Metaphors are too literal in Superman Returns. A dog-eat-dog world is reality — a dog actually eats another dog, a cannibalistic Pomeranian nonetheless. Superman’s philosophical complexities are rendered by parting clouds and his strength emphasized by an unmistakable Atlas pose. It’s not subtle. Ever.
It is interesting that Superman Returns represents the super hero film one year prior to Marvel’s explosion, a final glimpse of a genre willing to mince its own canon before interconnected continuities were considered essential. This is the last of a generation, still somewhat geeky and charmingly awkward on the entertaining underside.
The mid-2000s is a valuable gift as well, again if tacked on with a vicious literalness. Superman reappears on Earth in a vastly different technological landscape than when he left. Citizen journalism strikes at the Daily Planet’s effectiveness, requiring the physical save of its own brass and iron logo. Thus, it is only appropriate Lex Luther incites a parable concerning progress by — yet again, literally — crushing the east coast with his new found Krypotonian artifacts hundreds of years more advanced than those on Earth. We’re all doomed by a land mass metaphorically representing the rise of cell phones and HDTVs, apparently.
Of Superman Returns’ problems (and there are many), notable is how significant this film is as a “pat on the back” for home studio Warner. Twelve years of back-and-forth production misfires takes a toll. Superman Returns turns too self-referential without knowing so. The mythical return of the hero is heralded by a stadium full of people cheering for a triumphant rescue. This is less a celebration of Superman’s return than it is Warner visibly shouting, “We did it!” Lois Lane’s final lines, “Will we see you? Around?” cap this Superman’s legacy inches from speaking for the audience.
This is a good Superman film, but one caught up in honoring past event movies as much as it is making them bolder. Most notable is Brandon Routh who is unfortunately clouded by Christopher Reeves own immortal interpretation of the character. Routh’s forcible goofiness lacks the natural, slouched dorkiness Reeves was capable of, nowhere more evident than the awkward (even repetitive) ‘meet cute’ routine with Kate Bosworth, a far more journalistic and cutthroat Lois. Margot Kidder’s somewhat dainty damsel Bosworth is not.
In this way, Superman Returns plays more into its own cinematic history than the world of its own story. Character relations are re-established, yet concocted and bound to a film nearly 30 years old at the time of release. This background decision making is nothing short of gracelessly employed.
And yet, it does things well. Many things. There is a notable rising tempo to the action, from a loosely necessary jet crash which smartly builds a scenario of impending disaster to Lex Luthor’s giddy land mass plot which makes up Superman Returns dramatic third act. Time saved not world building is spent well — and expensively.
Set-up is entwined with Superman’s disappearance. Lois’ Pulitzer piece, “Why We Don’t Need Superman,” brings up an interesting and potentially atheist perspective of Superman’s god-syndrome before Returns squashes the idea with additional literalism. No one in the film appears to legitimately believe Superman’s loss carries net gain for civilization. It turns out we do need Superman to save us from ourselves, the same as many need religion and its resulting idealism. But, Superman Returns thinks these concepts for us rather than letting them happen spontaneously. None of this is born of narrative or script, rather $200 million in special effects. Superman is reborn in an egregious symbolism of heavenly sunlight before slashing into a clouded world to save us all. How disappointingly ordinary.
Oddly enough, had Warner waited a few more years, the question of Superman’s necessity may have been more apt against a sweltering box office mix of Iron Men, Hulks, Greek gods, and a few Spider-people.
Now he just fights Batman.