Superman Returns

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.

4 thoughts on “Superman Returns

  1. Richard Brunton

    Oh dear…I may have to disown you Martin.

    Just kidding. It’s interesting how some films just create a black and white response to them, and this is one of these films. You either love it or you don’t.

  2. Karen

    I’d agree with you about Superman Returns. Then again, I didn’t expect that much because no Superman film has ever had any of the qualities that you mention. The makers of such films have a complete inability to depict Lex Luthor as a real bad guy, and never have managed to make Superman emotionally accessibleor make him part of emotionally fulfilling plots.

    We’re still waiting for the director who can walk the fine line between keeping Superman, the character, but humanizing him in a realistic way. Maybe that’s impossible, although I think that Smallville have occassionallly come close when they get away from the teen angst moments. The Lex Luthor in Smallville is much the best I’ve ever seen and the same with Clark Kent, maybe precisely because Clark Kent is the character point-of-view in the series, and not Superman.

    I think it’s especially bad at the moment in the U.S. because of what’s going on in the real world. People want a Superman and don’t want him to be realistic, but to come and simply solve all their problems for them. They – grossly generalizing here – want the bad guys to be made fun of and never to be a really serious threat, etc. Like you, I thought that Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor had real potential at the start of the film, but he faded drastically at the end and became a cartoonish figure instead.

    Like you again, I was most interested in Richard and what was going on with him. They did try something different from the standard ‘turns out to be a bad guy and Lois leaves him’ plot, but surely his point-of-view is where the major story turns out to be.

    I was also interested in the child, the son, for two reasons. First, all asthmatics (including me) were probably cheering him on; and secondly, the first time he uses his powers is to rescue his mother, but he kills the ‘bad man’ in the process. The writers don’t try and cover it up, either. He really is dead. Well, what’s that going to do to this little boy long term? Talk about traumatic. It isn’t exactly the ‘Kent’ upbringing that Clark had. I wonder if they’ll explore that in later films or if ‘the son’ will mysteriously never be mentioned again?

  3. James Harvey

    Yes, Martin you are right: the movie blew chunks. If only he’d just stayed on to make X 3 instead.

    Give me V for Vendetta, Batman Begins, X2, Spiderman 2 any day

  4. Noelia

    I agree with almost everything you said. Yet I think it would be too easy for both, Lois and Superman to get rid of Richard if he was a bastard. But he’s a good man, he loves his family and he saved Superman. Even having all the power in the world to put him out of the way, Superman won’t hurt a nice human being like Richard in any sense. So I find it quite interesting to see what’s gonna happen with this triangle. Because, beside all the problems that already exist for superman, teh truth is, he’s going to be an absent father, so what’s best for Jason? It’s a really difficult situation Bryan Singer put himself into, and I really cant wait to see how he solves this.

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