Why Superman Returns is the Best Superman Movie
It’s time to talk about Superman. Boy, hasn’t he been having a rough time lately? True, there have always been complications surrounding him. I pity the poor comic book writers who are tasked with creating new stories for him. Not only is he overpowered to the point where almost nothing challenges him, but he has also done everything. After decades of stories, there’s nothing left for Superman to do. And, as a result, he kind of has nowhere to go but down.
Which brings me to this post.
First off, I was drawn to this topic after reading this article, from Buzzfeed. It’s a thought-provoking piece that I would recommend to everyone reading the blog today. I found myself agreeing with pretty much the whole thing, but it also made me think about a Superman that we used to have, not many years ago.
Because that is Superman’s biggest problem right now: he’s not who he once was. The people who control his mythos are trying to reinvent (more like “reeducate”) him, claiming that his original persona is not relevant anymore, that the only way to save Superman is to make him someone who is…not Superman. That’s how we got Man of Steel.
Now, some people used to like Man of Steel. I say “used to” because a lot of people who defended it when it first came out have since switched sides. And it’s not hard to see why. I could go on forever about its failings: the lack of likeable characters, the lack of cohesion, the nonexistent chemistry between Superman and Lois (“Look, Metropolis has been reduced to a pile of ash. This seems like a good opportunity to kiss for the very first time.”).
But why did this movie have so many apologists? They’ve mostly gone away, but for a long time there was a vocal contingent insisting that this was the Superman movie the world had been waiting for. And all the evidence proving this movie’s badness was invisible to them. They refused to see the wreckage even when it was staring them in the face. Why did they go to such lengths to keep their head in the sand?
I’ll tell you why. It had everything to do with the other Superman movie we got within the last decade.
Now, in the interest of transparency, let me start by saying that I LOVED Superman Returns. If you’ve read the title of this post, you know that I hold it to be the best Superman movie ever produced. It took a number of risks, and created something that both honored the legacy of Superman and brought us a few things we had never seen before. It may one day be surpassed by a better movie, but, for now, it is the best we have.
Which is why I was so surprised, when the film first came out, to hear people panning it. Oh, they never could explain why they hated it. But they always insisted that its inferiority was obvious and that they knew everyone was in agreement with them.
And, at the risk of editorializing, I will say that this is the reason so many people tried to prop up the miserable Man of Steel. They didn’t agree with Superman Returns, and they wanted Man of Steelto contradict and disprove the earlier film. They needed this newer movie to be an absolute knockout, or else they would be forced to reexamine their hatred of Superman Returns, and, just maybe, admit that they were wrong.
If I go further down the rabbit hole of editorializing, I will say that these people were dissatisfied with the traditional Superman. He makes them uncomfortable, for one reason or another, and they wanted to be told that Superman can be someone else—that it is possible to have a Superman who isn’t…well…Superman.
So let’s examine what brought us to this point. Let’s find out what mistakes were made, and what drove so many people to those mistakes. To begin with, we need to figure out why people were clamoring for change.
Why People Hated Superman Returns
Now, of course, this film had its flaws. It did recycle a lot of things from the first Superman movie, including actual lines of dialogue, and actual recorded video and audio. It did use Kryptonite as a plot device. And it didn’t do a good job of explaining why, at the beginning, Superman had left the Earth for five years. This film deserves a certain amount of technical scrutiny.
But that’s not why people hated it.
People hated Superman Returns because of how harsh it was. What do I mean by harsh? Well, I don’t mean it was harsh against Superman. The film lavishes him with praise and celebrates everything he stands for. So when I say the film was harsh, I mean that it was harsh against you.
That’s right: you. The one reading this blog entry. Right now.
Oh, don’t look so surprised.
Superman Returns is a rebuke to the audience. By design, it evokes feelings of guilt and remorse in the viewer. Why did the filmmakers choose to go this direction?
The story told in Superman Returns was very much shaped and influenced by the events of September 11, 2001. Some of you are too young to remember what happened in the aftermath of the 911 attacks. What happened, in a nutshell, is that the American People got humbled. They were frightened, yes, but that fear drove them back to believing in something. Church attendance spiked. Patriotism was reborn. People began to speak of God and the United States in reverent terms again. And, for a time, the critics of patriotism, the U.S. Constitution, and American ideals were forced to either be silent or face the wrath of an angry public.
The spirit of September 12th can be summed up in a single photograph.
Faith and heroism, all in one gleaming icon.
Sadly, much of that spirit has been diluted in the intervening years, but, back when Superman Returns came out, it was not entirely gone. And, since movies often take several years to make, it was still fresh and strong when the film was first being written.
The Moral of Superman Returns
Like many stories, Superman Returns is actually two stories:
1.) The external plot, and
2.) The internal character arcs.
