Superman floating above the earth. Superman saving a falling airliner. Superman gently holding Lois Lane and giving an aerial tour of Metropolis. Superman taking a bullet in the eye and not blinking.
Yes, we’ve all seen the trailer. In fact, I just watched a newer version — all 157 minutes of it. To be less sarcastic, Superman Returns is full of scenes that tingle the imagination and play well in split-second flashes, but have virtually nonexistent consistency between them. If I were to read that the trailer was written first and the screenplay written expressly around it, I wouldn’t be surprised. The film quickly rushes through every sequence, as if director Bryan Singer was afraid that he may not have time to pack in another ad-friendly moment. Superman Returns might be the first film made that could be classified as a big advertisement for itself. Or the sequel.
Superman has to be one of the most difficult comic characters to write. With godlike near-invulnerability, he can solve problems that would baffle Batman or Spider-Man in mere seconds. Watching him fight the average villain would be like watching Michael Jordan shoot hoops with a senior citizen. Yet, take away his powers, and he loses what makes him special. See the dilemma?
Of course, great Superman stories have been done. Superman II was typically considered the greatest superhero film until Spider-Man 2 swung along, and comics such as Kingdom Come and Superman: Peace on Earth showed a godlike being struggling to do all he could to make the world right. But in Superman Returns, we never see a serious inner conflict, or hardly even a physical one. The film just doles out one falling object after another for Superman to dive in front of.
The plot, if you must know: Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to earth after a five year absence in space, where he presumably played some great counting games to avoid madness. He returns to Metropolis as Clark Kent at the same time he rescues that falling airliner, which luckily arouses suspicion in no one, despite his six word alibi. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has been royally pissed at Superman since he took off, understandably so since he sired a child with her before he left (since Superman is an alien, does that make Lois guilty of bestiality?). She wrote a capsule-description friendly article titled ‘Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman’ which won a Pulitzer, no easy task considering her personality has all the flavor of a vegan diet. Superman and Lois have a few blasé discussions that have roughly the same dramatic tension as when I complain that my Netflix have arrived a day late.
Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) also throws himself into the super-mix, with an Evil Scheme so stupid that the microwave-acid trip-plot in Batman Begins seems quite reasonable. Luthor got out of prison after a five year sentence, which suggests to me that Saddam should request a trial in the U.S. Luthor acquires a few Kryptonian crystals from Superman’s icy vacation house and decides that he will use them to destroy half of the earth in order to create a new landmass. Sure, billions will be killed, but the survivors will pay him a lot of money for the land, even though jagged shards of black ice are usually unsuitable for trendy nightclubs or food production.
Superman doesn’t so much battle Luthor as he meddles in his plans. Most of the film goes by before Superman gets around to Luthor, roughly the amount of time it would take the FBI to snare him. They share perhaps four minutes of screen time, during which Superman walks up to Luthor and allows himself to be stabbed with kyptonite.
Did this make sense during any of the numerous production phases of the film? Of all the ways Superman could be exposed to kryptonite, the writers decided that simply allowing his archenemy to hit him with it at point blank range would be the most effective. In Dark Night Returns, arguably the most well thought of comic ever written, Batman defeats Superman by shooting him with a cannon, a kryptonite arrow, and jolting him with the electricity supply of an entire city. If Superman Returns was canonical to the comics, then Batman only needs to begin mouthing off to Superman and keeping that kryptonite arrow in his pocket.
There exist precious few action sequences, which are visually spectacular but not very exciting. Superman doesn’t do anything that we haven’t seen during the comic film bonanza of the past few years. The filmmakers mistook the wholesomeness of the character for blandness, and subscribe to the Batman Begins school of lighting, which erroneously believes that dim is a synonym for gritty.
Throughout the film, I couldn’t help but recall Spider-Man 2 and United 93, two infinitely better cinematic experiences. Comparing Superman to Spider-Man, Superman can’t match up as an interesting character; while Superman takes me-time in space and tends to look at humanity with a glint that could be condescending, Spider-Man makes tremendous personal sacrifices in order to put his abilities to good use. United 93 tells the true story of the doomed 9/11 flight where ordinary plane passengers fought their hijackers, likely saving a lot of lives in the process. One film is fantastical, the other factual, but mention the word hero to me, and I’d think of either of those films long before I would Superman Returns. Does the world need Superman? My answer is a resounding ‘no’.