Where to even begin with this one. Perhaps with a bit of recent history: In the summer of 2002 I entered a theater to see Spider-Man, thinking I was in for a real piece of shit. What I saw was a welcome surprise, a very well-made movie that was not only reverent of the source material but seemed legitimately interested in its characters. It was terrific, especially when considered relative to my low expectations. X-Men had opened in 1999 and I was surprised by its overall quality as well, but something about it didn’t click with me. It was competently produced and the performers had all done their jobs well, and director Bryan Singer obviously approached the project with the sort of creative seriousness one usually associates with smaller, less fantastic films, but something was missing. With the first Spidey movie, though, it really hit—it wasn’t just a decent attempt—it really got it right.
In summer 2003, I was one of the only people in the world to be really and truly impressed by Ang Lee’s Hulk. The general reaction, both within and outside the comic-geek subculture of which I am an often reluctant member, was about an even mix of yawning and head-scratching. But the hell with what they thought—I loved it. It was the first comic book film I had seen to really, really take it seriously. There was artistry and spirituality there that I had never before found in a film of its kind. I think that’s where Ang fucked up, as far as everyone else was concerned; they all wanted a big, loud, fun popcorn movie, and he went and made a very heavy film. But like I said, fuck ‘em. I still love it.
Spider-Man 2 debuted in July 2004. A few months before, I had seen the sequel to X-Men, titled X2: X-Men United, and found it surprisingly good, a big improvement on the original and much closer to Spider-Man in quality. However, I kept my expectations for Spider-Man 2 consciously low, since past experience told me that sequels, however good or bad the original films were, nearly always sucked ass. Exceptions abound, I realize, but for every Superman II there are twenty U.S. Marshalls’s skulking around in the woods. I went in for the second Spidey film feeling much as I did before I saw the first; cautiously optimistic, but mostly just hoping it would be better than awful.
Well, it was better than awful. Spider-Man 2 was so good it got my money not once or twice, but seven times. I even dragged my mom and dad to see it, and my dad, he ain’t exactly the movie-going type—watching a movie while not seated in his big cushy recliner is about as natural for him as driving to a dairy farm for a glass of milk. I mean, now here was a movie. Everything that made the original Spidey movie so good was there: the characters, the familiarity with the comics that were being adapted, the flawless production. But this movie had real drama and emotion. These weren’t just well-written comic book characters; these were real people, and this was a real movie that stood up against other real movies. It wasn’t as serious or as heavy as Hulk, but it still packed quite a wallop. Tell me you can watch that scene of Spidey saving the runaway train and not get a lump in your throat, or not be moved by Aunt May’s “I believe there’s a hero in all of us” speech, or Peter and Mary Jane’s “In case we die” talk during the climax as Pete tries to keep the wall from falling on them. Seriously, you’re a fucking robot if that doesn’t do it for you. Spider-Man 2 was a great movie, the kind of movie that reminds those of us who are into this sort of thing just why it is we are willing to spend a significant amount of time and money on reading or watching silly stories about people jumping around in costumes. It was a very potent reminder of the potential of superhero stories when they’re told really well.
So after that, I fucked up. But can you blame me? Spidey, Hulk, Spidey 2 were all awesome, each one exceeding my expectations. And damn, but Batman Begins was shaping up to kick all shapes and sizes of ass. Christopher Nolan, the guy who made Memento was directing, Christian Bale was playing Batman, the stills of Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon looked like they could have been taken right out of Batman: Year One—fuck, even Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman were in it! Sure, those first four Batman movies had been total write-offs, each more brainless and incompetent than the last, but all that was about to change, baby. This movie was going to be awesome!
