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VIDEO ESSAY: DEEP FOCUS: SUPERMAN RETURNS, Angel of America

Video
by Matt Zoller Seitz & Ken Cancelosi
January 9, 2012 4:20 PM
68 Comments
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[EDITOR'S NOTE: The inspiration for this piece, Deep Focus: Superman Returns - Angel of America, comes from a review Matt Zoller Seitz wrote for the New York Press in 2006 at the time of the film's release. We have reprinted that piece below with this video essay as point of comparison.]

Review:

Bryan Singer's Superman Returns is no masterpiece. The movie's first act is hobbled by weird misjudgments (including a criminally underused Eva Marie Saint as Ma Kent), and it's so choppy that it seems to have been edited with a meat axe. Kevin Spacey's snidely campy performance as Lex Luthor unbalances the film's otherwise sincere tone. It's also so dependent upon our knowing what happened in 1978's Superman: The Movie and its follow-up, Superman II, that at times it feels like a long-delayed sequel in which the principal cast has been replaced.
Yet these flaws don't diminish the film's impact. From the moment that its hero (Brandon Routh) returns to the sky to rescue Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) from a plummeting jet, Superman Returns flirts with greatness. Its greatness originates in its respect for Superman's decency: Routh's graceful incarnation of the character, and Singer's decision to express the hero's goodness in a cascade of iconic images as beautiful as Superman himself.

Superman (aka Jor El, aka Clark Kent) left earth years ago to revisit Krypton to see if there was anything left (there wasn't). He returns to earth in a meteor that lands near his Smallville homestead—a mirror image of his arrival in Superman: The Movie, and a tipoff that we're about to see a bubblegum epic about loss, renewal and the continuity of values. Singer expresses this continuity by reviving elements from the Reeve movies, including John Williams' score, the designs of Krypton, the Daily Planet, the Fortress of Solitude, the Kent Farm and—most strikingly—the late Marlon Brando's hambone performance, revived through archive footage.

Spacey as Lex Luthor

Luthor's out of prison (thanks to the absent hero's failure to testify at his trial) and up to his old tricks, scheming around Metropolis with his thug henchmen, his wiseass gal pal (Parker Posey) and two yippy but vicious little dogs. In Superman's absence, Lois Lane (Bosworth, swapping stoic warmth for Margot Kidder's abrasive '70s kookiness) won a Pulitzer for an editorial about why the world doesn't need him, and then settled down with Daily Planet colleague Richard White (James Marsden), nephew of publisher, Perry White (a brusque yet warm performance by Frank Langella).

She also has a moody, asthmatic son (Tristan Lake Leabu) whose existence puts a period at the end of a relationship, which Superman and Lois would rather treat as an ellipse. The tension between Lois, Richard and Clark/Superman forms the film's bittersweet core; she loves him but just can't be with him. Superman and Lois' nighttime slow dance in the skies of Metropolis is richer than the similar scene in 1978's Superman because of its acknowledgment of unrealized dreams. In scene after scene,  implicitly asks what it might feel like to be Superman and to live in a world that has the Man of Steel in it. Routh articulates the first part of that equation with sweet precision. Though he lacks Reeve's sunbeam warmth, he compensates with a soft-spoken, Boy Scout melancholy that's unique among superhero performances.

Singer backs Routh by deftly illustrating Superman's casual mastery of his own powers. When a frazzled Lois leaves the Daily Planet newsroom and takes an elevator to the roof to smoke a cigarette, Clark's X-ray vision allows him to peer through walls and elevator doors and observe every step in her short journey. Then he joins her on the roof as Superman, slyly announcing his presence by blowing out her flame from afar.

Superman as Atlas

Where most comic book movies are paradoxically inclined to make their points verbally—bulldozing heaps of raw data in our faces, a la The Matrix movies, Batman Begins and Singer's own X-Men films — Superman Returns is conceived as a visionary spectacle, a series of mythic tableaus that brazenly liken Superman to Mercury, Jesus, Atlas and Prometheus. It's a sensory—at times sensuous—experience, modeled not just on great comic book art, but on the crème-de-la-crème of machine-age spectacles: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Warning, that segue means possible spoilers ahead.)

A slow Kubrickian pull-out from Krypton diminishes Superman's homeworld against a boiling sun, and then obliterates it like a shotgunned chandelier. When Luthor experiments with pilfered kryptonite to produce a new crystal continent, the miniature prototype punches up through a model train diorama like the scale model of Devil's Tower in Richard Dreyfuss' rec room. The film's powerful, often intensely violent final act—in which Superman tries to thwart Luthor's plan, falls into a devastating trap, only to endure a Passion of the Christ-style beatdown and a plunge into the sea—climaxes with a biblically awesome panorama of a Texas-sized landmass ascending heavenward like the mother ship going home.

Singer never stops being amazed at the very idea that a man could fly. Yet, he treats his protagonist as an adult man who pays a price for his goodness. He is physically almost invulnerable, but he is not omnipotent: He can't be everywhere at once, and he doesn't always want to be.

The film's most haunting scene finds Superman floating above the earth, eavesdropping on layers of conversation, then becoming overwhelmed and shutting them all out. He could be a two-fisted cousin of the angels from Wings of Desire. He feels guilt over needing not to be needed, if only for an instant. He's an extraordinary ordinary man—the better angel of our nature.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Ken Cancelosi is a writer and photographer living in Dallas, Texas.

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68 Comments

  • KSM | July 4, 2013 3:37 PMReply

    You didn't mentioned this but Superman's son also helped him accept that earth is his home now because it now connects him to our world. His son will inherit both worlds. He went to Kryton to search for any survivors but found out he was alone and that bothered him greatly. Until he finds out he has a son which means hes NOT the last Krytonian so now he has a sense of purpose.. to protect our world; his son's world.

