If Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was the first movie to really take superheroes seriously, then maybe Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, released the following year, was the first movie to take superheroes too seriously. Singer even took the non-serious parts of his story too seriously. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine what everyone involved thought they were doing with Superman Returns.
Singer’s movie is a genuflecting homage to Richard Donner’s first two Superman movies, both blockbusters from a bygone age, right down to the corny old-timey humor. But it’s also a strange religious parable about a godlike figure willing to give up everything to save a planet that isn’t even his home. It introduces a version of Superman who’s been rejected by the woman he loves, and it introduces weird questions about timetables and paternity that really didn’t have to be there in a superhero movie. It’s close to three hours long, with a grand total of one crowd-pleasing action scene. It’s a total tonal clusterfuck, a head-scratcher of galactic proportions.
Maybe the only way to figure out Superman Returns is to compare it to all the Superman movies that didn’t happen. The original Christopher Reeve series had burned out after the 1987 flop Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, though there was some talk of another sequel. Sometime in the early ’90s, the film producer Jon Peters, a notorious Hollywood dirtbag who may or may not have been the inspiration for Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo, was somehow granted control over the Superman franchise, and he embarked on one abortive Superman movie after another.
Kevin Smith, hired at one point to write a Superman movie for Peters, tells a pretty amazing story about the things that Peters wanted to put in the movie. He didn’t want Superman to fly. He didn’t want Superman to wear the Superman costume. He wanted Superman to fight a giant spider. He wanted Brainiac, the movie’s villain, to fight a polar bear when he went to invade Superman’s Fortress Of Solitude. He wanted Brainiac to have a robot sidekick and Lex Luthor to have a pet space dog. Everything he wanted seemed to push the aesthetics of terrible ’90s blockbusters to some newer, dumber apotheosis.
There were a whole lot of versions of the big Superman reboot. Tim Burton was going to direct the movie, and Nicolas Cage was going to play Superman, a combination so bizarre that I kind of have to sit down when I think about it. McG and Brett Ratner were also on board to direct Superman movies. Akiva Goldsman and J.J. Abrams wrote scripts. There was going to be a Batman-fighting-Superman movie. There were going to be violent versions and kid-friendly versions. At one point, Robert Downey Jr. was going to play Lex Luthor. At another point, Chris Rock was going to be Jimmy Olsen. Warner poured millions into developing all these different versions of Superman movies before ultimately shutting all of them down. So maybe, even in all its puffed-up absurdity, Bryan Singer’s take on the character was the back-to-basics version—the pure and undiluted version of Superman, the same way Batman Begins was the pure and undiluted take on Batman. Or maybe that was the idea, anyway. It’s all I can do to explain how a big-budget superhero movie as paralyzingly boring as Superman Returns could exist.
Singer’s version of Superman is very much a tribute to the 1978 Richard Donner take on the character. Singer uses the tremendously rousing old John Williams theme whenever possible, and he sets his opening credits flying through space, just as Donner had done. He even uses a whole lot of footage of Marlon Brando, as Superman’s father Jor-El, declaiming airy and distant pseudo-wisdom while projected on cave crystals. Brando had died two years before Superman Returns opened, and his presence in the movie is genuinely perplexing; the actor hadn’t cared much about his role in those first two Superman movies, and his waxen take on Jor-El was one of the aspects of the movie that aged the worst. To lace that droning voice all through Superman Returns, like audio Ambien, was almost a perverse choice. Maybe it was just a case of Warner Bros. wanting to get more return for all the millions they’d paid Brando.
Bringing Brando back was just one odd choice among many. Singer also brought back the idea that Lex Luthor should have an airhead comic-relief female companion, one who would develop a huge crush on Superman and eventually betray Luthor. So: Why? Why take this piece of screwball late-’70s comedy and attempt to replicate it in a 2006 blockbuster? Why subject Parker Posey to that? Why subject us to that?
In Brandon Routh, Singer found a blandly charismatic and good-looking unknown who looked a whole lot like Christopher Reeve, which was presumably one of the job requirements. (Routh’s biggest pre-Superman credit was a year on the soap opera One Life To Live.) In Kevin Spacey, he had his own version of Gene Hackman, a decorated veteran brand-name character actor who, at the time, was beloved. (Singer had already directed Spacey as a vaguely Luthor-esque figure in The Usual Suspects.) Singer’s versions of small-town Kansas and bustling Metropolis looked a lot like what had been in the first Donner movie, too. His Clark Kent was a similarly hapless slapstick figure. All of this works, to one degree or another, but it’s anachronistic karaoke. Donner’s aesthetic had been pretty old-fashioned in 1978. Twenty-eight years later, it seemed almost alien. Maybe that was the point.
But if Singer was making a tribute to those Donner movies, he also had ideas about Superman’s mythic properties. In Singer’s movie, Superman spends a whole lot of time floating through space in a Jesus Christ pose. He lifts an entire kryptonite-infused crystal continent into space, risking his own death as cosmically awestruck music plays. He listens to the cries and travails of the mass of humanity below him. He agonizes over Lois Lane, just as Lane agonizes over him. In those Donner movies, Christopher Reeve never had to take on all that weight. It probably would’ve drowned the movies if he had.
