Wednesday Rewatch: Superman Returns is more heroic than you remember

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Mar 21, 2018

Welcome to Wednesday Rewatch, a SYFY WIRE series that challenges writers to rewatch a science fiction, fantasy, or otherwise genre-adjacent movie they've already seen and reevaluate in a new context. This week we rewatch Superman Returns (2006).

Superman's 80th anniversary is nothing to shake a stick of Kryptonite at. The man, the myth, the legend has been gracing our comic books and screens for eight decades and no Superman film stands more staunchly alone than Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman Returns.

Brandon Routh was 26 when he made his debut as Clark Kent/Superman. He was, for all intents and purposes, meant to carry a new era of Justice League-adjacent superhero films on his broad shoulders. That didn't happen. Superman Returns was well-received by critics but did not fly high enough with fans to launch a new franchise.

FIRST WATCH

I first watched Superman Returns on a laptop screen at a family friend's house in 2007, not too long after it first came out on DVD. Having taken over the living room with every duvet and blanket available in the house, we settled in. There was probably popcorn and a lot of candy. Sour Patch Kids were my favorite.

I was not, to my surprise, overly interested in the movie at the time. When I finally rewatched Superman Returns (a few years later, to my knowledge), I remember being struck by how very little I knew about it. I knew I'd watched it before — but that didn't mean much of it had stuck with me.

THE OFFICIAL REWATCH

It turned out only a few distinct shots from Superman Returns had resonated in my pre-teen brain the first time around, which might say more about the good aspects of this movie than the bad. The images I remembered upon a rewatch turned out to be hopeful, distinctly "Superman" shots, the kind I'd seen so many times in comic books growing up — Superman arching gracefully across the horizon; our hero hovering just at the very limits of Earth's atmosphere, listening intently with his eyes closed and posed in a distinctive, almost Jesus-on-the-cross manner; the bad yet totally charming CGI of Superman's extra fluttery cape; Clark Kent running to the Daily Planet elevator upon realizing Lois Lane is in trouble; a plane in freefall, saved at the very last moment by the Man of Steel.

Credit: Warner Bros.

The character, a total outsider, is as American as apple pie, so when Bryan Singer of X-Men fame took on Returns, he essentially picked up where Christopher Reeve's Supes had left off. This context was lost on me the first time I watched the film, as my Reeve-era Superman knowledge was sadly lacking. I also didn't understand why the world had been so unimpressed with Returns when it first premiered. Upon this rewatch, with the context of superhero film euphoria pre- and post-Returns well-versed in my mind, I got it.

Superman Returns arrived in a post-Batman Begins world in which Christopher Nolan had successfully dark-and-grittied the superhero origin story. Not only was Returns distinctly not gritty, but it wasn't even an origin story; it was supposed to pick up after Superman II. The people didn't really jive with that, but I'd argue Superman didn't need another origin story.

Superman is a character so well-ingrained into the public psyche that it's assumed we already know his story going into Returns: the last son of Krypton, sent to Earth and adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent of Smallville, Kansas, discovers he is enormously powerful due to the effects of Earth's yellow sun on his alien physiology. Superman's origin is briefly hinted at in asides from Lois Lane and a minute-long flashback of a young Clark leaping through corn fields in Returns, but it's otherwise treated as common knowledge. His origin was covered in 1978's Superman (and hundreds of ways since then) and Singer didn't want to remake the original Superman films as much as make Returns a spiritual sequel to those first few installments.

Despite the issues facing Singer or the current state of the DC Extended Universe in film, that's an impressive feat. It strikes me as verging on beautiful in a world so bogged down with franchises and rebooted origin stories.

NOTABLE MENTIONS

The perfect Man of Steel reintroduction — What could possibly be more Superman than his reintroduction to the world in Superman Returns? For some reason, Metropolis's version of NASA thinks it's a good idea to strap a space shuttle to a commercial airliner. When Lex Luthor causes a brief power outage, everything goes wrong. The plane is launched into orbit by the shuttle with intrepid reporter Lois Lane onboard.

Superman is the only one who can save the day. With the John Williams' iconic main theme trumpeting in the background, Superman swoops in and, in a frankly beautifully timed first action sequence, barely manages to set the plane down gently in the middle of a packed baseball stadium. Is there anything more American than Superman saving lives and interrupting a ballgame to flirt with Lois Lane? The answer is a resounding "no."

Superman takes a bullet in the eye — This is a scene I didn't realize was burned into the back of my brain. Supes swoops in to protect two officers from a madman with a machine gun and bullets bounce harmlessly off his chest. Realizing that he's out of ammo, the bad guy takes it upon himself to pull out a handgun and… shoot Superman directly in the eye at point-blank range? Like he thinks that will work? The bullet flattens against Superman's eye in what was, at the time, a cringe-worthy but jaw-dropping shot.