    Also Remember Superman learned his humanity from his adoptive Earth parents. Imagine a kid who grows up knowing his dad is God among ordinary people. What kind of moral would this kid have? Hence why Marden's character was put in a heroic light despite not being Superman, to show us that he's a GOOD guy with qualities like Jonathan Kent. Marsden's character is to "Superboy" what Jonathan Kent was to Superman, a moral compass from the perspective of someone who is mortal.

  • MickyC | June 28, 2013 11:09 PMReply

    I really enjoyed the film. I liked the balance between action and plot. We all know super heroes can blow shit up, fly, drive fast etc etc. But this film, at times at least, offered more than cheap thrills. And as for this review, it's possibly better than the film which it is reviewing.

    Thanks.

  • cinematic_high | June 6, 2013 3:40 PMReply

    Not my favorite Superman film, but you did a damn good job of showing this in a new light. Damn good job!!!!

  • Anthony | March 25, 2013 9:54 PMReply

    Thank you for this and well done. I enjoyed this film as a movie but not as a Superman movie, if you know what I mean. It was simply "off" in some way, but regardless, you have renewed my appreciation for it and my anticipation for the next. The buzz on the web is Snyder nailed it, we shall see ... and if anyone reading this has seen the latest incarnation, for the love of God comment!

  • Lancelot | December 31, 2012 8:15 PMReply

    I find it hard to be interested in your article about Superman when you make a noticeable careless mistake about Superman/Clark Kent's kryptonian name which is KAL EL not JOR EL.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | March 10, 2013 5:09 PM

    You're right, that invalidates everything!

  • Dr.H | September 3, 2012 11:57 PMReply

    This is fairly astute anaysis of a rather mediocre film, but really the film really wasn't very good, I really didn't care about anyone in this flick and it came off as a imitation( and a really bad one at that)of the Donnor films. The hackneyed love triangle, Lois being miscast and really bad story missteps( Supes having a bastard child ring any bells? The really forced psudeo Christian visual allegories being hampered on the film so much it just doesn't allow the film breathe it in organically enough to feel natural. The folks who liked this film have been mostly been mislead by the films artificially constructed dreary, heartfelt emotional messages with its half- baked executed theme of Supes being an alienated because he's an alien which is translated in the context of this film as this vulnerable psudeo Moses/Christ savior figure. The film was essentially an attempt to modernize the character cinematically that failed because it was an awkward continuation of a dead franchise instead of remaking it. Thank god for the reboot, hopefully Man of Steel can wipe the awful taste that this film gave me out of my mouth.

  • Mikey Wood | September 2, 2012 7:44 PMReply

    Thank you for this.

    This sums up EXACTLY everything that makes this movie so special for me. I saw the original SUPERMAN with my father in 1979, one of the few times my father and I did...well...anything...together without butting heads. I loved my father and I loved Superman and to have them together was an incredible thing for six-year-old me.

    I saw SUPERMAN RETURNS on June 28, 2006, four days after my 33rd birthday. Thirty-three. The age, if you believe in this sort of thing, of Christ's death and resurrection. My father had been dead for nine years. I had harbored a lot of resentment. He died just as he was getting interesting. As I sat in the theater and watched this beautiful film I was awed by how it was photographed, the music...everything. While Routh's portrayal does owe a lot to Reeve (which is fine, considering Reeve perfectly embodied the role) he did manage to own the role. He was Superman. MY Superman. The one I loved so much as a child and continue to love as an adult with a child of his own. The story IS about 'letting go'. And it HELPED me to let go. To remember that moment in '79 when my dad looked over at me and said, "Hey...Let's go see Superman." and to hold that close to my heart and forget all the rest. I, at my 33 years of age, died in that theater and was resurrected as someone who had learned to forgive and to let go.

    The movie has heart and soul and, despite what naysayers decry, plenty of spectacle. But, sadly, too many people just simply didn't 'get it'.

    I wish Snyder and company the best of luck on MAN OF STEEL. I look forward to it. But the chances of it having the heart and soul of SUPERMAN RETURNS and, more to the point, the chance of it having a deeply personal impact of THIS 39 year-old comic book nerd, are pretty slim.

  • Tyler | June 7, 2013 1:24 AM

    Thank you for writing this. I just happen to be the same age and and have a similar memory of seeing Superman with my father. Seeing this (and Star Wars) with him had a huge impact on my childhood. Now, with Man of Steel arriving on the weekend of my son's 6th birthday, I find myself on the other side. But with so many superhero movies coming out these days that he's also seen, I doubt it will have anywhere near the impact it had on me. One can only hope.

  • Stephen | August 9, 2012 4:45 PMReply

    I wrote an essay on the rooftop scene of Superman returns a few years ago. You can find it here: http://cinemaconfessions.wordpress.com/2011/04/13/scene-analysis-rooftop-scene-of-superman-returns/

    I'm a fan of this film. It captures Superman's psychology so well, and is obviously a very personal film for Singer. I wish he had been given the chance to do a sequel.

  • Travis | August 1, 2012 10:13 PMReply

    Very well put together and a great overall breakdown of the Return of Superman in 2006. There were many great moments for Man of Steel. The one thing it had going for him, was his absence from the big screen in DECADES. However, after that had worn off, the breakdown you listed above, sometimes SIDE BY SIDE, was SR's failure to give the Superman character room to grow. Singer played so much homage and nostalgia to the Reeve rendition of the character, that I literally had to get up off my seat to check if the front banner of the movie theater said "Superman Returns" and not "Superman: The Movie." It is what it is. It's supposed to be emotional and an in-depth rake on the Donnerverse, but the plot and era was SEVERELY outdated and it showed with the backlash of Superman fans wanting more, not more of the SAME. Enter Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan. This new franchise is going to give Superman fans simply what we want: A freshly new advancement of the character we all adore.