The external plot was barely different from what we saw in the first Superman movie. But the internal character arcs were wildly different, and really stole the show from everything else that was happening on screen.
If you remember the movie at all, you remember this image:
And this image:
These two images are the bookends of Superman Returns. And together they present a clear message: the world doesn’t need to change Superman. If Superman somehow seems wrong to you, the viewer, it is because you have lost your way. You have stopped believing. Superman is just as good as he ever was. It’s you who needs to be changed.
Little wonder that so many people can’t stand this movie. This movie hurts. By design. It holds up a mirror to the audience and says “You. Are. Wrong.” People hate to be told that.
But that is the message people needed to hear in a post 911 world. Superman is an allegory of the things people have always believed in–God, America, Liberty, the idea of an Objective Good, etc. Many people could not bring themselves back to those things until after a massive tragedy. Being reminded of those things, after going so far astray, hurts. That’s why Superman Returns is so important as a work of art. It loves you enough to hurt you.
There is one scene, near the end of the movie, where Superman is rushed to the hospital. He is unconscious, and a team of doctors is trying to operate on him–desperately trying to save his life. They are convinced that Superman will die if they, the medical experts, can’t save him. And, as it turns out, they can’t. They try to inject him with medicine, but the needle can’t pierce his skin. They try to defibrillate him, but the machine overheats because it can’t shock him. The doctors are powerless to fix Superman.
And, if you’ve watched the movie, you know that, in the end, Superman recovers on his own.
Watching this scene, I can’t help but wonder if the filmmakers had some prophetic gift. It’s almost like they knew that, some years later, Man of Steel would be made. It’s as if, in this scene, Superman Returns opens its mouth and actually speaks to Man of Steel. And this is what it says:
“Hey there, future Superman movie. I know what you’re going to do. You’re going to put this character on the operating table. You’re going to put him under the knife, thinking that such is the only way to save him. You’re going to try to fix him. But he cannot be fixed. He isn’t broken. And everything you’re doing is only going to hurt yourself. However, if you leave him as he is, he will make a full recovery. Don’t break yourself trying to put him back together.”
I can’t help but be amazed as I watch this scene. Even after all these years, this movie is speaking to us.
But is it the best Superman movie?
You’ll notice that I didn’t title this post “Why Superman Returns is better than Man of Steel“. My position is that Superman Returns is superior to all other Superman movies yet made. There are six in total (if you don’t count the old black and white serials, the direct-to-DVD animated movies, or the Supergirl movie from the 1980s).
This is how the movies are ranked on Rotten Tomatoes, as of this writing (7/26/2015):
Superman: 93% Fresh
Superman 2: 89% Fresh
Superman 3: 26% Fresh
Superman 4: 12% Fresh
Superman Returns: 76% Fresh
Man of Steel: 56% Fresh
Now, of course, Rotten Tomatoes is not an irrefutable authority. I did not put their rankings here to prove my point. I have only given them as a reference. For, if we are truly to compare all the movies, in any meaningful way, we must do so qualitatively.
So, I propose we compare Superman Returns to each of the other movies, in head to head matchups.
Round 1: Superman Returns versus Superman
As I pointed out earlier, the external plots of these two movies are almost identical. The biggest difference is that Superman Returns has higher stakes. Lex Luthor’s latest scheme puts billions of lives in the balance, whereas his first scheme only threatened a few million.
But, as I also pointed out, the character arcs are better in Superman Returns. In the first movie, Lois was little more than an ornament. She exists for the purpose of being Superman’s love interest, and she does not make any significant growth from the beginning of the movie to the end. Even Superman himself is a bit more complex in the latter film.
Furthermore, the first film is really starting to show its age. Special effects and filming techniques have advanced a fair deal since the 1970s, and it’s hard not to notice.
And then you have the whole flying scene with Superman and Lois.
Seeing as how Superman Returns had all the good parts of the first movie, plus a few bonuses, I feel I can safely award this round to the newer film.
Round 2: Superman Returns versus Superman II: The Sequel
To begin, I will say there are certain concessions to be made to Superman II. The production of the film was plagued with one or two big problems. It had two directors, and massive amounts of footage was reshot. In a better world, it would get the benefit of a handicap when facing down other Superman movies.
But this isn’t a better world, and, at the end of the day, the only way to judge a movie is on the final result alone.
The most important way in which Superman II surpasses the first movie is the stakes of the story. Zod and his soldiers are a lot more imposing than Luthor’s band of idiots. The fate of all humanity hangs in the balance, and Superman has no obvious advantage over these high caliber villains.
Another advantage is in the development of the characters. Superman is a bit more vulnerable, wanting to experience life as a non-powered human. And Lois has a crisis of outlook as she realizes that the man she idolizes and the man she constantly writes off are actually the same person. She loses a little of her cynicism. For a time, it looks like Jor-El’s dying wish–that his son would unlock the greatness in the human race–is being fulfilled.
