By John H. Foote
Why was it so disliked?
Why was the film held in such blazing contempt?
Why was Actor Brandon Routh, who I quite liked, so mercifully crucified?
Why did it fail, miserably, at the box office?
Why is John H. Foote, Captain Anti-Superhero writing about this film at all?
To answer the third, the only one I truly can answer honestly, I liked it, very much and have always championed films that fail to connect but connect with me. I cannot be alone, Roger Ebert liked the film, as did many other critics, but more it was audiences who did not gravitate towards the picture. Superman (1978) left me downright giddy, and the sequel was just as strong. Superman Returns came nearly twenty years after Christopher Reeve hung up his Cape, after several false starts which included a Tim Burton-directed film with Nicolas Cage. After watching Superman Returns the other day, my appreciation for the film only deepened, as director Bryan Singer, now career dead gave the film a glorious mythical quality that was perfectly acted by Brandon Routh.
There is one scene that allowed Superman to soar in the mythic, his powers weakened by a shard of Kryptonite plunged into his side, Lois extracts it and he flies high into the heavens to soak up the healing rays of the sun. Closing his eyes, he opens his arms and allows the blazing sun to give him back his strength. Floating in the atmosphere, he looks Christ-like as he draws power from the sun. It is awe-inspiring to see this sequence.
The film picks up several years later, ignoring the dreadful third and fourth installments with Christopher Reeve, picking up where Superman II (1981) left off, but Superman has disappeared, been gone for years. No one knows where he is just gone. He and Lois had their night, a child was conceived, and she has moved on, finding a decent, good man, Richard (James Marsden) to love her and her boy. Her child is now five, and she won a Pulitzer Prize for her article Why We Don’t Need Superman, though it turns out she longs for him, misses him as does the rest of the world.
While taking a press ride on a jet that will send the latest space shuttle hurtling into the cosmos, something goes terribly wrong and the jet pilots have control once the shuttle’s engines, far more powerful ignite. As the plane comes apart, Lois notices something outside.
It is him, Superman (Routh) returned.
He frees the shuttle and sends it into space then turns to see the jet hurtling to earth, nose down. Flying at an incredible speed he gets under the nose and pushes back, slowing the jet and gently lands it in a baseball stadium in full view of the crowd. Thunderous applause greets his feat, and the fact he has returned from wherever he went.
He and Lois have much to discuss, but the vicious antics of Lex Luther (Kevin Spacey) constantly pull the man of steel back to crime-fighting. Luther has acquired kryptonite, lethal to Superman, and as always, has plans for “real estate”. Kidnapping Lois and her son, he puts his plan in motion, placing the city of Gotham in terrible peril by creating an island, which puts in motion earthquakes and a rising tsunami.
What follows is great action with some breathtaking visual effects. Plunging into the sea Superman lifts a yacht broken in half containing Lois and her family left to drown by Luthor, Lois then saves a Superman by removing part of the Kryptonite hurting him, a glorious shot shows a Superman flying high into the heavens allow the healing rays of the sun to replenish his strength, and then he lifts Lex’s fast-growing island, sending it off into space before, spent, his energy gone he falls to earth, barely alive.
The people of earth prove their love for Superman, picking him up and getting him to a hospital, where needles cannot puncture his skin, and there is nothing they can do for him except give him rest. Lois and her son visit, and she whispers in his ear that her child is their child, his son.
When she leaves, he awakens.
The first film, Superman (1978) left me in awe, as Director Richard Donner took the perfect approach, treating him as a God from another planet with quasi-religious overtones. Jor-El (Marlon Brando) utters, “I have sent them you…my only son.” The build-up and pay off to the first rescue is terrific with Superman streaking into the sky, catching Lois, then continuing up wherein full-frame he catches a falling helicopter in one had, holding Lois in the other. The full theatre instantly exploded into applause. Brandon Routh made an interesting decision as Superman and Clark Kent in that I think he was portraying Christopher Reeve. Either way, he was excellent as both but truly shone as Superman, bringing warm humour, genuine concern for humanity and compassion. There was something regal about the manner he floated in the air, or powerful as he closed his fist, renewed by the suns’ rays, again all-powerful.
Kevin Spacey in Lex Luther found the perfect role for his smug acting persona coming off just a bit smarter than everyone else. It is a solid performance, properly twisted, lacking the humour of Gene Hackman from the original film but much more frightening. We are not disappointed to see him undone by his moll, the delightful Parker Posey.
As Lois, Kate Bosworth seems a little befuddled, not quite sure what to do. Here she is five years without her Superman, together with another but obviously still smitten with her hero. And they have a child together? What to do? Even Richard sees the manner in which she gazes at Superman, and at some point will bow out, knowing he can never compete. Bosworth lacks the tough edginess of Margot Kidder, who as Lois would have sold her soul for a story. It is not a bad performance, just not very interesting as she seems in awe of her former lover (Superman) most of the time. One imagines, the way she holds him in esteem, he is a man of steel and not faster than a speeding bullet.
The effects are awe-inspiring, truly incredible, superhuman feats of strength that must be seen to be believed.
Bryan Singer directed the film, the engineer of the popular X-Men franchise, now disgraced for dalliances with young boys. He paid beautiful homage to both the Donner film and actor Christopher Reeve. I found myself thinking Singer adored the Superman legend and was prepared to treat the character with the reverence the character deserved.
Far better a film than it was ever given credit for being, Superman Returns deserves to be celebrated for its manner of elevating the Man of Steel to God-like status.
With Superman Returns, I believed a man could fly.
And I believed in Routh.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.
Hey john! Good Stuff. One observation, though. It wasn’t a box office failure. In fact, it made more money than Nolan’s first entry in his heralded Batman trilogy. Yes, it was saddled with not only a bigger budget but also the budgets of a decade of failed attempts at reboots. But that only means it didn’t turn (much) of a profit. To the movie going public, though, it was still a blockbuster at almost $400 mil (remember – this was before the age of Marvel mega-hits.) It was also better RECEIVED than most films in the Snyderverse. It remains one of DC’ best reviewed movies in the last two decades.