Superman Returns Remains a Spectacular Misfire 15 Years Later

I remember the night vividly: I was sitting behind a rotting old desk at the college gym I worked at, busily scanning membership passes and doing my best to make the time fly by. Normally, the job was rather mundane, consisting of scanning, greeting, scanning, greeting, scanning, and more greeting for eight hours straight, but at least I had the internet to help the time pass by (in those days, kids, we had flip phones). Often, I worked on homework when I wasn’t drawing, doodling, or wishing to holy Hell the college students would stop appearing by the dozens to disrupt my workflow.

However, this night was special. After plenty of teases, including a video diary series and a cryptic website, Bryan Singer was finally going to unleash the first teaser trailer to Superman Returns — perhaps my most anticipated movie ever. No, seriously. I grew up watching, nay, living the Superman films starring Christopher Reeve. I knew the original movie by heart and spent plenty of time as a kid reenacting the Zod battle at the end of Superman II. My dad took me to see Superman IV: The Quest for Peace on opening day, and I can actually vividly recall sitting in a theater watching with mouth agape as the Man of Steel battled Nuclear Man on the Moon — perhaps the most thrilling cinematic moment my 5-year old self had seen up until that point.

Naturally, as I grew older, my taste for darker superheroes like Batman and X-Men took hold, but I still held a soft spot for the Reeve films; and spent a good deal of time, even as a teenager, basking in John Williams’ incredible score. And so, my expectations for Singer’s follow-up/sequel/reboot/reimagining were sky-high.

The teaser trailer only increased my excitement. I mean, check out this sucker:

Holy Hell. That music. That footage. That final shot. That Marlon Brando voice-over. Suddenly, I was 5-years old again. All I needed was a towel around my neck and a paper “S” taped to my shirt.

Finally, we were getting a proper Superman movie with modern-day special FX guided by a capable director whose previous work included the Oscar-winning film The Usual Suspects and the enormously entertaining X2: X-Men United. Surely, this would be the comic book film, nay, the film of 2006, right?

Alas, it was not to be. Superman Returns was a crushing disappointment undone by some truly bizarre creative choices that left me feeling like I needed to take a heavy dose of Valum before venturing out into the world again.

Admittedly, I saw the film three or four times in theaters. I wanted to like it. Truly, I did. At one point I even convinced myself it was a great film and engaged in furious debates with friends and family who thought otherwise. I even purchased the damned thing on DVD, watched it once, and then shelved it for about a decade before watching it a final time … and only then did I see what everyone else saw: a spectacular misfire.

Superman Returns has some amazing moments. The opening credit sequence is the stuff of dreams, mainly due to John Ottman’s wonderful score (a combination of Williams’ original theme and his own truly breathtaking material). The camera zips through planets, solar systems and meteors carrying the promise of an awesome adventure that never materializes.

Let’s break this down.

A title crawl announces Superman left Earth five years prior in order to look for remnants of Krypton. All good so far. We hear Brando’s Jor-El as the camera pans over the ice planet Krypton just as it explodes … silence … and then the words “Warner Bros. Pictures Presents” retrofitted in that spiffy three-dimensional FX followed by that spectacular Superman theme.

Man, I told my brother at the time, echoing a line from Superman IIthis is gonna be good!

The film then cuts to Lex Luthor’s introduction during which we learned the Greatest Criminal of Our Time had spent the last several years, ahem, fulfilling an old, dying woman’s desires in order to inhabit her estate. Kevin Spacey, while a little too obvious a casting choice, chews up the villain role with aplomb and actually manages to outdo Gene Hackman, whose performance in the original series of films lacked any sort of menace. Spacey is aided by Parker Posey’s indelible Kitty, perhaps the best character in the entire film, even if she essentially plays “not Ms. Tessmacher.”

Again, so far so good.

We then cut to Martha Kent (an underutilized Eva Marie Saint) washing dishes during which we get our first of many “shots of shaking things” that curiously make up about 75% of Superman Returns’ runtime. One could actually make a fun drinking game out of this, because it happens a lot. You’d probably be wasted before the hour mark.

Still, Superman returns … cool! His first appearance on screen in nearly 20 years is a little lackluster — he falls into his Martha’s arms — but, hey, it’s still Superman.

Cut to Lex’s boat. We see the dastardly villain swap exposition with Kitty, there’s a quick trip to the Fortress of Solitude, which is still operational, somehow, after the events of Superman II — the film Singer’s film directly follows. I think.

“You act like you’ve been here before,” Kitty says as the audience tries to process what the hell she’s talking about.

That’s one of the curious things about this film. Is it a follow-up to Superman: The Movie and Superman II? If so, why isn’t it set in the 1980s? Why doesn’t it continue the storyline established in the previous two films? Why does it feature a 27 year old Superman and a 22 year old Lois Lane? If we go by the film’s timeline, Superman knocked up Ms. Lane when she was 17 … what?

