With the talk all Batman these days, with good reason, I thought I would take a look back at the attempted re-boot of the Superman franchise with Bryan Singer’s under appreciated Superman Returns (2006). Singer made it clear from the beginning his deep love of the Superman (1978) movie of the late seventies, directed by Richard Donner, and wanted very much to capture that sense of awe and majesty in dealing with Superman on film. I remember New Year’s Eve, 1978, at the theater about to see Superman (1978). All year we had heard and seen the ads, screaming the words, “you’ll believe a man can fly.” OK, now was the time.
The credits were breathtaking and just gave the feeling you were in for something very special. Donner had helmed the film with a great mythical feeling, Jor-El, sending “his only son” to earth, God like, to live among the mortals. The first forty-five minutes of the film were pure Americana, and finally we get to the Daily Planet and are introduced for the first time to Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) as an adult. It is Reeve’s first appearance in the film and he is bumbling, goofy and perfect. A chopper is taking Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) to the airport to meet Air Force One and the President, leaving from the top of the Daily Planet, a skyscraper, but there are problems on take off. Cables catch the leg of the chopper and it plunges over the side, held in place by the guard rail and the leg of the chopper. The pilot is knocked cold, and Lois attempts to get out of the chopper, slipping and left dangling by a seat belt, faced with dropping to a certain death on the streets below. Exiting the Daily Planet, Clark has seen this and springs into action. He jogs down the street, and comes upon a modern phone booth, no booth, just the top and corners, sizes it up, frowns and runs off. Perfect. As the crowd gathers on the streets, news cameras arrive, and suddenly there is a man streaking up into the skies. Lois falls, plunging to certain death when suddenly she is caught by the Man of Steel, “It’s OK miss, I’ve got you”, he says. Stunned, she responds, “you’ve got me? Who’s got you?”, she asks breathlessly looking down. Down below we hear the news crew, “I cannot believe it, he got her”. As they soar into the heavens the chopper comes loose and plummets towards them, death seemingly imminent, but with a smile, he flies straight at the chopper and in a full shot catches it with one hand, gently carrying it up to the rooftop where he sets it down, and calls for help for the pilot.
WOW!!! I believe a man can fly!!! I believe in Superman, I was in.
The Donner film has its flaws, the ending is silly, but damned if Christopher Reeve did not nail it as Clark/ Superman. Tall, honest and straight as Superman, he is slightly hunched, goofy and silly as Clark, yet with a simply posture adjustment and look in his eyes he becomes his alter ego. God I love elements of that film.
Superman Returns (2006) moves ahead rightly on the premise that Superman III (1983) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) were never made. After seeing them back and then again on DVD, I quite agree. The film begins after the end of Superman II (1981), where Lois learned Clark’s true identity, they became lovers, and then at the end of the film he erases her mind to ease her of the terrible burden. As Superman Returns (2006) begins, the Man of Steel has been gone for five years, in search of survivors of his home planet Krypton after scientists find remnants of it. He returns, first to Ma Kent (Eva Marie Saint) on the fame where he grew up and then to Metropolis, where he is given his old job back. Lois (Kate Bosworth) has moved on, given birth to a child, five years old (Hmmm) and lives with a truly nice guy, portrayed with winning charm by James Marsden. She steadfastly refuses to marry, and has won a Pulitzer Prize while he was gone for her essay, Why the World Does Not Need Superman.
Of course she has to be happy he is around when the jet she is riding on runs into trouble. The space shuttle is atop a jet and its engines malfunction, firing, sending the plane headed dangerously for space. Superman comes to the rescue, and though it is not an easy one, he gently lands the place, holding it by the nose, on a baseball field where thousands are watching the game. Stunned to see him again, the stadium erupts in cheers, and Lois, is delighted, though has a secret she must confess.
Meanwhile Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is enraged that so much of his life was taken from him, sentenced to prison after his crimes in the first and second film. He is up to his old tricks still in love with real estate, but this time is hatching a plot to create a new continent using one of the crystals he has stolen from Superman’s fortress of solitude, combining it with a chunk of deadly Kryptonite.
Much will happen over the course of the film, including some stunning rescues, the boat sequence being one of the best, but also some deeply moving moments such as Ma Kent standing outside the hospital where Superman is being kept, hovering near death, unable to go in because she would spoil his identity. What I liked about the film was the heart, the humanity displayed by Brandon Routh as Superman, showing us what it must be to be a superhero. Floating high over the earth, he hears everything happening on the planet and chooses what he will help with, the voices ceaseless in his head. Routh had a difficult job because he was not just playing Superman he was following no less than Christopher Reeve, who had both owned the role and become a real life superman after his tragic accident that left him paralyzed. What I liked about what Routh did was that he did not portray Superman as much as he portrayed a version of Reeve portraying Superman. His Clark Kent was less bumbling, more attractive, but his Superman was very much like the one Reeve had created. I am sure part of had to do with Reeve finding the absolutely right way to play the role (perhaps the only way), and some homage put into the film by both Routh and director Bryan Singer. I thought Routh did a terrific job in the part.
Kevin Spacey was superb as Lex Luthor, less campy than Gene Hackman, and much more cruel, enjoying his own psychosis, his hatred for Superman all leaving him all but seething. I had some trouble with Bosworth as Lois Lane only because I so loved Margot Kidder in the 1978 film, but felt Frank Langella’s Perry White was an improvement over bombastic Jackie Cooper. While Donner went for a realistic portrayal of Superman, there was a great deal of camp in his film, and in fact some things we could have done without. Ned Beatty as Otis was terrible and Valerie Perrine as Luthor’s moll was not much better. The camping of the characters in those parts hampered the overall film, which does not happen in Superman Returns (2006). Luthor is evil, thorough and through, and his moll, portrayed by the feisty Parker Posey is excellent, in fact I wish there were more of her.
Singer went back and utilized some old footage and audio of Marlon Brando as Jor-El and incorporates it into the film, as well as that classic John Williams score. Each bring elements of the Superman iconography to this film as well, in addition again paying homage to that 1978 film.
Some loved Superman Returns (2006), some did not. I, for one, did. Many of the images in the film still cross my mind from time to time, Superman high above the earth, soaking in the red rays of the sun from which he draws his great power, or the hero visiting the five-year old boy who means a lot more to him than he initially realized. Singer did well, really well, and I wish the film were bettered remembered. With Man of Steel coming next year, it is as almost as though this never existed, which is a tragedy because for me it soared.