Released in 2006, “Superman Returns” continued the franchise after four chapters in the ’80s, with Brandon Routh playing a Superman returning from the depths of space after investigating Krypton’s extinction, only to find drama waiting back on Earth, in the form of Lex Luthor. He also had to confront Lois Lane after abandoning her to go on his off-planet mission.
Its essence was deeply embedded in that of the Richard Donner and Richard Lester flicks, and fans chastised it for paying homage too much. They found it lacked the action that contemporary audiences wanted from director, Bryan Singer, who ironically left the “X-Men” franchise to make this movie. With that said, CBR looks at 15 reasons why this Superman film didn’t deserve the hate it got!
SPOILER WARNING: Major spoilers ahead for “Superman Returns.”
15. BRANDON ROUTH’S PERFORMANCE
Routh did a more than commendable job as the new Superman, instilling a sense of hope and humanity with the character, just like Reeve did. He aped Reeve in the right way, but still added little subtleties, especially as Clark, so as to make the role his own. Even if the script needed work, Routh actually impressed in covering a wide range of emotions as the Man of Steel, who was back to show Earth that he was once more their beacon for justice.
Whether it was pining over Lois, reconciling his feelings after seeing Krypton’s destruction firsthand, spending time on the farm and with his mother in introspection, battling his own issues as a father, or saving the general public, Routh felt like a humble and genuine hero. In fact, his incarnation definitely felt like he was meant to inspire humans to greater things, similar to Grant Morrison’s “All-Star Superman,” which debuted just a year prior.
14. THE AIRPLANE RESCUE
While Lois was covering the launch of a space shuttle for the Daily Planet, things went awry and Superman was thrust into his first piece of action since coming back to Metropolis. He narrowly saved a plane carrying the reporter and other observers from crashing, in a scene that definitely topped what we saw in movies like the first “Superman,” where the hero staged a daring helicopter rescue. Singer evolved the sequence here to really test Superman as bits and pieces were falling off the plane hindering him.
His strength also worked against him as he tore into the plane like foil, which led to a strong picture of distress with the passengers inside. By the time Superman got to the nose of the plane, holding it up before setting it down on a baseball field, the audience couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. It was intense, dramatic and resoundingly signaled the return of one of cinema’s greatest icons.
13. KRYPTON’S FATE
Superman leaving Earth to see for himself what happened to Krypton ended up being a relatable quest. Who wouldn’t want to visit their old home to see if there was a glimmer of anything that could be salvaged? This was a DVD extra and it showed Superman using the Kryptonian crystals to navigate what was left of his homeworld. We saw his crystalline ship also encounter massive Kryptonite asteroids which urged him back home, hinting at what was to come.
This was a highly emotional sequence that resulted in him crashing back in Smallville, only for his mother to rescue him. It informed why he left Earth as it was a rare personal moment he needed for his own sanity. He eventually told his experience to not just his mother, but Lois, who was ticked he left her (and everyone else) high and dry. This was a personal journey he needed to experience as Kal-El, and it attached him even more to humanity upon returning.
12. SOLID MUSICAL SCORE
John Ottman had a tall order ahead of him when it came to filling the shoes of John Williams, who composed the iconic theme of the first “Superman” film. Singer wanted to recapture this magic and specifically tasked Ottman with recreating what Williams did on that 1978 movie. Ottman did a great job, not just riffing off of what Williams did, but by placing his own spin on the inspirational speeches, daring rescues and the peril that Lex brought.
The ominous ending was also gorgeously composed as Ottman used orchestral swells and symphonic notes that told the audiences that he was, indeed, a Superman fan. He worked with Singer before on “The Usual Suspects” and “X2,” so it came as no surprise that the director was able to channel this out of the composer. The sound bed felt like one made for a new generation’s Superman, but it was still iconic with what we heard when Reeve first took flight — triumphant and glorious.
11. THE LOVE TRIANGLE
There’s no better way to test if your love is true than with a good ol’ fashioned love triangle. Singer’s decision here was made all the more controversial when he included Superman’s son with Lois in the melee. That aside, watching Clark torture himself while Lois shaped a new life with Richard White (Perry’s nephew) was quite emotional. When Superman and Lois met up on his return, it was obvious to everyone that the flames were still there, but she made it clear that she moved on.