Also, what’s with the random shots of Super Boy learning his powers? These moments add nothing to the story and only reinforce the notion that Singer wanted to do a straight-up remake of Richard Donner’s film, but, for whatever reason, opted to go in the “mostly hot air” direction.

The film shifts to Metropolis where Clark Kent tries to reintegrate back into a society that has long passed him by. We meet Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington, completely leaning into the film’s cheeky tone), Perry White (Frank Langella, in a truly perplexing performance — part doped-up Nixon, part Kramer). We see The Daily Planet, now updated with about six thousand flat screen TVs. Lois, still only 22, mind you, has won a Pulitzer for writing an article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” which throws Clark off for some reason — did he not tell Lois he was going to look for Krypton? What kind of a jerk doesn’t tell his girlfriend that he’s taking a trip to another galaxy for five years?

And then it happens: Clark discovers Lois is engaged to Richard (James Marsden); and we learn the poor bastard has lived under the notion that he is the father of Lois’ child, Jason. Except, he’s not the father of Lois’ child. We know this the moment we see the kid pop up for the first time with an inhaler.

What the hell?

First of all, no matter how many times the trope fails — Star Wars — Episode I: The Phantom Menace, The Mummy Returns, or any TV sitcom ever — Hollywood continues to shoehorn in precocious children in the hopes of adding fresh blood to a stale series. In this case, you can tell Singer immediately regrets the decision to center his story around a kid as practically every line uttered by Jason is spoken offscreen. The poor fella has nothing to do in the film but stand around acting like he’s not the son of Superman, because he has medical issues … or something.

Here’s the really weird thing: Lois must have leached onto Dick days after Superman left, had sex with him, and then convinced the witless ass that Jason was his kid.

Think about that for a second.

Why not just say Lois had Jason, then met Richard a few years later? Because it would spoil the “surprise” when Jason drops a piano on a goon’s head in the film’s very long second act.

Anyways, on first viewing, I don’t recall thinking too much about this bizarre storyline. We were only 26 minutes into the film and I was still too occupied waiting for something to happen. Luckily, we get that kick-ass airplane action scene — oh, wait. First, we get that really long train sequence featuring a needlessly over-the-top model that looks as though it cost about two thirds of the $230M production budget.

During this prolonged bit, we get another oddity: Kal Penn. You know, the actor from Harold & Kumar? Yeah, he’s in this movie too and he has zero lines. None. Zip. I mean, he may say something over the radio near the end of the film, but otherwise just stares eerily into the camera. At one point, during the train bit, he pops up into the shot in a goofy manner. I remember the audience laughing in anticipation of his hilarious antics — why else would you cast him in the movie? Except, the man does nothing here or in the rest of the movie. Nothing. It’s one of the more bizarre cameos in film history. And yes, I know I’ve used the word “bizarre” quite a bit already, whilst also going full hyperbolic with some of my statements, but this is truly one of the more bizarre films I’ve ever seen.

This train scene lasts nearly seven minutes.

Thankfully, the plane sequence happens and, yeah, it’s actually pretty great, despite featuring some distractingly bizarre (even for its day) FX work. The buildup is great. We get the classic shirt rip — along with another shot of Perry being weird — what’s with this guy? Is he insane? Does he even work at the Daily Planet?

Anyways, when Superman is finally revealed amidst that grand Williams theme, hoisting a rocket on his back like some otherworldly god, goosebumps ensue. The suit looks good … ish. The “S” is a little small and something about those really tight, bright blue spandex just doesn’t seem right, but it works.

Ok, so it took a while to get going, but now we’re up, up and away —

Actually, nope. We get another weird scene with Perry directing his troops to get as much coverage on Superman as possible before ending his rally on a relatively weak, “Does he stand for truth, justice, all that stuff?” because the film needs to sell in overseas markets.

Then, we’re introduced to the aforementioned kid. And look, the actor playing the kid is cute, but the character, as Roger Ebert declared, “mostly stares at people like a beta version of Damien, the kid from The Omen.” He’s not wrong.

Why have the kid in this film at all? Why not just say Lois moved on from Superman with another dude? And that dude is actually a really great guy, maybe even more noble and charismatic than the Man of Steel. Is that not enough drama? You can still have the weird Superman-stalking-Lois scenes, and the flat reenactment of the “Can You Read My Mind” sequence from Superman: The Movie. Hell, much of the movie can stay the same. And why?

Because nothing else happens in this movie.

There’s a bank heist that culminates in one of the most unnecessarily extravagant shots ever:

Along with a needlessly complex shot that ends on … a newspaper reveal. (This bit always bugged me. I don’t get its purpose other than to add a little style to an otherwise expository scene. And there’s no music, which make the whole bit feel like a deleted scene that accidentally got left in the final film.)

We open on this shot.

Then, push through the window.

The camera tilts down and seemingly crawls down the wall.

Lex enters the frame.

Aaaaand boom! Newspaper.

