Jayne Nelson argues that Bryan Singer’s film wasn’t just a poor cover version of Superman The Movie
Case for the prosecution: Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today in this virtual courtroom to discuss one of the most heinous crimes in the history of superhero films...
Case for the defence: Your Honour, the defence objects to the use of the word ‘heinous’, simply because we can’t take it seriously since Bill & Ted.
Case for the prosecution: Please stop interrupting.
Case for the defence: I apologise for my heinous rudeness.
Case for the prosecution: So, Superman Returns . What a self-important disaster! Not since Superman IV has the son of Krypton fallen so far (and we had Lois and Clark ’s wedding episode in the meantime). This was a reboot, a chance to entice and ensnare an entire generation as-yet untouched by the charm of Christopher Reeve’s first two Superman outings (and, to a lesser degree, his third). This was a big-budget behemoth that should have updated the Man of Steel for the 21st century, replacing shonky wire-work and creaky Zoptic technology with CGI until you really believed a man could fly. This was DC’s shot at glory: a fresh beginning for the greatest icon in superhero history. And it tanked .
Case for the defence: Well, your definition of ‘tanked’ is a little curious. The film cost $271 million – an astonishing amount – but it went on to rake in $391 million. We’d hardly call a profit of $120 million ‘tanking’.
Case for the prosecution: Compare it to the Batman reboot, though. Made for only $150 million, Batman Begins rustled up an amazing $372 million worldwide, not to mention the $1 billion that also came in afterwards from The Dark Knight . That’s what we call a success.
Case for the defence: Pfft, let’s not make this about money!
Case for the prosecution: And that sentence, right there, is why you’ll never work in Hollywood. But yes, let’s move on from the cash aspect. Let’s look at the plot. Instead of bringing us a complete reboot, the same way we had in everything from Fantastic Four to Spider-Man – showing us how the superheroes in question became superheroes – Superman Returns did something daft. It picked up where Superman II left off. And so, not only did this make ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE to anyone who hadn’t seen Superman II (“How the heck did Lois have his child?” they cried, wondering if they’d missed a pre-credits sex scene), it also totally discounted Supermans III and IV , thus interrupting and casting aside timelines and plot developments with wild abandon. Needlessly confusing on one hand; incredibly careless on the other.
Case for the defence: Anything that pretends Superman IV never existed isn’t bad in our book, although Superman III , while deeply flawed, still had enough fun moments that we’d miss it. However, we’re going to defend this admittedly risky decision by pointing out that Bryan Singer is a Superman fan of the highest order, and any Superman fan worth his salt knows that the idea of Lois conceiving a baby Kal-El after their liaisons in the second movie was a juicy one – too juicy to ignore, in Singer’s case. And why should he do an origin story when Superman: The Movie did it so well? Why trample all over something so good? We can understand his rationale perfectly: the first two films were great, so he picked up where 1980’s Superman II left off and proceeded as normal.
Case for the prosecution: But what about new viewers? What about the younger generation who had never seen a Reeve film?
Case for the defence: It’s not as though the script didn’t contain enough information to get them up to date! They weren’t exactly thrown in the deep end with a Kryptonite necklace, for crying out loud.
Case for the prosecution: Not unless they wanted to know how the heck Lois Lane and Superman had sex without him killing her ( see here for details of that little problem). Singer was very, very remiss in failing to address that for the newbies.
Case for the defence: The idea of Superman watching his kid being raised by another man did add a lot of poignancy to the script, though. Too often, Supes is presented as a genuine man of steel, unable to experience emotions or relate to humanity. This humanised him just as much as Kryptonite did to him physically.
Case for the prosecution: But who wants to see ‘human’ Superman? We want a superhero flinging trains around and kicking footballs to the moon!
Case for the defence: Oh, I’m sorry – was the epic plane-crash sequence in Superman Returns disappointing in some way?
Case for the prosecution: It was good. But there wasn’t enough of that kind of thing. There was far too much moping, and not just from Supes. Kate Bosworth (and her terrible wig) wasn’t interesting to watch and her Lois Lane had as much chemistry with Clark Kent as Jimmy Olsen did. A better choice was right under Singer’s nose, too: how about casting Parker Posey, who was so hilarious as Lex’s moll, Kitty Kowalski?
Case for the defence: We kind of agree with you on that. However, you have to admit that Kevin Spacey made a great Lex Luthor. He played him as a cross between Gene Hackman’s Luthor and a smug, rich businessman in the vein of a psychotic Simon Cowell. And he was brilliant!
Case for the prosecution: He was the only life in the movie. Although we do wonder if he was merely playing himself...
Case for the defence: It looked good, too. Metropolis was pretty. And check out the recreation of Christopher Reeve’s iconic flying sequence before the end titles: beautiful.
Case for the prosecution: Yeah, if you excuse the fact his outfit was the wrong colour. Red, blue and yellow: how can you mess that up?
Case for the defence: What are you talking about? The costume looked fine!
Case for the prosecution: Yes, exactly! It looked FINE. Not good, not bright, not striking, not primary-coloured comic-book exuberance. Just fine . Toning down the red until it became burgundy made it dark and ugly in some shots. His boots ended up looking brown and the yellow of Superman’s belt and insignia looked like mustard.
Case for the defence: Okay, okay. Your honour, I can see my esteemed colleague has made up their mind about Superman Returns . They hate everything from the choice of plot to the colour of the clothing. I can’t argue with that: they’ve made their mind up.
Case for the prosecution: Made my mind up and bought the t-shirt, too. It’s got a big ‘S’ on it, but it doesn’t stand for Superman. It stands for...
Case for the defence: There’s no need to swear to make your point.
Case for the prosecution: But my point IS made, right?
Case for the defence: No. Because you haven’t mentioned the one thing that saves Superman Returns , even when it looks as though the evidence is stacked up against it. It’s the one element that makes this film a must-see, even if the story confuses you, or the miscast Lois Lane fails to make you give a damn, or the fact there’s a kid in it gets on your nerves.
Case for the prosecution: Oh yes? And what would that be, then?
Case for the defence: Brandon Routh.
Case for the prosecution: ...We’re listening.
Case for the defence: While he’s no Christopher Reeve – because Reeve, God rest him, was the definitive Superman and always will be – he’s as near as we’ll ever get to recapturing the same innocence, strength and charisma that Reeve brought so effortlessly to both Clark Kent and Superman. He’s got the looks, the mannerisms, the speech inflection (check out his arrival at The Daily Planet , where he half-asks, half-mumbles: “Hey, do you know where I can find... Lois?”). And yet, while he reeks of Reeve, he’s not parodying him; he’s not even, really, paying homage. He’s just playing Superman the way he should be played – the way Reeve showed us he should be played. It’s a bravura performance from a relative newcomer who ended up drawing a lot of flak merely for being in a film that had flaws. He isn’t one of them.
Case for the prosecution: As much as we’d love to disagree with you... [gnashes teeth] ...we can’t. You’re right, Routh is good. He fits that suit (wrong colours or not) and he fits the universe. It’s a shame so little fits around him, but he does a damn fine job regardless.
Case for the defence: Superman Returns isn’t perfect, I’ll give you that. But Brandon Routh as Clark Kent and Superman is as near to perfect as we’ll ever get, post-Christopher Reeve. Henry Cavill has some difficult boots to fill.
Case for the prosecution: Let’s hope they’re red, not brown, this time, eh?
* All financial sums taken from www.boxofficemojo.com