  • Mark N. | July 25, 2012 2:37 AMReply

    I almost wish I hadn't watched this, because I'm now even more disappointed that there won't be a follow-up story. I really wanted to see where they would go with the "Superman has a son" story, and now we'll never know.

  • Claudia B. | July 26, 2012 3:04 AM

    @Mark N.: I feel your pain. sigh, it could have been something truly special.

  • Calum | July 4, 2012 7:32 AMReply

    Fantastic review. This is a beautiful Superman movie and I wish Singer had been given the chance to do a sequel. He would have given the people their Superman action film at some point.

  • cd | October 11, 2012 6:36 PM

    Amen! Everyone whines about how they want something smart and exciting that breaks from all the typical superhero/action movie tropes and when they get it they reject it. This was such a great movie. Such a shame we never will explore it further in sequels.

  • Darkseid | May 10, 2012 1:52 AMReply

    This was a very fascinating essay. As a Superman fan, I thank you very much for taking the time to compose such a compassionate and lucid program. And to the many people who saw this film and enjoyed it, thank you for buying the movie tickets.

    However, SR is truly a disturbing Superman film. Although this essay is titled as a Deep Focus, I'm afraid that it doesn't go deep enough. I'm not speaking from opinion either, I am speaking from facts alone. My opinion on this movie is insignificant compared to the multitude of facts that are detrimental to the character and mythology of Superman.

    And after reading the many responses of people to this essay, it is clear that those who praise this movie, may not have a clue to what Superman truly is. You don't watch a Superman movie to search for the symbolism within the film or to gander at the visionary spectacle; a series of mythic tableaus that brazenly liken Superman to Mercury, Jesus, Atlas and Prometheus. For god's sake no.

    You watch a Superman film to watch him in action, demonstrating that he represents the good in all of us. Superman is and will always be the son of the marriage between the best of humanity and the endearing human spirit to never give up. SR had none of these things. At All. One of the responses from this essay went on to say (in so many words), that those who dislike SR will focus on the negative aspects of the film at an obsessive manner and not appreciate the grandeur of its symbolism. That is not what a Superman movie is about. Don't get me wrong, it would be nice to have those things as a by-product of the film, but that isn't what makes a Superman movie at all.

    Sure, one can say that those who see only the negativity of this film are being obsessed. But I think of it as an investment. To some, baseball is their passion, they follow their favorite teams/players, they know the history, and they know the scores. To some its football, or golf. And to others its Superman and/or superheroes. To those who just watched this movie but have not invested in purchasing multiple comic books, watching all the different Superman shows, cartoons, short films and reading the different graphic novels, those people cannot understand the desire for the character of Superman to be captured and displayed properly on the latest iteration of its motion picture legacy.
    Its like when a die hard SF Giants fan watches their team get bought out by some sniveling businessman who knows nothing about baseball or shows no respect for the history of the team then dissect the team by hiring poor management and letting go of good players only to have them replaced by sniveling, money mongrels who have no heart for the game.

    That's what happened with SR. Brian Singer wasn't a fan of the comic books (he has even been quoted as saying he never read a Superman comic book) and same goes for the writers of SR. Moreover, he bases his Superman character from the flawed plot that is Superman II. So how can people who have no knowledge of the true character of Superman make a movie about said character? It cannot be possible nor should it have happened at all.

  • Marcel W. | September 26, 2012 1:33 AM

    @Darkseid: It takes a tremendously condescending attitude to so openly, brazenly declare that those of us who go to a Superman film expecting something different from you "may not have a clue to what Superman truly is." You state your personal opinion - that "you don't watch a Superman movie to search for the symbolism within the film or to gander at the visionary spectacle... For god's sake no. You watch a Superman film to watch him in action" - as if it represents some consensus about why we should go to see a Superman film. You claim "I am speaking from facts alone" but give no definition of or sources for these supposed facts.

    You are speaking for yourself, and that's all well and good. Don't presume to speak for anyone else.

    "To those who just watched this movie but have not invested in purchasing multiple comic books, watching all the different Superman shows, cartoons, short films and reading the different graphic novels, those people cannot understand the desire for the character of Superman to be captured and displayed properly on the latest iteration of its motion picture legacy."

    You don't have a monopoly on collecting Superman merchandise, and the size of your collection alone doesn't translate to a fundamental understanding of the character. I'd wager Bryan Singer and company were far and away more knowledgeable about Superman than someone who simply points to his/her collection of merchandise and boasts about the size of their fandom. You reduce wanting to see Superman's potential realized in film for artistic reasons to just wanting another item to collect and gather dust. And frankly, that's a very pedestrian way to approach entertainment.

    If "investing" in Superman is your criteria for having a valid opinion, let me tender my credentials: I've been following the stories of Superman for decades, in every incarnation that exists, fictional and real life, and I adored SUPERMAN RETURNS. As such, I don't understand the accusation that this film made a misstep by utilizing "symbolism", "visionary spectacle" and a "mythic tableau". That's not just what makes SUPERMAN RETURNS great; it's what makes cinema great. And it's not an either/or proposition -- you can have all of those things AND have the action you want. Smart movies do that.

    I'd argue that Raimi's first two SPIDER-MAN films and Burton's first two BATMAN films did it as well. Nolan's BATMAN films did that exceptionally well. For those who would point to Nolan's pedigree to pre-judge the pending MAN OF STEEL's potential somehow do what Singer's film did not do - whatever that is - I'll offer this: Superman and Batman are two vastly different characters, speaking to vastly different parts of our human condition. It's fine for Batman to be "realistic" from time to time...but Superman always represents our ideals.

    And ideals don't always have their feet on the ground.

    Ideals should be allowed to soar.

