, and by the time Superman IV (somewhat) cleared the deck, it was too late. This new Luthor gets a new buffoon, to be sure—Kitty Kowalski—but Parker Posey is infinitely more bearable than the earlier models. And, yes, this film, so beholden to Donner, is therefore still somewhat beholden to Donner's Luthor. That's how Luthor begins Returns by forging the will of the old woman to whom he's been showing "pleasures."
But it doesn't matter, because this screenplay gives its Luthor something darker, meaner, and a lot more Goddamned correct to work with. And when its Luthor is also Kevin Spacey, "dark and mean" are pure second nature. Not every single moment with this Luthor works, but almost every moment. His outrageous science fantasy plan remains, to date, the single coolest plan in any Superman film, quite possibly the coolest Luthor plan in Luthor's whole eight-decade history, and also, very importantly, the most bona fide promethean. The performance takes it the rest of way, from his oft-quoted, perfectly-timed, and spittle-flecked shriek of "Wrong!" directly into Bosworth's face, right down to the viciousness he brings to his last confrontation with Superman, setting a cyclopean, super-science scene for his oh-so-human-sized, prison-yard brand of rage.
Returns' climax—its last fifty minutes—is thus made the next best thing to perfect, an escalating action sequence that plausibly threatens the whole globe, mutes all but the most harried and basic emotions in Routh and Bosworth, gives Lois a chance to save Superman for a change, provides Spacey perhaps the broadest canvass he's ever gotten to work with, showcases the hell out of Guy Hendrix Dyas' immaculate CGI-era update of John Barry's Kryptonian designs, and, at last, it gives us the Christiest Christ allusion in the whole Superman cinematic canon, as the film decides to be a straight-up action movie retelling of the Gospels, as our hero tunnels into the seabed, lifts the island by the bedrock itself, and tosses it out into space at the cost of his own life—only to live again. For Superman can never die, and even if he can (as Superman Returns suggests) still fade away, he'll still be there for us—watching and listening with love in his heart, for when we need him.