I’ll warn you that this is more of an essay than a typical review, so it’s rather lengthy. I’ve been working on it for a while and even rewatched the movie to make sure I explored every detail. You might want to get a drink or something before you dig in, but it’s worth it. At least I think so.
You can’t just say a movie sucks. You have to explain why it sucks. Just conveying your kneejerk reactions implies you rely more on your base instincts rather than your intellect. That is what brings me here today. To dissect and examine why “Superman Returns” sucks. Most people who have seen it would agree that Returns disappoints, but might not put the effort into going over the why. Since first watching this movie, I have wanted to sit down and go over the suckage of this movie. Returns is a classic example of spending a lot of money to make a movie the wrong way. It does have a few big issues, but most of what is wrong with it are just stupid little things that are stigmatic of those big issues. It also has almost nothing going for it except high production values. Warner Bros spent a great deal of money on a race horse that fell dead before it barely got out of the gate.
“Superman Returns” sucks so hard that I had doubts about it the moments it started. During the short scene before the opening credits, there was a little voice in the back of my head that said, “Uh oh.” A texted opening is never a good idea unless it’s an intelligent quote from Plato or some crap. Then there is a half decent special effect shot of the destruction of Krypton before it winds into the credits. My big problem with this moment is that it has nothing to do with the actual movie. It’s like they couldn’t come up with any other way to introduce the movie, so they came up with a special effect shot.
The opening credits were also a bother. The credits style and music were just recycled from the previous movies while adding inconsequential stuff around it and that just really sets the tone for the rest of the feature. So much of the good parts of this movie were recycled and were added with a dash of crap to ruin the experience. It happens in rain drops throughout the movie, but in the credits it happens all at once. The addition of planets, asteroids, and other space objects just distract from the credits and the larger than life emotion they were meant to empower. The other annoying credit feature was the use of John Williams’s famous theme, but didn’t have him compose for the rest of the movie. Why couldn’t they just hire him for the whole movie? It’s not like Williams is dead or something. And considering how much money they spent on everything else, you can’t use the “he asked for too much money” excuse. The musical score here isn’t all that bad, but comparing it to Williams is like comparing a letter opener with a broadsword.
However I’m only disgruntled at the music. What really infuriated me above all else was the downright horrible script. There wasn’t a single page of this document that wasn’t gut wrenchingly insipid and moronic. The true insanity of this script is discovered when you realize that Warner Bros. had been going through scripts for almost two decades looking for the next Superman movie, and this is the one they settled on. Two decades of false starts and tossed out ideas, and this was the final product? I truly die a little inside every time a short story of mine is rejected by publishers when writing I could crap out is put into multimillion dollar movies.
While the dialogue and plot structure are almost venomous, it’s actually the finer details you might not notice at first glance if they didn’t slap you in the face with its stupidity. Let’s take the Lex Luthor getting rich plot point as an example. Not only is the idea of Lex seducing some woman who is nearly a million years old totally gross, it’s retarded. There could have been a thousand other ways for Luthor to become rich again, but for some reason the writers picked the dumbest one on the list. He could have robbed a bank, had a secret trust fund, blackmailed then killed a rich guy, or even rigged a lottery. Not the best of ideas, but ten times better than what I had to watch on the movie screen. It wasn’t even executed very well. Not only was it riddled with clichés that you would normally find in a bad 50’s horror movie, but there was no witness to the old broad signing the will. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure you need some kind of confirmation on an agreement like that. The director, Bryan Singer (first two X-men movies, The Usual Suspects), should probably receive more blame for that little bit than the writers. But it was still a stupid idea to begin with.
The dumbest idea the script had however, was so stupid it actually contradicts the very movie it’s in. That idea being why Superman left Earth in the first place. Not only was Superman leaving Earth to go look at an asteroid field stupid in a plot sense, it was also stupid in a logic sense as well. Even if you bought into the lame excuse of Superman leaving Earth to go look at a ruined Krypton, he wouldn’t have been able to do it. Suppose he actually got his ship to work and was able to travel to Krypton. Five years would have passed for Superman but thousands of years would have passed here on Earth. It’s simple time dilation from faster-than-light travel. If the movie had established some half retarded idea that Kryptonian technology allowed Superman to travel faster-than-light without time dilation, I might have been willing to swallow that fat pill. However, not only does the movie fail to establish anything of the kind, but it also repeats information that directly rejects the idea. In the 1978 film “Superman”, Jor-El (played by Marlon Brando) made the statement “I have been dead for many thousands of your years” which establishes the concept of time dilation. Not only does the plot point ignore this fact, but the movie actually repeats the same line in the scene where Luthor accesses the Kryptonian crystals. If it was a minor point I might let it slide, but this is the idea that sets the stage for everything that happens in this movie. The reason for Superman being gone was just a lame excuse cooked up by writers who didn’t know what they were doing. The script was bad as a whole, but this was the point that made it bad beyond all logic.