It wasn’t true and even Richard realized this, but seeing Superman walk on eggshells around the sensitive situation was quite a trip. He left her without explanation so he didn’t expect to just waltz back into her life, but we have to admit it was a bit arrogant on his part to remotely assume she would wait on him. Superman knew he was wrong but couldn’t help how much he loved her, and Lois eventually acknowledged the same, although both had no intentions of acting on their feelings.
10. AMAZING EASTER EGGS
There were quite a few easter eggs in this movie, some of which required a very sharp eye. They reiterated that Singer was very much a fanboy of the property despite the flak he got. The most prominent one would be Superman rescuing Kitty (Lex’s aide sent to distract Superman while he stole Kryptonite) when her car lost control, resulting in him setting it down, in a visual throwback to the cover of 1938’s “Action Comics” #1.
When Superman’s ship returned from space and just before it crashed back in Smallville, it sent tremors through the Kent farm. In Martha’s home, we saw a scrabble board shaking with the letters spelling “ZOD,” nodding to his villainous counterpart in “Superman II.” Singer also showed he was a DC Comics geek by having Jason (Superman’s son with Lois) wear Aquaman pajamas as the hero paid a visit to show some love to the boy. Maybe they hinted Singer actually wanted to expand Superman’s universe, after all.
9. A NON-VIOLENT SUPERMAN
Singer adopted a very non-aggressive spin on Superman, which in turn is what led to calls for a more hands-on hero, which Zack Snyder graciously accepted. However, Singer’s approach showed us a Superman who wanted to get tough as a last resort. He was proactive, not reactive, like Henry Cavill’s depiction, and followed in the vein of Reeve. Superman chose to talk it out first before hitting, as he knew the power he packed.
When it came to bank robbers, and even Lex’s goons, he didn’t want to throw the first punch. The scene where he took bullets to the eye illustrated this, as well as when he allowed Lex to ramble in the movie’s climax (which arguably worked against the hero). The point is that Routh was a more peaceful Superman who reserved his strength for saving people from disasters. He could have been a bit more assertive and authoritative, but clearly Singer felt violence wasn’t his forte, playing off the charm Donner first laid down with Reeve.
8. AN UPDATED METROPOLIS
Singer smartly updated Metropolis as a cosmopolitan area that had tinges of old cities, but still felt progressive for the time this film was made. Even the Daily Planet felt like it had evolved a couple decades, while still maintaining its classic essence with characters like Perry and Jimmy Olsen as its heartbeat. What was even more outstanding was how Singer crafted the rooftop scenes with Lois and Superman as dark and dreary, as per the old movies, but with much more smoke and fog reflecting the effects of modernization.
The overall aesthetic, even in its day, had a comic book feel to it, yet it was as if we could walk out an office and see the same setups and buildings existing. From the vehicles to traffic to skylines to waterways, Singer redefined Metropolis as a majestic city in which to live. It lent so much character to the film, looking, feeling and sounding like the hustle and bustle Clark missed dearly.
7. KEVIN SPACEY AS LEX
Kevin Spacey was an update on Gene Hackman’s version of Lex Luthor, but he added his own twist to it. He was more vociferous and aggressive, as seen when he threatened Lois through her son. Also, he seemed to be much more conniving and ruthless, swindling old ladies for fortunes and even ready to sacrifice his own team to get an advantage on Superman.
Spacey was cerebral yet still had the humorous idiosyncrasies Hackman created in the old movies. There was something to how obsessed he was with Superman that Hackman didn’t have though, which spiced up his intentions and actions every time he hit the screen. If ever we wanted a relentless Lex, this was it. The standout scene was when he infiltrated the Fortress of Solitude and then proceeded to learn about Krypton and its crystal technology. He was cold and calculating, but dialed things back to a sinister level we hadn’t seen before. It would have been intriguing to see where he would have gone in a sequel as Lex.
6. LOIS & SUPERMAN CHEMISTRY
The romance between Lois (played by Kate Bosworth) and Superman was bittersweet; as relieved as we were to see these iconic lovers on the big screen again, they were estranged. However, their chemistry was as strong as ever. It pained us to watch them so far apart, but Routh and Bosworth made up for it by doing a great job as (literally) star-crossed lovers who would forever be entwined.
It would have been poetic if they could have acted on their feelings; after all, if the chemistry was so strong when they were separate, imagine what would happen if they were together. With each glance, each tender hug, and every time they left each other, we felt the agony of not their being able to be together. It was made all the more powerful by Lois’ son actually being Superman’s, so their dynamic wasn’t even as lovers anymore, but now, one of parents, making them gravitate to each other even more.
