It’s Not About Land: A Defense of Superman Returns

Note: The following discusses Superman Returns in detail and contains spoilers. There’s also one spoiler for the 1978 Superman, just in case you never got around to seeing that one.

Superman Returns is the George Lazenby of the Superman franchise – underappreciated, misunderstood, dismissed. But much like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which eventually rose above its reputation as an also-ran and became quite respected among fans, Bryan Singer’s film is slowly starting to shake loose its flop status, especially now, as the release of Man of Steel has led some viewers to reevaluate Returns while the fans who always liked it are speaking more loudly than ever before. That’s not to say it’s everyone’s favorite; it remains a divisive film. But its defenders are gaining a little ground.

Superman Returns

I wrote about Returns long ago, first for its initial release, then briefly when I hailed it as the best film of 2006. Looking back, I realize I never got around to a few stray thoughts on the film, thoughts that defend against some of the biggest complaints. Here are three such notions:

1. It’s Not a Knock-Off

From swooshing opening credits to old clips of Marlon Brando to John Williams’ famous theme to one-liners about air travel safety, Returns owes a lot to Richard Donner’s 1978 film. But as I said in my original review, it’s not a sequel to the older Superman movies but “a sequel to the spirit of those films.” It uses Donner’s universe as the foundation for its own, a mix of audio/visual shorthand and tip of the hat that helps the viewer find his/her bearings as the story begins. It’s a shortcut that allows Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris to limit exposition; we’re spared another origin story rehash.

But the script doesn’t use these shortcuts as a crutch. There’s enough added in the details to help audiences unfamiliar with Christopher Reeve keep up just fine, and the whole movie works perfectly on its own, separate from its predecessors. More importantly, rather than lean on its references and tributes, the film merely skims them. Unlike, say, Star Trek Into Darkness, which is burdened by its franchise quotation (to the point it rarely works on its own), Returns waltzes with its cinematic history, smiles, and then pushes forward. This is a film interested not in repetition, but progress. It likes where the characters have been but is more interested in where they’re headed.

Alas, some viewers don’t like where the characters are headed, probably because…

2. It’s a Love Story

The funny thing about Returns is how much heat it gets for thinking so seriously about its hero’s emotional state. For years, fans complained about how Superman was too lighthearted to be relevant in the modern age, only to then complain about how they got the dour Superman they wanted and found out they didn’t like it. I’ve heard this incarnation of Kal-El called Emo Superman and Stalker Superman.

Thing is, he’s not really all that brooding. He spends most of the movie doing Superman stuff: saving people, stopping robberies, flying through explosions, fumbling around the office. But while the previous Superman films didn’t do much with the character beyond that (which is not to imply a lesser impact; there’s enough tenderness in the interplay with Lois Lane that we genuinely feel Superman’s pain at the end of the 1978 movie when he finds her dead), the Return writers expand the emotional core in ways comic books movies rarely do. Perhaps that’s why it’s seen by some as moody, because movies like The Avengers are pretty light on the sort of emotional themes Returns tackles, and it feels heavier by comparison.

Consider the opening, where Superman returns (ahem) from a five-year mission in search of the remnants of Krypton. He found nothing and realizes he truly is alone in the universe, in terms of his home world if not his adopted one. Add to that the solitude of such a journey. Not only is he devastated by his discovery, but he got to spend the better part of thirty months contemplating it in utter isolation.

This alone would take the spring out of any superhero’s step. He also, however, has to confront a world that has moved on without him, in both the large scale and small. Lois’ article “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” expresses a global recognition that his absence wasn’t as problematic as he likely assumed, but, more importantly, it serves as the capper indicating she’s moved on. She’s found a new guy, and she has a son… and oh, hey, that son is Superman’s. With all this information rushing in at once, it’s easy to see why Clark might get a little glum – especially if he has to bury his pain and put on his brave Superman face for the public.

But what Returns is, really, is a love story about stumbling across somebody you loved long ago, and you still love them, and your very presence is a serious monkey in the wrench for everyone involved. How does Lois reconcile her current life with the sudden return of the father of her child, a man whom she still loves? How does Superman handle his feelings for Lois while being more or less a third wheel? How does Lois’ fiancé Richard deal with having such competition, knowing how much a part of Lois’ past Superman was yet hoping he himself could be her future, a hope now in jeopardy? This is what sets Returns apart, this idea of taking the famous Lois and Clark relationship and twisting it, squeezing it, crushing it in ways that humanize the characters, even if one of the characters has bulletproof eyes.