  • jit | April 26, 2012 2:30 AMReply

    Thank

    The first superhero
    In 1934, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman. Superman was soon a big success. He was the first comic book hero. Superman was from another planet. The planet's name was Krypton.
    Superman came to earth on a rocket ship. He was just a baby. Mr. and Mes. Kent found the baby, and they called him Clark. Their boy was very special. He ran very fast, he was very strong, and he flew

    Read More >> http://oh-cognizance.blogspot.com/2012/04/first-superhero.html

  • LaDonna | April 3, 2012 10:04 AMReply

    i really liked the essay; it showed what SR was truly trying to convey and why most people actually enjoyed SR. don't get me wrong; it had problems as i have said in other post. but over all i saw it happily more than once in theaters and at home. it biggest flaw unfortunately was rehashing too much from the first 2 films without fully or clearly (at times) connecting with the current. many of the so called complaints about the film are usually superficial and inaccurate. they are often injected or over exaggerations of mistakes in the characters perceived personalities. one prime example of this is the revelation that Supes is the true father of Lois' son Jason (a fact that was kept secret until the end of the film). it based on the fact that he left Earth with saying goodbye as if he knowingly and deliberately left her alone and pregnant on purposes. i guess this destroyed the myth for many that Superman is perfect, always knows the right answer, and everyone else is flawed which has never been true in first place. as if some how showing him as just simply a good man trying to find a his place in the world is some how wrong and the fact some choices we make have unforeseen consequences. inspite of this SR is still one of the best comic book films out there.

  • Ash | April 2, 2012 5:07 PMReply

    Considering the art house version Singer went for with Superman Returns, the film should have had half the budget that it received from WB AT MOST. So much wasteful spending. At the time I saw the film when it came out, the high schooler in me liked it ONLY because we were all finally getting a Superman film. Now looking back, I see the film for what it is: a thoughtful and emotionally engaging film riddled with plot holes that fails to capture the true essence of the character that is Superman/Clark Kent. Hopefully, Man of Steel will rectify all those imperfections next year.

  • M.E. | September 14, 2012 1:16 AM

    The wasteful spending came from all those years of WB trying to restart Superman with nonsense like armored suits, giant spiders and Nick Cage. WB wanted to recoup from the Development Hell they put Supes thorough. Nothing more than a 500+ million blockbuster would do to cover their previous missteps. SR was the scapegoat.

  • adam | March 27, 2012 4:22 PMReply

    nice one :)

  • will | March 25, 2012 8:43 PMReply

    Superman Returns is not a bad movie, but it's a bad Superman movie. It's based around a Superman who acts mopey and out-of-character, a passive miscast Lois Lane, and a campy Lex Luthor who gelled better with Donner's films than he did here, with an even dumber real estate scam. You can kind of see what Singer was aiming for emotionally, but the mediocre acting from Routh and Bosworth didn't do it any good.

  • MJE | March 24, 2012 3:32 PMReply

    Thank you for this essay. I'm still not the world's greatest fan of this movie...the premise is based on a out-of-character act by Superman, the Lois role was horribly miscast, and the campy absurdity of Luther's evil plan still strikes me as out of whack with the attempted seriousness of the film (especially juxtaposed with some of the very heavy-handed Atlas-Jesus symbolism). But I've always admired it for making Richard a brave and decent guy, and a legitimate husband for Lois, and wrestling with the implications of this, and instead of just making him a throwaway romantic foil for Superman. And your comparison of the two flight sequences, and the "zombifing of the dead" theme WORK. You did an excellent job highlighting these more subtle patterns in the movie; it enabled me to notice and appreciate a lot of what the film was attempting, for the first time. And I don't think this is a case of reading too much into a movie; you make a very persuasive case that this IS a large part of what the director intended (even if I still think the execution was uneven).

  • Bella | March 6, 2012 12:41 PMReply

    Thank you so much for this video essay; it articulates much that I feel when I watch the film, better than I ever could have. I hope that Bryan Singer sees this heartfelt appreciation for his work. I am sad that I will never see Brandon Routh portray Superman again - I loved Chris Reeve in the role, but Brandon's portrayal speaks to me more. In my view, the sequel to this film was killed by superhero fans who prefer more superficial, no-gray-area, entertainments. I doubt that the upcoming "Man of Steel" will touch me the way that "Superman Returns" does.

    Thanks again!

  • M.E. | September 14, 2012 1:22 AM

    You're right. The film was killed by superhero fans who prefer more superficial, no-gray-area, entertainments. You know... the kind of movies you forget the moment you leave the theater. It's now 6 years later and SR is still being debated. Now what was that last transformer movie about???

  • Goerge | January 26, 2012 6:59 PMReply

    This review was great, and explains and details the reasons why this is not only a great Superman movie but one of the greatest movies ever made. Some peoples utter disgust or disappointment with this film and there feelings of it being plain or boring, it's quite simply evidence and proof that the majority of folks are plain and dull themselves, not to be childish and call names. This movie was and is apparently too deep, romantic, thoughtful and thought provoking to be a "successful" comic book movie, because let's face it people, if a movie doesn't make double or more what it costs to make then it is seen as an "utter failure", allot of movies indeed haven't, but those are the movies that are usually geared more towards intellectual or artistic individuals. Much like Superman Returns, it wasn't meant to be Superman kicking ass, which is what most of the majority wanted, but it showed him as a "person" not being human but having human feelings and struggles. Not to mention the amazing nostalgic aspects, the music, the cinematography, the actors, every aspect of the movie is amazing really. There are also religious correlations that the reviewer didn't mention, Bryan Singer admits this fact in the special features, yes I'm a nerd and have the complete Superman dvd set. Superman is the comic book version of Jesus really, Jesus being half God half human, having to struggle with humanity as humans do while also possessing abilities beyond mortal men and using them to help humanity unconditionally, just because he loved humanity. Which if we would have seen a sequel to this movie I'm sure we would have inevitably seen Superman's sacrifice killing doomsday and saving humanity, Superman being Jesus dieing to kill "Doomsday" or to stop our destruction, and sin will lead to our destruction "Jesus crucifixion" Jesus dieing for our sins and saves us from judgment. Do a little research people, and realize how much beloved comic book characters are based on ancient mythology or religious history, Superman like Jesus shows us the better side of life and humanity, them as characters and role models teach us to help others and do what is right.