The script might have been flushed out better if there wasn’t another problem, the director’s lack of vision. An observation from “Superman Returns”, and several other movies Bryan Singer has done, is that he doesn’t have a strong eye for detail. He has all the technical skill necessary to be a good director, but honestly lacks aspects on the artist side. A movie has to be rich in smart details in order to maintain a high level of entertainment quality. Singer tries to create that here, but there is nothing in it that I would refer to as a “smart detail”. For example Lex Luthor reaches Superman’s Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic by way of yacht. I might be wrong on this, but I’m pretty sure a yacht doesn’t have the hull strength to survive the weather and ice of the Arctic Ocean. It’s sometimes hard to tell if the subtle stupidity is the fault of the director or the script, but I usually lay the blame on the director. He gives his finally stamp of approval on everything, and I’ve seen movies with bad scripts salvaged with a good director. Rent “Wanted” to see a good example of that.
Some of the details are not only stupid, but they can be completely pointless as well. The marketing geniuses made a huge deal of altering Marlon Brando’s dialogue from the first Superman movie. So much fuss over advanced computer technology changing people’s faces, and the only thing we see in the final product is one word changed from a face on a dimmed fractured surface during a bad close up shot. Not only that, but the change was completely unnecessary. Returns also shows us a flashback scene in Smallville for no reason what so ever. It’s just a random scene of a young Clark Kent running superfast through the fields of Kansas with absolutely no effect on the story. It just boggles my mind how such a structurally and artistically pointless five minutes ended up in the final version of the film. If there was ever a scene that should have ended up on the cutting room floor, it’s that one.
Another on my long list of issues (I really do have a list) is more systemic of the Superman film franchise rather than the movie itself. Warner Bros. keeps coming back to Lex Luthor as Superman’s villain. It’s a real issue the franchise has with not willing to take risks on other villains. Sure the franchise has dappled with General Zod, and a few made up villains, but the movies always come back to Luthor sooner or later. Granted villains like Toyman and Mister Mxyzptlk aren’t really ready for the big screen, but Superman has an impressive rogue’s gallery that can easily be exploited. The fans would love to see Brainiac or Darkseid as the main antagonistic, but WB just isn’t willing to take the chance. Before “Superman Returns” box office took a nose dive, it had an extremely good opening weekend. That proves there is demand for an epic Superman movie, but even people unfamiliar with the comic books were tired of Luthor who is quickly becoming a stock character. The Superman franchise needs to take a lesson from Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and finally grow some balls.
Even though Returns had a great opening weekend, the quick drop off was a sign that people didn’t like it. The real money maker in the movie industry is being able to sustain an interest so you can get people to buy multiple copies over and over again of the same product. “Superman Returns” wasn’t able to maintain that interest for a reason that is probably the movie’s biggest flaw. Returns is just two and a half hours of nothing happening. There is no real plot or character development here. Nothing that really pushes the movie forward as everyone just goes through the motions until the movie ends with everything as we found it. People might try to defend it by saying it’s just slow, but slow implies something actually happened. The entire feature is just a façade to try and recreate the magic of the 1978 “Superman” while losing all of its own identity in the process. It’s like spending over two hours watching someone use trace paper on someone else’s drawing rather than paint his own version of the original idea. Even if the drawing looks like the original, we know that it’s fake and we aren’t anymore entertained by the finished drawing than we were when it was just a blank piece of trace paper.
It also didn’t help matters that the primary action sequence is at the thirty-five minute mark when we still had two hours left to go. The sequence was alright for an Act II intensifier, but you see how inadequate it is once you realize you’ve just watched the best three minutes of the movie. The detail issue I mentioned before is very prevalent here since the movie gives it to you in a concentrated dose. It annoys you from the beginning by bringing in Richard Branson (Virgin Records) as the worst form of product placement. Then, when things hit the fan, Lois Lane gets out of her seat for no sensible reason. Seriously, what was she planning to do that would stop the plane from crashing? They just did it as an excuse to toss Lois around to create a heightened sense of danger. The danger nullifies itself though if you just mumble to yourself, “Stupid bitch.” You would also roll your eyes at the luggage falling out of the compartments if you realize they were on a NASA test flight, and there shouldn’t have been any luggage in the damn plane to begin with. The scene has some things going for it, and it is intense enough that you might not notice how stupid it can be. Still, that doesn’t stop the scene, along with the rest of the movie, to be almost numbingly stupid in its details.
