Bryan Singer | 154 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
The same summer that Christopher Nolan revitalised the Dark Knight with the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Batman Begins, one of the men who’d helped kickstart the current superhero resurgence, X-Men director Bryan Singer, attempted the same with DC Comics’ other major hero, Superman, only to be met with critical derision and commercial failure.
Except that’s not actually what happened, despite what many have come to believe since. Superman Returns was actually pretty popular with critics: 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, enough to gain a Certified Fresh classification; and if you hone that to just top critics, it scores 68% versus Batman Begins’ 65%. Returns also outgrossed Begins that summer, taking $391 million worldwide to the Bat’s $374 million. These are all small margins, but even just being on the same level as each other demonstrates something about how perception and accepted narratives can distort what actually happened.
Of course, even this is a slight distortion, because while Batman Begins cost $150 million, Superman Returns’ budget was $204 million — at the time, one of the most expensive movies ever made. Lump in the development costs of previous aborted Superman films (which Hollywood accounting does) and you get closer to $270 million — a figure that, even today, would put it in the top five most expensive movies ever made.
All of that was ten years ago now, since when plans for a sequel have been abandoned, the character has had a reboot, and kicked off a shared universe with a Batman co-starring sequel, too. With all that behind us, is Superman Returns’ poor reputation actually deserved? I’ve never got round to seeing it, so had no horse in the “it’s misunderstood” / “it’s deservedly derided” race; but today is the 10th anniversary of the film’s UK release, so what better time to finally join the debate?
The film begins in media res, with Clark Kent / Superman (Brandon Routh) returning home after five years away. The world has moved on: hot-shot reporter and Supes love interest Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a fiancé (James Marsden) and a young son, and worst of all has penned an award-winning article called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”. Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has escaped a jail sentence and is secretly setting about a nefarious plan…
Sitting down to Superman Returns cold, it feels like you’re watching a sequel — and in many respects, that’s what it is. Singer loves the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, quite rightly, and when offered the chance to make a new movie with the character essentially set out to make Superman III. Yes, Superman III already exists — and Superman IV, too — but no one likes them, so Singer’s decision to just completely ignore them wasn’t so daft. What was daft was making a sequel to a 26-year-old movie and assuming that the audience would be instantly familiar with the whole setup. Most cinemagoers won’t have done their homework and re-watched the older films before heading to the movies (because why would they?), so no wonder people felt confused and disappointed by what they were seeing. People nowadays complain about too many reboots and retellings of origin stories, often for good reason, but (a) sometimes a new telling is the right way to go, and (b) if you’re going to pick up a character mid-life, you still need to treat it as a new and standalone story if its immediate predecessor was released decades ago.
Really, Returns is one massive tribute to those ’70s and ’80s Superman films. Brandon Routh is essentially stuck doing a Christopher Reeve impression, both as bumbling Clark Kent and the Big Blue Boy Scout. Kevin Spacey is similarly in Gene Hackman mode, though as the film goes on he seems to increasingly relish the absurdity of what they’re doing. Old footage of Marlon Brando is resurrected to play Supes’ dad; the aesthetic is nostalgic, with a bright red-and-blue costume, classically-inspired sets, and sepia-tinged cinematography; there’s a focus on drama, with a sparing use of action sequences (at least until the climax); even the opening titles emulate the iconic whooshing blue names of the 1978 film. Maybe watched as part of a series with the earlier films it works as an homage or addendum, but as a work in its own right, viewed in isolation, it feels… misjudged.
That’s not helped by some aspects simply not working. I have nothing against Kate Bosworth, but she’s horribly miscast as Lois; so wrong it’s even hard to pin down exactly why it doesn’t work. The pace is wonky, with a long, slow start before a surfeit of action sequences blow in, at least one of them a complete aside from anything that’s going on, presumably just to gather some cool shots for the trailer (the bullet bouncing off Superman’s eye, for example). If the movie had begun with the airplane rescue scene — which is actually a great sequence, quite possibly the best Superman-related action scene ever filmed — perhaps it would’ve earnt the time to indulge in the Reeve-related posturing that actually takes up the first half-hour-or-so. I can imagine an edit of the movie that begins on that plane: just a bunch of journalists observing the press demonstration of the new shuttle technology, when suddenly, inexplicably, it fails — they’re all going to die — then Superman turns up completely out of nowhere and saves them. Then you have the credits, which are immediately followed by Lex’s whole journey to the Fortress of Solitude, and only then do you get in to the stuff with Superman only having just returned, wondering what his places is now, and so on. Maybe lose the scene of him basically stalking Lois’ new family, though.
You can see what Singer was going for with Superman Returns — a respectful, lightly modernised homage to some classic, beloved movies — but the benefit of hindsight makes it clear that really wasn’t a good idea. That said, it could’ve worked. If they’d put a little more effort into making it work as a semi-reboot rather than as a straight-up continuation, which is how it comes across, then maybe it would’ve been friendlier to newcomers. There are some excellent things in here — the tone mixes drama, humour, and life-or-death stakes in a way some blockbusters are losing sight of; Lex’s scheme is unusual and therefore interesting; the action scenes are thrilling; attempting to bring some character to the characters, rather than merely using them as pawns in those action sequences, almost lends the film additional depth — and I think it would’ve been a lot better liked if people felt they could get on board with it; if it wasn’t trying so hard to be something it’s not, which is a Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve made in 1983. For all Man of Steel’s faults, at least it tried to reintroduce the character, rather than pick up where it left off.
The final thing this all makes me think of is the forthcoming Marvel Spidey movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming. One wonders if Sony were inspired by Superman Returns’ perceived failure when they chose to reboot Spidey in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, rather than make Spider-Man 4 with a new cast and crew. That reboot decision was not popular, to say the least, with audiences thinking ten years (since the ‘first’ Spider-Man movie) was too little time to warrant retelling a familiar story. With that universe abandoned after an even-less-popular sequel, the next Spider-Man movie has to start again — but they’ve learnt their lesson and aren’t retelling the origin, instead diving in with Spider-Man already established as a hero. In media res again, then, but also (one hopes) with an awareness that this is to be the first movie in a series, not pretend to be the third or fourth. Another, better lesson learnt from Superman Returns, perhaps? Wouldn’t it be nice if Hollywood could learn from its mistakes more often…