I wrote this review of the movie Superman Returns several years ago, for a different blog. Sadly (for me), it was never published. However, I still feel strongly about this movie, and with The Man of Steel still on the horizon, I feel it must be published.
In my opinion, Superman Returns is one of the worst super hero movies ever made. The issues with writing, directing, and acting are common with superhero movies, and movies in general. So why does this movie bother me so much? It has a director who thinks he has a deep understanding of the character, but misses the mark entirely. It pays homage to great classic movies in all the wrong ways. I know this review isn’t exactly timely, but the disappointment experienced from this movie transcends time, space, and common human decency.
In this review, I’m not going to complain about the little things, such as the scene where Superman flies up an elevator shaft, presumably to burst out of the roof of the Daily Planet, and unbuttons his shirt allowing his shirt, pants, and shoes to fall away. I can accept things that can be explained (reasonably well) with “well, he’s Superman.” This movie could have used more of those kinds of quirks. Instead, I’m going to focus on the things that make less and less sense the more you think about them.
Now, granted, the old Superman movies were not that great from a strictly cinematic viewpoint. This was the first time a superhero had been given a truly “big screen” treatment. Add to that great music, a great character, and a healthy bit of nostalgia, and the old Superman movies are remembered fondly.
Most would agree that Superman III and Superman IV were not up to the level of the first two, so I was delighted to learn that this new movie would be replacing them. I had no idea that it would replace them with something even more ridiculous. The worst part is that it could have happened after them with absolutely no change in the plot. So, the plot, as we know it, is now as follows: Superman reveals himself to the world, has two adventures, and then leaves the planet for many years. Now that the scene is set, let’s just jump straight into my discussion of what’s wrong with this movie.
Lex Luthor and his plan (AKA the plot)
Yes, in movie continuity, Lex Luthor is neither a leader of industry nor a scientific genius. He is a real estate mogul who enjoys killing people. When he was young, his dad told him people will always need land. Good advice, but since Luthor is an evil genius, he should naturally always come up with evil real estate plans, right?
And of course, it makes sense that the governments would allow a man who tried to once nuke the west coast to be released from prison. Let’s assume that we can explain this away with comic book logic. What’s Lex’s new plan? To go to the Fortress of Solitude and get some Super Crystals and make an island.
The scene starts with Lex and The Thugs taking the yacht of Lex’s deceased elderly beneficiary and implied sexual partner to the arctic. Not a bad start. When they arrive, they take a helicopter from the yacht to the ice shelf, land the helicopter a significant distance from the Fortress, and proceed to walk the rest of the way. Once inside, Lex ignores a complete repository of knowledge from the 28 known galaxies, and takes some crystals for his real estate scheme. So far so good.
So the plan is to make an island from these crystals (destroying most of North America in the process) and then sell the land to any survivors who can afford it. This is, by far, the most retarded evil plan in the history of evil plans. The land created by this island is made entirely of solid rock and kryptonite. Not only would it not support plant life (or farmland), it would eventually give all it’s inhabitants cancer (though I’ll allow for the fact that Lex wouldn’t have known that).
But now, let’s assume that that doesn’t matter. How does Lex keep this massive island under control? How does he maintain ownership? How does he defend it? What’s to stop the United States from bombing Lex and taking the island, or just nuking it? Well, according to Lex, he’ll defend it using advanced technology detailed in the crystals. Wouldn’t it make sense to make the weapons before you make the island you need to defend? He’s got this island about to piss off the most powerful nation on Earth, and he’s not even going to start making weapons until after he’s killed Superman by hand. Kryptonite has no effect on F-22s, Lex.
Then there’s also the issue of manpower. Are The Thugs going to make the weapons in between rounds of poker? Is Lex going to do all the work? With what equipment? He doesn’t even have anything that can access the information in the crystals. This plan makes no sense!
The only thing that saves Lex’s scenes is Kevin Spacey. He is, in my opinion, the best actor in the film, and the only one I actually enjoyed watching.
