Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006)

“He’s a little fragile, but he’s gonna grow up to be big and strong… just like his dad.”

Introduction

Considering Superman Returns halted any further sequels to the original vision of the Superman series, it is a fair assumption that reviews were negative and mixed at best. Strangely, it continues to hold on to a 76% score on Rotten Tomatoes, only just earning a ‘fresh’ rating almost seven years after the films release. Despite the positive reviews, the film controversially “failed” at the box-office. In no uncertain terms, though raking in almost $400m (becoming the ninth highest-grossing worldwide film of the year), the total expenditure is rumoured to be as high as $263m alongside a marketing budget at $100m. A little mathematics clearly show a small-return for Hollywood – and in comparison to the highest-grossing worldwide film-release of 2006, Dead Man’s Chest, it is an upsetting comparison, as the sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean earned a little over $1bn worldwide, on a budget of $225m. Now that’s a success.

Callbacks

The failure of Superman Returns, Bryan Singer believes, is because the film was “nostalgic and romantic”. His personal love for Richard Donner’s original overshadowed a clear story and structure whereby the religious allegory he attempted to include seemed like a token-gesture at best – rather than a core-element to the film.

After five years, Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to planet Earth after an absence of five years. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has managed to get himself out of prison and has re-visited the Fortress of Solitude to steal a shard of Kryptonite. Superman, as Clark Kent, returns to the Daily Planet to find that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is now married to Richard White (James Marsden), with child, and she has achieved her dream by winning a Pulitzer Prize for an article titled: “Why the world doesn’t need Superman”. The assumption is that the film takes place post-Superman II so continuity dictates that this is why Luthor knows where the Fortress of Solitude is and why Superman’s father is still Marlon Brando.

The Kent homestead remains the same and, cinematically, the titles and music clearly tell us that this is the same universe. Singer, after trying so hard to connect the film to Donner’s original duo, then ignores crucial elements. In one throwaway line, Lois Lane mentions to Superman information about her “colleague” Clark Kent – and Superman responds that he doesn’t know who he is. Wasn’t Kent the connection between Lois and Superman in the first few films? Even Luthor doesn’t seem aware that his “land” strategy for wealth is similar to his plan of breaking off a section of California in Superman: The Movie.
Ryan McNeil wrote how “the biggest problem with the film is how it doesn’t know whether it is a sequel of a reboot” – and I completely agree. The world we are watching, we need to invest in – and a lack of clarity in the universe will always be difficult to follow. I would assume that those who will appreciate the film most will be those who haven’t seen the 1978 and 1980 originals – but then they will feel at a disadvantage when Marlon Brando appears and it is clear “something” happened before. Singer needed to either (a) set it post Superman IV: The Quest for Peace or (b) simply reboot the whole thing. Instead he tried to get the best of both worlds – and failed.

Religious Allegory


Upon viewing the Man of Steel trailers, like all the Superman films, the Jesus-parallel always manages to become a theme. The original four films seem to blend the Jesus narrative that is inherent within the Superman story with an anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist message within a pro-America (quite the oxymoron!) context. Superman Returns wisely side-steps the capitalist argument (in 2006, we were all enjoying crazy-wealth and only those in Wall Street knew what was due to hit…) and focuses our attention on the struggles Superman personally has. Has the world moved away from the notion of a divine being? Can we paraphrase Lois Lane’s article to read “Why the World doesn’t need a Saviour/God/Religion”? The state of America post 9/11 inevitably shook many people to reflect on their faith – and whether a God could exist in such dark times.

The religious themes don’t stop there. Bryan Singer himself, when explaining the “too-heavy” nature of the film said:

“I’ve always felt that the origin of Superman is the story of Moses — the child sent on a ship to fulfill a destiny,” said Singer, a producer on the upcoming X-Men: First Class. “And this was a story about Christ — it’s all about sacrifice: The world, I hear their cries. So what happens? He gets the knife in the side and later he falls to the earth in the shape of a crucifix. It was kind of nailing you on the head, but I enjoyed that, because I’ve always found the myth of Christ compelling and moving. So I hoped to do my own take, which is heavy s— for a summer movie.”