    I didn't mean to trail off onto religious issue...but...

    People need to open their minds and hearts, maybe then our Blockbusters might actually be good movies that enlighten us, and not mindless special effects and action movies, and maybe then our planet and our human race wouldn't be so messed up.

  • adlloyd | January 26, 2012 6:45 AMReply

    Thank you for this very powerful and perceptive review of Superman Returns, which puts into words all the reasons why this film blew me away from first viewing. I had not seen any of the previous Superman films, but was encouraged to see this one by some very positive reviews at the time. It is one of the few films that I was willing to pay to see multiple times in a theater. I especially agree with the video essay's pointing out SR's depiction of Superman as an adult, giving us a model of what emotional maturity looks like. Too often, the "real man" is seen to be someone who strides in and takes what he wants, regardless of right or wrong or how others are affected. Both Superman and Richard show us a different kind of "real man," willing to put others' needs over personal desires, even if it means putting themselves at risk, willing to do what is best for others, even if it means letting go of what they want. From the point where both men head out from the Planet to rescue Lois through to the end, both characters demonstrate this kind of strength and courage again and again in the decisions they make, showing that "heroism" isn't a matter of superpowers, it's a matter of character, which anyone can aspire to. Thank you again for a video essay as deeply moving as the film itself.

  • Phil Early | January 25, 2012 2:18 AMReply

    Great video essay. Quite good. This interpretation, analysis makes more sense for Kate Bosworth's performance. She was resentful. Still it's true Superman and Superman 2 had captured joy in Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. You are defining the themes as if it is a Bergman art film. It was a popcorn entertainment that was defined by it's darker themes. Perhaps as pointed out the influence of 9/11 not being a decade past still weighed on the writers minds. Yet what better antidote to tragedy then optimism, lightness, and laughter? What the first two Reeve films had in abundance. I enjoyed Superman Returns very much, but a defining of it's core dramatic dynamics doesn't make it a great film. It was both a solid effort, and also a disappointment. Certainly more ambitious then recent junk food movie making as Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, but not close to the pure enjoyable success of Superman: (The motion picture)

  • esense | January 24, 2012 4:13 PMReply

    I'm sorry, that's what I call a wishful thinking analysis of this movie, I wish it was as good as this essays says but its not. What Kevin Spacey is trying to do is so ridiculous & silly. The entire plot with Lois, her husband and super kid is boring and takes up most of the movie. And Superman is never in any danger, not even after he gets beat up by Kumar aka Kal Penn, how lame was that.

    Its a sequel and not a very good one to a franchise that great as it was belongs in the past.

    Bring on the Man of Steel, I can't wait

  • Stephen | January 20, 2012 7:51 PMReply

    Thank you for this, I found it very interesting. Your analysis has shown that some of the things that some have found problematic about the film, may actually be the most interesting things about it. I think time will be kind to "Superman Returns".

  • xurxo g penalta | January 19, 2012 4:10 AMReply

    wonderful job here!
    and the film deserve it.

    probably the last thoughtful take we'll see of superman on film in a long while ...

    as a related reading i recommend "ALL-STAR SUPERMAN" comic book (not the straight to dvd animation) by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely which is also a mature and emotional story loaded with superman's richly imaginative background; and it's also one of the best superhero comics of the last 20 years.

    http://www.amazon.com/All-Star-Superman-Grant-Morrison/dp/1401232051/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326964028&sr=1-1

  • Stephen | January 20, 2012 7:52 PM

    Yes indeed. Anyone with a passing interest in superheroes, mythology or popular culture should read "All-Star Superman". What a shame the animated movie adaptation missed out on so much of its greatness.

  • Travis | January 19, 2012 2:27 AMReply

    Matt, Matt, Matt: I love you man, but you are so wrong about this movie. Brandon Routh plays Superman with the charisma and subtle nuance of a mannequin in a costume shop window. Kate Bosworth plays Lois Lane like a moody teen, and for some reason their child seems to have been given undiagnosed aspergers. You mention Kevin Spacey's hamminess, but what about Parker Posey, and her little dog too? The movie was a disaster, from the glossy; it simply regurgitated everything from the first movie, newly soaked in the bile of portentiousness, and glossed over with a distancing, distracting digital sheen. Oh, and the Matrix made those Superman=Jesus connections years earlier, and in a way that was simultaneously more interesting, and better integrated into an actual story.

  • Travis | January 19, 2012 2:32 AM

    -"from the glossy" (uh, I don't remember writing that...)

  • James | January 16, 2012 1:58 PMReply

    I loved how this movie depicted the Man of Steel as someone isolated by his exceptional abilities. The iconic action sequences in the first part of the film, saving the airliner, confronting the machinegunner are depicted with the right mix of wit and wonder. These are tempered with the characterization of Superman as reluctant messiah with his Pieta-like emergence from the meteor and Routh's pose in space like Michaelangelo's David.

    Superman's acceptance of responsibility, solitude and destiny have less in common with Singer's X-Men and Raimey's Spiderman and more in common with Scorcese's the Last Temptation of Christ. It may be because Singer shows his characters transition through visual language rather than exposition.

