Superman Returns at 15: The Nostalgia-Heavy Sequel of Sorts

Seven years before we were introduced to a gritty and darker take of Superman in Zack Snyder’s 2013 highly polarising Man of Steel starring Henry Cavill in the title role, there was a prior Superman film called Superman Returns. The film which was more in line with the late Christopher Reeve-starred version, specifically the one directed by Richard Donner (1978’s Superman) and Richard Lester (1980’s Superman II).

In fact, Bryan Singer even went as far as making Superman Returns a sequel of sorts — let’s called it a spiritual sequel — to the first two Superman films. Rather than giving the film a contemporary makeover that fits the current generation at the time, he chose to stick close to the formula. A nostalgia-heavy formula that was clearly targeted for those who grew up watching Christopher Reeve on the big/small screen, complete with John Williams’ signature Superman theme (even though John Ottman handled the score for this film) played in the elaborate homage-filled opening credits.

If that’s not enough, Singer cast a then-unknown lead actor Brandon Routh as Superman/Clark Kent, who looks eerily similar to Christopher Reeve. Given the fact that Superman Returns turned out to be Routh’s first major lead role, he actually did a good job emulating everything from the physical appearance to the heroic charm and mannerism of Reeve’s Superman/Clark Kent character. Here’s an interesting trivia: Apparently before Routh cast as Superman, other actors including Will Smith (!) and Josh Hartnett were initially offered the leading role but chose to turn it down.

It’s just too bad the film itself didn’t end up as huge as the studio (Warner Bros.) expected it to earn. Not even a US$200 million domestic box office gross and an additional US$191 million in the overseas market totalling US$391 million was enough to call it a financial success. Besides, Superman Returns did cost a lot of money to make at a whopping US$200+ million budget, which was undeniably among the most expensive films at the time.

The iconic plane rescue scene in "Superman Returns" (2006)

I remember when I first watched Superman Returns on the big screen. Twice, to be exact and both times I really enjoyed the film. Maybe it has to do with the nostalgia factor. Or the fact this was the best Superman film I’ve ever seen in decades, particularly if to compare with the embarrassingly mediocre Superman III (1983) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). Or it could be the reason that Superman Returns was the first time I got to watch the Man of Steel on the big screen.

But after revisiting the film recently, I have to admit that Superman Returns didn’t age well enough. It felt overlong at 2 hours and 30 minutes while the film is strangely lack action (more on this later) for such an expensive Hollywood blockbuster. The pace is admittedly slow and the way Singer taking his sweet time to tell the story poses another problem too. Then, there’s the odd introduction of Jason played by Tristan Lake Leabu, who turns out to be Lois Lane and Superman’s son. Not to mention almost everything in Superman Returns feels like an overly-restrained and low-key superhero film rather than a supposedly epic continuation.

When comes to action sequences, Routh’s Superman is mostly relegated to frankly uneventful and unspectacular moments except for the one scene that still resonates even today. That scene in question happens to be the plane rescue sequence, which is also the first major action setpiece in Superman Returns.

While the special effects look somewhat dated by today’s standard, kudos still go to Singer’s well-staged direction in building anticipation and suspense. It was the only moment that Singer knows well how to ratchet up the tension while raising the stakes, where the latter particularly rings true during a subsequent scene where the out-of-control Boeing 777 descending with some of the blown-up debris scattered all over the sky. It was a genuinely thrilling moment to see the way Superman zooming down as fast as possible, where he gradually stops the plane from crashing into the ground of a packed baseball stadium below by using all his super strength to push up against the nose of the plane.

Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor in "Superman Returns" (2006)

Clark Kent (Brandon Routh) and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) in "Superman Returns" (2006)

Apart from Routh’s performance, most of the cast deserved equal mentions here including Kevin Spacey’s sadistic take of Lex Luthor previously played by Gene Hackman in the Christopher Reeve-era Superman films. Putting his highly-publicised scandal aside, Spacey’s antagonist role remains among the lifesavers in this otherwise lacklustre film.

The only thing I didn’t like about Spacey’s Luthor is his silly and laughably over-the-top grand scheme of taking over the world. Or more specifically, Luthor wanted to create a new continent in the middle of the ocean using Kryptonite and Kryptonian crystals. The land mass will then cause the sea levels to rise, resulting in a massive flood for the most part of the world. He figured that doing so would lead people to turn to him for support.

Although Kate Bosworth is no match for Margot Kidder’s iconic portrayal of the Daily Planet reporter, she still manages to hold her own as Lois Lane. She also shares good chemistry with Routh.

At one point, Superman Returns was supposed to continue with a sequel titled Superman: The Man of Steel. The film would reunite Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey and even had a 2009 release date. And although Bryan Singer was expected to return for the second round, the planned sequel was eventually cancelled due to the lack of active development. There were other factors too namely, the not-so-convincing box office results made in Superman Returns and the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike.

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