The Superman Movie That Time Forgot:
A Look Back on Superman Returns
By Felix Quinonez
March 30, 2016

He's great as everything except Superman. Pretty much.

For better or worse, starting with 2013’s Man of Steel, Zack Snyder has cemented his status as the driving force behind Superman’s current cinematic portrayal. Although that film wasn’t met with the universal enthusiasm Warner Bros must have been hoping for, it has nevertheless become the foundation for the burgeoning DC cinematic universe.

And now the follow-up - finally - brings the product of a million fanboy dreams to the big screen by pitting Superman against Batman. That movie also serves as a commercial for the inevitable Justice League movie(s). And if things go according to plan, DC characters will be hitting the big screen at the same rate Marvel movies have been invading cinemas.

But it wasn’t that long ago that a completely different version of Superman was taking flight on the big screens. In 2006, franchise hopes were quickly dashed when Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was met with a collective shrug. Although it got good reviews, audiences simply didn’t show up for the man of steel’s cinematic return. Because of this, the franchise was put on hold and eventually the studio went in a completely different direction with the 2013 reboot.

Now, 10 years later, Superman Returns has been relegated to the hall of shame within the superhero movie genre. But even though audiences seem happy erasing it from their collective memory, it still has its loyal supporters. And since Superman is back on the big screens, it might be time to reappraise just where Superman Returns belongs in the annals of cinematic history.

In 1987, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace brought the previous cinematic incarnation, starring Christopher Reeve, to a very disappointing conclusion. After that Superman didn’t appear on the big screen for almost 20 years but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. There had been many attempts that didn’t manage to take off.

Perhaps the most famous of these aborted films was Superman Lives, which Tim Burton would have directed with Nicolas Cage in the title role. Even though that attempt got pretty far along in preproduction, the plug was pulled before it was ever shot. Many other big names such as J.J. Abrams, Dan Gilroy, Kevin Smith, Brett Ratner, Wolfgang Petersen, Josh Hartnett, Paul Walker, Brendan Fraser, Ashton Kutcher, among others were at one point attached to bring the Man of Steel back to the big screen.

But it wasn’t until Bryan Singer came on board that things really began to move forward. Singer burst onto the scene with his 1995 feature length debut, The Usual Suspects. Shot on a $6 million budget, it went on to win many awards, and it cemented Singer’s place as a sought after new talent. Unfortunately, his follow up Apt Pupil, released in 1998, was considered both a critical and commercial disappointment. The movie failed to even match its modest $14 million budget and it holds a 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Then, in 2000, Singer's career was jumpstarted when he directed X-Men. That movie not only proved to be a career defining hit for Singer, but it also played a major role in kickstarting Hollywood’s current obsession with comic book adaptations. X-Men was very well received by fans and critics alike. And because the movie was respectful to the source material, it showed audiences that these characters, in the right hands, could make the leap the big screen without being campy or childish. Casual viewers were introduced to a whole universe filled with potentially entertaining stories. And fans were vindicated when X-Men proved what they already knew all along, that comics aren’t just for kids.

And with its 2003 sequel, X2: X-Men United, Singer managed to not only up the ante but he also improved on the original. X2 was a more confident, action packed film that both fans and critics embraced. In fact it still stands as one of the highlights of the superhero genre. But none of that would mean much if it didn’t help the bottom line, and X2 succeeded in that area too. It saw a significant growth at the box office.

So, after helming two critically acclaimed and beloved X-Men movies it only seemed natural that Singer would direct a third entry in the series to close out the trilogy. But to the surprise - and ire - of many fans, that was not to be. While filming X2, Singer conceived a storyline about Superman returning to earth after having been gone for five years. He presented this idea to Richard Donner, director of Superman: The movie, and his wife Laura Shuler Donner, who were very receptive of Singer’s treatment. But at the time a project titled Superman: Flyby was in production. That movie was to be directed by McG from a script written by J.J. Abrams, but it fell apart in June of 2004. That same month Warner Bros. approached Singer about his idea for a Superman reboot. And a month later he officially signed on to direct what would become Superman Returns.

