1978’s Superman: The Movie does not get nearly the credit it deserves in modern discourse about superhero films. Before this landmark motion picture, there was no template for how a serialized comic book was supposed to be adapted to the big screen, and this one film is responsible for spawning the entire superhero genre, even if it wouldn’t come close to being replicated until 1989’s Batman. That is, except for 1980’s Superman II, which is a structurally inferior film to the original, but it similarly set the bar for how supervillains would be portrayed on-screen through its representation of General Zod. Without that one-two punch, not only would Tim Burton’s Batman not exist, but neither would Raimi’s Spider-Man, the Blade films, X-Men, the Dark Knight trilogy, and, of course, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, which contains in its catalog some of the best action films of the past decade.
As for Superman himself, though, his cinematic prospects haven’t fared so well since that iconic achievement. After director Richard Donner’s departure from the franchise, two terrible sequels were made, and more would have been likely forthcoming were it not for the tragic horse-riding accident that left actor Christopher Reeve paralyzed. Recently, we have seen the original superhero re-imagined as an angry, brooding, and more destructive figure in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but this has been received relatively poorly by both critics and audiences alike. However, there was one other attempt to revive Clark Kent on the big screen, and as Warner Brothers moves forward on their DC Extended Universe, it may serve them well to look back at this particular installment to learn a crucial lesson.
I of course refer to 2006’s Superman Returns, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary today to absolutely zero fanfare. And that’s a shame, because despite its flaws and its underperforming box office returns, Superman Returns is easily the third best Superman film after the original two, perhaps because it wants too badly to live up to their legacy. Set five years after the events of Superman II (parts three and four are effectively erased from canon), Superman returns from an extended hiatus to visit the remains of his dead homeworld of Krypton. Not much has changed in his absence, except that Lois Lane has gotten married and now has a five-year-old child named Jason. As Superman copes with the love of his life having moved on without him, Lex Luthor hatches a plot to use Kryptonian technology stolen from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to create a new landmass to replace the United States that Luthor will preside over as ruler.
What this film gets so right is its replication of the aesthetics and tone of the Richard Donner era. The title credits are a CGI-enhanced recreation of the first film’s while the classic John Williams score plays in the background. Smallville is still an idyllic Midwestern oasis, pulled out of time as a simple post-Depression homestead. Metropolis feels equally timeless, almost so much so that it isn’t even that jarring to see the modern convenience of cell phones in what is ostensibly a sequel to a film set in the 1980s.
Most importantly, there is a sense of unjaded reverence toward the last son of Krypton. Superman has always existed in the popular American ethos as an iconic figure, not because of his limitless power set, but because he has an unbelievably high standard for truth and justice that every other character in the mythos reacts to either through adoration or rejection. Brandon Routh may not be as instantly charismatic or effortlessly likable as Christopher Reeve, but the film understands the icon he is meant to embody, and the characters that populate the film recognize that unique messianic place Superman holds. Superman is an agent of preservation and protection, a force that seeks to protect people on a grand scale and minimize collateral damage as much as possible. Yet it doesn’t go overboard with its reverence, only indulging in Christ comparisons sparingly and seemingly begrudgingly.
This isn’t to say that the film is all gawking reaction shots of superhuman feats. The other element from the original films that Superman Returns replicates so well is a dark comedic sensibility, most notably engendered in the villainous character of Lex Luthor. I can’t imagine a better actor to take over Gene Hackman’s show-stopping performance than Kevin Spacey, who embodies just the right proportions of sardonic wit, cold menace, and calculating brilliance to do justice to the character. Spacey is easily the most enjoyable actor in the film, stealing the show in any scene he’s in (though Parker Posey’s turn as henchwoman Kitty Kowalski is a very close second).
So if Superman Returns managed to get so much of its tone right, why wasn’t it the successful progenitor of a new franchise of Superman films? Well, even if the tone was perfect, the screenplay and direction were not. At a runtime of 154 minutes (three minutes longer than the original film), Superman Returns feels unnecessarily long and drawn out for what is ultimately a simple story. Superman: The Movie was justified in running that long because it carried the burden of introducing its audience to a lot of concepts that were new to cinema at the time; Superman Returns seems to want to replicate that epic feeling without having the thematic depth to back it up. There are long stretches of time, most notably during the first half hour of the film, where Superman is shuffled into the background of his own story, presumably to allow for Lex Luthor and Lois Lane to maneuver into plot position for the next scene where Supes is relevant again. The film’s overlong epilogue feels similarly tiresome, an extended demonstration of Superman’s near death that is obviously not going to be how the first installment of a new potential franchise is going to end. It’s just not a very tight screenplay, and Bryan Singer just isn’t a skilled enough conceptual director to see that. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not bad at directing line delivery or even at staging dramatically compelling scenes, but he isn’t an artistic, story-crafting visionary in the slightest, despite what his success with the early X-Men films has cemented as his modern reputation.
And yet, Superman Returns is the closest we’ve come to seeing the icon revived in any meaningful way. Zack Snyder’s interpretation of the Man of Steel is as a demigod with the vengeful power to punch his way to victory, but Superman isn’t a character defined by his physical strength. Rather, it is his aspirational moral strength that makes him who he is, and in a cinematic climate that is becoming increasingly disillusioned with angry father figures as the masculine ideal, Superman Returns may just have a thing or two to teach Warner Brothers as they shakily try to build their DC Extended Universe, even if it is just a template for how to bring Superman into the modern age.