Almost thirty years ago Richard Donner made the world believe a man could fly with the 1978 comic book movie Superman. Donner took a comic book legend and transformed him into a flesh and blood live action hero whose first big screen adventure was rivaled only by Superman II, which was itself partially filmed by Donner. Since then the last son of Krypton has had two more sequels, animated shows, and several live action TV series, none of which has had the same success as Donner’s original outing. Bryan Singer finally ends that trend and creates a movie that pays tribute to its origins, both in film and print.
Five years ago, when scientists discovered the remnants of his home planet, the Man of Steel left Earth to seek out his origins. In the time that has passed the world has changed. The planet has learned to live without its super-hero, leading up to the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial by Lois Lane, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Then Superman returns. His planet confirmed dead, the Last Son of Krypton now knows he doesn’t belong anywhere. Not only in the human world, but in the universe, he is truly “alien.” But Lois is wrong; the world does need Superman, evidenced by the fact that just as the hero returns his arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, also shows back up with a new plan to get rid of the the world's faster than a speeding bullet hero
Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns goes beyond making the audience believe a man can fly. Superman not only soars above as the big blue boy scout, but his figure is so iconic throughout the picture that Singer makes the audience believe that Superman, the defender of truth, justice, and the American way has truly returned. As I watched the Man of Steel take on catastrophes and disasters I couldn’t help but feel a small part of me wish the hero was more than just a myth from the funny papers. The world could use a hero like Superman. Instead we’ll have to be glad he finally exists in an appreciable form on film again.
It’s very clear Singer is familiar with the history of Superman throughout the picture, part of what helps the director build so many iconic moments. From a recreation of the original Action Comics cover featuring Superman holding a car above his head to moments that pay homage to Donner’s film, Singer builds off pieces of the Man of Steel’s history that are almost Americana in nature. In fact that’s probably my one criticism of Singer’s film – the audience almost has to be familiar with the first two Superman films to truly understand what he’s done here. The audience has to know Superman and Lois Lane hooked up, that Lex Luthor has been to the fortress of solitude before, and Superman’s origins as interpreted by Donner, not necessarily as portrayed in the comic books. Without that knowledge there’s a huge element of the movie that remains fuzzy. Singer might have appealed to a wider audience by paying tribute to Donner, but not relying on him so heavily for source material. It’s a minor complaint, but a noticeable one.
Not all of the credit should go to Bryan Singer for the success of Superman Returns however. Brandon Routh performs admirably in what is probably one of the hardest roles to fill. With so much of the film paying tribute to the movies that made Christopher Reeve a star it would be impossible to not compare the two casts and Routh holds his own in that comparison. Kate Bosworth plays a different type of Lois Lane than Margot Kidder played in 1978 and it’s a performance I prefer, although that’s simply a matter of taste. There is nothing that stands out to make one of the two better or worse than the other. Kevin Spacey makes Lex Luthor a bit more vicious than Gene Hackman did. He emulates Hackman with a bit more bite to his bark. It isn’t Spacey who gives Lex his best definition though; it’s the script. For all of his genius plans and schemes, at the end of the day Lex resorts to a simple prison-inspired shiv to do his dirty work. You have to love the dichotomy of the crook and the super-villain.
Superman Returns marks a glorious new era for the Man of Steel in motion pictures. Bryan Singer has shown that Superman can still be a viable franchise and his stories deserve to be told in that medium again. Now if he can only step away from the foundation laid by Richard Donner and find his own direction to take Superman, the Man of Steel will truly have returned.
Every year there is one movie that comes out on DVD to make me wish I had more actively pursued a career in actual filmmaking, not just film criticism. For 2006 that release is the two-disc edition of Superman Returns. Not only does the movie look absolutely stunning and sound fantastic, but the bonus materials, although somewhat standard in appearance, remind me of the magic of filmmaking.
The first disc in the two-disc set only includes the movie. There is absolutely nothing special on this disc and I have no doubt that if you only purchase the single disc edition, this is what you would get. I’m telling you right now – don’t waste your time, go ahead and splurge for that second disc. It’s worth it.
The weakest of the features on the second disc is the three minute featurette about bringing Marlon Brando back to life for Superman Returns. This was released on the internet by Rhythm & Hues when Returns hit theaters so, while still impressive, we’ve seen it before. I’m a completist so I enjoy having it on the disc, but it’s not new.
There are a few deleted scenes from the film, some good and some not so good, although none of them are dreadful. Almost half of the deleted material takes place early in the film, when Superman returns from space and is back on the Kent farm. The deleted scenes show how his mother has moved on, dating someone new (that’s who she was playing Scrabble with prior to Clark’s arrival) and show an extended version of the flashback sequence, complete with rope work still intact. The best of these scenes reveal why Clark Kent wasn’t missing for five years even though Superman was, which helps explain why nobody draws the immediate connection of the two returning at the same time. Unfortunately, to add that one scene in would have required several of the others, slowing the pace of the early part of the picture dramatically.
There are also a few deleted scenes with Lex Luthor, enhancing his relationship with Kitty (Parker Posey). I would love to have seen these scenes kept if only to have more of Posey in the film. Her comedic genius (a term I never thought I would have applied to the actress) really helps the Lex moments work and these scenes expand that relationship drastically. Again, I can see why they were cut (although a commentary by Singer explaining the cuts would have been nice) but it’s a shame these had to be lost.
The shining star of the second disc however is not the deleted material but the documentary “Requiem for Krypton: The Making of Superman Returns". Over a period of three hours the documentary explores just about every aspect of making the movie, starting with pre-production and the initial casting of newcomer Brandon Routh as Superman through filming on a variety of locations, with each location given a fair amount of behind-the-scenes time. Through it all you see what a huge Superman fan Bryan Singer is, how the history of the character inspires him, and how much he obviously enjoys filmmaking. You'll never hear it directly from Singer, but the producers point out several times through the documentary to how much bigger this production is than X2: X-Men United, leaving watchers with the realization that the X-Men franchise was just a warm up act for this – the movie Singer actually wanted to make.
I’m a little worried that the DVD does not include the other material that was made available as Superman Returns was in production on Singer's BlueTights.net website. It makes me wonder if there isn’t another version of this film coming down the road, complete with deleted material inserted back into the film. As long as “Requiem for Krypton” is included any version of Superman Returns is worth picking up, but I hope this two-disc release remains the “special edition” for at least a little while.