Initially, many fans felt disappointed that Singer was jumping ship instead of concluding an X-Men trilogy. But that eventually turned to excitement. If he could make two great X-Men movies, there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t be able to do the same for Superman, the ultimate superhero.

It should be noted that while Singer’s X-Men movies were beloved and made a lot of money, neither of them became box office smashes. More important, they didn’t cast a huge shadow or create a template that others within the genre slavishly adhered to.

During the lead-up to the release of Superman Returns, there was the usual slow reveal to raise anticipation. Official pictures were put out to give fans a glimpse of what was to come. This led to the first teaser trailer. It was a minute and a half long clip that was more interested in setting the tone and mood than giving fans the wow moments they might expect from a comic book movie. So, while it was intriguing in its own right, it didn’t really inspire the levels of excitement the studio might have been expecting. In fact, many people found the teaser outright boring.

When the actual trailers debuted, they didn’t do much to assuage concerns. They put the romantic elements front and center, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if they also contained some sort of payoff. But instead the trailers made it seem as if the movie would be boring. Around this time, Singer jokingly referred to Superman Returns as a “chick flick.” But he must not have realized that was an actual concern many fans had about the movie. There was even a “controversy” that many people thought this version of Superman would be gay. This might seem ridiculous now, but at the time it was serious enough that Singer had to actually “assure” fans that Superman was probably “the most heterosexual character” in any movie he ever made.

And if that wasn’t enough, the TV spots were all over the place. Some appeared to be advertising an explosive action packed movie, while others seemed to be selling a romantic date movie. At least one TV spot even referred to it as “the Titanic of superhero movies.” The schizophrenic advertising did nothing to establish the stakes at hand and didn’t win back the audiences that might have grown skeptical of the Man of Steel.

Although its impact wasn’t initially clear, a major event occurred between the time when X2 raised the bar for superhero movies in 2003 and when audiences largely ignored Superman Returns in 2006. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins hit the big screens in 2005 and set the stage for the next phase of the superhero genre.

On paper, Batman Begins could have been seen as a commercial disappointment. Domestically it grossed $205 million and had a worldwide total of $374 million. Although that is a lot of money, it was by no means record breaking. And it becomes less impressive when its $150 million production budget is taken into consideration. Also, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that WB spent another $100 million to advertise the movie.

But those numbers don’t show the whole picture. Audiences and critics alike loved Nolan’s dark, and moody vision. His revisionist take was heavily indebted to Frank Miller’s version of the character, which itself helped revitalize Batman in the comic books. Now Nolan was doing the same thing on the big screen. But more important, it helped people forget the horrible Batman and Robin.

It was the sequel, The Dark Knight, that secured the stranglehold Christopher Nolan had on the genre. But Batman Begins certainly set the wheels in motion. It primed audiences, who often think cynicism and realism are the same thing, for more dark and brooding heroes. Unfortunately, Singer went almost the exact opposite direction with Superman Returns.

Superman Returns reveled in its old fashioned nature. But it was so reverent of the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve 1978 film, Superman: The Movie, that many accused Singer of not actually having any original ideas. And when compared to Batman Begins - which seemed to signify the future of superhero movies - it looked outdated.

Forgoing the ever-popular origin story, Singer set up Superman Returns as a quasi sequel to Superman II. It asks audiences to pretend Superman III and IV never happened and most people were more than happy to oblige. Many, including Bryan Singer, look back on this decision as a mistake. But in its own way, it was a bold move or at the very least, it was a risk worth taking. In tying Superman Returns to the past, the movie was able to question and challenge the character’s relevance. Do people - and by extension, audiences - still care about or even need the Man of Steel?

