Comics on Film: Revisiting 'Superman Returns' 10 Years Later

Comics on Film: Revisiting 'Superman Returns' 10 Years Later

Jul 01, 2016

This year, moviegoers were able to take in the very first live-action DC Comics-based crossover film featuring that brand's two most iconic characters. While Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will likely go down as one of the single most polarizing comic book films ever produced, it's very difficult to imagine that a film that came before had a similar – though not as pronounced – effect.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the theatrical release of Superman Returns, starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, and Kevin Spacey, and directed by Bryan Singer. In honor of that anniversary, it seemed like a good idea to devote this week's column to that cinematic effort, and examine its impact now that we're a decade removed from its theatrical bow.

 

Attitudes Upon Release

Younger fans haven't really known a time at the movies without Superman. If you were born at the turn of the 21st century, then you were only six years old when Superman Returns bowed in theaters. Before the film's release, though, it had been nearly 20 years since the Man of Steel flew across the silver screen, with the last effort being 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. That final effort featuring iconic Superman actor Christopher Reeve in the title role was a bust with both critics and audiences, and left the Superman movie franchise aimless for nearly two decades.

After years of false starts and passing directors and stars, it was Bryan Singer – fresh off of superheroic critical acclaim with the first two X-Men films at 20th Century Fox – who saw a different way of going about a new film with the Man of Steel. Instead of a hard reboot, he wanted to pay tribute to the original Richard Donner-directed and Christopher Reeve-starring film from 1978.

After casting newcomer Brandon Routh, who seemed to embody the value set and look that you'd expect Superman himself to have, the film finally went into production in Sydney, Australia in early 2005, wrapping principal photography that November.

When the film was released to extreme anticipation on June 28th, 2006, critical reaction was tepidly positive. Clearly, Singer's intention was to make a film that was both reverent to what had come before, and far more romantic than his efforts with the X-Men. The photography has a strange warmth throughout the entire 154-minute runtime, and though there was one major action scene in the first act, it was more of a slowly-burning character study than it was an action spectacle. In the end, Superman Returns has much more in common with the likes of Ang Lee's Hulk than it does with films like Spider-Man or Batman Begins.

 

Stuck in the Past

I saw Superman Returns in theaters six times. Part of the reason was because I wanted to savor a Superman experience in the movie theater as much as I could, since this was the first theatrically-released Superman film that came out in my lifetime. Therein lies a primary issue with the film, though. Even though it was released 20 years after writer/artist John Byrne helped reinvent Superman for more modern times in the comics with 1986's The Man of Steel limited series, the conception of the character championed by this film seemed far less reflective of the source material than I and many other fans would've preferred.

By relying on a thirty-plus year old characterization of Superman, the film created a false perception in the minds of audiences everywhere that the character had not evolved at all since the late 1970's. Of course, anyone who'd picked up a single Superman comic book, or had seen episodes of Lois & Clark or Superman: The Animated Series during that time knew better, but in a lot of ways, the film damaged the very real evolution the character had gone through in both the comics and on television.

Looking at the critical reaction to both this film and 2013's Man of Steel also paints another picture: some people – including a fair amount of critics – simply don't know what they want from Superman. In 2006, people complained that the film was too romantic and slow, with not enough action. In 2013, they then complained that there was too much action, and were somehow shocked about the idea of two immortal bulletproof aliens who defy gravity bringing a fair amount of destruction in their wake when they collide with each other at the speed of sound.

 

Not Stuck Enough?

If anything, though, the reaction to and criticism of Zack Snyder's two turns with Superman thus far seem to work more in Superman Returns' favor than against it.

People may be divided on exactly what they want to see from the Man of Steel, but if any idea has been pushed forward a lot over the last three years, it seems to be that they want that symbol of aspirational heroism. While not quite giving enough credence to Clark Kent's very real humanity, the 2006 film does present Superman as the powerful angel he's often so capable of being, even if it leaned on the "secular messiah" motif a little too hard in places.

While fans and audiences may have complained about the specifics of the film when it first came out, you were hard-pressed to find anyone who felt that Bryan Singer's very earnest effort with the character did lasting damage to the perception of who Superman is, and, more importantly, what he's supposed to be. That exact criticism has been leveled at Zack Snyder first for making Henry Cavill's Superman kill General Zod in the climax of Man of Steel, and second by having our hero do a fair amount of moping through the entirety of Batman v Superman. In the end, Superman Returns suffers more from a perception of being bad, and gets more hate than it deserves.

It's likely that you won't find a lot of people who will argue that Superman Returns is a perfect film, but it does deserve a lot of credit. In addition to some powerful, previously-impossible imagery with the character (like when he gets shot in the face), the fact of the matter is that it did bring Superman back to theaters, and would help pave the way for, hopefully, a fully realized vision of the DC Comics Universe on film. And hey, it can't be that bad, especially if a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino says he wants to write a 20-page review/essay on its merits (we're still waiting for that by the way, Mr. Tarantino).

If you're looking for something to do on the 4th of July this weekend, it's hard to get more American than watching a Superman film. If you choose Superman Returns, just go into it with an open mind. Chances are, especially in light of so many other comic book movies released over the past ten years, it's likely better and more unique than you remember.


Chris Clow is a gamer, a comic book expert and former retailer, as well as a freelance contributor to The Huffington Post and Batman-On-Film.com, as well as host of the Comics on Consoles podcast. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

Categories: Features, Geek, Retrospective
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