How the characters are portrayed also have a rough time garnering any interest in the movie. I have a man crush on actor Frank Langella, but his role as Perry White was too poorly written for me to like here. It just doesn’t feel like a newspaper editor if he isn’t yelling every word. The hybrid child, which I’ll just call Superboy, was not Anakin Skywalker annoying but that was because he didn’t talk as much. Even if Superboy wasn’t a bad idea, which he was, he was never really flushed out and just remained a cardboard cutout of a child Superman needed to save. Also, who was the dumbass who thought giving him asthma was a good idea? Protip: Giving a child character asthma or making him blind or deaf doesn’t make him more interesting. “Superman Returns” also shows us why Cyclops died so early in the third X-men movie. It was so the guy playing him could be in Returns to serve as Lois Lane’s cuckold. I didn’t really dislike the character, but I was angry over what the script made him do. It also leaned me into disliking Lois Lane because her actions made her come off as jaded and manipulative. It was still nice to see that there was some character development before the movie, but it was something they couldn’t maintain once the cameras started rolling.
I really hate coming back to the details issue, but this factor is really what makes or breaks a movie. Whatever emotional impact the movie is trying to create usually gets ruined if some detail leaves you scratching your head with a question. For example: Who robs a bank with military grade hardware? And if they can afford black market military hardware, why do they even need to rob a bank in the first place? Why didn’t Lex have a guard posted at the entrance to his yacht? If I was stealing from Russian gangsters and developing a plan to conquer the world, I would make sure the city’s top reporter wouldn’t have a chance to sneak onboard. When Lois Lane was caught on Lex’s yacht, why did he explain his entire plan to her and just leave her next to a phone line? “Superman Returns” just fails what it sets out to do largely due to such questions. Any working brain would just keep pointing things out until it just gets bored with the whole affair by the time the movie reaches its final act.
Speaking of which, the final act is where “Superman Returns” falls apart more than any other part of the movie. The entire sequence of events that lead to the end of the movie is just boring, unconvincing, and covered in clichés like it’s a form of herpes. The attack on Metropolis by Lex Island is the first of a series of prime examples. I was so bored by this point that I actually had to prop up my head with my arm. The only unconvincing cliché this sequence didn’t have was a woman screaming, “Oh no! My baby!” Things really didn’t get any better once Superman finally gets around to saving Lois and her bastard kid. After Superman needlessly lifts the entire yacht out of the ocean instead of just diving in to save them, Superman decides to face off against Luthor on an island of Kryptonite instead of just lifting it out of the ground to begin with. Then we are treated to the oldest airplane cliché of the plane trying pull up, disappearing under the camera angle, and then flying over some rocks just in the nick of time. The problem here is that there is no tension or sigh of relief when the airplane reappears. That’s why clichéd writing and directing doesn’t work. You’re too busy mocking it’s stupidity to get involved.
After watching a number of comic book movies in my life, I’ve gotten used to over-the-top supervillain plots. However Lex Island might just take the cake. Cover half the world in a rock that has no suitable soil for farming, and establish dominion over that rock with a handful of thugs that can be taken out with one missile strike. The plan would have never worked, even in a comic book world, and Lex Luthor is supposed to be smart enough to know things like that. The lack of foresight into this idea is apparent when the movie turns back to the bad guys after Superman is saved. As far as they are concerned they have succeeded in everything they set out to do. Superman is dead, the island is growing, and they are… sitting around playing cards. Really? Did Luthor not have a part 2 to his plan or something? Even if Superman was dead, how was Luthor going to stop the army from nuking the island in an attempt to stop it from growing? I need to stop with the questions. My brain is starting to hurt.
We finally slosh our way over the “climax”, and reach the final scenes that are supposed to resolve everything before the credits. The problem is that “Superman Returns” is pretty much over by this point but still makes us sit around for another twenty minutes. Most of that time was wasted while Superman lies down in a hospital bed. Why did anyone think it was a good idea to put him in a hospital in the first place? You don’t call a doctor for Superman for the same reason you don’t call your local vet to handle a beached whale. There just isn’t going to be anything they can do. Not to mention this scene contributes one more thing to the long list of boring factors. Everything else at the end flows with a much more decent pace, but that really doesn’t improve things by this point. All of this brings me to one last question. How did Luthor and his girl end up on a tropical island in a short range helicopter while being in the upper region of a temperate zone?
I never contend you have to be a fan of the original source material to be able to make an adaptation of it. I only contend you have to be educated on it. It would be unwise for filmmakers to make features about a particular person in history, and not do a reasonable amount of research on said person. The same goes for films about fictional characters. Even if you aren’t familiar with Superman, it would be wise to learn. I bring up the point because that is clearly something that didn’t happen here. It’s obvious that over ninety percent of the research material that went into “Superman Returns” came from the 1978 classic. I had no real issue with them maintaining the continuum, but so much time had passed that the decision was clearly a mistake. It just feels that the people involved just didn’t have a clear notion of how to make a Superman movie so they just made an adaptation of an adaptation. In the end, the final product is just kind of sad. It’s sad because there was clearly a lot of work that went into making this film, but everything still fails because they didn’t put in an equal amount of thought. This project was doomed from the beginning because there wasn’t an understanding that a big budget doesn’t translate to big ideas. And that is why, “Superman Returns” sucks.
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