As Lois Lane, (Kate Bosworth) knowingly, states, “Let’s start with the big question, where did you go?” When astronomers thought they had found the remains of Krypton, Superman (Brandon Routh) leaves earth to investigate and search for survivors. Unfortunately all he finds is the ruins of a once great civilization. Now, five years later, he has returned to find that the world kept spinning without him. This also has real world implications in the fact that Superman has been absent from the big screen for almost 20 years.

In the movie, Lois, his old flame has moved on. She is now a mother and engaged. She has recently won a Pulitzer Prize for penning an article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” And in the real world, audiences have also moved on to darker and more brooding heroes. Does Lois still have a place in her life - and heart - for Superman? And in a post 9/11 world, would audiences embrace a primary-colored relic from a bygone era?

But of course, you can’t have a superhero movie without a villain and here, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) plays that role. Because Superman wasn’t around to testify against him, Luthor was released from prison. Now free, Luthor is up to his old tricks, literally.

After swindling an old dying woman out of her fortune, Luthor travels to the Fortress of Solitude to steal Kryptonian crystals. His plan is to combine the crystals with kryptonite and grow a new continental landmass in the Northern Atlantic Ocean, one that will cause sea levels to rise dramatically, killing billions of people. He would then have control of the only available land. And this is definitely one of the weakest points of the movie. It’s not that Spacey doesn’t deliver a strong performance - more on that later - it’s that his real estate plot is basically lifted from the 1978 movie. And to be honest, the scheme is just ridiculous. You would think a criminal mastermind would be able to come up with something better. Now it’s up to Superman to stop him while figuring out his relationship with Lois and place in the world.

In capable hands, comic book characters have always been great vehicles for real world commentary. And Singer certainly doesn’t shy away in this regard. The movie uses Superman’s five year absence to touch on the passage of time. He returns to earth to find what every one learns at one point in their lives; that life never stops moving forward, no matter how much we might - sometimes - want it to.

The world he comes back to has changed a lot. And, for all his power, he really doesn’t know how to deal with that. There’s something undeniably sweet in watching the Man of Steel himself trying to make things the way they used to be. He even slips into his old rooftop interview routine in hopes that perhaps - if he tries really hard - he can erase the last five years. It’s really no different than how we often try to hold on to things when we are afraid to move on.

And this sense of change has also spread to the people in Superman’s life. One of the film’s best qualities is actually overlooked because of its subtlety. There is no doubt that there is something different - maybe even off - about the supporting cast. While Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) could arguably be referred to as the comic relief - he does provide moments of levity - he seems mellower and less innocent. Lois is still the ever-intrepid reporter but is lacking the warmth she once had beneath the surface. In its place is a more cynical outlook of someone who has been hurt. And Perry White (Frank Langella) isn’t the volcano always on the verge of exploding. Instead, he seems more tired and world-weary. It’s easy to dismiss these as a sort of shortcoming of the actors, and some viewers and critics have done just that. But that isn’t the case. It’s actually a quiet implication that these characters have been getting older and more pessimistic while Superman was gone. This can, again, be seen as a reflection of the audience as they ask why they should care that he is back.

And although it’s been done before, Superman Returns does focus on the very popular theme of Superman as the outsider. Throughout the movie, his father’s voice reminds him that even though he’s been raised as a human being, he is not one of them. And this sense of otherness permeates throughout the movie. Superman is not only an alien, but because Lois has moved on, he is alienated from arguably his most important connection to this planet.

And that is where one of the most controversial elements of the movie comes in, the son. Many people were baffled by this choice. But the fact is that after actually seeing the remains of Krypton, Superman had to finally let go whatever lingering hope he may have held that he might not be the only one of his kind. And now that Lois has moved on, his ties to earth are almost completely gone. But the introduction of his son shows him that he isn’t alone and still has connections to this planet and - by extension - its people.