And oh, oh, oh, how it sucked. What a crashing, crushing disappointment. I remember sitting in my truck afterwards, bewildered. There was a great director, there was a great actor playing Batman, there was a cast packed full of modern screen icons. Not only that, there were also four films in the recent past that spelled out explicitly what not to do! Yet there it was on the screen, bigger than life: Batman driving on rooftops, for Christ’s sake; a convoluted supervillain scheme straight out of an episode of Super Friends; a plot that depended on all the major characters, especially Batman, being complete idiots; and Batman risking it all for Katie Holmes as Girlfriend #5. How could this be? Everyone said it was so good! Ebert gave it four stars! He said, “Here, finally, is the Batman film I have been longing to see.” What the fuck? I went back to see it a second time, just to make sure I had seen the same film as everyone else. Yep, Batman Begins, says so right there. Now let’s see: Bulky, unconvincing Batman costume? Check. Perfunctory love interest that blatantly rips off the Spider-Man films? Check. Gratuitous rewriting of major points of the origin? Check. Incredibly stupid “microwave emitter” weapon? It’s here. Oh, and Batman intentionally causing the police to have major traffic accidents, avoiding vehicular homicide by sheer luck only? You got it. What a piece of shit.
Which brings us at last to Superman Returns. Oh, I learned my lesson with Batman. Bryan Singer directing? Eh, the X-Men movies were overrated anyway. Brandon Routh—who the fuck was he, anyway? That picture they released of him in the costume made him look like a douchebag. And what about that costume, anyway—what was with the little “S” on his belt? Okay, sure, it probably won’t suck; at least Singer is reaching back to the original Christopher Reeve films for his inspiration, not trying to reinvent the wheel. But don’t expect Spider-Man 2, okay?
Well . . . goddamn. Ever see a movie that is so unexpectedly, unbelievably, impossibly superb that it makes you happy to be alive? —a movie that doesn’t just vindicate your interest in its particular genre or your admiration for its stars or its director or its writer, but reminds you of why you love movies in the first place? Superman Returns is that movie, my friend. If you have not seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so as soon as possible. If you have seen it, you owe it to yourself to go see it again. How best to put this . . . It is better than Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2; it is better than Hulk; it is better than any of the X-Men movies. It is the best superhero film since Superman: The Movie and its sequel, and better still than that. A few years ago, I wrote an essay in which I declared that there would never be a better superhero film than Superman II. I was wrong; Superman Returns is the finest film of its kind ever made.
Why is it so good? Let me start with director Bryan Singer. He ties his film inextricably to the first two films of the original Superman franchise, going so far as to re-use the John Williams theme and the flying three-dimensional opening credits. Superman, we are informed by an introductory title card, has been away from earth for the past five years, off on a personal mission to find the remains of Krypton. We hear a voiceover of Marlon Brando as Jor-El, and witness a spiffed-up portrayal of Krypton’s destruction. From there it’s down to business. Lex Luthor, fresh out of prison, swindles a dying widow out of her fortune. Martha Kent sees a fireball crash-land into her cornfield and drives out to find her adopted son has returned from his long trip home. Notice the restraint Singer employs in the crash scene: we see the fireball not directly, as a bright, loud special effects set piece, but rather from a distance, and then only as the reflection in Martha’s kitchen window. More important to Singer than the spectacular crash is the reaction of Martha: the son she thought to never see again has returned.
It is this choice to emphasize character and story over spectacle that defines the visual style of the film, and sets the emotional tone. Time and time again, Singer holds back, avoids showing us the obvious. When Clark returns to Metropolis and is forced into action as Superman for the first time, there are no dramatic close-ups or bombastic fanfare to announce his return, merely the sight of him pulling open his shirt to reveal the “S” as he moves quickly past camera. This film would rather engage us than impress us. In a stunning sequence, he saves a plane from crashing by catching it by the nose and setting it down on a baseball field during a game. The plane buckles and shudders as he abruptly halts its descent, and he tips it back into a relatively controlled drop onto the outfield. This sense of physics is present throughout, making Superman’s feats of heroism seem incredible, but somehow believable. If Superman really existed, then his rescue of an out of control car, or catching of a plummeting giant globe, would have to look like they do in this film.
But the visual style and attention to physical detail are only parts of the film’s appeal. The story is told with honesty and without irony. Superman has been gone a long time, and Singer and his writers, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, use this situation to evoke real emotion; when he realizes that Lois has moved on with her life since his disappearance, Superman is genuinely hurt. The world at large welcomes him back with open arms, but to the people he cares about the most he is more of an outcast than ever.
