Superman Returns Shows a More Comics-Accurate Hero Than Man of Steel – Armessa Movie News

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When Man of Steel kicked off Warner Brothers’ DC Extended Universe in 2013, fans were divided on Zack Snyder‘s gritty, real-world-infused take on the iconic Superman origin story. The film’s harshest critics claimed that a new franchise’s inaugural Superman movie should not have taken on such a dark tone, and that the character demanded more humor and uplifting energy. In a way, they desired something more akin to the early Superman comics or the cheeky, yet romantic, Christopher Reeve movies of the late 70s and 80s—updated with twenty-first century special effects, of course. Oddly, though, Warner Brothers did provide a modern Superman movie in the spirit of Reeve’s incarnation seven years earlier. 2006’s Superman Returns was a direct continuation of the Reeve franchise, and while it did not play immaculately with moviegoers upon release, it remained true to the happy-go-lucky, red-tights-wearing Superman that fans seemed to pine for by the time Man Of Steel hit theaters.

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When Does Superman Returns Take Place on the Superman Timeline?

The Bryan Singer-directed Superman Returns came out nineteen years after Christopher Reeve had last donned the red cape in 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, but canonically, it loosely takes place just five years after the events of Superman II. It retcons Reeve’s less-beloved threequel and fourquel, and begins with Kal-El—now played by Brandon Routh—returning to Earth after a cosmic voyage to Krypton’s ruins. Upon return, he crashes into the Kent farm, echoing a crucial element of Superman’s origin story that Man Of Steel conspicuously siphoned to an off-screen event. This immediately establishes the film as a reopening of the familiar Superman story, and while the initial reappearance of Superman shows the titular titan dejected, it sets up the film as a tale of increasing optimism. Like in 1978’s Superman: The Movie, Clark might undergo some angst while in Smallville, but by the time he returns to Metropolis, he is unambiguously back to save the day.


And Save the Day He Does!

In Superman Returns‘ first action sequence, the hero rescues a falling plane, cradling it to the ground just moments before it collides with a crowded stadium. The people of Metropolis welcome his return with thunderous applause. Unlike the public’s general response to Superman in the current DCEU, there is little philosophical discourse about the ethics of heroism or the character’s unbridled abilities. Instead, there is an overwhelming feeling of hope and gratitude. Just before he leaves the plane, he repeats his famous line from 1978 about flying still being the safest way to travel, causing Lois Lane to faint once more. Long before legacyquels were a Hollywood staple, this movie was evidently plucking the strings of nostalgia with good cheer.

The callbacks do not stop there. Much of the film’s first act is filled with endearingly familiar sequences. In another callback to the Reeve movies, Superman jumps in front of speeding bullets and confidently walks into the line of fire with his S-embroided chest puffed forward. Immediately afterwards, he stops an uncontrollably speeding car by picking it up off the ground and easing it to a stop. The shot of him lifting the automobile above his head is a direct homage to the first ever image of Superman, holding up a car on the cover of 1938’s Action Comics #1. It transparently shows that this is a Golden Age version of Superman that stands for truth and justice.

Even Superman Returns’ Slower Moments are Filled with Charm

Routh appropriately portrays Clark Kent as the fumbling geeky antithesis of Superman. Again, this is something far more accurate to early Superman comics and movies than the hunkish, shadowy reporter Henry Cavill depicts in the DCEU. Meanwhile, although some fans initially criticized Superman Returns for focusing too heavily on the romance between Clark and Lois, this romance is a defining aspect of Superman and has traditionally been one of the hero’s most powerful motivators and complications. While Man Of Steel made their relationship an ancillary aspect of the plot, Superman Returns committed to it as crucial and complex. Not to mention the fact that Superman Returns‘ rooftop scene where the hero takes Lois flying is yet another parallel to Reeve’s first movie, and it demonstrates the melancholic, but palpable chemistry between the two characters after years apart.


The film’s climax then returns to uplifting suspense in quintessential Superman fashion. Aptly, Lex Luthor poses the main threat in the movie, and his plan is just the right mix of evil and crazy to be a worthy adversary against the Last Son of Krypton. After obtaining Kryptonian Crystals and mixing them with stolen Kryptonite, Lex aims to create a new continent rested upon the super-lethal material, supplanting North America and killing millions of people in the process. Once more, it bares a resemblance to the ’78 film, where Lex blew up the San Andreas Fault in a villainous effort to submerge the American West Coast.

As the Lex’s continent grows, Superman first must save Metropolis from natural disasters. Against an earthquake and fires spreading throughout the city, Superman uses the rolodex of his powers for defense. He races through the streets, catching falling people and objects. He uses his heat-vision to dissolve shards of glass before they spike pedestrians, and he even blows his super-cooling breath to put out flames. While fans can be relieved that Superman Returns left out the hero’s world-reversing-time-changing abilities from Superman: The Movie or the cellophane-S from Superman II, these obscure, campy powers are all part of Superman’s appeal and omnipotence. Above that, it is also refreshing to see Superman rescue Metropolis without utterly decimating its skyline in the process. The city does endure some destruction throughout the sequence, but unlike the final fight in Man Of Steel, none of it can be traced back to Superman’s actions.


Superman Finds an Over-the-Top Solution for an Over-the-Top Problem

Finally, Superman defeats Lex by picking up the Krypto-continent and throwing it into outerspace—an over-the-top solution to an over-the-top problem. Even though getting this close to so much Kryptonite initially weakens the hero, he regains strength by flying up to the sun, another essential element of where Superman gets his powers that Man Of Steel and the DCEU seem to gloss over. In the denouement, he glides into the sky and surveils the Earth from a low orbit, hands on his hips with John Ottman’s take on the booming John Williams theme playing him out. The movie ends with emphatic resolution. Superman is back, and the world is safe.

On top of this narrative providing the upbeat, classic Superman feeling that Man Of Steel critics desired all along, Superman Returns‘ technical and aesthetic elements also offer a far more joyful experience. The movie is quite well lit throughout, with many action sequences taking place during the day. This makes the golden hue of Metropolis far more pleasing, and the red-and-blue of Superman’s suit unmistakable. Although the CGI might be dated by today’s standard, the movie’s colorful pallet alone makes for a prettier film than Man Of Steel with its dominant grey tones. There is something glossy about the image in this film. It almost feels cartoonish: a fitting style for a story so rooted in comic books and animation.


In total, Superman Returns may not be the perfect Superman movie. In fact, it may not even be the superior Superman movie when compared to Man Of Steel. Many fans continue to appreciate Zack Snyder’s graver depiction of the character, and they call for Henry Cavill’s return to the role. However, for those who prefer a more familiar, classical, and optimistic Superman in the twenty-first century, they already received one version of that with Superman Returns. Even if it didn’t get much love upon release, in today’s world of early-2000s nostalgia, uncertainty surrounding the DCEU, and Brandon Routh even reprising his role to the delight of fans in CW’s Crisis On Infinite Earths, perhaps Superman Returns can finally find its audience.

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