And then that idea gets shot in the face.
Because of a kiss.
No. Not that kiss.
I’m talking about this kiss:
In a single plot device, all of Lois’s growth as a character is simply undone. And, freed from the consequences of Lois knowing his identity, Clark is essentially back at square one, as well.
Superman Returns used its fair share of plot devices, but at the end of the film, everything that had happened still meant something. The consequences weren’t wished away, like what happened in Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time. You may not agree with HOW Superman Returns ended, but you have to admit that it didn’t cheat.
And cheat is the only word to describe the ending of Superman II, since at no point during this film or its prequel are you given any clue that Superman can erase people’s minds by kissing them.
The sourness of Superman II‘s ending easily hands the victory to Superman Returns.
Round 3: Superman Returns versus Superman III
I scoured all the universe to find someone who would defend Superman III. I heard rumors. There were legends, whispers of someone, somewhere, who felt that this film was worthy of the title “Best Superman Film”.
Those rumors dried up after my informant remembered to take his medication.
Nobody likes Superman III. It’s inane, poorly written, and especially unfunny. It doesn’t so much try to reinvent Superman as it tries to uninvent him. The only silver lining to this movie is that it is so bad that no one can take it seriously. It poses no threat to Superman’s legacy because nobody pays attention to it.
And I think I speak for everyone when I say that Superman Returns wins this round.
Round 4: Superman Returns versus Superman IV: the Search for More Money
I could compare these two movies, or I could just refer you to basic natural laws.
The three “identity rules” found in mathematics are:
1. Any number added to zero equals the original number.
2. Any number multiplied by one equals the original number.
3. Any movie, when pitted against Superman IV, instantly wins.
Round 5: Superman Returns versus Man of Steel
While I was writing this blog entry, I was alerted to another well-written article that sums up a lot of my feelings about Man of Steel. It’s from Business Insider, and you can find it here.
There are so many things I could say about this matchup–so many thousands of ways in which Man of Steel just FAILS. The movie was terribly written and terribly directed. The colors were so muted that it could be mistaken for Schindler’s List. It trampled on the source material, alienated the fans, and just took itself way, way, waaaaaay too seriously. I can’t imagine how much liquid nitrogen was necessary to get such a stiff upper lip, but it showed.
However, even without that, this movie still fails.
That’s right: even if the dialogue was more snappy, and the colors were brighter, and the actors were less wooden, and the cinematography was more flexible, this still would be one of the worst Superman movies ever.
Because it’s a story about Superman trying to find out what his purpose is. That’s what the film is about, and it goes to great lengths to remind us of that in every…single…scene.
All other Superman movies have passed over this question, not bothering to address it. And for good reason. How could Superman’s purpose possibly be in question? In every adaptation, his father, Jor-El, makes it adamantly clear: “Your purpose is to protect the people of Earth and help them achieve their full potential. No complaining.”
The question is never what Superman’s purpose is, but whether he can achieve it. That’s why Lex Luthor is Superman’s archnemesis. Luthor is not a super being, but he represents all the forces that keep humans from becoming something greater than themselves. He is the most greedy, jealous, selfish person in the world, and his existence challenges the idea that the human race can be changed for the better. Superman knows he’s here to help us, but when we refuse to be helped, it leads him (and the reader/viewer) to wonder if we can really be saved. That’s so much more interesting than the idea that Clark Kent simply doesn’t know what his purpose is.
There is one scene, in Man of Steel, where Superman confronts Zod in the nursery ship, which is full of Kryptonian children. Zod challenges Kal-El, asking him to save the Kryptonian civilization (by destroying everyone on Earth).
Now, at no point earlier in this movie, Man of Steel, does the audience see Superman ponder this question. This is literally the first time we ever see him consider the idea. And yet, the way the scene is structured, with the explosive special effects and the blaring music, lets us know that this is supposed to be the climax of the film. It is a climax that has no build up. We are given no reason to care, and when Superman finally comes to his decision, saying that “Krypton had its chance”, it means nothing. He arrived at that decision in two seconds, right at the climax, untormented by such a climactic dilemma.
He kills all the Kryptonian children (nice guy, that Superman), and the film just stops caring after that.
Superman Returns wins this round, again and again and again. By the end of the fight, Man of Steel is begging Arnold Schwarzenegger to go back in time and kill its mother.
So that’s my case. To those who disagree with it, I will ask you to find a copy of Superman Returns and watch it. But this time, really watch it, and think about what it means, and what the symbol of Superman means, and ask yourself, “Is the Superman we have now actually better than the Superman we once had?” I think you’ll get the same answer I did.
This week’s tagline: “Where the elite come…to their senses.”