Seriously, it’s really bizarre.

Then there’s yet another weird Perry moment where he, mid-conversation with Lois and Jimmy, gets up and looks out his window for no particular reason at all. Is this man dying? Is he senile?

Later, once Lex unveils his “diabolical plan” to create an uninhabitable crystal island out in the middle of the ocean for real estate purposes, we witness a painfully long sequence in which young Jason plays piano with a goon for about 50 minutes while Lois tries to send a fax.

That’s only half of the scene.

I get it. Singer is trying to build suspense. That’s what he does best as a director as noted in films like The Usual Suspects and Valkyrie, but this piano thing goes on for what feels like an eternity and only ends because the kid decides to “shock the audience” by kicking a piano at the goon in order to save his mum. Some people let out an audible gasp in the theater during this moment. Most were just baffled.

Keep in mind that we’re 1 hour and 40 minutes into the film and have seen Supes for exactly two minutes, or at least it feels that way. The big guy saves some people in another brief montage (replete with more shaking objects footage), during which Perry has another weird scene where, after nearly being crushed by the Daily Planet’s, um, planet, utters “Great Cesar’s ghost” like a friggin’ weirdo:

It should be noted that most of the big Superman moments clock in at less than half the time of the train scene and that bizarre piano bit.

Anyways, Supes then gets his ass handed to him by Luthor in an admittedly powerful scene:

Luckily, Superman gets rescued by Dick, soaks some sunlight, and pushes Lex’s island into the sky, a moment that provides us more shaking objects footage, whilst also raising the very fundamental question: how strong is Superman? At the beginning of the film he kinda struggles with a plane, then later kinda struggles with a boat, and, at the end of the movie, kinda struggles with an entire landmass packed with deadly Kryptonite. Something’s amiss.

At any rate, Superman falls to the Earth as a bunch of civilians (including a few random weirdos who are walking their dogs despite the influx of chaos happening in and around Metropolis) watch from afar. He’s declared mostly dead, but Lois’ reveal that Jason is his kid turns out to be the medicine the big guy needs! He wakes up from his coma and zips over to the poor boy’s house in order to deliver a Marlon Brando-sized speech no one, including the young lad, hears.

Superman then bids adieu to Lois, who now realizes she probably should’ve just waited for Superman to return rather than throw herself haphazardly into a relationship with Dick. It’s all somber and dramatic stuff, yet, despite the decidedly downbeat ending, Singer completes his epic with a reprisal of Williams’ score and has Superman smile and fly past the camera like the good ole days. (Cue perplexed Will Smith gif.)

Ok, I honestly didn’t expect to do this deep of a dive into Superman Returns, but I got typing and couldn’t stop.

Look, there are a lot of people who like this film, some may even love it. Upon its release, Empire gave Returns five stars and compared it to Lord of the Rings. And honestly, despite my 2,000+ word rant, it isn’t that bad. Indeed, there are some genuinely great moments, and a few sparkling performances littered throughout, but the various elements just never come together in a satisfying way.

Here’s the thing: I get what Singer was trying to do. Superman is, in all honesty, kind of a boring guy. He’s a Boy Scout with the powers of God. Singer wanted to test that good ole boy attitude against modern-day cynicism. It’s an interesting concept, one that later paid dividends in Marvel’s Captain America: Winter Soldier, where incorruptible Steve Rogers must remain stoic amidst an increasingly corrupt society; and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, where Batman struggles to remain true to his personal code whilst dealing with a psychotic enemy with no moral center.

Where Singer fails is in the actual setup of this particular scenario which asks audiences to care about characters from a bygone era. Sure, people like the Richard Donner Superman films, but it’s a stretch to think younger audiences, especially those in 2006, were reenacting scenes from a film released nearly three decades prior. Everything that happens with the characters is based on relationships that took place in 1978 — or 1981 if we’re assuming Superman II somehow fits into all of this, and if it does, didn’t Superman make Lois forget they had a relationship? So, did she wake up pregnant one day and just assume she slept with Superman?

Nothing. Adds. Up.

And if it’s not really a sequel, why the need to cast an actor who looks like Christopher Reeve? Why incorporate elements, like Lex’s real estate plan and his knowledge of Superman’s crystals, into the storyline? The film has no beginning since it’s only kinda sorta connected to the previous films; and has no payoff because Singer and Co. were clearly holding out for a Wrath of Khan-syled sequel (Singer’s words, not mine) that would have seen Jason grow up incredibly fast and get tricked by Brainiac and Bizarro to fight his pops. If I was Warner Bros., I would’ve passed up on the sequel too.

Still, there are some interesting ideas here, at least on paper. And, hey, kudos to Singer for swinging for the fences. He may have struck out, but his attempt is at the very least noteworthy in that it essentially serves as an example of how not to start a multimillion dollar franchise.

Though, to be fair, if not for Superman Returns, we never would have received Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. So, I guess there’s a happy ending to this story after all.