The Super Crystals
Crystals are both the USB drives and SCVs of Krypton. They are amazing things. They can store a seemingly infinite amount of information, or they can make a big rock. They seem to act consistently throughout the movie, but several implications go unexplained. These things take on the properties of what they touch, after they touch water. But they are in the shape of crystals. How do they know when to stop growing Perhaps they have a maximum growth range, like those foam-filled capsules I played with when I was little. You put them in water, they grow into a foam dinosaur, and then they stop growing. Or maybe they stop growing when they dry up above the water.
More importantly, where is the matter coming from? The crystals can’t possibly contain the matter already. Is it converting water into rock and kryptonite? What happens if humans living on the island spill water on the ground? Or what about rain? If it absorbs water to grow, why would there be puddles on the surface? I can’t think of any one explanation that accounts for all of these things.
Also, all the remaining crystals get dumped from the helicopter into a puddle. Why was there no immediate, massive growth, or at least an EMP burst? Speaking of which…
There is a strange phenomenon in the entertainment world regarding EMPs. Every movie, TV show, and video game portrays them the same: they shut down electronics for a short amount of time. In reality, EMPs destroy electronics. If a plane gets hit by an EMP, it’s going down for sure.
But let’s assume EMPs are temporary. The plane Lois Lane is on and the highly advanced shuttle experience several system failures as a result of the EMP. They do not recover from these, and Superman saves them. There’s nothing wrong with that, assuming standard movie logic. Now consider the number of planes that must have been flying over Metropolis at the time. How many of them experienced a failure they couldn’t recover from? I’m certain several hundred people died while Superman saved Lois, and no one at the Daily Planet seems to care. I’m also certain that the fiery wings Superman tore off the plane must have at least done some kind of damage, falling practically from outer space.
Kryptonite (AKA What Bryan Singer thinks is the essence of Superman)
It is stated in Superman: The Movie and in Superman Returns that kryptonite is deadly to Superman. In Superman: The Movie, kryptonite makes Superman incredibly weak. Not only does he appear to lose his powers, but he can’t even keep his head above water in a pool. He loses consciousness rather quickly.
In Superman Returns, Superman also apparently loses his powers, or is severely weakened simply by standing on the island, which is laced with kryptonite. At the very least, it means his skin is no longer unbreakable. Kryptonite also turns him into a whiny bitch and proves that without his powers, Superman is an absolute nobody. This is Bryan Singer’s take on the character. Superman takes a severe beating from The Thugs and is stabbed by the one substance that is poisonous to him. He then spends several minutes underwater, undergoes emergency surgery which doesn’t entirely remove all of the kryptonite, and then flies into some lava and lifts an entire island of kryptonite into space.
Lets take a moment to consider how utterly ridiculous this is. He could barely stop a falling plane earlier at full strength, and now he is lifting an island, with kryptonite in his face, while injured! And earlier he couldn’t even swim near kryptonite while in otherwise perfect health!
“It’s his strength of will,” I can hear some of you saying. Ok, lets assume his will gives him the strength to overcome kryptonite because the situation is dire. Being near kryptonite caused him to sweat on the island, showing he is affected by heat like a normal person. A heat so weak, even Lex isn’t bothered. Then Superman dives into lava with kryptonite inside him, with apparently vulnerable skin, and he survives unscathed. That is some amazing will power he’s got.
So he lifts it into space, then falls back to Earth. He starts to burn up as he falls, and then for some reason stops burning as he falls below the cloud layer. He survives the burning and the fall, with kryptonite in him.
Normally, a good movie point would be to show that the hero is still a hero without his powers. That it’s what’s inside that matters. Watching these scenes, we can deduce that Bryan Singer believes that Superman is nothing without his powers. He screams “I’m still Superman!” while getting the shit kicked out of him, powerless to even run away. The moment his powers leave him, he is more helpless than even a regular human would be in that situation. But then, apparently through his sheer determination and spirit, he overcomes his lack of powers and wills himself toget his powers back. Thus he saves the day.
Lois is actually portrayed fairly well. She is consistent with the Lois of previous movies and other incarnations. My only complaint is that when Superman left without telling anyone, she knew (or assumed) that he actually left, and didn’t simply perish battling a supervillain. She thinks he abandoned her and Metropolis. In her award winning article, she muses that some think he died, but she quickly dismisses it. I guess if no one recovers a body, he must just be an asshole who leaves for years without telling a soul. Thankfully for Lois, he is that asshole.
