Fangrrls on Film: Superman Returns (2006)

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Apr 6, 2018

Film criticism is a very dude-heavy industry. According to a 2016 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, men account for 73% of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, resulting in men often shaping the narrative of what makes a "good" film or a "bad" film—what's worth seeing and what's not. And even the most well-meaning, wokest of men wouldn't necessarily catch the microaggressions or tropes that tend to define whole genres.

So, as our answer to years of male critics driving and basically shaping the movie industry with their opinions, Fangrrls on Film re-reviews films from a fangrrl perspective.

Superman Returns was released in 2006 to general acclaim and has only garnered more praise from figures like Quentin Tarantino and IndieWire over the years. It currently maintains a 75% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Clare revisited the film to see how it holds up through our Fangrrls-purple-colored glasses.

I first saw Superman Returns in college, when I was a brighter-eyed, bushier-tailed geek. While I’d grown up on haphazard viewings of Lois and Clark and Superman: The Animated Series, I’d never been particularly drawn to the Big Blue Boy Scout unless there was a solid story hook or Harley Quinn was involved. (Incidentally, Harley painting Metropolis metaphorically red with Ivy in Karl Kesel’s Harley Quinn is one of my favorite arcs in a beloved book.) I remember enjoying Superman, but not quite connecting with it.

Things have changed since then. I wear all black now, the DC Extended Universe has left Superman Returns largely in the dust, and the cultural climate has, to put it lightly, changed.

Look. I cannot, in good faith, discuss Superman Returns without first addressing the elephant in the room: Kevin Spacey.

One of the unexpected benefits of having been raised by wolves is that I have the rare ability to eschew entire oeuvres if the creator has behaved heinously enough to warrant it. And I take full advantage of this benefit; I’ve never seen a Woody Allen film and at this point, I do not care to. Obviously, I can and do enjoy work made by people who I think might be unpleasant in person, but there’s a world of difference between “Wow, that dude’s kind of an asshole” and allegedly sexually assaulting minors over the course of one’s career. In the era of #MeToo, I have escaped the experience of seeing creators who I respect crumble into dust before my very eyes. To quote the good book of Not a Wolf, one should always be ready to “PLACE YOUR HEROES' TENDER NECKS UPON THE ALTAR OF A BETTER TOMORROW.” I am lucky I’ve been able to do that easily.

Seeing Spacey onscreen again was both complicated and not complicated. Complicated because he dominates the film, in terms of both screen time and pure charisma. Complicated because his performance is, in fact, sublime, balancing the film’s thread of dark, goofy humor with palpable menace. Complicated because you end up wondering where the dividing line between that performed menace and the real menace is. Are we, the audience, responding to someone who can interrogate darkness by simulating it, or someone who is merely revealing the darkness beneath? Have we, in that little way, been complicit?

Yet it's not complicated at all, because I believe his accusers, and no piece of work can ever be transcendent enough to change that. And the same goes for director Bryan Singer.

It’s a shame that this is going to overshadow Superman Returns, because it really does deserve to stand on its own merits. I’d call it a fascinating film that falls short of its ambitions, but I won’t, because it seems unsure of what those ambitions are. Is a reboot? No. The whole “space Moses/Kansas/superhero” thing gets covered in a single title card. But also yes, a little? Because “Clark learning to fly” is to Superman movies what the “Waynes getting murdered” is to Batman movies—no director can resist including it. So… is a sequel? The narrative seems to imply it’s picking up five years (and also 26 years?) after Superman II. But it spends a great deal of time essentially shadowcasting the original Richard Donner film. I wouldn’t be surprised if you ran the numbers on Brandon Routh’s dialogue and discovered that only a small percentage of it was original to this film.

So, what is it?

It’s as adrift and unmoored as a piece of Kryptonite, but in a beautiful way. It pays deep, delightful attention to its visual aesthetics—screwball 1940s newsroom comedy by way of the '70s for the Daily Planet, naturally crystalline and seemingly barren for the Kryptonian elements, aggressive seventies decadence updated for the 21st century for Lex Luthor and his crew. And it’s a deeply melancholy film.

Or, to put it another way, it’s Superman meets It’s a Wonderful Life.

