Batman and Superman were always Warner Bros.' bread and butter when it came to superheroes on the silver screen. The studio held the rights to the entire DC pantheon although, for the longest time, they didn't wish to veer from the security of the world's finest. Partly because when they did expand with titles like 'Steel', 'Catwoman', and 'Green Lantern', it wasn't a pretty sight. No, they stuck with what brought them success in the past.
In 1978, director Richard Donner and star Christopher Reeve made the world believe a man could fly in 'Superman: The Movie'. To this day, a film that proves when approached with a sense of verisimilitude, these larger-than-life heroes can hold just as much weight beyond the page. Years later, Tim Burton and Michael Keaton achieved something similar when they brought us 'Batman' in 1989, another film that brought significant legitimacy to the superhero genre.
But as time went by, these franchises embarrassingly lost their way. The Superman franchise fell into such diminishing returns, it cultivated in the horrendous 'Superman IV: The Quest for Peace'. A film so cheap, you'll find the same recycled shot of Superman flying throughout. Meanwhile, when executives started caring more about marketing toys than they did storytelling, the Batman franchise divulged into 'Batman & Robin', one of cinema's most loathed blockbusters.
However, despite these failures, Warner Bros. was keen to reboot their two golden geese, and they believed the power was in recontextualising. And believe me, there were some wild Superman pitches. But time after time, none of these pitches came to pass. Batman was moving ahead when a then rising filmmaker named Christopher Nolan successfully pitched a gritty, realistic take on the dark knight. But as Batman looked to the future, Superman would look to the past.
Director Bryan Singer, who played a key role in the current superhero monopoly when he directed the first two 'X-Men' films, came to Warner Bros. with a plan. Instead of moving away from the universe Donner established, Singer wished to continue it. They'd set a brand new cast, ignore the events of the latter two films, and pick up where 'Superman 2' left off. And just like that, the idea of 'Superman Returns' was born.
The story centres on Superman (Brandon Routh, 'Scott Pilgrim vs. The World') returning to Earth after spending five years searching for his home planet of Krypton. But over that time, the world has moved on from the man in the sky. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth, 'Still Alice') now has a son, a fiancé, and a Pulitzer for her article 'Why The World Doesn't Need Superman'. Moreover, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, 'American Beauty') has been able to walk free from his crimes and has been hard at work on a scheme of cataclysmic proportions. So, as Superman tries to reconnect with his adopted world and the woman he loves, he soon finds himself having to save us all yet again.
'Superman Returns' is often forgotten amongst the numerous superhero films of late. It is undoubtedly a strange beast, as even defenders like myself concede it makes some very odd choices. But one thing it illustrates far better than most of its ilk is a sense of rumination and the weight a character like this carries. As a character study, 'Superman Returns' raises an interesting perspective on what it would mean to be Superman.
Superman now knows he is the last of his kind. The love of his life has moved on. Repeatedly, he mentions he doesn't even have a place to live. He's unsure of his place on Earth beyond being our guardian protector. And when he flies to the sky, hovering amongst the stars to our cries below, he booms down to trouble, and it hits with great potency. 'Superman Returns' sees the complexity in the messianic. It creates a compelling dissection for a hero of unlimited power. My favourite line is when Superman tells Lois, "You wrote that the world doesn't need a saviour, but every day I hear people crying for one." It's emblematic of what Superman's life would be; one of responsibility but also loneliness. At its core, this is a film about the pursuit of belonging, and it's beautifully conceived.
It's a contemplative depiction from a very contemplative film, and more often than not, emotion supersedes spectacle. The film is more focused on exploring the depth of its characters. More focused on a god trying to rekindle the loves of his adopted world. And these interactions - especially those with Lois Lane - take on a haunting note. John Ottman's dreamy score soars, and Singer directs these scenes with near lyricism. But a film like this has an expectation of bombast, and this is where things start to fall short.
It's a contemplative depiction from a very contemplative film, and more often than not, emotion supersedes spectacle. The film is more focused on exploring the depth of its characters.
For a summer superhero epic, the strength of 'Superman Returns' does not lie in action. There are some strong sequences, especially the impressive aeroplane rescue, but all points of action follow a similar course. It's Superman saving people from an inanimate object. Whether that be a giant globe, an out-of-control car or a rock island, it showcases Superman's strength but not much by way of intensity. Something inanimate doesn't offer the same stakes as a fight between beings. They're engaging sequences, but rarely able to mystify.
But that ties into another issue - that being Singer's propensity to delve into nostalgia. Singer's emotional approach stems from Donner's two Superman films, which also placed earnestness above all. But where 'Superman Returns' runs amiss is when it feels like a beat-by-beat replication of what those films did structurally. In many moments, you can pinpoint which scene Singer is recreating. There's a midway montage of heroic deeds as there was in 'Superman: The Movie'. A late-night scene on the Daily Planet rooftop also evokes the classic "can you read my mind?" scene from that same film. These scenes face a fight for sincerity because they feel more reproduced than they do authentic. They have their own sense of beauty, but they play a tad stronger than homage.
The commitment to Donner's universe is notable, and it also causes complications to the film's performances. The film's ensemble isn't able to imprint their mark because they have to continue the portrayals of the older films. Some fare better than others, as Brandon Routh is still able to exude a charming performance despite clearly being told to be as similar to Christopher Reeve as possible. But Kate Bosworth doesn't quite have the moxie of Margot Kidder. However, it's Kevin Spacey who struggles most. His casting makes sense in theory, but he can't emulate Gene Hackman's cheek and charm. Spacey comes off more creepy than he does funny, but following recent events, I'm not surprised. Nonetheless, you can feel this cast hamstrung by the devotion to the previous incarnations.
15 years on, 'Superman Returns' doesn't incite many conversations. It does feel like a bit of a footnote between those Donner films and Zack Snyder's eventual reboot in 2013., a film that borrows a lot from what Nolan would do with Batman. But for many, 'Superman Returns' was too slow, too introspective, and too misguided. And unsurprisingly, a key component of its legacy is the presence - both behind and in front of the camera - of two alleged sex criminals. Like all films, it takes a village, but the allegations facing Singer and Spacey cannot be ignored. It does add a sense of dread upon revisiting. And while Nolan's approach to Batman would revolutionise how studios approached blockbuster filmmaking, the grand experiment of 'Superman Returns' just couldn't muster that same degree of rebirth.
For me, 'Superman Returns' is an imperfect ode, but a film that draws me in all the same. Many times over, I've seen superhero films barely exhibit a soul. They feel passionless. A product made by committee rather than for the love of their characters. So, to see an intellectual property as sacred as Superman be this human is what I find intoxicating. 'Superman Returns' exists in a grandiose world that feels neither past nor future, and its heart lies in trying to find a place within it. Superhero fables like these feel few and far between, and while the pieces don't always click, it's something I'll always relish when these titans are on our screens.