Ten years ago this week, “Superman Returns” flew into theaters with hopes of revitalizing a long-stagnant film franchise. However, we know what happened instead: Despite finding success with the “X-Men” movies, director Bryan Singer saw his “homage sequel” crash and burn more furiously than the ship that plunged Kal-El into the cornfields where he was raised.
My own memories of the movie are vague. But to commemorate the 10th anniversary of what’s widely regarded as one of the worst superhero movies ever made, I decided it was time to give “Superman Returns” a second chance. And I was pleasantly surprised! Charmed by the weird risks Singer took in making a Superman for a new generation, I realized that while its confounding lack of action and coarse collision of tones proved to be fatal flaws, there’s a lot to love in this maligned movie.
10. Lex Luthor Goes Camp
With “X-Men” and “X2,” Singer kept the tone foreboding by focusing on anti-mutant prejudice and global threat. Yet he also brought in a bit of camp comedy with Ian McKellen as the shade-throwing Magneto, an antagonist who’s not only hell-bent on the end of humankind but also shady enough to taunt Rogue about the white streak caused by his attack: “We love what you’ve done with your hair.”
With Superman, Singer had an even greater opportunity to dig into that over-the-top brand of comedy. And considering that Sam Raimi‘s willfully campy “Spider-Man” movies were cleaning up at the box office, it seemed smart! So, Singer chose the deliciously theatrical Kevin Spacey to play Lex Luthor. It was a controversial move, to say the least. While Spacey has proved perfectly capable of playing menacing in “House of Cards” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” his Lex wasn’t a steely, sneering baddie who spit cutting one-liners through gritted teeth. Instead, he was a megalomaniac aboard an ever-rocking yacht HQ, planning a literally killer real estate scheme.
Spacey embraced Lex’s lunacy, delivering a performance peppered with eye rolls, attitude and the kind of random shrieking that surely inspired Eddie Redmayne’s “Jupiter Ascending” turn. If Singer and Spacey set out to give audiences a new Lex, they certainly succeeded.
9. Lex Luthor Loves Wigs
The script by Singer, Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty has a lot of fun with Lex’s love of ginger wigs. Early on, Lex punctuates the evilness of stealing an old lady’s fortune by dropping his hairpiece into the hands of her bewildered grandchild. Lighting strikes, the girl screams, and Lex strolls out with the devastating witticism, “You can keep that. The rest is mine!”
Later, when Lois Lane (an earnest Kate Bosworth) sneaks into Lex’s secret HQ, she’s shocked — shocked! — to discover an entire room dedicated to displaying his wigs, all the same color, but with varieties of bad styling. Between her horrified expression and the spiking score, you’d think she’d uncovered a suit made of human skin.
8. Hey, Kal Penn is in This!
After Kal Penn co-starred with John Cho in the hit stoner comedy “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” he took a bit part as one of Lex’s henchman. His big scene features the comic performer dropping a crystal in the play pool of a model city, Lex’s test run for his hi-tech island. But his only line came later:
7. Parker Posey!
Although this quirky It Girl had never broken out to become a household name, Parker Posey has a fierce fandom who knows the full might of her comedy prowess. Whether it be her killer timing in improvised classics like “Best in Show” or “Waiting for Guffman,” her darkly comic turn as a sinister sister in “The House of Yes” or her underrated portrayal of a fashion-plate villainess in the misunderstood masterpiece “Josie and the Pussycats,” Posey is dynamite.
Here, as the stylish and sarcastic Kitty Kowalski, she’s a gift to the audience, delivering withering remarks to her beau/boss Lex, and setting up surprisingly ghastly visual gags.
6. Its World is Dog-Eat-Dog, Literally
I completely forgot this movie contains canine cannibalism. Early on Lex and Kitty abandon the mansion of his just-died sugar momma, along the pair of Pomeranians within. We meet these delightful dogs as they’re ravenously licking each other in apparent affection … or not. When Lex and his crew return much later, Kitty sees just one pup, surrounded by bits of fluffy fur and bone. As the fittest lap dog licks his chops, Kitty wonders, “Weren’t there two of them?”
The joke even gets a callback in the finale: When Kitty asks what she and Lex will eat on the desert island where they’ve been stranded, that wily Pomeranian is given a reaction close-up!
This bit might seem a weird throwaway gag, but it works on a deeper level. There’s an unwritten rule in American cinema that you don’t hurt the dog. You can destroy cities full of people — that’s the price of epic action — but the death of a dog is a tragedy and could turn the audience against you. So, Lex’s neglect leading one dog to eat the other not only gives the audience a clue to his malevolence but also warns this isn’t your father’s “Superman.”
5. Brandon Routh Makes For a Solid Superman
You can criticize a lot about “Superman Returns,” but it’s tough to argue that Brandon Routh doesn’t looks the part. He’s brawny but All-American, and strikes a dashing figure as he sweeps through the skies. It’s just a shame the only fight he really gets to have is against gravity as he hoists Lex’s evil island into space.
4. Clark’s Office Life is Old-School Charming
There’s a lot of nostalgia in “Superman Returns,” from the whooshing opening credits to repeated lines of dialogue from the Christopher Reeve movies. But its “Daily Planet” offices feel plucked out of a 1940s screwball comedy. The costumes, sets and even staging hark back to classics like Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday,” which fittingly centered on two newspaper reporters fighting the urge to fall in love.
Bosworth’s Lois Lane is the fast-talking dame who defined the genre by being more caught up in work than romance. But Clark Kent is no Cary Grant. Instead, he’s more the ’60s archetype defined by Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment.” He’s the good guy overlooked by the dizzy dame as she eyes someone more powerful and sexy.. But instead of that being the boss, here it’s Superman. (Rats!)
The zing of the dialogue in the Daily Planet scenes as well as every exposition-heavy line popped off by overzealous Jimmy Olsen (“Fearless reporter Lois Lane is a mommy!”) give the film’s first half a jaunty pace. But the actual Superman sections collide with this playful vibe. And things turn abruptly dark.
3. Superman Gets Shot in the Face
There are a lot of ways to illustrate that Earth’s sun makes Superman invincible. Yet, bullets bouncing off of his burly chest, is so last century. Singer amps up the insanity by targeting a round right at our hero’s eye, but it just bounces away harmlessly. However, that look Superman gives the gunman is pretty deadly.
2. Superman’s Kid Kills a Guy With a Piano
The entire final hour of this movie is pretty out there, but the fate of Lex’s tattooed henchman Brutus deserves special recognition. Assigned to watch over Lois and her son Jason, Brutus becomes distracted from his duty when Superman’s child starts to play “Heart and Soul” on the grand piano. I mean, Brutus can’t not get in on that duet. As he plays, Lois Lane sends a fax begging for help. But Brutus catches her, and just as he’s about to beat her to death with a geode, little Jason taps into his dad’s genes to launch that piano right through the doomed dude.
Also, killing a guy apparently cures Tristan’s asthma. I know it seems preposterous, but if we can accept Superman can fly, we can accept that his kid has the power to defeat asthma as easily as tatted baddies.
1. Singer Nails the Joy of Superman
In flashback, we get a glimpse of young Clark Kent kicking into his powers. Singer brings wonder into Clark’s youth. As a boy, sprinting through cornfields at a blistering speed, Clark leaps high into the air as the music soars, the sun shines, and we share in the exhilaration of what such strength must feel like.
At two hours and 34 minutes, “Superman Returns” is overstuffed with story, cacophonic in tones, and lacking in action. Totally. But amid the mess, there are daring risks and bonkers moments that call for us to reconsider its dubious distinction as “one of the worst superhero movies ever.”
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