    Despite the elegiac themes and dynamic action sequences the movie loses its bid for being exceptional. Thematically and narratively here's very little connection between the villain and hero. I don't really care about Luthor's villainous machinations. He doesn't have a compelling story and is not well connected to Superman's internal dilemmas. Everything I like about this movie is almost modest in it's understated introspection and Spacy's broad depiction of the villain is so broad it seem to be from another movie. He was insufficient yang to Superman's yin.

    A wonderful essay Matt and Ken. Thank you.

  • Ward | June 20, 2013 2:22 AM

    I loved SR but something always felt a bit off, you nailed it here. One of the most thoughtful replies I've ever read in a forum.

  • The Hoobie | January 16, 2012 12:54 PMReply

    I remember watching Superman Returns without very high expectations, but I fell in love with it for the reasons Zoller Seitz describes so well here. Those reasons are why I also loved AMC's late Rubicon. James Badge Dale's Will Travers was very much a spiritual brother of Routh's Superman. In the opening scene of the second episode of Rubicon, a scene that resonated so powerfully for me, we see Travers standing on a roof's ledge, looking over the city. He takes a step forward on the ledge, and because Dale is such a good actor, we can't tell if that step is intentional or unconscious. In a comment on James Poniewozik's blog at the time, I tried to list all the powerful images the shots of Travers on the ledge reminded me of, and one of them was the shot of Routh's Superman that accompanies the link to this article.

  • Greg C. | January 16, 2012 1:26 AMReply

    Thank you so much for posting this, Matt. Like the film itself, your video essay is a breath of fresh air in an all-too cynical, superficial and jaded world. I've stopped trying to debate the merits of this movie with others, as people will simply believe what they want to believe. I'm resigned to the fact that a lot of folks deeply despise it. It doesn't alter my opinion of the movie one bit. People like what they like, and such is life.

    But what pleases me most about your video is that it touches on so many of the things that I love about this movie. The most important aspect being that it dares to allow the characters to evolve and grow up. That was so unexpected when I first saw it, and so refreshing for a superhero movie.

    Yes, I loved the nostalgia of it, the look, the tone, the reverential quality it had for the character and what he stood for, the kinship to those Donner films I adored as a kid...I have distinct memories of seeing the original 1978 classic in the theaters as a young boy, my jaw on the floor at seeing Superman fly on the big screen...but to then see a movie like Superman Returns as a grown man, it made me remember why I loved this character so much in the first place. It struck me on an emotional level that was quite unexpected, and most welcome.

    As you point out so well, Singer's use of iconic and powerful imagery, the wonderful updating and adaptation of John Williams' classic score by John Ottman, and those nods to the past with a twist towards letting go of the past and embracing a more grown-up and mature future made this a movie that, to me, transcended the genre in a way. Or at least distinguished itself amongst the typical fare we get from this genre. It's easily the most beautiful superhero movie to look at, it's the most moving and emotional, and despite its flaws, it resonates like few superhero movies do for me.

    Thank you again for providing these videos. There are a lot of people out there who do love this movie, and it's nice to have this viewpoint expressed so eloquently. Well done!

  • Brandon Jones | January 15, 2012 8:01 PMReply

    Matt,
    First off, I love Superman. And don't get me wrong... I wanted to like this film. I'm a Bryan Singer "fan"! But, I feel part of the reason that Superman Returns didn't work was because of the story. The first part of an interesting movie, for me, is the story... And it was that part that I think the creative team failed on. The last time we saw Superman on the big screen before SR was in 1987. So, not only did we all have Christopher Reeve cemented in our minds as Superman (and rightly so, he definitely is still Superman)... but then SR seemingly jumped from nowhere. The story supposedly takes place after the events of Donner's Superman II right? I don't think the movie going public at large was made aware of this, nor did the film really make that evident. 2 or 3 minutes extra at the beginning of the film (referencing the old Donner plot) could've worked wonders I think.

    Someone said Superman was "all character." I disagree. There was none of that Superman innocence, you know, the kind that makes you smile just watching the guy onscreen? Lois Lane was downright unlikeable. Sure, she's better looking than Margot Kidder, but she didn't have that spunky pizazz that Kidder had; and she had zero chemistry with Brandon Routh. I could nitpick about how the Superman costume was too sleek & that it didn't need to changed... about how Kevin Spacey's plot to sell newly created land from the crystals from the Fortress of Solitude (how would have the right to sell this "land"?) was thinner than his hair. But I won't do that (wink)... The important point to note about what went wrong was the fact that Superman and Lois had shagged in Superman 2, and now Lois was toting around their love child. We learn that Superman bailed on Lois without so much as a goodbye? This was totally out of character for the Man of Steel! My point in all this is that the film makes Superman unlikeable... he wasn't larger than life, he wasn't fighting for truth-justice-and the American way... all that set amidst a gloomy backdrop.

    Performance wise? There was a great deal of magic missing from Routh's performance... although he nearly got Clark Kent right. Perhaps I'm being too harsh on the film. It's one of those films that left me after seeing it in the theatre. And 5-6 years on, the only real moment of interest that I can recall is the airplane rescue scene. SR just has no staying power. I wish I felt otherwise. As I said, I love Superman. :)

  • p.e. | January 25, 2012 2:34 AM

    "We learn that Superman bailed on Lois without so much as a goodbye? This was totally out of character for the Man of Steel!" you are exactly right! Out of character for what is essentially an extension of the character as played by Reeve.
    Poor Brandon Routh asked to impersonate another actor's finest moments.
    Still this movie is better then Superman 3!

