The Little Superhero Movie That Couldn't: Defending Superman ReturnsS

Next Friday, Man of Steel opens. It's the second stab by Warner Bros. to reboot the Superman franchise since its Christopher Reeve movies of the late 1970s and '80s. (And that's not even including all the failed attempts to get a new Superman movie off the ground, including a Batman Vs. Superman project.)

This reboot exists only because the studio's last attempt at a reboot, Superman Returns, was considered a disaster, an example everything Hollywood shouldn't do when trying to make a superhero movie. But how bad was it, really? It got pretty great reviews—especially by non-Christopher-Nolan-comic-book-movie standards—and was one of 2006's highest-grossing films. (Superman Returns actually outgrossed the previous year's Batman Begins, which got the go-ahead for a sequel.)

While it's hardly perfect—and not as great as Nolan's Batman movies—Superman Returns is better than its reputation suggests. Flying in the face of the received wisdom about how to craft a proper 21st century comic-book movie, it makes plenty of mistakes, yet those mistakes aren't the product of lazy, cynical filmmaking but, rather, an overabundance of sweetness and sincerity. In its own unassuming way, Superman Returns is quite a gutsy little blockbuster.

Directed by Bryan Singer, who was at the height of his commercial power after helming the first two X-Men movies, Superman Returns employed a novel strategy for reintroducing the world to its caped hero. Rather than going the origin-story route (like Batman Begins or last year's The Amazing Spider-Man) or directly accounting for the long time gap between movies (such as Tron: Legacy), the film exists in a world after Superman II (a.k.a. The Last Great Superman Movie) that pretends the follow-up movies never happened. (No great loss, although Richard Pryor's embezzling scheme from Superman III did make for a great running joke in Office Space.)

As the film begins, Superman (Brandon Routh) has returned after being away from Earth for five years on a fruitless search for survivors of his destroyed planet of Krypton. Now back in Metropolis and once again in his Clark Kent guise, he tries to act like nothing has changed, but of course it has. The world has stopped caring about Superman and, more importantly, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a new fella (James Marsden) and a son. To make it clear that she's given up her Superman crush, the filmmakers show that she won a Pulitzer for an essay she wrote called "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman," the sort of on-the-nose character beat that (depending on your temperament) is either utterly hokey or kinda charming in an unironic way.

But Clark can't spend much time pining for Lois. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is out of jail earlier than expected—if only Superman had shown up at his trial to testify against him!—and returns to the Fortress of Solitude to obtain the crystals that will give him unlimited technological power. Lex's plan involves creating a new continent to which he'll control the land rights—Superman Returns has the most boringly bureaucratic plot since the Star Wars prequels—but once he finds out Superman's back, he wants to steal some kryptonite so he can get revenge on his archenemy.

With hindsight, we can see that Superman Returns is something of a precursor to the approach that J.J. Abrams has taken with his Star Trek reboots. Those movies function both as a nostalgic reminder of the franchise's past glories and as a self-aware twist on a story we think we know. Except Superman Returns isn't nearly as cute and self-satisfied. Yes, the movie riffs on two of Superman's most well-known catchphrases ("Truth, justice and the American way" and "It's a bird, it's a plane..."), but especially rewatching the movie you notice how incredibly innocent the whole thing is.

That was by design. "I think that Superman Returns was a bit nostalgic and romantic, and I don’t think that was what people were expecting, especially in the summer," Singer said a couple years ago, explaining that his thought process was, "'Wow, I want to make a romantic movie that harkens back to the Richard Donner movie [the first Superman] that I loved so much.' And that’s what I did."

He sure did: Superman Returns has all the gee-whiz squareness of the 1978 original, not to mention the 1980 sequel that Donner worked on considerably. (Richard Lester, who completed Superman II, was credited as that film's director.) That nostalgia reaches into every part of Superman Returns, most notably in Routh's performance. The relative unknown wasn't just playing Superman and Clark Kent—he's essentially playing Reeve playing those characters. That same geeky, aw-shucks charm of Kent; that same square-jawed decency and slightly self-mocking humor of Superman: Routh captures them quite well. But it's not meant as satire—it's genuine love for the deceased actor and the way he brought those characters to life. To a large extent, Superman Returns exists to salute the old movies and their bighearted enthusiasm, an attitude that seems consciously at odds with the present age of dark, flashy blockbusters.

It's too bad the extended homage doesn't work elsewhere. Bosworth doesn't quite do her take on Margot Kidder's Lois Lane, but one wishes she would have—at least then it would have been some kind of definitive take. Kidder's performance as the hard-ass reporter was ahead of its time: There's a little of Princess Leia's smart mouth to her, but her disinterest in just being a damsel in distress felt progressive by burgeoning-blockbuster standards. (She's like a distant relative of Raiders of the Lost Ark's Marion.) Unfortunately, Bosworth's Lois is the bland damsel in distress, constantly fretting over whether she really loves Marsden or if she should reignite her passion for Superman. Nonetheless, as Singer had wanted, Superman Returns has a romantic spirit to it, although it's a noticeably melancholy one: Nobody in this romantic triangle is really happy, and it's not clear if anybody gets exactly what they want at the end. Considering that Spacey's Lex is a too-cartoonish redo of Gene Hackman's villain, the real tension in the film is between Superman and Lois, that great love story that didn't quite work out. The movie has a happy ending, but it's tempered with a certain amount of regret, making this probably the most bittersweet of recent tentpole films.

If there's one major bone of contention in the fan community when it comes to Superman Returns, it's the Big Surprise that, lordy lordy, Superman is actually the father of Lois's son. Thematically, it's somewhat daring because it speaks to the movie's overall idea about what happens when a superhero shirks his responsibility and tries to act like everything's cool when he comes back. But as this plot point plays out in the actual movie, it's pure soap opera—a forced "gotcha" that creates more questions than it can possibly answer. (At the end of Superman II, wasn't her memory of her time with Superman erased? Doesn't she wonder how the kid could be Superman's? And does Marsden ever notice that the kid doesn't look like him?)

Like I said, Superman Returns has its problems, and yet I remain incredibly fond of it, almost protective. It's hard to think of a modern blockbuster that so purely loved the world it was becoming a part of. Maybe that's why the movie "failed": Rather than really trying to put his personal stamp on it, like other directors have in recent times with their franchises, Singer just wanted to make a reverent homage to the films that came before. And yet, that works for the film as well: It's a comic-book movie awash with nostalgia that's really about how hard it is to recapture the past.

I haven't seen Man of Steel yet, but from the trailers it's pretty clear that it's very much going the Batman Begins/Dark Knight route: an emphasis on realism, nuanced characters, and a serious, grownup tone. (Not surprising, considering that Nolan produced the movie and co-wrote the story.) It may turn out to be amazing. But I fear it's going to be the type of comic book movie we've come to expect—it will impress us but not really surprise us or dare to do something different. For all its shortcomings, Superman Returns at least tried to do that. If that makes it a failure, I wouldn't mind a couple such failures every summer.

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.