I know I’ll incur the wrath of Superman and Bryan Singer fans everywhere who loved this, but I’m afraid that Superman Returns didn’t do anything for me. (WARNING: significant spoilers ahead.)
Throughout the movie, I just didn’t know what I was supposed to feel. I couldn’t find its emotional centre. Was it Clark Kent’s/Superman’s struggle to pick up the pieces of his life after being away for five years? Was it Lois Lane’s struggle to figure out if she is still in love with the Man of Steel? Is it the stress inflicted on Lane’s marriage by the introduction of an impossibly perfect third man? Is it the discovery of a new father-son relationship? Is it the tension of the battle with Lex Luthor?
In an effort to turn Superman Returns into a complex superhero story for grown-ups (the holy grail of a Superhero Date Movie), director Singer seems to have lost sight of the fact that Superman is the ultimate comic book superhero. Personally, I’ve never found him particularly interesting because he is too powerful and too infallible. Clark Kent’s bumbling secret identity has always felt like a gratuitous affectation to counterbalance Superman’s extraordinariness: there is super-strong and there is super-weak, but the ambiguous middle levels are left for other comic books to handle.
However, taking the film on its own terms–as an attempt to create an emotionally rich and deep Superman story–there are two things that stood out for me as particular failures. The first is Lex Luthor. When he first appears, he is dripping with menace, a character of ruthless planning and selfish intent. By the time the credits roll, he has been reduced to a Scooby-Doo-style incompetent villain, a figure of mere ridicule. And yet, as the Bad Guy, he has to be capable of coming close to defeating Superman. His (dubious) comedic presence distracts from the film’s attempts to be serious.
The second failure is the screenplay’s refusal to treat the Superman-Lois Lane-Richard White (the man Lois married in Superman’s absence) love triangle seriously enough. In the “classic” version of such a tangled relationship, Lois Lane would have married the Wrong Guy. Richard White would have been handsome, rich, glib, and a total rotter under the hood. He would make his son call him “sir”, and he would be out womanizing in clubs and bars while Lois stayed home to take care of her child. Superman would return, Lois would realize that White was a bastard, and would walk out on him with a cutting farewell speech that highlighted all his failings as a human being.
But this Richard White isn’t that character. He is portrayed as a handsome, rich, ambitious, and rather decent guy. He loves his wife and son, even though he realizes that Lois once loved Superman and may still be in love with him. He is thoroughly human, but he still ends up saving Superman’s life. What kind of anguish is he going through?
In writing classes, writers are often suggested to ask the question: “where’s the pain?” Pain and suffering lie at the heart of emotionally significant stories, and the person I see as being hurt most by this love triangle is Richard.
Okay, so the film is Superman Returns, not Lois Lane’s Husband’s Heartache, but the fact that Richard White is developed to this extent, yet deprived of any opportunity to show his side of the story, emphasizes again the film’s lack of credibility as a “serious” piece.
So does it work as a crash-bang superhero flick, then? No. There was only one set piece I found genuinely thrilling, and that was the airplane sequence. The hair on my neck stood up when Clark Kent ran out of the bar and revealed the suit beneath his clothes, and the rescue he pulls off is amazing. But measured by that moment of brilliance, the disaster scenes at the end felt mundane, and the final continent-hauling came across as implausible.
The final indictment I have is that the closing scene, where Superman pours out his heart to his sleeping son, brought neither a tear to my eye nor a lump to my throat. Since becoming a father, even the slightest cinematic display of father-child tenderness makes me blubber. But here? Nothing. A film that leaves me cold in the face of such an apparently significant emotional outpouring is a poorly constructed one indeed.