Everything's Been Said About This Movie... Superman Returns Edition

There have been three incarnations of the Superman story in the last decade, and each one of them has found it necessary to downplay one of the character's two halves and stress the other. The mid-90s television show Lois and Clark made it very clear that Clark was the person and Superman the mask he hid behind. Smallville does away with Superman entirely. In Superman Returns, Bryan Singer takes the opposite approach, making Superman--Kal-El--the real person and Clark the persona. In doing so, Singer is keeping faith with both the original comics and Richard Donner's late 70s films, Superman and Superman II, to which Superman Returns is a sequel, but this choice also serves his own interpretation of the character--a mythical savior, a Christ figure, floating above ordinary humans and unable to take part in our quotidian lives.

So thoroughly is the Clark persona devalued in Superman Returns that one finds oneself, while watching the film, wondering why it was even reintroduced. My best guess is that Singer was too married to the trappings of the Superman story, one of the key ingredients of which is the fact that the man of steel masquerades as a bumbling goody-two-shoes. But the film does nothing with Clark except replicate a few scenes from the Donner films (even I found it difficult not to smile when Clark characterized an evening with Lois and her fiancé Richard as 'swell'), and doesn't work very hard to convince us that Superman is interested in maintaining the human aspect of his life. We never see him working--as soon as Perry White sends Clark on an assignment, he casts off his glasses and heads off to battle evil--and there's no indication that he attaches any importance to the relationships he forms with humans in his guise as Clark. Besides his connection to his mother (who is left waiting outside the hospital as her son lies near death, while Superman's former lover and unacknowledged son are ushered in to see him), it's difficult to imagine why Singer's Superman would even want to resume his life as Clark Kent.

The flipside of Singer's Superman-as-savior approach--the one embraced by shows like Lois and Clark and Smallville as their central concept--is an empowerment fantasy. It tells us that as soon as a mild-mannered, geeky, (Jewish) reporter takes off his glasses, he becomes a physical hero. It promises us that the reason the cool, gorgeous girl won't give this nice guy a chance is that she can't see how wonderful he is on the underneath--if only she saw him without his glasses, she'd realize what she was missing. There's a scene roughly along these lines in Superman Returns, but it only serves to illustrate just how thoroughly Singer misuses Clark. In this incarnation of the story, Superman's 'secret identity' is almost insignificant. It's made very clear to us that to reveal himself to Lois would achieve nothing--their problems would be the same, and she would have no greater insight into his personality than she did before.

The revelation of Jason's paternity offers another interesting twist on the Superman story. At the film's close, Superman knows that Jason is his son--this is, presumably, what Lois whispered in his ear as he lay in a coma. If Superman Returns does indeed follow Superman II, then the fact that Lois knows that Jason is Superman's son but not that Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same implies that at some point between the two films, Superman and Lois had another affair in which he never bothered to reveal to her that she knew him by another name--presumably because the revelation wasn't important. (Another explanation is that Jason was conceived during Superman II, and that Lois only realizes he is Superman's son when he demonstrates his powers in Superman Returns. I would have expected her, in this case, to have a few pointed questions, and a few less gooey looks, for the man who apparently had sex with her without her knowledge.)

Between painting Superman as a super-human Christ-figure, and reducing Clark to a mass of mannerisms, Singer accomplishes what no other superhero, comic-book or action film before has managed to do--make the audience root for the impediment guy, that nice, safe, ordinary bloke who is invariably left (usually at the altar) by the hero's love interest. Plenty of reviewers have pointed out that, by making Richard a genuinely decent and loving man, Singer has placed Superman in a bind to which he is unaccustomed--he has to hurt this blameless man in order to be with the woman he loves. To my mind, however, Singer's film doesn't present that sort of dilemma--it's obvious to me that Lois should stay with Richard, that he will make her happier, and have more to offer her, than the man of steel ever could. "He was Superman. We were all in love with him," she tells Richard, and seeing Brandon Routh's interpretation of the hero, this is an easy claim to believe. We can imagine loving Superman from afar, as a concept or an idea, but Singer strains our credulity when he asks to believe that Lois could have taken him as a lover--one might as well love a marble statue. The notion of a life with him is unthinkable.

And the fact is that Richard is by far the more appealing and interesting character. His ordinariness is winning in the face of Superman's chilly inhumanity. Given that there's no passion evident between Lois and Superman--only a low-key longing that borrows most of its intensity from the audience and their pre-loaded knowledge of how the Superman story is supposed to unfold--there's really no convincing reason for her to turn away from a man with whom we see her have actual conversations and shared jokes. To my mind, Richard is even the more compelling hero, and all the more admirable for not having any superpowers. No amount of sweeping orchestral music will convince me that the tragic climax of the film is the scene in which Lex Luthor and his goons oh-so-photogenically beat Superman to a bloody pulp. Anyone with a heart will walk away from the film thinking of Richard, bravely but vainly trying to keep Lois and Jason's heads above water, struggling in spite of the fact that there is no hope for their survival.

There must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people involved in every stage of Superman Returns' production. Isn't it strange that none of them thought to point out to Bryan Singer that, as his film closes, we are actively rooting for his hero to keep the hell away from us flawed mortals, and go back to the sky where he belongs?


Anonymous said…
Hey there,

It's funny, I saw the movie yesterday and read your review today. So the movie's still fresh in my mind:)

Allthough I agree with your insight on Richard's and Louis's relationship I disagree with the closing statment. The movie is called Superman Returns. The axis of the movie is the fact he returns. I don't think anyone wants Superman to stay the hell away from us mortals. People who'd like to see a story about us mere mortals should see another movie. The whole point about superheros, to my mind, is emotional. Singer was able to create a long movie (Two and a half hours) in which I was never bored or reluctent to follow his story onwards. That's one heck of a feat.