5. LEX & SUPERMAN RIVALRY
In the old movies, Lex had an air of levity when he went head-to-head with Superman. Here, despite another real estate scheme (with a Kryptonite twist), Spacey left all the fun and games behind which Hackman cultivated, and simply went for Superman’s jugular. We never felt as much hatred from Lex as when Superman landed in front of him. When the opportunity came, Lex saw he was weakened and immediately got physical.
It wasn’t about politics, jokes or loquacious speeches, but more about assaulting Superman like never before. Lex was intense and keen on killing Superman, as opposed to toying with him, making the villain more dangerous than ever. Like a rabid dog, he and his goons swarmed before Lex stabbed Superman and broke off a Kryptonite shard in the hero’s body. The beatdown left him in the ocean, near-death, and it showed that Lex was prepared to get dirtier than ever. His actions even shocked Kitty, who now saw him for the monster he truly was.
4. SUPERMAN’S CONNECTION TO THE PUBLIC
Singer played up the emotional connection Superman had with the public, similar to the glorious and awe-inspiring stuff we read in comics. When Superman was rescued by Lois and Richard from the ocean and taken to the hospital, the medical staff struggled to save him with his bulletproof skin. They had to dislodge the Kryptonite from within his body and it left everyone scrambling, vehemently trying to save the day. Lois nearly gave up hope but still persevered, finally telling him the secret that Jason was his.
While all this was happening, the public came out to pray in masses and support the fallen alien in vigils. They treated him like a sigil, waiting for him to recover and show his face, but it didn’t seem like it would happen. Casting Lex’s Kryptonite island into space took its toll, and clearly everyone was rallying around him. There was no sense of trepidation or apprehension as, say, with Snyder’s Superman, because Singer made him someone who was already established as everyone’s hero. Fans breathed a major sigh of relief when he survived and then headed off to see his kid.
3. SUPERMAN’S POWERS & LIMITS
The director did a solid job in how he crafted Superman using his powers to save Metropolis. When Lex’s Kryptonite island first began to form, it sent shockwaves throughout the city and Superman had to react. With the city in a panic, from using heat vision to destroy falling glass, to using his super-breath to stop an underground explosion, we got to see the Kryptonian being quick and inventive as he was literally racing against the clock.
It was a pretty cool evolution watching Superman hovering above the city in the night, using his super-hearing to act as a surveillance monitor. Another nice touch was how the director didn’t overpower the alien, as seen when he had to rescue Lois’ family from a sinking ship. He strained in holding the ship up, which served as precursor to when he, in a weakened state, had to toss the island away from Earth. Ultimately, we realized that Superman had limits after all.
2. THE NOSTALGIA FACTOR
It was never hidden that this movie was a love-letter to the Donner original. From the trailer, we got this vibe with the Marlon Brando as Jor-El footage spliced in. This was added to the Fortress of Solitude scenes in the film to show that it was indeed a continuation from 1978. Routh’s depiction nodded to Reeve a lot (especially when quoting safety statistics on flying), and we also got things such as Lois still not knowing how to spell, further building the nostalgia for us.
Singer paid tribute throughout and some argued that this detracted from taking the franchise forward. However, the homage wasn’t as bad as critics made it out to be, and was simply there to set the tone for Routh as the new Man of Steel. It was clear Singer was using this as a platform to kickstart the Superman movement again, rather than rebrand or move drastically away from it. It would have been interesting to see what he did after this ode to the past.
1. THE SAVIOR SYNDROME
This film played up Superman in the savior role to the max, and it was a choice that ended up fitting Singer’s narrative perfectly. The director didn’t shy away from the Jesus allegory, as seen after Superman tossed the Kryptonite island away and fell back to Earth with his arms spread to the sides. It showed how selfless, altruistic and inspirational he really was. Singer didn’t want him fighting villains, but simply putting his own well-being on the line to preserve humanity against Lex’s tampering with nature.
The self-sacrifice was a big statement on what Superman meant to Earth and its denizens, and Routh embodied the charm and innocence needed to further draw empathy from everyone. Even if the script lacked high-octane action, Routh remarkably played an alien messiah who was ready to lay mind, body and soul down for mankind. Seeing him win over Kitty, Lex’s right-hand woman, encapsulated this savior syndrome, and made us believe once more that Superman was here to lead us into the light.
What did you think of “Superman Returns,” and has your opinion changed over the years? Let us know in the comments!
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