The flirty banter between Superman and Lois Lane was one thing that Singer left in 1978. Instead, Singer opened his movie with expository text about how Superman had disappeared for five years, looking for the remains of his home planet. He came back to a changed world. Lane had moved on, gotten engaged, had a kid. All of this is supposed to highlight Superman’s status as a godlike outcast here on Earth—a being who gives his life over to humanity without ever quite understanding humanity. But it mostly leads us into a thicket of unanswerable questions. Like: When, exactly, did 22-year-old Kate Bosworth, playing Lois, meet Superman? How old is she supposed to be? How old is the kid supposed to be? Why is James Marsden, a guy who looks so much like Superman that it gets borderline confusing sometimes, playing Lois’s new fiancé? (Shout out to Marsden for really committing to the role of “guy who is already in a relationship with the main superhero’s love interest in Bryan Singer movies from the ’00s.”)
It’s never really a question of whether the haunted-looking moppet is actually Superman’s kid. That part is obvious. What’s not obvious is: Is it okay that a 5-year-old just straight-up kills one of Luthor’s henchmen? And why doesn’t kryptonite hurt the kid? Why does Lois bring her 5-year-old on her investigative-reporting yacht break-in in the first place? (“This was a bad idea,” she says at one point. Yeah, no shit.) Is it possible that Luthor’s whole plan, to grow an entire continent out of Kryptonian crystals, is even goofier and dumber than the plan in the first Superman movie? And if so, why does Spacey play it so seriously? And when Superman’s powers are stripped and Luthor is beating him up, why doesn’t this more-serious Luthor just shoot Superman?
More questions: Why does the entire cast only feature one person of color, and why is that person, Kal Penn, an almost-entirely-silent Luthor goon? And how come Superman never reflects on the idea that everything bad that happens in the movie is indirectly his fault, that Luthor was planning on killing billions with stuff from the Fortress Of Solitude? Does it really never occur to Superman that Earth might’ve been better off if he’d never shown up?
Bryan Singer directed two very good X-Men movies, so we know that he knew how to make a superhero movie. But Superman Returns is such a massive across-the-board miscalculation that it’s almost baffling. If Singer was so committed to bringing back the spirit of the old Superman movies, how did he miss the idea that Superman is supposed to be a figure of fun, a wholesome and colorful adventurer? Who thought that a dour, brooding Superman was what anyone wanted? (Who still thinks that? Why does that keep happening?) There’s one scene where Singer shows how much fun his version of a Superman movie could’ve been: The ridiculous but visceral sequence where a space shuttle is about to drag a 757 into space and Superman has to safely land the thing in the middle of a baseball game. It’s not that a new Superman movie would have to be all supremely goofy thrills like that. But couldn’t it have had a few more?
Superman Returns did good business, though its budget was so huge that it probably barely broke even. It got decent reviews. But I remember walking out of the theater utterly dumbfounded—bored into catatonia and unsure what had happened in the last 90 minutes of the movie. If anything, it’s even harder to watch now. Singer and Spacey have both been accused of some horrific sexual abuses. Immediately after production, an assistant sued Jon Peters, who served as producer on the movie, and a jury ordered him to pay her more than $3 million. That effectively ended his career, though he still likes to brag that he collects millions for sitting at home and doing nothing whenever Warner Bros. makes another Superman movie. That’s as good a reason as any to stop making fucking Superman movies.
Other notable 2006 superhero movies: Before taking on Superman Returns, Singer had been developing X-Men: The Last Stand. Instead, that job went to noted hack Brett Ratner, who turned what had been a miraculously strong franchise into noisy confusion. Ratner tried to fit the entire Dark Phoenix saga and a story about a menacing “mutant cure” into one movie, and the result was both shallow and hectic, a film that kills off major characters like it’s nothing. There’s some good stuff in there, like Kelsey Grammer as Beast and Ben Foster as Angel. But these days, I mostly just remember it as the first major Hollywood movie to explicitly reference a meme.
2006 also gave us a few superhero-themed comedies. There’s the indie dramedy Special, in which Michael Rapaport played a hero whose powers may have been hallucinations brought on by the experimental drug he’d been taking. And in Ivan Reitman’s antic flop My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Uma Thurman plays a powered-up woman who’s obsessed with Luke Wilson, her former flame. In one scene, she throws a shark into his apartment.
Stan Lee, on some kind of sabbatical from Marvel, created Lightspeed, a superhero who got one TV movie that nobody remembers. Tim Allen starred in Zoom, a massively unsuccessful family movie about a school for superheroes. And the year’s most consequential comic-book movie was almost certainly Zack Snyder’s 300, which was very much not a superhero movie.
Next time: Sam Raimi brings his time on the Spider-Man franchise to a close with Spider-Man 3, a case study of what can happen when a director and a studio don’t get on the same page.