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In Defense Of Superman Returns: Three Things It Got Right

Moviedom – or, the easily excitable comic-geek fan base – is lathered up for Man of Steel. Count me amongst their ranks. Everything we’ve heard about Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot has us trembling with anticipation for a brand-new, big-screen Superman adventure.

In fact, it’s starting to feel like 2006 all over again … and we all know how that worked out.

In 2006, Bryan Singer resurrected the Man of Steel for the wildly anticipated Superman Returns. It was going to be a return to the Golden Age of Richard Donner – a Superman movie that helped wash away the bitter aftertaste left by two lackluster Superman sequels and a rebirth for DC Comics’ classic hero. Truth, justice and the American Way were about to roar back into theaters.

Then we saw the movie, and it managed to disappoint (for various reasons). Singer himself has said in years since that he feels the movie – and its heavy-handed Christ analogies – caught the summer popcorn audience off guard.

“This was a story about Christ -- it's all about sacrifice: The world, I hear their cries. So what happens? He gets the knife in the side and later he falls to the earth in the shape of a crucifix,” Singer once told The Hollywood Reporter. “It was kind of nailing you on the head, but I enjoyed that, because I've always found the myth of Christ compelling and moving. So I hoped to do my own take, which is heavy s--- for a summer movie."

The movie, over time, has attracted more and more detractors, to the point that many now say Snyder’s film is meant to correct the mistakes of Singer … and that's a mistake in itself. Revisiting Superman Return in preparation for Snyder’s reboot, I found that there are three things this worthy chapter in Superman’s cinematic legacy absolutely nailed – and yes, three things it probably should have corrected in the rewrite stage.

1. Singer Kept Superman’s Trademark Theme Song

No one can say Singer’s Superman Returns got off to a slow start. John Ottman recreated John Williams’ signature Superman themes– arguably Williams’ best symphonic compositions – and played it at full blast over a soaring opening credit sequence that started with Marlon Brando’s Superman monologue, then carried audience members through the darkest corners of outer space as our hero returned to planet Earth.

2. Singer Upped the Action

It’s true Superman still didn’t punch anyone in Superman Returns -- a criticism, I believe, that indirectly led to the hiring of the action-savvy Snyder for Man of Steel in the first place – but Singer absolutely took advantage of advanced technological tools to put Kal-El (Brandon Routh) in the middle of some memorable set pieces that won’t look dated years from now. Have you popped in Superman II recently? The Niagara Falls “rescue” is embarrassing. But Superman Returns' mid-air rescue of a jumbo jet, the catching of the Daily Planet globe, and the launching of Lex Luthor’s “continent” into outer space are worthy sequences of a super Superman movie.

3. Singer Explored Superman’s Impact on Our Society

And what would happen to us in his absence. Beyond Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) winning a Pulitzer Prize, Superman’s 5-year journey to Krypton’s remains and back dropped the world into turmoil. Kal-El’s presence alone should have a deep impact on our planet and its society. When you have an all-powerful force of justice policing the planet, who’s going to commit a crime? There are deeper themes at play in the Superman mythology that Singer tried to explore. At times, he went off the deep end into religious symbolism. But there have been suggestions in Snyder’s marketing materials that say he and screenwriter David Goyer will explore the hope Superman brings to our nation … and I think that was touched on in Superman Returns.

Now, where did he go wrong?

1. He Gave Superman a Kid

Nodding to the fact that Lois and Clark had sex, Singer gives Superman a super-powered kid. Do you know what that makes Clark? A deadbeat dad who can’t be around to take care of his own child. This is the cinematic equvalent of painting one’s self into a corner. There’s nowhere a subsequent Superman film can go from here, because you’ll ALWAYS have to answer the question of, “Yeah, but what about Superman’s son?” It’s a narrative dead end, and one that has been ditched for Man of Steel.

2. He Gave Lex Luthor a Lame Land Scheme

Real estate? In the middle of the ocean? That looked like the back alley of a seedy city? No one was going to live on Lex Luthor’s new continent. The scheme made no sense. And by making Luthor – armed with Kryptonite – the main antagonist in Superman Returns, Singer borrowed heavily from Donner’s blueprint, when he needed to think way outside of the box. That’s why Man of Steel allegedly has NO Lex Luthor and NO Kryptonite. And finally …

3. Singer Revered Donner Too Much

If you watch Superman Returns shortly after watching Donner’s original Superman, you realize that Singer’s movie is more than an homage – it’s a blatant rip off. So many scenes in Singer’s remake act as a mirror image to Donner’s effort, from the night flight with Lois to the crime-spree montage that has Superman flexing his powers. Luthor’s villainy and the lack of a decent fight link the two films, as well. Most of us wanted Singer to move Superman forward, not replicate his past. I’m praying Man of Steel moves this legend forward, because he has been flying in circles for far too long.

Sean O'Connell

Movie junkie. Infatuated with comic-book films. ReelBlend cohost. Resident dad. Extroverted introvert. Wants to see the Snyder Cut. Managing Director at CinemaBlend.