After setting the bar for modern comic book movies with X-Men and X-Men 2, Bryan Singer abandoned the third installment of that series to direct a new Superman movie. Singer chose to pick up where Richard Donner and Richard Lester left off with Superman and Superman II over twenty-five years before and cemented connections to those films by securing the rights to John Williams’ unforgettable theme music and accessing unused footage of Marlon Brando as Superman’s father. Despite commercial and critical disappointment, the resulting movie, Superman Returns, prevails as a curious experiment in recent blockbuster movies, an unfinished chapter of a superhero’s legend, and a testament to the appeal of Superman.
One afternoon while visiting my father a year after I first saw Superman Returns, I handed him a recent issue of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s excellent comic book series, All-Star Superman. Later, I asked my dad what he thought about the comic book and with a furrowed brow he replied, “Well, I don’t mean to slight these creators, but I stopped reading Superman comics when I was teenager in the ‘50s and reading this one I felt like I was able to pick back up without missing a beat. Surely, something should have changed in fifty years.” I reframed my dad’s critique and told him that Morrison and Quitely would probably be delighted to hear that their story achieved this manner of timelessness. With Superman Returns, and all of its ties to the first two Christopher Reeve movies, Singer aimed for a similar kind of endurance. From Brando’s posthumous performance, Singer forged new dramatic vitality and threaded a powerful theme of father/son relationships that propelled Brandon Routh’s Superman into uncharted territory for the character and anchored the most successful elements of Superman Returns. However, the links to the previous Superman movies proved to be troublesome by inviting comparisons, especially among the principal actors, that distracted from what worked in this movie. Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth were not Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder and they certainly did not share the same kind of chemistry, but Singer created a more subtle universe that allowed Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane to live and struggle with greater dimension than their earlier counterparts. Unfortunately, Superman Returns laid the groundwork for a new series that would never see the light of day, but deserved at least as much of a chance for continuation as another unexpected and highly scrutinized DC Comics adaptation from the previous year, Christopher Nolan’s first segment of The Dark Knight Trilogy, Batman Begins. The true essence of Superman may remain elusive throughout this movie, but the nobility of Singer’s efforts deserve recognition and, most importantly, by the time the credits roll, Superman Returns looks, sounds, and feels like a Superman movie.
In the summer of 2013, just a few months after my father’s death, I watched Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, and came away feeling bludgeoned by a grim and joyless movie that bore little connection to a character who can inspire so much wonder, hope, and awe. Superman has had such a challenging recent history with big screen appearances because he isn’t just a character from another planet, he’s from another time, as well. Wolverine and Batman may thrive in morally ambiguous quagmires, but Superman’s idealism and goodness have fallen out of step with the demands of today’s Hollywood blockbusters. Maybe it’s time to go back to comics like All-Star Superman for a reminder of what still makes Superman so great and why we need him now more than ever.
- John Parsell