The nephew of Perry White is in this movie so that Superman has a reason to be unhappy. In fact, the beginning of the movie sets him up as an almost soft, semi-villain. The audience is aware that Superman is supposed to be with Lois. That’s how it always is and that’s how it should be. But here’s this guy stealing Superman’s girl while he’s away and raising his kid! Doesn’t that make you angry
No. If anything, the audience should be mad at Richard because he makes Superman look like a horrible person in comparison, and I for one am glad that he and Lois are still together in the end. In fact, Richard is probably just as big a hero in the movie as Superman. He is the human equivalent of Superman, only better and without powers. He never abandoned Lois. He’s raising her child, and quite well in fact. When Lois and Jason are in trouble, it’s Richard who flies in to save them. His character works against the idea that the world really does need Superman. This one simple human does nearly as much as Superman. He just has one problem: He’s not Superman.
Because honestly, how do you compete with Superman? Richard could have single-handedly saved everyone in Metropolis and apprehended Lex and thrown the island into space himself, and kids would still be putting Superman posters in their bedrooms. He got the short end of the stick.
I’m not going to complain too much about whether or not it’s appropriate (or even possible) for Superman to have a kid with Lois. I will complain a slight amount, however, by stating that it’s unlikely that two beings not of the same species, or really even close, could produce a healthy offspring using the usual methods.
Aside from that, my main problem with Jason is the way he was written, especially in contrast to Superman. Superman is the strongest person on Earth, but he works very hard to never kill. In fact, throughout the entire movie, Superman barely even injures anyone. On the contrary, Jason is incredibly weak. It looks like it hurts him to breath. His first ‘heroic’ act is to kill someone. Sure, it’s just some thug villain, but it’s still manslaughter. And yeah, it would be overlooked as self-defense in a crisis, were it ever to be reported at all. But he still killed someone. And Superman and Lois are very proud of their son, who is apparently unaffected by the taking of another person’s life. I almost wish I could have seen where this character was going to go in the sequel.
Apparently, this island is very strong on the bottom but not on the top. When Superman is trying to lift the island, the shaking causes many towers to crumble and fall. Yet, somehow he is able to lift the entire island off the ground by applying all the force to a space no bigger than one by three feet, and the island stays together. There is no way Superman doesn’t just punch a hole through it. It doesn’t matter how strong you are, that’s just physics. At least they tried to use real physics by showing the plane nose collapsing in around Superman as he tries to land it in the stadium (though even then I doubt it would have held, but at least they tried.)
Fog of Suspense
There is a fog surrounding the island that dampens sound to the point where a plane or a helicopter could fall into it and become completely silent for several seconds. I’m also beginning to think that the fog also helps slow the fall of an object such as a plane or a helicopter.
Apparently, she hasn’t purchased a single new appliance or product since the 1950s. Not a single item. Clearly, this indicates that she lives on a farm. Must be tough without half your son’s income, while he’s off looking for the highest concentration of stuff that is deadly to him.
Lois Lane writes an article in the movie called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” The article is just a thinly veiled attempt for Lois to prove that she (and by extension, the world) doesn’t need Superman, so she won’t feel so bad about him abandoning her. The movie sets out to prove that Lois and the world do in fact need Superman.
The funny thing is that Lois’ article makes a lot of sense:
How can we be expected to appreciate the good without the bad? Through suffering do we not gain strength? Having relied on an almost omnipotent savior for years, weve forgotten how to rely on ourselves. He gave us strength, but with it, weakness. In his absence, we must learn to unite and find strength in one another.
In the end, the movie really shows that what the world needs are regular people doing more to help each other. Superman apparently ended war and gave people hope, but he also made people careless and dependent on him. The job of Superman should be to fight the fights that could best be described as “a job for Superman.” Fight the supervillains: The Zods, the Darkseids, the foes normal people actually cannot handle. Leave everyone else to the humans.
The movie makes this point clumsily. When a movie’s meaning gets muddled, I try instead to enjoy the movie simply for the story, and this story really pissed me off.