  • Claudia B. | January 15, 2012 12:35 PMReply

    Superman Returns was all character. It was the Superman film I always wanted to see but never thought I would. See, I loved the first 2 Superman movies with Reeve, but I didn't watch them over and over growing up. He was my favorite superhero, and always will be, but I wasn't exactly an obsessed fan. So when I saw the SR trailers in the theaters and heard the Williams Superman score, I KNEW I had to watch it. It brought back so many sweet memories from my childhood and Reeve as Superman. Had a huge crush on him. I was very curious about the new guy in the role. I was very doubtful about him been able to live up to the role and to Reeve's performance. But Brandon was great. He really was. He embodied the character so well I was shocked. He was so likeable and godlike, and his Clark was even better than Reeve's, IMO. Sure he didn't have many lines, but he said so much with his facial expressions, eyes, and body language. I really liked how the film was about Superman's feelings of alienation. I never forgot how in the first Superman movie Jor-El and Lara say goodbye to their son. Really moving and beautiful scene, it always makes me cry. Lara said that Kal-El would feel too alone and different on Earth because of all his amazing powers. Superman Returns was about that. About a demi god who's trying to connect, who's trying to search for his family. Awesome stuff. Seriously love this movie. It moves me just as much as Braveheart, another film I love.

  • M.E. | September 14, 2012 1:41 AM

    Thank You for your post! Routh did an amazing job. Critics accuse him of wooden acting, but that is not true! The expressions that play across his face are as subtle and understated as his true Midwestern roots. I found myself truly, emotionally, aching for this Superman. And don't none of you say it's because Routh is good looking. Chris Helmsworth was hunky in Thor too but I wasn't emotionally invested when he lost his hammer and the girl.

  • r. j. paré | January 14, 2012 5:32 PMReply

    What film did you guys watch? For me, the only part of Superman Returns that worked was Kevin Spacey's performance. His Lex, is the only character that seems to be consistent with Superman I & II, which this is supposed to act as a sequel to. His Lex, fits quite well with Gene Hackman's performance. Brandon Routh seemed bland and Kate Bosworth as Losi Lane comes off as a high-schooler who ought to be auditioning for Smallville... not a Pulitzer winning, hard nosed journalist, in her 30's with a 5 year old kid - she was utterly unbelievable in the role and every single scene she was in destroyed my "suspension of disbelief." The movie in turn continued the pattern of ridiculous motivations for Lex Luthor, as villain, though.... Real Estate?? Again?? LOL - it seems his only ambition in life is dirty land deals... this is someone with the brains to go up against Superman?

    The most telling part of this review - the heaps of praise he gives it for being a series of visual tableaus. What this film critic doesn't get, IMO, is that it is supposed to be a story and not film version of a photo gallery. I honestly don't care how snazzy some of the footage can be, if the plot, dialogue & performances don't move me. OK great, if this was film school Singer gets a good grade for his video techniques [I suppose they were alright, in all honesty I don't watch movies that way.. the techie side of stuff can be a cherry on top of a great film... but who notices if you aren't enjoying the rest of the movie?]

  • Michael | January 15, 2012 1:32 AM

    I believed Kate Bosworth as a person disenchanted and uninterested in some guy that showed up too late, while trying to balance the more meaningful to her aspects of her life: career, husband, son. She was believable as a person who didn't give a shit about myths anymore, as opposed to the Margot Kidder portrayal of hounding Superman until he revealed himself as one. And that's enough. This wasn't The Adventures of Lois Lane, so why would we need to see her as an ace reporter?

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | January 15, 2012 1:12 AM

    We are bothered by the things that we choose to let bother us. Kate Bosworth probably was too young for the part, but so was Brandon Routh, who is clearly younger that Christopher Reeve at the end of "Superman II." (Singer basically pretends the third and fourth films didn't happen.) That didn't bother me because IT'S NOT IMPORTANT. Movies come out all the time in which the leads are too young or too old for the parts they're playing. If you like the movie, it's not a dealbreaker. If you don't like the movie, you fixate on it to an obsessive degree that doesn't really make sense if you take a step back.

    Did you see "GoodFellas"? Remember when Ray Liotta, who is clearly in his mid-thirties but playing a guy just out of his teens, meets Robert DeNiro's character for the first time? What does the voice-over tell us? "He couldn't have been more than 28 or 29 at the time." This over a freeze-frame of DeNiro, who was 46 when the film was shot. DeNiro with his eyebrows raised so that the 46-year old man lines in his forehead are accentuated, further destroying the illusion that he's 28 or 29.

    As for Luthor, if you buy into the notion that "Superman Returns" is a film about trying to resurrect the past or raise the dead and finding out what a bad idea that is, Luthor trying to replicate his land deal fits perfectly. I have problems with Spacey's performance, as I indicated in the original review, but Luthor's motivation here jibes with the other two movies and is a beautiful fit for the points Singer is trying to make.

    Your objections, and the objections raised by others in this thread, are not invalid and I won't try to argue against them. So much of filmgoing is subjective and personal. This film struck me in a very deep place. I loved it, despite all its flaws, because in contrast to almost all other big-budget superhero movies, it's more about atmosphere, characterization and feeling than plot. You didn't like it. You are in the majority. I'm never going to persuade you that it's a good movie. And that's OK.

  • r. j. paré | January 14, 2012 5:54 PM

    Just checked & it makes sense, Kate was only 23 when film came out [probably 21 during filming] and Margot Kidder was in her 30's! Kate was simply, horribly, miscast in this role. Tough enough for any college age actress to play a woman in her mid-late 30's.. but one who looks even younger than she is? Sheesh.

  • r. j. paré | January 14, 2012 5:43 PM

    Seriously... Kate looked 16 yrs old... I don't care what her actual age was - she in no way made you think you were watching a Lois 5 yrs older than Margot Kidder's in Superman II.

  • weareallfools | January 13, 2012 12:50 AMReply

    Are you kidding me LMAO!!! I don't care how dramatic the narative is this movie never should of seen the light of day!!! Did singer ask Donner to show him his cut of superman 2 cause there would be no point or plot to Superman Returns lol!!

  • Reggie | January 13, 2012 6:03 AM

    Ok, you lost me when you ended your post with "LOL" — instead of a coherent argument.