Cannibal Pomeranian — One of the only hints of blood in this movie comes in the form of Kitty Kowalski's adopted pup having eaten his counterpart, one of the two Pomeranians first introduced in the opening sequence. Later on, Luthor, Kitty, and the goons bust into the widow's mansion to test out the crystal on a conveniently placed model train set. They're greeted by a mangy Pomeranian surrounded by tufts of fur, splattered in blood, and gnawing on what looks suspiciously like his brother's leg bone. Kitty is, at first, disturbed by the little creature but eventually adopts it. She carries it around for the remainder of the movie and its implied that Luthor eats the dog after he and Kitty get stuck on an island in the finale.

Credit: Warner Bros.

Brandon Routh's blue contacts — For what it's worth, Routh's disturbingly vivid blue eyes in this film are not his fault — his eyes are a very dark brown in real life. Routh was given some crazy contacts for his role as Clark Kent/Superman, as the character famously has piercing Americana baby blues. But the blue contacts kind of overcorrected to make up for how dark Routh's eyes are, resulting in him looking a little boggled throughout.

Superman quoting his father at his son — "You will be different. Sometimes, you will feel like an outcast; but you'll never be alone. You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father and the father becomes the son." I'm not crying, you're crying.

Superman and Superman II references — Not only do we get Marlon Brando reintroduced as Superman's biological father Jor-El, but we get enough distinct quotes and lines from him that are enough to make any Superman (or Brando) fan smile. Also revived in Returns were jokes about Lois' bad smoking habit ("You know, you really shouldn't smoke, Ms. Lane"), one-liners about air travel, and old-timey sounding responses like "swell" slipping from a quietly cheerful Clark Kent's lips.

In the beginning of the film, Kitty makes a comment that it seemed like Lex Luthor had been to the Fortress of Solitude before because he knew what he was doing. Luthor responds with a smirk, as we're all in on the joke that Luthor invaded the Fortress in Superman II.

By far the most important reference to past Superman movies, though, comes in the form of Jason, Clark and Lois' asthmatic love child. We can presume Jason was conceived during the events of Superman II when Lois joined Superman in the Fortress of Solitude and spent the night with him. Later, Superman steals the memories of that night (and of his true identity) from Lois' mind with a kiss, explaining why the Lois in Returns might be so confused by her son's otherworldly powers and why Superman spends so long giving Lois forlorn puppy dog eyes throughout.

Credit: Warner Bros.

James Marsden — I was rewatching Superman Returns with my roommates and Marsden's appearance (we all forgot he was in this movie) prompted us to start thinking about every other movie he's in. Turns out Marsden has kinda been labeled by Hollywood as "second fiddle to the main love interest." Sure, Marsden's Richard White (son of Frank Langella's Perry White) technically ends up with Lois in Returns, but Marsden has a long history of being the second-best option or regularly having to prove himself as the better option. From going up against Wolverine as Scott Summers in the X-Men films to The Notebook (gets dumped for Ryan Gosling) to 27 Dresses (gets the girl but it's difficult) to Enchanted (gets dumped for Patrick Dempsey) to Westworld (kind of gets dumped despite his girlfriend being programmed to love him), Marsden typically has a rough go of it. But he gets the girl in this one, all the while looking like a knock-off Superman with his dark hair and blue eyes. Lois definitely has a type — but who can blame her?

THE TAKEAWAY

Superman Returns gets a bad rap, gang. Yes, it's a bit messy, 2006's CGI definitely did not age well, Kevin Spacey's brand aged even worse, and the film has a distinctly Singer pacing to it, but it's better than most people, including me, seem to remember.

First, Routh: He's a bit flat, but you can tell it's due to his attempting to emulate Reeve's effortless charisma and soft smiles; he is, for the most part, a dimpled charmer who didn't get enough on-screen time with Clark Kent to flesh out the character in our minds.

It's not just Routh who's better than I remembered, but the movie as a whole. Lex Luthor spends some time kicking the crap out of a depowered Supes, but that's not the final confrontation. There's something refreshing in this day and age of massive superhero beatdowns about Superman's final challenge being not against a muscled maniac but against a massive amalgamation of Kryptonian crystal and the radioactive remnants of his home planet.

When he crashes back to Earth, humanity discovers it is incapable of saving its savior — doctors can remove the shards of Kryptonite from his body, but we otherwise sit by helplessly. Superman is infallible a character as they come, something more modern takes on Superman seem to have forgotten. He, an alien, stands for the best of what humanity can be; Superman Returns doesn't take that away.