Movie Musings: Looking through the themes of “Superman Returns”
It’s no fun being Superman – Roger Ebert, from his review of Superman Returns
I remember that quote from Roger Ebert very vividly, and when it comes to Superman Returns, it just seemed rather fitting regarding Bryan Singer’s film.
One of the themes that many writers on Superman have dealt with, has been the idea of Superman himself feeling like an ‘alien’ among humanity. It was something that was brought up in the film Superman II in 1980, and in Returns, it plays out as an underlying theme for this film.
In analysis, I have felt that one of the more recent Superhero revivals has an understated message about fitting in, and that is Bryan Singer’s 2006 film.
Superman as a character, is a being that possesses great powers due to energy from our planet’s own sun, but also was raised by humans, and adopted an alter-ego to blend in among them, aka Clark Kent.
Many writer love that use of duality to try and give a character depth. Even the writers on several of the Batman films played around with it, showing Bruce Wayne struggling between his normal and secret identities.
Almost 20 years would pass from Superman’s last outing (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), until Returns’ debut. Though attempts had been made to reboot Superman in the 90’s, the final result we got in 2006, is what I like to refer to as ‘A Bridging Vehicle.’
It seems to be a given when you have a sequel to something that was last seen 8+ years ago: you often have to deal with the death of older characters (or the actors who played them), introduce new characters, and knock a character down so far that they have to really struggle to climb back up to the top again. ‘Bridging Vehicles’ have been used on several films in the last 7 years, such as Tron:Legacy, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Men in Black 3.
Of course, in the case of Returns, this isn’t meant to bridge us to the 4th Superman film, but the 2nd. It’s rumored to take place after the events of Superman II, in which Superman fought the Kryptonian Crmininals led by General Zod, yet the environments and set pieces are more 21st century than early 80’s.
In examining Singer’s take on Superman, I noticed there seem to be three themes that run through the film. I’ve decided to outline them on this posting.
Superman is cut off from his past, and homeworld of Krypton
Starting with a prologue where Superman has been told that remnants of Krpyton may have survived, he goes off into deep space for 5 years, only to find there really is nothing left of his home planet.
Returning to Earth, he then seeks solace in the Fortress of Solitude, only to find the crystals that allowed him to see the holographic visions of his father Jor-El, are gone! Without them, he has become further cut off from his past. Already having lost his (adopted) human father many years ago, he has now lost the one link to his biological father, as well as the knowledge and recordings of his home world.
Before Superman had returned, Lex Luthor had conned his way into the will of a wealthy-yet-naive widow, and inherited her fortune. Using her yacht, he and his henchmen headed towards the Arctic, to find the Fortress (of which Lex had entered in Superman II). Lex was able to activate the crystals in the Fortress, and finds out through the Jor-El hologram that they can create landmasses.
He then takes the crystals, and returns to Metropolis. After testing a sliver of one of the crystals, He intends to supplant the North American continent, burying it underwater with billions dead. The end result being that he can sell survivors plots of land on his new continent, at exorbitant prices. I know, I’m thinking it too: all this trouble for a land-grab scheme?
With word that Superman has returned, Lex and his men steal a large chunk of Kryptonite, and create a casing into which is placed one of the crystals. Launched into the waters off Metropolis, the crystal grows, absorbing the Kryptonite, and the properties of the Earthen rock on the ocean floor.
From the depths rises New Krypton, its rocky formation similar to the sterling white forms of Superman’s former home world, but gray and foreboding. Its presence alters the atmosphere with ominous clouds and lightning, and creates a rift in the ocean floor that shakes the foundations of Metropolis nearby.
Eventually, Superman sets down on New Krypton, and faces off against Luthor. However, Lex soon sees that Superman has weakened, and takes the opportunity to knock him around, even giving his associates turns in beating him up. Lex finally stabs Superman with a small shard of Kryptonite, embedding it deep in his body, before Superman plummets off the land mass into the ocean waters below.
Some will eagerly point out the symbolism to Christ’s torturing and eventual stabbing, but to me, I was moreso interested in a sense of ‘rejection’ in the scene. New Krypton is the closest Superman has gotten to his homeworld (if you don’t count the Fortress of Solitude), yet he cannot survive on it due to Luthor’s tainting its creation with Kryptonite.
Kryptonite in the DC Comics, was a radioactive element that was blown out into space when Krypton exploded. In a sense, it’s a sad state of affairs: a piece of Superman’s homeworld, tainted in such a manner that when combined with a newly-created land mass created from Kryptonian technology, also keeps him from achieving any solidarity to his homeworld.
After plummeting off the side of New Krypton, Superman is rescued by Lois, and her husband Richard White (Jason Marsden). Unable to fully remove the Kryptonite shard, Superman then leaves them, absorbing as much of the sun’s rays as possible, before burrowing deep under New Krypton.
As the formation is lifted into the air, Lex Luthor and his associate Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) escape in a helicopter, but not before Kitty dumps the rest of the crystals Lex stole onto the rock formation’s surface (doing this after hearing Lex admit he’s fine with billions dying for his land deal).
Superman lifts the rock formation out of Earth’s atmosphere, with the Kryptonite on it severely weakening him. Eventually, he gives it a mighty heave, and it slowly flies off into space. This also serves as a major scene for Superman. With this move, he has sent off into space, the last remnants of his homeworld, and the means of knowledge and wisdom from his father. He now truly seems to be, “The Last Son of Krypton.”
