Initially I wasn’t going to write a review of Superman Returns because everyone else was. What more could I contribute? Then I started talking to everyone about it and found out how many different opinions there are.
Darth Larry pointed out to me that this version was satisfactorily less campy than the previous one. Phil made me aware that the attempt in this movie was to (successfully) humanize the superhero. A coworker found the portrayal of Superman to be shockingly unlikely—he felt Clark would never have abandoned Lois after initiating a sexual relationship, nor would he have failed to reveal his true identity or say goodbye before leaving for Krypton’s remains. I learned after discussing this with him that he is a purist, preferring the earliest versions of the comic, rejecting some of the later storylines as well as the portrayal in Smallville (though he felt the character in Lois and Clark was closest to his ideal).
I went to see this movie with my husband who enjoyed it. Several days later, while participating in the discussions above, I remembered that he was not a DC fan—and particularly disliked Superman. When I asked him why, he said that Superman is too like the idealized Christ figure that is perfect, has nothing to overcome, and leaves no room for growth. With my husband’s background I can understand this and I think I recognize what he feels this hero lacks. Kal-El was far too young to remember his departure from Krypton and his childhood was among caring decent people; this offers no early obstacles to overcome, no inherent weaknesses to defeat. Plus, if he is indestructible (virtually), where’s the challenge? (My honey’s favorite comic character remains Wolverine, who is talented and tough, but definitely flawed.) He likes the Christopher Reeve movies and this one, though.
I went to the movie with a different perspective from everyone I know. I was not a big comic book reader as a kid and I’m still not today. I have never seen Lois and Clark or Smallville. I did see the Christopher Reeve movies—well, I’m sure I saw the first two and maybe the third—but I can’t remember anything since I last saw them in their theatrical releases. Thus I walked in to the theater a tabula rasa—mostly. I remembered Kryptonite, Metropolis, the Fortress of Solitude, Lois, Clark/Superman, Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luthor, but I had no preconceived idea of how these people and places should look or be. I knew he’d been away awhile and this was his return to earth. (Granted, I’d had exposure to a rather skewed aspect of the Superman universe recently, but this interpretation of the cover art is definitely not representative of the whole phenomenon.)
So with what view did I leave the theater? I was heartily disappointed with Lois—I felt that she didn’t deserve him. She lost my vote of confidence from the beginning. Really, what kind of idiot do you have to be when there is obvious sign of turbulence and the oxygen masks have descended into the plane’s cabin to unbuckle your seatbelt? (Darth Larry pointed out to me that Margot Kidder’s Lois was portrayed as ditzy and that Lois was always a bit flaky, and that Kate Bosworth’s portrayal was sensible by comparison.) Later she seemed so focused on what he had done to her by leaving. It seemed like a case of sour grapes to me that she wanted to spread her broken heart to the rest of humanity with her Pulitzer Prize winning article. I also found the way she interacted with Clark was problematic—she has not learned from Superman that everyone is important and deserves to be treated well. Instead she belittles him, ignores him, competes with him for the story she wants. Repeatedly I saw Clark/Superman watch her, waiting for her to welcome his return, but I kept wondering “why her? She’s no good for you.” Granted, she redeemed herself when she saved him (in many ways), but I still felt that she was not worthy of him.
Clark/Superman, though he returned to the same circumstances of his life (but for Lois), was clearly an insecure outsider. I may be imposing my own perspective here, but just as I view the people who are out of my life the way they were, Clark/Superman’s viewed Earth and its inhabitants as static—until he returned and learned that time had marched on for them. He seemed to desperately want acceptance in the world again, and the acclaim in the stadium (an awesome sequence, by the way, except for Lois’ behavior) seems inadequate accolade even with everyone cheering. After all, he is not accepted by the one person he wants—who has, understandably, moved on with her life. In both personae he watches her, searching for connection, almost stalking her when he goes to her house and eavesdrops on her new life. Although she does bring him back into her world by the end, it is not as much as he wishes, and he has to learn how to proceed.
The everyman character who is caught in the center of this conflict, Richard, was probably my favorite of the protagonists (not including Lois’ young son Jason). He knows he has Lois to lose yet he secure and not jealous. Though he’s related to Perry White, he is not egotistical and seems happy to fade into the journalistic machine that is the Daily Planet. He treats Clark with respect and equality and willingly gives him the attention that Lois is too distracted to offer. Perhaps he does not see that, to Lois, he is a watered down version of Superman himself, but I feel he would not be offended by that realization. By the end of the movie, he has proven to be as much a hero as Superman, though on a different, far less visible scale. He will not get the acclaim and the fanfare that Superman gets—and he doesn’t need it. (I had only seen James Marsden as Cyclops before and I was under whelmed by him as an actor in that role. I revise that opinion now, as I was impressed with his portrayal of Richard.)
My coworker, Josh, the purist, found the plotline involving Jason’s paternity to be the most disturbing and overdone aspect of the movie. He felt the story would have been better without it. I disagree—I think Jason was a necessary element, and not just as a plot device to get Lois out of the office and onto Lex Luthor’s boat. The conflict for Lois’ affections between Clark and Richard is played out in Jason. Who is the father? Who will she choose? I find it satisfying that she does not pick Jason’s father in the end—but as I said, I feel she did not deserve him. I also find it satisfying that Jason will now have three faithful and devoted parents.
Finally, I’ll comment briefly on one area that Phil chose to leave out of his review, the comparison of Superman to Christ. The messianic symbolism was ever present though sometimes subtle, such as his assent into heaven during one flight in the shape of a cross. He, the only son, was sent to earth to save it; he was betrayed by his follower/apostle Lois ( Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman ); he suffered death at the hands of Lex “Pontius Pilate” Luthor and resurrection, though in a modern hospital. I note with some interest, though, that there is a modern slant to this Christ/Clark figure; the writers have created a decidedly “human” savior of the type portrayed in the Gnostic Gospels, DaVinci Code, and Holy Blood Holy Grail school of thought. After all, he is a father so he’s had some intimate contact with the Magdalene figure of this story. I don’t know if Superman/Clark has a child of his own in any previous incarnation of his history, but it would surprise me to find out that he did.
Now I need to watch the Christopher Reeve movies again (thanks, Phil, for the loan!). Afterwards I will be ready to see Brandon Routh in the role again to see if my perspective changes, and to see what details I overlooked. I understand from discussions that details have been included in the film of many previous incarnations of the story, but most of my generation probably views Reeve’s portrayal as definitive. (It will also be nice to see him alive, young and whole again.)