In Defense of 'Superman Returns,' The Underrated 2006 Man of Steel Movie

The failures of 'Batman v Superman' and 'Man of Steel' should shed some light on the better movie that came and went in theaters only ten years ago.

Warner Bros.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has taken in plenty of money at the box office in the week since its release in theaters, but the reception was far from bulletproof. Zack Snyder’s film has taken a critical drubbing rare for superhero movies in the years since comic books and genre conquered Hollywood.

The new film was supposed to bring the figureheads of the DC universe trinity of Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman together in an epic showdown but turned out to be what movie critic A.O. Scott in the New York Times called “a sludgy, noisy, chaotic mess.” It followed a reboot scheme begun in 2013’s Man of Steel, a similar mess that Snyder also directed. That film, released in 2013, reimagined the prototypical superhero (played both times by Henry Cavill) as a reluctant god, dark and brooding. Both films are tragic misunderstandings of who Superman is, and what he essentially means. It’s unfortunate, since a different, perfect example of Superman came and went in theaters only ten years ago.

Director Bryan Singer’s unfairly maligned 2006 film Superman Returns is the antithesis of the dreary misunderstanding disgracing screens across the globe. Audiences wanted realism, but they didn’t realize that a certain type of blockbuster authenticity doesn’t equally translate to every comic book character, especially Superman.

The best thing Singer’s Superman Returns has going for it is a spot on aw-shucks tone, which is borrowed from 1978’s Superman and 1980’s Superman II starring Christopher Reeve as the iconic do-gooder(and most recently has been perfected by Marvel’s Captain America movies). The Superman of those movies had a fresh sense of levity and an embrace of his semi-cheesy throwback comic book roots, partly because the 1978 movie tread new ground as the first major superhero movie to fly across the big-screen. Returns, with then-newcomer Brandon Routh in the title role, was actually a follow up that ignored Superman III and Superman IV altogether, beginning with Superman returning to Earth after having left five years prior to explore the remnants of his destroyed home world, Krypton.

What follows is pure escapist bliss, a razor sharp script that is a light on bloated action set-pieces but heavy in character development and features near-perfect casting (Kevin Spacey as main villain Lex Luthor brings an inspired repertoire of theatrics). Routh’s Superman is the quasi-corny boy scout who nobly stands up for what is right, living up to the “truth, justice, and the American way” tagline that has followed the character since his beginnings. He’s a superhero w�������������������������������������������s ho’s a role model, not Cavill’s angry Superman, who leveled entire cities with nary a thought of collateral damage, just to snap the neck of an adversary. Here, Superman helps defend people who are fundamentally good, not punish the bad by any means necessary.

After a harrowing sequence in which Superman saves Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) and a group of reporters covering a space shuttle airliner test flight gone wrong (it features some of the best CGI work in any modern superhero film), the constant montages of the title character performing good simple deeds like saving people falling from buildings or putting out house fires could have seemed a little too tame — at least to audiences used to having every blockbuster feature a laser shooting into the sky with the fate of the planet in the balance.

It’s because Superman Returns is a sequel unstuck in time for a character stuck in a different one. In Superman, the absurd superheroic spectacle comes with a winking moral. Screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris handle this potentially awkward transition with a deft hand, typified in the scene in which they use an homage from the original movie by having Superman reiterate, “I hope this experience hasn’t put any of you off flying. Statistically speaking it’s still the safest way to travel” after the airplane incident.

Ironically for the Kryptonian main character, Superman Returns is mainly concerned with the narrative’s human story of him reconnecting with Lois Lane, and once again trying to defeat his main foe Lex Luthor. For the film’s first hour, Superman attempts to patch things up with Lois, who feels abandoned by him —enough to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial titled, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” While Luthor schemes in the background in his own attempt to create a new continent out of energized crystals wrapped in Kryptonite that would destroy the majority of the United States, Superman and Lois share a series of solitary moments that connect to the heart of who they are.

“You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one,” he tells her as he takes her flying above Metropolis in one of the film’s most beautiful scenes. It could seem too old fashioned or schmaltzy to some, but moments like this are more truer to the character than any Zack Snyder scene of Superman pummelling CGI creatures around the rubble of a destroyed CGI city.

The Superman-Luthor showdown resonates, too. The capitalist plan of our hero’s bald nemesis makes total sense, even if it’s not as visually captivating as other set pieces. The final confrontation on the Kryptonite landmass is a bit wooden, but again, it boils down to being perfectly in-step with fundamental motivations. The villain-against-hero conflict in Superman Returns is about an imperfect person who is human versus a perfect person who isn’t human.

Batman v Superman is a gigantic failure on almost every level, but at least it’s shedding some light on one of the best big-screen versions of Superman that often gets overlooked. Superman Returns is seen as an unfair hiccup in the cinematic history for the son of Krypton, but it also proves why the world — the cinematic one, at least — still needs Superman.

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