This reminds me of something that happened yesterday. Two English people left the theater and one of them said: "I didn't think the Kriptonite thing made any sense." And I smiled and thought to myself: "What? Unlike anything else in the Superman story like the fact this ALIEN FROM SPACE is HUMAN in every way and is from an ALIEN CULTURE that speaks English? Or that the people he works with can't realise he's Superman because he wears glasses? (Great insight on that BTW:)" The same, I think, apllies to what you wrote in the end. If you've paid the money for the ticket to see Superman you want to see him help us flawed humans. It's that simple.

Keep up the good work!

Matt Ruff said…
My wife also commented on how unusual it was for the "impediment guy" (great term!) to be a sympathetic character, although she liked this choice. Yesterday we went to see The Lake House, which took the more traditional route of having the other man in Sandra Bullock's life be a disposable jerk.

I think Superman II worked better for me than it did for you, if only because I also saw Lady in the Water this weekend, and compared to that almost any film shines brighter. I did feel a bit cheated by the anticlimactic nature of the ending, though. The fact that the filmmakers decided to keep Lex Luthor both alive and at large meant that they couldn't have another showdown after Superman recovered from his Kryptonite overdose, and since you know Superman isn't going to die from his wounds, there's very little dramatic tension to be had once the Big Crystal Tumor gets tossed into space. During the hospital room scene, I found myself thinking, "Dude, stop dragging this out and wake up already."
the.exile said…
I totally missed the hospital scene, since after Superman got beat up I fell asleep from sheer boredom.

I'm amused that I've only now discovered that I wasn't the only one in the theatre in a coma.
Raz Greenberg said…
I haven't seen "Superman Returns" yet, but I thought it's worth mentioning that there was at least one more incarnation of the Superman character in the last ten years - in the animated "Superman" TV series and later as part of the animated "Justice League" series. Both shows also downplayed the Clark Kent personality, giving the front stage to the Superman identity - because both shows were more about spectacle than character development (which doesn't mean they weren't good in their own right).
In a sense, both shows took after the very first screen incarnation of Superman - also animated, in the early 1940s, in a series of short films by the Fleischer brothers. In these films, there was no doubt that Superman is the real person and that Clark Kent was only a decoy. Interestingly, however, they presented a very different Clark Kent: instead of the young, unconfident figure, the Fleischer's Kent was a slow, sleepy and indifferent Humphrey-Bogart like figure.
The Fleischers' films, by the way, are highly recommended - they stand asan impressive technical achivement to this very day.
Now that you've mentioned it, Raz, I think I was vaguely aware of the animated Superman. The same people made the Batman animated series, right? I watched that show on channel 6, but by the time Superman came along I had outgrown it.
Raz Greenberg said…
Yes, it came from the same people behind B:TAS. Notable among them is Paul Dini, a gifted cartoon writer who also wrote a couple of "Lost" episodes.
Anonymous said…
You've picked out all the flaws that I noticed in the film.

I wrote in my LJ that Richard was the hero of the film, Superman is a dream. He's not real. How can one love a dream?

Clark is a real person, but we don't really see him.

I for one, would rather dump Supes, and run off with Richard. And tell Clark to stop stalking my kid...that was creepy.
Anonymous said…
>>His ordinariness is winning in the face of Superman's chilly inhumanity.

The character of Richard in Superman Returns is far from ordinary. While watching the film last evening I also felt that Richard was intended by the "authors" to complicate and further the question of what constitues a hero (and whether The World Needs Superman). However due to his extraordinary resources (How many people conceivably own and operate a seaplane in Metropolis? How does he navigate the city to reach the plane during confusion and panic?) and his unblemished persona (How could Richard so suppress his jealousy of Superman throughout? Does he have no physical or emotional peccadillos?) it is unconvincing that Richard is ordinary. Rather, he is more a simulacrum of Bruce Wayne than a simple doting father and executive; Richard is an extraordinary man performing at his best. An ordinary person would, from emotional self-interest, hesitate and question for more than a short beat his wife's request to return and rescue Superman. I found Superman's inhumanity not nearly as chilly as your review stated, nor Richard's much warmer.

Mark D. Simmonds
Anonymous said…
I just saw SR yesterday, at a press showing because it's only about to be released here, and I must say I agree with much that you say, without thinking that it necessarily made the movie bad. I was actually quite impressed with the way Brandon Routh, this young young actor, managed to portray Superman so... superhumanly, totally apart from humanity.

But I do agree - Richard trying his best to save his family touched me more than Superman being beaten to a pulp. I think that, if Clark can't be a real person in Singer's universe (I felt so sorry for him, to be so dismissed by Lois - and by the story), then Richard is definitely the guy for Lois. Not that I liked her - too young by far and just not enough of an interesting character. Plus there's the whole thing where she apparently had sex with Superman before he disappeared and then moved on to Richard so quickly that she wasn't sure who of the two was Jason's father. Or if she knew, then Richard (and the rest of the world) obviously didn't, which would make her a liar.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for the thoughtful post ... you've articulated a lot of the thoughts I had (but could not pull together) about the movie. And many thanks for mentioning the the unanswered question of the movie: when did Lois and Supes conceive Jason?

Bosworth's Lois did not strike me as a particularly good liar (re: her conversation with Richard about Superman while preparing dinner) and she seemed to dismiss Lex's conjecture as completely out-of-hand ... I think, but am not sure, that we are supposed to assume (if we're knowledgeable about the plot of Superman II) that Lois and Supes were together in the previous movie and probably not any time after. Which should leave her extremely confused and more than a bit angry.

I think it's a shame it wasn't addressed further, but that would muddy the Clark/Supes waters -- since at the time, Lois did know Superman = Clark Kent and that Clark gave up being Superman to be with her ...

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