The film is never content simply to follow formula. Lois’s new boyfriend is not a mannequin, placed here solely to provide an obstacle to Superman—he is a real character, with his own personality and point of view, and he is a nice guy. We understand why Lois would feel conflicted when her love for this good man suddenly clashes with her old feelings for Superman.
The performances deserve mentioning here, too. Brandon Routh, the douchebag with the S-belt, is not merely adequate in the starring role—he excels. In the shadow of the incomparable Christopher Reeve, in his signature role, in a film that deliberately echoes Reeve’s great films, Routh makes Superman his own. Yes, his Superman shares the upstanding decency and all-around good-guy qualities of Reeve’s incarnation, and yes, his Clark is sheepish and bumbling, but Routh’s work here is by no means a cheap piece of mimicry. He performs with sincerity and surprising subtlety. Kevin Spacey earns his pay and then some, as well. His Lex Luthor is a buffoon, true, but he is a buffoon with the motive and the means to kill Superman, along with a big chunk of the world’s population. And because his evil scheme is so elegantly simple—tossing a crystal into the ocean, as opposed to, oh, I don’t know, contaminating an entire city’s water supply with a hallucinogenic agent, then stealing a futuristic microwave weapon and employing it on a hijacked elevated train in order to vaporize the contaminated water and drive the population insane for reasons which are vague at best, for instance—it seems perfectly plausible within the logic of the film.
Similarities between this and the original Superman abound, which some critics have taken as a lack of creativity on the part of the creators of Superman Returns. These critics miss two very important points: First, the repetition serves to advance one of the most important themes of the story—that you can’t go home again—or, as better expressed by Bob Dylan, “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” Superman returns to earth after five years. So much remains as it was; his mother still lives on the family farm, Lois and Jimmy and Perry still work at the Daily Planet, even Lex Luthor is still around and still seeking to make a buck in real estate at the cost of billions of lives. But when Superman tries to recapture the life he left behind, he finds it impossible. Just as in the original film, he takes Lois on an intimate nighttime flight around the city. This time there is a feeling of melancholy, not the romantic exhilaration of the first time, but the sad glimpsing of a lost opportunity.
The second point missed by critics is that, while the story of Superman Returns contains many parallels with the earlier films, there is also a wealth of new material. In some cases, as with Luthor’s discoveries about the crystals that built Superman’s fortress of solitude, the new material serves to enlarge ideas originated in the first two movies; but usually what we get here is entirely new. Lois Lane is engaged to be married, has a young son, and has left her rooftop city apartment for a suburban home along the river. She is about to claim her long coveted Pulitzer Prize for an editorial entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” What other superhero film in recent memory has dared to alter the status quo of its hero to such a degree, and done so with such astounding success? Hulk comes to mind, but even it leaves its characters in more or less the same places they occupy in the comics; and the characters in the Hulk mythos are not the universally recognized icons that are Superman and his supporting cast. Yes, Batman Begins deviated from its source material a great deal at several points, but these deviations were all arbitrary and uncreative, did not serve to enrich the story or the characters, and resulted in a movie that, under the Geneva Convention, may not be shown to prisoners of war. When the creators of Superman Returns depart from the comics-established status quo, especially when they turn to the question of who exactly is the father of Lois’s child, they do so for the sake of exploring their characters and deepening their story, and with a skill and sensitivity that would be impressive in a film where there wasn’t a cape to be found.
All of these elements, plus many others I haven’t described here, combine into a work of real substance. Late in the film, as Superman flies into the hellish, otherworldly landscape created by Luthor’s stolen crystals, there is real drama, a genuine sense of peril, not the feeling of obligatory action that characterizes the lesser films of this genre, or shitty blockbuster-type movies in general. When these characters speak to one another, their exchanges are not stilted or corny, but heartfelt and sometimes painful. And the movie doesn’t cheat its way to a happy ending. Superman saves the day, sure enough, but finds no easy solutions in his relationships with Lois or her new family.
Superman Returns is both an apt tribute to its landmark predecessors, and a classic on its own merits. It recreates the sense of awe and wonder in its subject that permeated those earlier films, and goes beyond that to tell a story of real beauty, with characters that think and feel and yearn. Bryan Singer, his writers, and the exceptional cast, have produced a masterpiece.