Even though Superman’s origins are really more tied to science fiction and pulp magazines, people have always wanted to draw parallels between him and Jesus. And the movie takes that theme and runs - or flies - with it. The movie really gets mileage out of the pre-existing Marlon Brando dialogue (Superman’s father, Jor-El, in the Donner film) and uses it to portray Superman not just as hero but a deity. In a voice over Jor-El tell his son - and the audience - that “for this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son.”

Of course a more cynical analysis might point out how clumsy it is to literally spell out the themes to audiences. But when looking at this in the context of the movie, and its tone, these expository voice-overs could also be described as earnest. In any case the more interesting connection to Jesus is actually made without words.

Although the movie does not have a climactic no holds barred brawl, there is a scene where a de-powered Superman suffers a very intense beating at the hands of Luthor and his cronies. This is meant to evoke the suffering Jesus suffered at the hands of the Romans before being crucified. And the similarities don’t end there. After the beatings, they were both stabbed in the side. The romans used a spear and Luthor used a shard of kryptonite that resembles the head of a spear.

So while Superman Returns isn’t perfect, it managed to bring the legend to the present day eschewing irony in favor of an endearing sense of earnestness. And although, as detractors point out, it isn’t filled to the brim with action, it isn’t completely devoid of it either. The airplane rescue scene is both breathtaking and visually stunning. It is one of the best set pieces in any superhero movie.

Instead of reimagining Superman as a gritty, tortured character, Singer aimed to remind audiences what made him so special in the first place. Rather than smothering the film with darkness, Superman Returns aimed for iconic imagery. At one point, Superman is seen literally carrying the world on his shoulders. In another scene he flies above the clouds, bathed in sunlight, evoking his full, golden age splendor. Superman Returns managed to be new and still reverential to the past films. It made the biggest hero relevant again.

But all of this would fall flat if the actors didn’t deliver, and for the most part, they do. There isn’t really a bad performance. Obviously Routh’s performance as the man of steel is the most important and he - gently - knocks it out of the park. Routh brings a quiet confidence to the role in an understated performance that audiences - unfairly - overlooked. He brings warmth to both as Superman and Clark. He’s a hero that people can cheer for. It also helps that he bears more than just a passing resemblance to Christopher Reeve.

And although Bosworth isn’t the revelation that Margot Kidder was in Donner’s film, she still gives an admirable performance. It takes some time - and perhaps, multiple viewings - to warm up to Bosworth’s portrayal of Lois. But in the end, her performance proves to be multifaceted and does justice to the character. It initially seems that Lois has a cold and cynical personality. But as the layers are peeled back, it becomes evident that her icy exterior is a veneer of sorts. She’s hidden some emotional scars that are forced to the forefront by Superman’s return.

The relationship between Superman and Lois is the emotional center of the movie and provides it with its romantic underpinnings. Routh and Bosworth are great together even if their chemistry doesn’t jump off the screen the way Reeve and Kidder’s did.

In Superman returns, their relationship is more subdued and tempered with regret. They have an undeniable past but an uncertain future. There is uneasiness between them that is common when old lovers try to reconnect after a long absence. The tension between them is - arguably - as important to the movie as Superman’s conflict with Luthor. And Singer provides a satisfying payoff for them.

As they are flying away in the helicopter - a standout scene - Lois reverses the damsel in distress role by pulling a shard of kryptonite out of Superman’s back, saving his life. There she is torn between the past she can’t let go (Superman) and the life she has made in his absence. (Richard, her fiancée.) As always, Superman has a world to save but this time he gives her the goodbye he denied her five years ago and with it, a sense of closure.

Although that’s technically in the vicinity of what could be called a happy ending, it’s still a shame that they didn’t actually end up together. If even Superman can’t get the girl, what hope do the rest of us have? But Singer was presumably saving that for the unrealized sequel.