I mean, think about it. The main plot is just an updated and much more coherent rehash of the original film—Lex Luthor is trying to generate more land for profit, this time utilizing Clark’s alien resources because Clark’s unwillingness to share them galls him. But the emotional core lies with Clark revisiting his life, five years after leaving on what amounts to a fool’s errand to see if Krypton is still there (NO, YOU BIG BEAUTIFUL DUMB BOY—WEREN’T YOU LISTENING TO MARLON BRANDO'S VOICEMAIL?), and being deeply unsettled by the change. Personally, I think five years is a bonkers amount of time for Clark to be gone. It borders on cruel for Martha Kent and nonsensical when you try to do the math around Jimmy Olsen’s career. Was he was a child when Clark left? Because he looks about 12 here. But it does force Clark to acknowledge that life can and will go on without him, and much of the film is Superman coming to terms with a world that has realized, as Lois’ Pulitzer Prize-winning article says, that it doesn’t need Superman.

There are many scenes of Clark woefully observing the world, feeling apart, yearning to tap in, but not knowing exactly how. (A fruit basket and an apology letter for skipping town for half a decade would be a good start, Clark.) And those scenes are actually quite heartfelt. But it unfortunately ends up in the realm of stalking. Clark follows Lois home and watches her have an intimate argument with her fiancé Richard from afar, and later breaks into her house to quote Marlon Brando after, surprise surprise, we learn that Lois’ 5-year-old son is a little half-Kryptonian wonder. (And a murderer, after he kills one of Lex’s henchmen in order to save his mom. Dark, movie. Dark.)

This, of course, brings us to this film’s take on Lois, which is… Look. I want to like this Lois. I love the idea of Lois Lane, hard-nosed reporter, applying her renowned determination to juggling her family and her career. It would be refreshing, since we see so little good representation of working mothers that actually address the amount of work it requires. Superman Returns shows her and her fiancé trading off childcare, discussing parenting, and generally being a real, equitable partnership committed to raising their son. He even manages his own jealousy when Superman comes back into their lives, like a real adult and everything! Of course, he disappears from the film as soon as “his” son’s parentage is revealed, because it’s not like a big theme in Superman is adoptive parents—oh wait. You know what? I’m angry now. I want justice for Richard White. THAT GUY DID NOTHING WRONG EXCEPT NOT BE SUPERMAN, AND SO MANY OF US FAIL TO BE SUPERMAN.

But Kate Bosworth is woefully miscast. Not because she’s not a good actress—she is!—but because she’s simply too young. Bosworth was 22 during filming, and we’re expected to believe her as an established career journalist with a young child, a long-term partner, a beautifully appointed home on the water (I may have screamed “On two journalists' salaries?!” at the TV), and a Pulitzer. If someone with that much stress in her life has the complexion of an untroubled 22-year-old, good god, tell us your secrets or we will suspect vampirism. It's just unbelievable, and it makes Lois, one of the most grounded elements of the Superman mythos, about as believable as an anime protagonist who somehow has two PhDs at the age of 18.

I ultimately ended up erring heavily on the side of Kitty Kowalski, Lex Luthor’s moll. Why? Well, because she is a) aggressively my type and b) does the following amazing things throughout the film:

  • Is Parker Posey
  • Fills an entire martini glass with olives and eats them by the fistful
  • Snarks at Lex nonstop
  • Adopts a cannibal Pomeranian
  • Wears jodhpurs
  • Does not miss the opportunity to hit on Superman, but also does not let it interfere with her job of being a bad person
  • Ends up betraying Lex not because Superman showed her the light but because she doesn’t want a death toll in the billions on her hands

You know, I think she and Harley would get along famously.

Final Thoughts:

Superman Returns is more of a fascinating exercise in homage rather than a film unto itself, but it does so in both visual and emotional style, embracing the '50s by way of the '70s aesthetic of the Donner films along with a more modern and melancholic take on the Last Son of Krypton. There are some missteps—that’s stalking, Clark!—but I ultimately applaud it for deciding to go in a more personal and nuanced direction, even if it fails. Unfortunately, the allegations against both Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer will overshadow this film as time goes on—which is what should happen with allegations this grave—which means that it might just start to become the Chuck Cunningham of the DC Extended Universe.