  • Neal | January 12, 2012 9:08 PMReply

    Awesome. Just awesome. I found myself getting emotional throughout this essay and feel a lot better about my closet fanboyism of this film.

  • Anthony | January 12, 2012 9:06 PMReply

    The passion, respect, and nostalgia in this piece got me choked up. Awesome. Shared on FB.

  • Sam | January 12, 2012 5:26 PMReply

    This video essay is wonderful. Thank you for doing this.

  • Geraldo | January 12, 2012 9:09 AMReply

    Fantastic essay! Brought to my attention many things I hadn't noticed about the film's symbology. Congrats!

  • Casey Seiler | January 11, 2012 5:37 PMReply

    I can't believe I'm noting this, but: Superman is Kal-El; Jor-El was his pop. Benefits of a classical education and all.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | January 14, 2012 4:33 PM

    Argh! Brain fart. Corrected.

  • Alex Bledsoe | January 11, 2012 8:43 AMReply

    Just watched your splendid piece(s) on "Superman Returns." I fucking love this movie, flaws and all, and thought you did a great job analyzing it.

    There's one element you didn't bring up, though: the inversion of "Sleeping Beauty" at the climax. Superman is "asleep" after falling to earth and only true love's kiss can awaken him, but it's *not* from Lois, it's from his son. It's a perfect image of the transition from childhood (storybook) to adult.

  • redonefifty | January 11, 2012 4:25 PM

    Nice

  • Claudia B. | January 10, 2012 11:07 AMReply

    My favorite superhero film and one of my favorite films ever. It's gorgeous, intense and majestic. I watched this many times in the theaters. I thought it was going to be like the spiderman films (cheesy), but I was so pleasantly surprised that it was better than that. I love how Singer took it more seriously. I think the drama, score, imagery, subtext, production values are superb. Of course Brandon Routh was also inspired casting, at least to me he makes a fantastic Superman and Clark Kent. I also enjoyed Spacey very much. He was more menacing than Hackman and his hatred for Superman felt more real. In general, I liked all the cast in their roles, even Bosworth, though she was the weakest link, IMO. She was just too young in the role, but she also has her good moments. So yeah, I enjoy this film very much, and one of the main reason's besides the direction and Routh's performance is the subtlety in the storytelling; Bryan Singer SHOWS us instead of telling us with much dialogue (like Nolan does in his Batman films) what's happening and how the character's are feeling. It's a film told with the eyes and through the imagery. I find that very refreshing, especially in a superhero film, which tend to be so formulaic and by the numbers.

    So yes, I enjoyed your essay very much. I know there are many people that love this film, they just aren't as loud as its detractors. That's usually the way it is.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | January 10, 2012 9:41 AMReply

    Good company to be in.

    http://www.zimbio.com/Quentin+Tarantino/articles/262/Quentin+Tarantino+reveals+love+Bryan+Singer

  • Sam | January 12, 2012 5:25 PM

    I really hope we get to read Tarantino's review some day.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | January 10, 2012 9:34 AMReply

    Gee, I wonder if Jay Hardy and G Young are the exact same person?

  • Sam | January 12, 2012 6:35 PM

    Poor detective work, Holmes.

  • Holmes | January 11, 2012 2:17 AM

    Pretty pathetic accusation when it obvious that Matthew/Mark/Matt/Claudia are all the same person. So I guess a belief that the only other comments left must be from the same person makes sense. After all how many people would subject themselves to such juvenile writing as this article? One? Two? Case closed. Two at the max. Good job puzzling that out.

  • JAY HARDY | January 10, 2012 4:15 AMReply

    One of the biggest pieces of cinematic shit ever to ever rob audiences of their time and money. Very nearly destroyed Superman forever by confirming the claims of his detractors that Superman is indeed "the most boring and dislikable superhero ever" - THIS QFT

  • G. Young | January 10, 2012 1:49 AMReply

    One of the biggest pieces of cinematic shit ever to ever rob audiences of their time and money. Very nearly destroyed Superman forever by confirming the claims of his detractors that Superman is indeed "the most boring and dislikable superhero ever". A soul-suckingly boring, empty, and idiotic film was left as prima facie evidence of the innately boring and idiotic qualities of the character itself. People were left to reason that no better film could be made, because the character really was the terrible and unworkable. This horrendous damage to Superman's public reputation is the legacy of Superman Returns, by turning once marginal accusations into a widespread belief about him. Future filmmakers will have to labor mightily to overcome that.

  • Mark Bourne | January 10, 2012 1:13 AMReply

    A splendid and welcome essay. Thanks for that. Richard Donner's films were the Superman films I wanted in my teens. "Superman Returns" was the one I wanted in my 40s. I question some of the choices in its script (tying it so tightly to the Donner films being #1), but I favor its somber mood and its layers of metaphor and theme. Not to mention that it's the most beautifully art-directed film in the series -- I love its palette of warm, earthy tones rather than an expected comic-book look. It's a lovely, thoughtful film that aims for resonances most "comic book movies" don't or can't. Despite some choices that make me wonder how much studio higher-up intrusion we're seeing on the screen it, as a life-long Supes fan I find that it's the movie my mind wanders back to most often now.

  • Matthew H. | January 9, 2012 6:03 PMReply

    Great video essay.

    Growing up I never liked any of the original Superman films. I actually like them even less now, save for a few moments here and there. The campy-funtime and overwrought romanticism just didn't gel with me. Perhaps I preferred the more relatable Spider-man or the darker Batman types. And yet, when I watched Superman Returns in the cinema, I was overwhelmed with emotion at the opening titles and John William's Score. As the film went on I was really moved by its at times melancholic and elegiac tone. It somehow pulled off giving him depth and a sense of personal struggle AND the respectful, awed Cultural Icon worship.

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