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Superman Returns (2006)—The Price of Playing Things Too Safe

Superman Returns movie poster

After the critical and financial failure of Superman 4: The Quest for Peace, Warner Brothers decided to shelve Superman for some time. During this hiatus, numerous directors came forth with ideas for a Superman film, from J.J. Abrams’ Superman: Flyby to Tim Burton’s infamous Superman Lives. However, the job ultimately went to X-Men director Bryan Singer who pitched the idea of a soft reboot that paid homage to the late Christopher Reeves’ legacy. Thus, Superman Returns was born.

Clark Kent (played by Brandon Routh) returns to Earth after searching for the remains of his planet, Krypton. Upon his return, he saves a plane which Lois Lane (played by Kate Bosworth) is on from crashing. Kent learns that Lane has published a Pulitzer Prize winning story about how the world didn’t need him in addition to having a husband and son. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (played by Kevin Spacey) has reacquired his wealth after marrying a rich widow and inheriting her fortune after her death. Luthor concocts a villainous real estate scheme to build a giant continent that will kill millions in the process. Superman arrives to stop him, but he finds out the island is made of his one weakness: Kryptonite.

Brandon Routh as Superman in 2006's Superman Returns

I refer to this film as a soft reboot since, quite frankly, I have no idea what kind of a film it’s supposed to be. It ignores both the third and fourth installments of the Richard Donner Superman film series and acts as a sequel to Superman II while simultaneously acting as a reboot to the whole series. But that itself isn’t the film’s biggest problem. If there’s one thing that this film suffers from, it’s the lack of kinetic energy. While most would assume that I would have liked more action, that’s not exactly what I mean. I felt that the film was poorly-paced, which is especially troublesome given that the film is almost three hours long. Singer uses a lot of wide shots coupled with slow panning shots. While I normally enjoy this steady camerawork, these shots did not help with the film’s slow pacing and made it feel longer than it needed to.

Production for the film began in January 2005 and lasted until November of that same year. The film was operating under the working title of “Red Sun” to avoid media attention (which is ironic since it’s also similar to the name of a popular Superman comic book). Brandon Routh was cast as the titular Clark Kent/Superman due to his striking resemblance to the late Christopher Reeve in addition to his humble Midwestern roots. Routh delivered a performance that harkened back to the Reeve-era Superman, down to his body language and line delivery. While a solid performance, many including myself at the time, didn’t appreciate his performance and felt he was only a carbon copy of Reeve.

Clark Kent and Lois Lane in Superman Returns

Additionally, Kate Bosworth was cast as Lois Lane and Kevin Spacey was cast as Lex Luthor. Bosworth’s rendition of Lois Lane is by far my least favorite interpretation of the character. She had no chemistry with Routh’s Clark Kent and looked far too young to pull of the role of a seasoned Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. However, Spacey’s Lex Luthor is by far my favorite rendition of the character. While I do find his rather comical nature to be a bit tiresome and dated, what I really appreciated was these small moments where he is able to flex his more menacing side, such as when he stabs Superman with a Kryptonite shard. Scenes like that show how promising this film could’ve been if Warner Brothers decided to go in a more serious direction.

Unfortunately, the film relied too much on nostalgia for the Reeve-era Superman to stand out. Superman Returns grossed $391 million at the box office on a budget of around $223 million. While this puts Superman Returns above Batman Begins, which came out around the same time, Warner Brothers decided against a Superman sequel, deeming it a box office failure. Singer himself thought this was a ludicrous decision on Warner Brothers end, as he didn’t understand what constituted the film as a box office failure. In all honesty, I was kind of disappointed with Warner Brothers not making the sequel, as I thought it had some promise, despite the first supposed leaked draft not being amazing. However, some of the cancelled sequel’s story and sequences would end up being brought to life in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Brandon Routh was open to return as Superman, but both Warner Brothers and Snyder wanted fresh faces for their reboot, and ultimately Routh’s contract with the studio expired. This is a shame because I think Routh could’ve done a much better job had he been given another chance. Thankfully, he later reprised his role as Superman in the CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths limited series, to which he gained much more positive reception.

Brandon Routh as Superman in Crisis on Infinite Earths
The prodigal son returns

Lastly, I do have some major complaints with the Superman suit itself. While I understand the constant debate of shorts vs no shorts, my problem with the suit has nothing to do with that argument. My main problem is the approach to modernizing Superman. The suit has a beveled S-shield and belt with the shield appearing as a belt buckle. Stylistically, this makes no sense as the logo is already on his chest, why does it need to also be on his belt? The S-shield being beveled also threw me off since it appears to be glued on, given that the rest of the suit is just skin tight spandex. Then there is the cape that looks like it’s made of very thin faux leather. Why would Superman wear this? Not only does it look uncomfortable, but it doesn’t look like something a hero would comfort a crying child with. To top it all off, the blue of the suit appears very icy while the reds look muddy, almost maroon. While this may be an attempt to modernize Superman while keeping his traditional look, this is perhaps one of the ugliest Superman costumes that I have ever seen on screen. I’m so glad they improved his suit in Man of Steel.

Overall, 2006’s Superman Returns is by no means a bad movie, but rather lackluster and wasted potential. After the disastrous Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Superman deserves a powerful comeback along the likes of Batman Begins. However, due to a nostalgia-blinded studio Superman’s comeback after a twenty year hiatus never felt like it took off. A lot of DC fans claim that Superman is a dated character and therefore boring, with Warner Brothers themselves claiming that there are no original stories to tell with Superman. But I disagree. There are so many stories you can tell using Superman. He isn’t a god or Messiah, rather he is a man raised on a farm in Kansas who does good for the sake of good. You can’t get a more pure and just hero than Superman, and in times like now, we need someone like Superman more than ever.

Brandon Routh Superman smiling in Crisis on Infinite Earths

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