The Whiny, Emo Superman
During one of his cross-country lecture sessions, someone asked Kevin Smith (a big Superman fan) what he thought of Singer’s film. It was already fan-knowledge that Singer had dropped out of filming X3 – The Last Stand to focus on Returns. Even with the last X-movie being directed by Brett Ratner (the director of Rush Hour), Smith still said that he enjoyed Ratner’s film more than Singer’s Superman interpretation.
Though he didn’t outright hate Superman Returns, he did have some issues with it, and even noted that even with Superman fighting criminals and all, not once during the entire film does the Man of Steel throw a punch.
When Smith made mention of this version as “The Whiny, Emo Superman,” I couldn’t shake that line. It did seem that he had hit the nail on the head, as the writers had just thrown Kal-El into an emotional well of despair. That he just feels so different that noone cares or understands him. The girl he loved is now married with a child, and has written a Pulitzer-prize winning article titled, Why the World Doesn’t need Superman. That almost sounds like a declaration from an ex-girlfriend posting on Facebook: “Such-and-such is a real jerk, and here’s why.”
There was one scene that did make some a little uneasy, where Superman goes to Lois and Richard White’s house, uses his X-Ray vision, and ‘watches them.’
It’s a cozy little image of suburbia that he sees, but with Lois now ‘taken,’ he has to accept they can’t be together. As he makes his way skyward, we hear the words of Jor-El:
Even though you have been raised as a human being, you are not one of them.
They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way.
For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you…my only son.
We then see that Superman has decided to follow these words. Attempting to do good and set a shining example for humanity, he then starts a quest around the world, attempting to help almost anyone, anywhere.
Eventually, he does appear before Lois in his suit, and they finally have ‘the talk’ regarding his leaving. It also is told that Lois wrote the article, feeling that he had abandoned them (thought it almost sounds like she’s saying, “You abandoned me”). He takes her for another flight through Metropolis (such as in the Richard Donner film), but even this isn’t enough to shake her resolve. She isn’t willing to just forgive and forget that he went away for 5 years, especially not now, since she has a family. Her admittance is supposedly the end of any possible rekindling of a romantic relationship between them.
“The son becomes the father, and the father…the son”
There seems to be significance to this line in Superman Returns, as we hear Jor-El’s (aka Marlon Brando) voice play out over an old image of Krypton’s crystalline structures in the opening sequence of the film.
In this film, we have Superman cut off from the words of wiswom and knowledge from Jor-El, when the crystals are taken from the Fortress of Solitude. All Superman has now are the memories of his father’s words.
The film also introduces us to a child that Lois Lane has. The audience is left to assume that he’s the son of her husband Richard White, but we are led to question this, when Lex Luthor notices the boy’s eyes droop when he reveals the Kryptonite casing for one of his crystals.
Though the final word on who the father is, comes when Lois’ life is threatened, and the little boy (off-camera) shoves a grand piano into him, saving his Mom (but also making him one of the youngest murderers in Superhero history!).
Even with this display of Super-strength, the little boy doesn’t show any other signs of powers, and stays relatively quiet and docile through the rest of the film.
After Superman plummets back to Earth and is in critical condition in a hospital, Lois and her son visit him. Before they leave, Lois whispers something to Superman. We don’t hear it, but it is implied that she whispers to him, that her son is actually his as well.
Supposedly, this gives Superman the will to live again. We next see him in the boy’s bedroom after he’s asleep (once again, creepy-voyeuristic Superman in action), and repeats the same words we heard from Jor-El in the beginning.
This seems to tie into the theme that Superman as a character has grown up. He has now been thrust into adulthood, no longer reliant on the words of his own father, and is willing in some ways, to watch over and protect this boy…possibly to guide him in the future, when and if his full powers manifest.
Given the look on his face, it looks like he is finally happy, that his thoughts of being lonely are now gone, that he may truly not be “The Last Son of Krypton.”
Superman Returns received semi-positive reviews from the critcs, but its box-office totals did not justify eagerness to start on another film, with its worldwide cumulative totals barely able to make back the film’s $270 million budget, and advertising costs.
One of the issues the film may have had, was that it tried to stick very close to the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve film ideology from the early 80’s. While many have a fondness for those pictures, trying to make that same kind of shtick work almost 20+ years later is difficult. Singer tried to infuse some darker elements into his film, but it just doesn’t feel like it holds together as a memorable piece of entertainment. I’m sure many of us can think of a few scenes from the film, but there’s nothing that sticks in our minds as “incredible.” I think in the end, it was walking a pretty precarious tightrope, and didn’t quite know how to balance itself out.
If the film had succeeded, Singer had said he wanted to go the route of “Wrath of Khan” next. These three words are often bandied about, as many hope to make their second film darker and more serious in tone than the introductory first film. Though just what Singer would have had in mind for his follow-up, we’ve never heard.
With the release of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, we finally have our first Superman film that severs the ties to the original incarnation from 1978. At the moment, its release is being met with some less-than-positive critical reviews, but a large smattering of adoration from filmgoers. With word that Snyder’s film is already on the fast-track to having a sequel made, one has to wonder just where the newest incarnation of Superman will go.