Superman’s time in sulk mode is minimal. The film is concerned more with seeing the hero rise above such matters, which he eventually does. After all, Superman is the hero we want to be, his trademark valiance shining through the darkness, even in heartbreak. His Christ pose may be too-obvious symbolism, but his true sacrifice is in not allow himself to get the girl (even if he swings by from time to time). The movie ends with Lois and Richard, not Lois and Clark, together – maybe not a happy couple, but then again, maybe so, as she got to see Richard be every bit the hero as Superman. By the end, the relationships and emotions are cluttered and unresolved, which is far more dramatically satisfying.

Which brings us, in a way that’ll make sense a few paragraphs down, to…

3. It’s Not About Land

Perhaps the biggest complaint about Returns is the villain’s scheme. When viewed as a lukewarm rehash of the Lex Luthor Great Real Estate Swindle of 1978, the Lex Luthor Great Real Estate Swindle of 2006 is obviously a lesser beast – the original has a mad flair, blending danger and goofiness in just the right levels, while the modern effort is just more of the same but with less logic. (Why do the maps of the new continent have various borders marked out? Does he plan on creating state lines?) It’s just a chance to wink at Donner’s film and shrug, mumbling something about “well, Lex just really likes land.”

Except, well, it’s not about land. Lex might say it’s about land, but I don’t think he really means it, or if he does, he’s deluding himself. The Lex Luthor of Returns is still a smarmy wisecracker, but there’s something rotten boiling under the surface that isn’t there in Gene Hackman’s take on the character. Maybe it’s something that popped up during his five-year stint in prison, maybe it’s something that’s always been there in this movie’s version of the villain. The cause doesn’t matter, only the effect. Here, Lex Luthor is consumed by his jealousy for Superman, and it’s that jealousy that informs his scheme.

The real motives of Lex’s plan are revealed when he invades the Fortress of Solitude. He tells Kitty of Prometheus and of how technology equals power:

“Whoever controls technology controls the world. The Roman Empire ruled the world because they built roads. The British Empire ruled the world because they built ships. America, the atom bomb. And so on and so forth. I just want what Prometheus wanted.”

Later, when discussing his continent-building ploy, his real interest isn’t in selling land to the millionaires, it’s in using Kryptonian weaponry to defeat anyone who may challenge him as lord over his new domain. Technology is power, Kryptonian technology is more powerful than any Earthly inventions, and his control over such technology will finally give him the power he’s always craved.

Why has he craved it? Call it cape envy. His most telling line of dialogue is when Kitty reminds him he’s not a god, and he replies, “Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind.” There it is, in eighteen words, his total resentment of someone he can’t comprehend, an all-powerful being who uses his powers in ways Luthor would never imagine. Helping others? Being good? What’s the point in being Superman if you can’t rake in all the money and power in the world? (I love the irony in Luthor’s complaint, by the way. Superman does share his power with mankind, obviously. Luthor’s just too blind to see it.) And when he’s finally able to have more power than Superman, he completely snaps, unleashing a brutal beating with the fury of a sad, angry child.

His entire scheme, then, is about stealing this power from the gods and exploiting it to the last drop. It’s a plot built entirely on vanity, jealousy, and hatred, which is, again, far more dramatically satisfying. He’s no longer just a quippy trickster with a sly attitude. He’s a fully-formed villain fueled by his rage and his ego. And the best part is, he doesn’t seem to realize it. He’s using alien technology he barely understands to do something the consequences of which he barely considers (he’s vague on details, ambivalent toward the death toll, and seemingly disappointed in the actual result). He’s over his head in a frightening way. Doesn’t that make for a more fascinating character?

Of course it does. That’s what Returns is most interested in doing, finding new, richer, more exciting angles for legendary characters. It uses familiarity to springboard into greater depths, its heroes and villains earning greater complexity. This is a bold move for a genre best known for its one-dimensionality. And little by little, people are recognizing it as such.

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