The Observer critic Philip French concurs, writing:

“Superman comes back to earth at a time of great crisis and is virtually crucified by Luthor, using shards of the deadly green Kryptonite crystals as nails. While he lies dying in hospital, his mother, Martha, is among the grieving crowd, while inside the sick room his son looks reverently at the Superman outfit lying on a chair as if it were the prophet’s raiment, the martyr’s shroud or the hero’s armour. Something resembling a resurrection follows, accompanied by heavenly music”

The strongest moments are the sequences that prove this Messianic role Superman plays in society. The scenes when he flies into space and we “hear their cries”. The world praying and seeking help – and the pressure Superman has as the only person who can make a change. From the footage of Man of Steel, the assumption is that the upcoming Zack Snyder film will tackle the dichotomy between Superman as an outsider, due to be “crucified” by those who deny his awesome power and Superman as a God, due to save the earth whether we agree with his methods or not. Fear against trust. It seems that the most profound sentiment, and the theme that resonates best, is the Christ story in the modern-era. Not the set-up-a-franchise “Superboy” thread …

Like Father like Son

Almost as a deleted narrative, that refused to lay on the cutting-room floor, it is worth considering the ‘Son of Superman’ story. Isolation and loneliness is a key element to the film as Superman left earth to explore Krypton – only to return alone. He pines after Lois Lane, but she has moved on – leaving him on his own. His experiences and moments of reflection emphasize how his challenges and difficulties are unique to him – and something no one else understands.

In that regard, the idea of resolving this by presenting us with a Son of Superman doesn’t feel too awkward. But it feels obvious. The set-up of Lois Lane bringing up a child, who is roughly the same age as Superman’s visit to Krypton, seems a little too purposeful – and personal – destroying the “twist” that Superman has a Son at all. The relationship between Clark Kent and Jason also toys with his Father-like role to his son, and society – but it simply seems show-horned in. This is in addition to the relationship Lane has with Richard (Son-of-Perry) White – a strong, capable and loving Father to the Son Superman never had. Do we root for Superman to “win” Lois back? Do we see Richard White as a bad Father? On both counts, no. So is there any tension in this love-triangle? Again, no.

The Fall

As characters, multiple facets are weak, but it is worth considering the symbolic nature of the roles. The inevitable 9/11 reference will surely creep into a 2006 ‘event’ movie release, with a deeply American character-story such as Superman Returns. And especially as Metropolis is, for all intents and purposes, New York City. Using the Father-Son thread as a starting point – and reminding ourselves of the [expensive]  use of Brando’s footage to build further foundations between Son and Father, we can clearly feed this into a thought regarding the moment Superman falls to earth.

As Metropolis citizens look to the New York sky, they see Superman pierce the sky in a moment of shock and awe, before he falls to the ground creating a ground-zero in the middle of Central Park. What is surely a clear-connection, it is iconic God-like role-model and iconic God-like buildings hitting the ground and, from the dust, they rise up again. Superman, and the “American Way”, is the foundation – and the Father – to the country. Americans and those in a post-9/11 world are the children to the American Way – but for a brief moment, the fall of the twin towers changed America and changed what it stands for. But, those foundations remain, and as Superman whispers to his son, they will be passed on and America will rise up from the dusty ground to be strong once again.

To weave in so many themes and ideas, it is inevitable that the film is too long. Despite the many, many themes buried deep into the story, the final act seems to continue from one action-beat to the next. Lex Luthor’s destruction leads to Lois Lane nearly dying … leading to Superman nearly dying … leading to his regeneration … leading to his comeback. And so it goes on. In a cinematic-sense, the “father” to this film was Richard Donner’s Superman, but his was a flawed film and – though successful – had many problems that has consequently bled into Bryan Singer’s “fragile” homage to the original. This should have re-started the Superman story but it did not, and Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins showed us all how it “should be done”. Such a template, seven years later, is crucially the reference point for Zack Snyder and his Man of Steel. And I cannot wait.

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