Superman is the most iconic superhero in the world. Period. Since his inception in 1938, the blue boy-scout has been DC’s leading mascot. He’s been the subject of numerous live-action adaptations. Ranging from movies to TV shows. As a matter of fact, he’s the second most adapted comic-book character ever, second only to a DC Comics’ bunkmate, Batman.
Many consider Richard Donner‘s 1978 origin story Superman: The Movie as the definitive Superhero film. Yet, his adaptations are, by far, the most divisive in the genre.
But divisive isn’t a word I’d use to describe Superman Returns. Why? Because nobody liked it.
A Superman reboot was in development hell for decades. Finally, in 2004, the film entered pre-production. Instead of rebooting the franchise, Warner Bros. decided to continue the original series. Director Bryan Singer was chosen for the job. The film follows the events of Superman II, and ignores (the really bad) later sequels.
All of that made Superman Returns the “conclusion” to the Richard Donner trilogy–26 years after Superman II.
It was an ambitious idea. Unfortunately, Superman Returns was universally despised. Complaints ranged from the film’s lack of action, Brandon Routh’s wooden acting, and the overall lack of originality. It was basically a remake of the 1978 movie.
Yet, a lot of love was put into it. Bryan Singer wasn’t a Superman fan growing up, but he understood the character’s cultural importance. He cited Richard Donner as a major influence on his work. In fact, Bryan Singer showed his script to Richard Donner before production started to get his idol’s approval.
Does Superman Returns have problems? Yes, just like every movie. Are the criticisms valid? Sort of. However, I believe we did not understand what the movie was meant to become. In our unusually high expectations, we failed to notice the treasure in front of us.
To help celebrate #DC FanDome, let’s dig into why Superman Returns isn’t the movie we deserved, but the one we needed! Before I can elaborate, I need to explain one thing.
Who is Superman?
Kal-El came from Krypton. To save his life from a planetary explosion, his parents sent him to another world. After crash landing, the child was discovered by a couple in rural Smallville, Kansas. The Kents raised him as their own. They taught the boy truth and justice. It wasn’t until his teenage years that they revealed to him his alien origins.
Soon, he discovered that with his alien heritage also came incredible powers. As a result of the morals engraved in him by his adoptive parents, he took it upon himself to become the world’s first superhero: Superman.
Superman became the world’s symbol of hope. He saved countless lives and always found new ways to help everyone. His actions inspired those around him to be better. As his father on Krypton said:
“Live as one of them, Kal-El. Discover where your strength and power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them to you, my only son.Jor-El
Superman is the most powerful superhero in the DC Universe. His power-set was built that way. No matter what the situation is, Superman cannot lose (a fact that has frustrated writers for years).
Why? Because Superman is not meant to lose.
FUN FACT: Being Jewish, creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster purposely wrote #Superman as a messianic figure. His origin story at @DCComics was inspired by the story of Moses: a Savior from another land coming to free the enslaved population.Tweet
Add a pinch of sci-fi elements, and you get Superman: the ultimate fantasy of the hero who can do no wrong.
Superman Returns Defined
Superman Returns isn’t specifically about Clark Kent or Superman. Superman Returns is about all the people. It is about the impact he’s had on their lives, and the way in which they perceive him: an unstoppable force of good.
There is a plot point about Lois Lane winning a Pulitzer-Prize. She wins thanks to an article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Superman disputes that claim:
Catching planes in mid-air. Saving a family from a sinking ship. Preventing the destruction of an entire city. That is what the people of Earth-96 see in him. Most importantly, this is what casual moviegoers see in Superman. This is what Superman was before characters like Darkseid or Mister Mxyzptlk were invented.
Superman Returns is a celebration of the Character.
But again, this story had been told before, way back in 1978.
Why was this the movie we needed? Even though we’ve seen it before? To have the answer to that question, we need to talk about…
Time Heals All Wounds
Looking back, 2006 was a relatively normal year. It was also the year North Korea announced their first nuclear test. This reveal shocked the world to its core.
Besides that, a few repercussions from the past were still affecting the present. The Iraq War was in full action. The 9/11 attack was still in the minds of many. George Bush was in the middle of a second term, which he got by exploiting the fear left by Al-Qaeda.
We were in a period of uncertainty. Not just for America, but for the entire world. Everyone was pointing fingers at each other. Each side was calling the other “evil”.
This was the perfect time for Superman to return.
In a period of deep fear, the people needed a reminder: Even in the darkest times, hope cuts through. Hope is the light that lifts us out of darkness. This is why Singer wrote a story about Superman returning to earth despite years of absence. We needed the incorruptible savior once more. Both figuratively, and literally.
Yes, Superman Returns is boring at times. The romantic subplot feels problematic. And besides the last few minutes, at no point do you feel like Superman is in actual danger. But that was the point. Superman Returns was supposed to bring us back to a simpler time. A time when it was possible to believe in our heroes, to believe in good.
Maybe this won’t change anyone’s mind about Superman Returns, and that’s okay. However, I do hope this article gives you all a better appreciation for it. Maybe one day it’ll get the respect it deserves. I do believe it to be incredibly underrated.
The film encapsulates everything we love about the Man of Steel. Not only that, but the film came at the perfect time. We needed Superman to be, once again, the symbol of hope. I highly recommend you all give Superman Returns another try! Or not. Maybe Lois Lane was right. Maybe this type of Superman is outdated.
Or maybe we still need the classic Superman? Now more than ever? Well, until we get this Superman back (hopefully in 2021), enjoy Superman Returns!