Superman Returns Shows A More Accurate Hero Than Man of Steel
When Steel man launched Warner Brothers’ DC Extended Universe in 2013, fans were divided on Zack Snyderis a gritty, real-world steeped take on Superman’s iconic origin story. The film’s harshest critics claimed that the inaugural Superman film of a new franchise shouldn’t have taken on such a dark tone, and that the character demanded more humor and uplifting energy. Somehow they wanted something closer to the early Superman comics or the cheeky, yet romantic, Christopher Reeve movies from the late 70s and 80s, updated with 21st century special effects, of course. Curiously, however, Warner Brothers provided a modern Superman movie in the spirit of Reeve’s incarnation seven years earlier. 2006 The Return of Superman was a direct continuation of the Reeve franchise, and while it didn’t play perfectly with moviegoers when it was released, it stuck with the carefree, red-tights-wearing Superman that fans seemed to crave at the time. Steel man hit theaters.
When does Superman’s return take place on the Superman timeline?
The Brian Singer-directed The Return of Superman came out nineteen years after Christopher Reeve last donned the red cape in 1987 Superman IV: The Quest for Peacebut canonically it is loosely set just five years after the events of Superman 2. It picks up Reeve’s lesser-loved three and four sequels and begins with Kal-El, now played by Brandon Routh-returning to Earth after a cosmic journey to the ruins of Krypton. When he returns, he crash-lands in the Kent Farm, echoing a crucial element of Superman’s origin story that Steel man ostensibly siphoned off to an off-screen event. This immediately establishes the film as a reopening of the familiar Superman story, and while Superman’s initial reappearance shows the titular titan crestfallen, it sets up the film as a tale of growing optimism. Like in 1978 superman: the movieClark might suffer some angst in Smallville, but by the time he returns to Metropolis, he’s unambiguously back to save the day.
And save the day he’s doing!
In The Return of Superman‘ first action sequence, the hero saves a falling plane, cradling it to the ground moments before it collides with a crowded stadium. The people of Metropolis welcome his return with thunderous applause. Unlike the general public response to Superman in the current DCEU, there is little philosophical discourse on the ethics of heroism or the character’s unbridled abilities. Instead, there is an overwhelming sense of hope and gratitude. Just before leaving the plane, he repeats his famous phrase from 1978 that flying is still the safest way to travel, causing Lois Lane to pass out. Long before legacyquels were a Hollywood staple, this film was obviously pulling the strings of nostalgia with good humor.
The reminders don’t stop there. Much of the film’s first act is filled with endearing and familiar sequences. In another callback to the Reeve movies, Superman leaps past fastballs and walks confidently into the line of fire with his S-embroidered chest bulging forward. Immediately afterwards, he stops an uncontrollably speeding car by picking it up off the ground and bringing it to a halt. The photo of him lifting the automobile above his head is a direct homage to the very first image of Superman, holding a car on the cover of 1938’s Action Comics #1. This is a Golden Age version of Superman who represents truth and justice.
Even the slowest moments of Superman Returns are filled with charm
Routh appropriately portrays Clark Kent as the fumbling, geeky antithesis of Superman. Again, this is something much more specific to early Superman comics and movies than the hunkish, shadowy reporter Henry Cavill depicted in the DCEU. Meanwhile, although some fans initially criticized The Return of Superman for focusing too much on the romance between Clark and Lois, that romance is a defining aspect of Superman and has traditionally been one of the hero’s most powerful motivations and complications. Whereas Steel man makes their relationship an incidental aspect of the plot, The Return of Superman committed to it as crucial and complex. Not to mention the fact that The Return of SupermanThe rooftop scene where the hero takes Lois flying is another parallel to Reeve’s first film, and it demonstrates the melancholy but palpable chemistry between the two characters after years apart.
The film’s climax then returns to uplifting suspense in the quintessential Superman fashion. Fittingly, Lex Luthor poses as the main threat in the film, and his plan is just the right mix of evil and madness to be a worthy opponent against Krypton’s Last Son. After obtaining Kryptonian crystals and mixing them with stolen kryptonite, Lex sets out to create a new continent based on the super-lethal material, supplanting North America and killing millions in the process. Once again, it sounds like the 1978 movie, where Lex blew up the San Andreas Rift in a heinous effort to overwhelm the American west coast.
As Lex’s continent grows, Superman must first save Metropolis from natural disasters. Against an earthquake and fires that spread throughout the city, Superman uses the rolodex of his powers to defend himself. He runs through the streets, catching people and falling objects. He uses his heat vision to dissolve shards of glass before they hit pedestrians, and he even blows his super-cooling breath to put out the flames. While fans can be relieved that The Return of Superman left out the hero’s abilities to flip the world and change the weather of superman: the movie or cellophane-S from Superman 2, these dark, campy powers are all part of Superman’s appeal and omnipotence. On top of that, it’s also refreshing to see Superman save Metropolis without completely decimating its skyline in the process. The city suffers destruction throughout the sequence, but unlike the final fight of Steel mannone of this can be attributed 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 space, an over-the-top solution to an over-the-top problem. Even though getting close to so much Kryptonite initially weakens the hero, he regains strength as he flies into the sun, another essential part of where Superman gets his powers which Steel man and the DCEU seem to be silent. In the denouement, he glides through the sky and surveys Earth from low orbit, hands on hips with John Ottman’s take on the thunderous John Williams theme playing it. The film ends with an emphatic resolution. Superman is back and the world is safe.
In addition to this narrative offering the upbeat, classic Superman feeling that Steel man criticisms desired from the beginning, The Return of Superman‘ the technical and aesthetic elements also offer a much more joyful experience. The film is fairly well-lit throughout, with plenty of action sequences taking place during the day. It makes the golden hue of Metropolis much nicer, and the red and blue of Superman’s costume is unmistakable. While the CGI might be dated by today’s standard, the film’s colorful palette alone makes it a prettier film than Steel man with its dominant gray tones. There is something brilliant in the image of this film. It almost looks like a cartoon: an appropriate style for a story so steeped in comics and animation.
In total, The Return of Superman may not be the perfect Superman movie. In fact, it might not even be the best Superman movie compared to Steel man. Many fans continue to appreciate Zack Snyder’s more serious portrayal of the character and are calling for Henry Cavill to return to the role. However, for those who prefer a more familiar, classic, upbeat Superman in the 21st century, they’ve already received a version of him with The Return of Superman. Even though 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 CW fans. Crisis on Infinite Earthsmaybe The Return of Superman can finally find its audience.