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This Week in Genre History: Superman Returns brings back vintage Man of Steel with polarizing results
Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
Christopher Reeve didn't just play Superman — he loved the character, considering it part of his job to safeguard what so many fans adored about the Man of Steel. So after 1983's disappointing, jokey Superman III, he was becoming disenfranchised with how badly the producers were treating the valiant superhero. "In terms of the basic heart of the character and the way he is, I don't think you should mess with him," Reeve said in 1986 before the 1987 release of the follow-up, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. "I think that it's a proven success, and what we have to really do is just make him a hero to believe in rather than a hero to make fun of."
Unfortunately, while Superman IV, an anti-nuclear-war film hatched from a story by Reeve, was more serious than its predecessor, it was a critical and commercial bomb, ending Superman's theatrical run for two decades. When Warner Bros. finally decided to reboot the franchise, the studio adhered to Reeve's noble view of the character, telling a new Superman story that harkened back to the first few films' sincere, stirring tone.
Crafted as a direct sequel to 1980's Superman II, Superman Returns starred Brandon Routh as a Reeve-esque Superman who, after returning to Krypton five years ago, flies back to Earth to discover that everyone has moved on without him — especially Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who's a single mom engaged to decent, boring Richard White (James Marsden), Perry White's nephew. But he'll have to save the day when Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) prepares his next plot for world domination.
What resulted was a nostalgic, bittersweet blockbuster that was additionally poignant because of Reeve's passing in 2004. When Superman Returns hit theaters on June 28, 2006, there were high expectations — not just for a good Superman movie but one that could re-launch the series. For 14 years now, fans have clashed over whether the movie honored or desecrated the memory of the Reeve films, but what's indisputable is that Superman Returns failed to reinvigorate the property. The reason why remains up for debate.
Why was it a big deal at the time? In the mid-2000s, Warner Bros., which had once been the king of superhero movies thanks to Batman and Superman, was in the doldrums. Superman was a moribund property after the awful Superman IV, Batman had run aground after 1997's disastrous Batman & Robin, and films like Steel and Catwoman weren't exactly lighting up the box office. But there was hope: Batman Begins, which launched in the summer of 2005, engagingly rethought Bruce Wayne's saga, so maybe the following year's Superman Returns could do the same for the Man of Steel. Even with Superman Lives — Tim Burton's now-infamous attempt at a Superman reboot starring Nic Cage in the '90s — in the rearview mirror, hopes were high.
The studio seemed to have the right ingredients to make it happen. In Routh, the producers had found a relative unknown who'd done some soap operas — and appeared in Christina Aguilera's "What a Girl Wants" video — and who could replicate Reeve's aw-shucks modesty as Superman and Clark Kent.
"Essentially, I was tasked with kind of having this similar energy as Christopher Reeve in Superman Returns," Routh said earlier this year, later adding, "Partially that just was in me — having watched the film so many times. [Reeve] was my Superman... I'm not afraid to have walked in his footsteps because that's what I was tasked with doing."
Plus, the film had a stellar supporting cast, including two-time Oscar-winner Spacey, who mirrored Gene Hackman's chrome-dome look for Lex Luthor. But perhaps the real coup for the studio was convincing director Bryan Singer, who had worked with Spacey on The Usual Suspects, to take the reins. At that moment, Singer was red-hot: He was no longer a plucky indie filmmaker doing twisty thrillers but, rather, the mastermind behind X-Men and X2: X-Men United, some of the hippest superhero movies around. If things had worked out differently, Singer would have been behind the camera for X-Men: The Last Stand as well, but as the director admitted later, "I really wanted to have the Superman [Returns] experience... I didn't fully have X-Men 3 in my mind and I had this take on Superman and suddenly that was easy."
Everything was in place: hit director, winning lead actor, a storyline that would jettison Superman III and Superman IV. (They were even going to bring back John Williams' iconic Superman score.) Batman Begins had been a hit, and Spider-Man and its sequel had also been successful. And, hey, the small-screen Smallville, about Young Clark's adventures, was doing well on the WB. It was time for Superman to make his silver-screen comeback.
What was the impact? This century has been awash in superhero movies: some edgy, some irreverent, some playful, some somber. But Superman Returns was genuinely different from everything that came before or after it. Here was a comic book film that fervently strove to reconnect with its past, essentially recreating the spirit of the movies from the early 1980s and transplanting it to modern times. Let other films have dark origin stories: Superman Returns was an unabashedly tender, bighearted movie about a guy who just wanted to do a little good in the world.
"[The movie] won't have people leaving the theater and changing their lives," Routh told the Los Angeles Times before Superman Returns' release, "but it's valuable to remind us of what heroes are about."
For better or worse, Superman Returns succeeded as a sweet throwback to that earlier era, which required the cast to channel the actors who previously played these roles. As a result, this cheerful sequel felt like a very expensive attempt to do a cinematic cover version of Superman and Superman II, trying to erase all the years between then and now as if they never happened. Of course, that was partly the point: In Superman Returns, Superman discovers that people get on with their lives when he's not around, and the Earth he returns to isn't much like the one he left. Tellingly, Lane has won a Pulitzer for writing an op-ed titled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." What does the Man of Steel do when we're over him?
Critics were generally on board, praising Routh for embodying Reeve's humble decency, but Superman Returns never could overcome a societal impression that it was a disappointment. The film actually grossed a little more than the previous year's Batman Begins, but the Dark Knight movie so reenergized DC fans that Superman Returns couldn't simply do as well — it had to reach even greater heights. And while Batman Begins was a legitimately fresh look at the Caped Crusader, Superman Returns simply gave audiences more of the same.
"I think that Superman Returns was a bit nostalgic and romantic," Singer admitted in 2011, "and I don't think that was what people were expecting, especially in the summer... [I thought,] ‘Wow, I want to make a romantic movie that harkens back to the Richard Donner movie that I loved so much.' And that's what I did."
Not surprisingly, plans for a sequel fizzled out. "There were several conversations with me over the years," Routh said in 2016, "but I was never that involved. I heard rumors of what might be, but there was a lot of change happening over at Warner Bros. at that time, so things didn't fully evolve and escalate and I think that was one of the challenges that potential sequel met with, there was just a lot of shifting going on there."
Instead, the studio hit the reset button again, casting Henry Cavill to play Superman in 2013's Man of Steel, and tapping 300 filmmaker Zack Snyder to reboot the property with a new origin story. Naturally, the remake was a lot edgier.
Has it held up? For my money, Superman Returns is a better movie than Man of Steel or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which ran away from Donner and Reeve's original conception but didn't necessarily produce a more interesting Superman. But even so, Superman Returns will always be known as "The Superman That Failed," forcing Warner Bros. to rethink its cash cow.
Happily, Routh has gone on to a successful career, making memorable appearances in films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and on TV in the Arrowverse. But the film's reputation has been understandably stained by the behavior of Routh's collaborators Singer and Spacey. In 2019, the filmmaker was the subject of a damning exposé that detailed allegations that he sexually abused underage boys. Two years earlier, reports started surfacing of allegations against Spacey, who was accused of sexual assault and harassment.
Consequently, it's hard to think about Superman Returns these days. And certainly, Warner Bros. has long since put that movie in its rear-view mirror. Currently, the studio and Snyder are focusing on the mythic "Snyder Cut" of Justice League, and Cavill supposedly may be back for more Man of Steel adventures. Apparently, the world does still need Superman — just not the one Routh starred in.