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In Defense of … ‘Superman Returns’

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It’s difficult to defend ‘Superman Returns’ without bringing up Zack Snyder’s 2013 abomination ‘Man of Steel’ … so we won’t even try. ‘Man of Steel’ was what happens when a studio responds to the criticism of “needs more punching.” That was the battle cry for many a fanboy when ‘Returns’ was released to otherwise indifferent audiences.

One might argue that ‘Returns’ doesn’t need defending because when you look at the critical mass, most reviews were positive. Nevertheless, message boards lit up with comic-book trolls who had nothing but terrible things to say about it. The problem, in the most general terms, seemed to be that Superman didn’t kick enough villain ass. And if that’s what you were looking for from the ill-fated franchise reboot, it’s a valid criticism. But why would anyone expect that from Superman? He’s about rescuing, outsmarting evil geniuses and justice. He’s about mild-mannered alter egos, quick changes and newsrooms.

Sure, there have been many comic and graphic-novel incarnations of Superman that tinkered with his persona, but it seemed like those were mostly attempts to ground the superhero in a more modern comic context. In other words, they were attempts to make Superman more like other superheroes. Superman has a baseline that can be summed up in the words “truth” and “justice.” Batman, for example, has lost his baseline to multiple interpretations that continue to muddy the waters of a character who started as more of a vigilante detective who solved crimes and caught criminals. (He originally springs from Detective Comics after all.) But you can always boil Superman down to his two most important values.

"Superman has a baseline that can be summed up in the words “truth” and “justice.”"

When it was originally announced that Bryan Singer would be directing the first Superman movie in almost 20 years, reaction was mixed. Some were concerned because his prior superhero experience was directing the first two X-Men movies, which aren’t very memorable as superhero movies go. But when the first trailer was released, many of us saw it as cause for excitement. It was clear that instead of steering away from the Richard Donner version of ‘Superman,’ Singer was steering toward it. Everyone expected that a reboot would mean trying something completely different with the character. (Remember all the talk about the Kevin Smith-penned script, Tim Burton as a director and Nicolas Cage as star?) What no one expected was a psuedo-sequel, which is really the best way to look at ‘Superman Returns’ (and what a lot of people don’t like about it). It picks up the character’s story arc where it left off with ‘Superman II.’

‘Superman Returns’ begins five years after the well-established hero left Earth to check for any Kryptonian survivors or answers to questions about his past floating around in space. He returns to a planet that has decided it no longer needs him — a decision spurred along by a Pulitzer-winning feature by Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) that trashes him for leaving unannounced. In his absence, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from prison on a technicality that allows him to once again take up his criminal obsession with continental real estate.

Setting the story outline aside for a moment, it’s only fair to admit what ‘Superman Returns’ got wrong: Kate Bosworth was woefully miscast and Kevin Spacey doesn’t do anything very interesting playing “the greatest criminal mind of our time.” What’s more (spoiler alert), ‘Returns’ essentially ends up making Superman an intergalactic deadbeat dad, because, well — Lois had his Superson while he was cruising other solar systems in vain.

By comparison, what did ‘Man of Steel’ get right? Virtually nothing. There are a few early Smallville scenes of a young Clark Kent coming to terms with his powers that seem cut from some far better Superman movie, but most of its running time is spent on alien spaceships, indestructible super beings fighting and being indestructible and the ghost of a very somber Russell Crowe saying very serious things, very seriously.

That’s why it’s sad that ‘Superman Returns’ has been disregarded and tossed into the dustbin of superhero movie failures — but dammit! It deserves better than sharing space with ‘Green Lantern’ and ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ at the bottom of the heap.

‘Superman Returns’ had everything a Superman fan could want. The scene of Clark Kent looking around, running into an alley and busting open his shirt to reveal his super “S” is something that made every Gen Xer’s pulse quicken when they saw it in the Christopher Reeve movies. There’s nothing like those moments in ‘Man of Steel,’ but ‘Superman Returns’ nails the vibe several times.

Brandon Routh, who takes on the iconic role in ‘Returns’ nails it too. He strikes the perfect balance rocking between Supe’s alter egos. He was a good casting choice and it’s a shame we’ll never get to see what other places he could take the character(s). (For the record, Henry Cavill makes a fine Superman and was never what was wrong with ‘Man of Steel.’) Routh was heroic but also fun — and funny when he needed to be.

‘Returns’ also benefits from a judicious use of digital effects. More than seven years later, the scene of him carefully landing a massive jet liner with his bare hands in the middle of a baseball game still works and looks great. The scene of the slow-motion bullet hitting his eyeball and bouncing off — that’s vintage Superman stuff! It works because it’s fun and Superman has always (up until last year anyway) been fun. He’d banter with the bad guys and just as soon stop a nuclear missile as get a cat out of a tree.

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There’s a scene from each of the most recent Superman movies that perfectly illustrates Singer’s superior understanding of the last son of Krypton. In ‘Man of Steel,’ Superman dukes it out with Zod and company in the most populated places imaginable. (How many years should it take to put Metropolis back together after that no-winners battle royale? Reeves’ Superman at least had the good sense to take the battle to the arctic and minimize collateral damage.) In ‘Superman Returns’ when Luthor’s plan causes Metropolis to begin cracking up, glass begins to fall from the windows of the city’s skyscrapers. Our quick-thinking hero flies upside down under the falling glass to burn it into dust with heat vision before it begins raining down on Metropolis commuters. Why? Because that’s what Superman does. He’s proactive. He saves people.(He doesn’t snap supervillains’ necks.)

We suspect that time may be kinder to ‘Superman Returns’ than ‘Man of Steel.’ Long after we’ve all forgotten about the cluttered, visually overwhelming ‘Transformers’-style battle sequences from ‘Man of Steel,’ the devout Superman fans among us will still fondly remember the awesomeness of that slow-mo bullet bouncing off the big blue boy scout’s eyeball.

Next: In Defense of ... 'Popeye'

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