Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006) offers a retro, but also decidedly updated view of the Man of Steel. Taking place five years after leaving Earth to hunt for the remains of the planet Krypton, and also taking place in a timeline where Superman III (Richard Lester, 1983) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (Sidney J. Furie, 1987) didn’t happen, the film presents a Superman (Brandon Routh) that must grapple with how the world has changed in the time that he has been gone. But while the film may seek to bring Superman into the 21st century, it also seeks to homage the original Superman (Richard Donner, 1978) and Superman II (Richard Donner and Richard Lester, 1980). By way of these two, and seemingly incompatible goals, Superman must find his place as a being that stands for something that might not exist anymore. The film does not fall into the territory of Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013) or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016) however, as though Superman may find himself in a strange new world, the general resistance to him is comparatively low. Superman Returns presents a complex presentation of the Man of Steel, as it must grapple with whether or not an idyllic presentation of its titular character is possible or responsible in the new world that he find himself in.
The goal that the film seeks to accomplish is indeed a complex one, and it is fair to say that the film stumbles as it works towards it. But this is not to say that the film is so flawed that its goal is not successful in one aspect or another. As he returns to the world, Clark Kent finds that Lois (Kate Bosworth) has moved on with her life as she is now married and also decidedly past the Superman craze. And though this aspect of the film is necessary to hammer home the fact that Superman must, and should, earn his way back into the world he abandoned, in actuality Lois serves as the only continuous voice of resistance against the new Man of Steel craze. Following his triumphant return to the world as he saves a plane full of passengers, there are few outside of the criminal realm that begrudge the return of Superman. Lois is the only one whom the film focuses on besides Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) and his various henchmen that is not instantly won over by the return of the Man of Steel. But though the film does not dwell on this gap in an even portrayal to the return of Superman, it instead chooses to fill this gained time by focusing on the personal issues that Superman must grapple with. First facing the distress of his mother (Eva Marie Saint) at his disappearance and return, Clark continues on to face the reactions of all of the other major players in his life.
In many ways, the reactions to the return of Superman are the most direct homage to the first two Superman films. The world is not overly concerned with what the return of Superman means as much as they are with the simple fact that he is back. Whereas Snyder’s films may attempt to understand what the presence of a godlike figure would mean to the world, Superman Returns instead focuses on how the Man of Steel would deal with his own return. This focus makes the film much more personal in the sense that Superman is himself the main force of conflict in the film. While Lex Luthor may be present and once again be attempting to destroy the world, his mere presence is attributed to the absence of Superman. Essentially, the entire film serves as a transition peace, as the issues that Superman faces are a direct result of his own absence. But this does not necessarily weaken the film, as this process is needed in order to transition Superman into the 21st century. The notion of Superman as an idyllic figure seems dated in comparison to 1978 when the first film was released, and Superman Returns must work to not so much justify this ideal as much as it must update it.
The route that the film takes in this respect is to present Superman as decidedly more complex than he has been previously portrayed on-screen. This complexity adds depth to the character and almost makes up for the lack of variety that is given to the world’s overall reaction to the return of him, but at the same time there are many pitfalls in this strategy. Clark Kent has never been an overly complex character, and the film does not necessarily attempt to redefine him. The same can be said for the character of Superman in many ways when it comes to how films have portrayed him. But Superman Returns succeeds in making the Man of Steel show depth and emotion as he must grapple with the world that may no longer needs him. Lois certainly no longer does, and this pains both Clark and Superman. It is only once Lex returns, a problem that Superman could have deterred had he stayed on Earth, that Superman can fully reenter the world in the sense that no one else could have solved the problem. In many ways, this in the film’s way of making Superman a character with actual stakes. Being a creation that is immune to almost any form of damage does not make a character interesting, but the film works around this by making Superman have emotional complexity, and also just by giving Lex Luthor kryptonite. The latter solution is much more in the comic book vein, but the former creates a Superman that is unlike any other presentation of him in a movie.
The complexities that Superman is given mostly derive from his reactions to Lois and all that she embodies. The film may present Lois as the only real resistance to Superman returning, but she fulfills more than one role as her resistance is both personal and a voice to a larger overall issue. Though the film never gives the argument of Lois’ article, Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman, it still speaks to a larger overall element of the film being that many people apparently agreed with what Lois was saying. Superman is perturbed by both of these aspects of Lois, and most of the film follows him as attempts to understand her and what she has to say. But though Superman may not ever fully come to terms with the possibility that the world may not want or need him, as the film instead chooses to have everyone come over to the other side of loving Superman, it does settle that perhaps Superman cannot truly have a purely human aspect to him. The film concludes with Superman speaking to his son, reciting what was told to him by Jor-El (Marlon Brando) in the original film. In this, Superman accepts his place as a role model, but no longer to just as one to the humans around him, but to one that will one day be his equal. This is not to say that he has never been a role model or accepted himself as one before, but by way of his son he is able to find his place in the new world.
Superman Returns demonstrates that Superman may not have a place in the 21st century as he was prior to his departure. The world has moved forward without the Man of Steel, and though they are ready to accept him back for the most part, Superman must also face what this return means for him. Superman has always been a being of the national consciousness, and the idyllic nature of Superman does not translate as well as it once did to the point that it feels almost ignorant. The film does not attempt to say that Superman is a perfect being or one that is without controversy though. Instead, it offers the idea that Superman can be and is a being that should bring out the best in humanity. The world rises as Superman does and he eventually saves the day as well as convincing those around him to be the best that they can be. Though this is a decidedly more idyllic version of Superman than what is possibly realistic in the world, it is a significant step forward for the character as he faces actual issues that disturb him. Superman is still a character that is above the world around him in Superman Returns, as he is someone that others around him aspire to be. Superman faces many issues as he returns, but in the end the film argues that he can still be a figure of hope, albeit that he must once again find his place in the world. Superman can be idyllic even if the world is not, as he is a figure that others should strive to equal.