Lastly, Spacey also gave a great, if uneven, performance. His version of Luthor is much darker than the one Gene Hackman gave in the 1978 movie. But there still seems to be a connection between the two. Again we see the impact that the passage of time had on these characters. Spacey does a great job at showing that Luthor is older and angrier. He even mentions the five years of his life that Superman stole by putting him in prison. It’s a shame that at times he veers into campy territory.

Over the years some details about the planned sequel have been released. And as the concept art showed, Brainiac would have been the main villain. But as we all know by now, the franchise was rebooted. And there’s no doubt that the movie’s underwhelming box office performance must have at least played some part in WB’s decision to pull the plug on Singer’s vision of Superman.

Heading into the summer of 2006, Superman Returns seemed to have a lot going for it. With a lock on a prime 4th of July release date, the doors were wide open for a big debut. And because the holiday fell on a Tuesday, the movie would essentially have a five day weekend. WB even took it a step further by releasing the movie on Wednesday to get a jumpstart on the weekend.

But even with a very advantageous release strategy, audience excitement never really materialized and the movie had a muted opening. It made $52 million on its opening weekend and $108 million during its first full week. While those numbers are solid, they are in no way spectacular. But what was even more troubling was the fact that the movie didn’t display any sort of staying power. It dropped almost 60% in its second weekend. This showed that the already tepid excitement surrounding the movie quickly evaporated.

After almost five months in theaters it managed to crawl past $200 million domestically. This was respectable but hardly awe-inspiring. That is also an apt way to describe not only the movie’s entire box office performance but also the general reaction to it.

So where, exactly, does that leave Superman Returns? And what—if any—is its legacy? It’s an odd little film for sure. Like the version of the character it portrays, the film is evocative of a more simple time. In this case it is a time before comic book movies split—almost entirely—into two different camps. On one hand are the movies living in Christopher Nolan’s shadows and on the other is the more fun Marvel Studios. And maybe if Superman Returns had come out a couple of years earlier it could have been a sort of endnote to the first stage of the current comic book movie craze. (The stage that Singer himself helped kick start with X-Men.) But instead it came out a bit too late and audiences had already moved on from the kind of story the movie was trying to tell.

But perhaps the movie’s biggest impact can be seen in the way the reboot, Man of Steel, was handled. Christopher Nolan produced that movie and co-wrote the story so it makes sense that his influence would be felt. But it’s not hard to believe that the studio saw the failure of Superman Returns as affirmation to take Superman in a much darker direction.

No doubt the biggest complaint about Superman Returns is that it lacks action. And Man of Steel bends over backwards to avoid suffering the same fate. As the third act of Snyder’s film begins it almost feels as if the movie is saying, “we got the boring stuff out of the way now let’s blow stuff up.” And it does just that. But the countless innocent bystanders aren’t the only casualties. It also seems to put a nail in the coffin of the Superman from Singer’s movie.

More importantly it buries the possibility that a Superman movie could be fun and endearing. Instead it gives us a neck snapping, borderline fascist Superman (Henry Cavill) that inspires fear instead of hope. The Reeve and Routh versions of Superman were appealing and warm. They made people feel safe. On the other hand Cavill’s version is menacing and intimidating. He seems like someone you would want to avoid making eye contact with if you ever had the misfortune of running into him.

Perhaps because of Singer’s reverence of the Donner film, Superman Returns never really had a chance to become the definitive cinematic take on the character. But the movie isn’t nearly as hated, as the Internet would have you believe. Quentin Tarantino is actually one of its many fans. And after the release of Man of Steel, people began reappraising the merits of Superman Returns. Many articles popped up explaining that the movie is better than its reputation suggests. Now the second installment of Snyder’s take on the character is in theaters. And if it’s as tone deaf as the first one - and reviews suggest it’s even worse - it might encourage people to revisit Superman Returns, which could result in more people coming around.

So perhaps in 10 or 20 years the extended director’s cut of Superman Returns will finally see the light of day and the movie will finally get the love it deserves.