Recently I rewatched Superman Returns for the first time in years. I think it bears reevaluating. Spoilers ahead.
I can totally see why a lot of people hated it, and there are parts that don’t work (Spacey’s Luthor is great but he doesn’t fit the rest of the movie)–but it’s thematically so complete and excellent, and it’s clear it’s the exact opposite of a soulless franchise cash-in. The differences between it and Man of Steel are instructive–both adhere to the requirements of the form, but MoS does so almost unconsciously. (Lois and Superman must kiss because, well, they’re Lois and Superman, right? Isn’t this how the story goes?)Superman Returns, on the other hand, is fully, achingly conscious. It uses slavish fidelity to the Donner source film as both a purpose and a metaphor for the narrative, which has very little to do with Superman as a person. (If nothing else, Routh’s very gentle, understated performance keeps a distance between him and the audience–and the script rarely gives us insight into anything deeper than his surface emotions, which makes the hints at his profound loneliness all the more powerful.) Instead, the story has everything to do with Superman as an icon, an ideal (hence the metaphor of the ideal Superman movie). There’s a moment in the film where hard-nosed Daily Planet editor Perry (Langella, somehow crankier here than he was as Nixon) waves around some photographs of Superman, pointing out how iconic the imagery is even though it was taken by a kid with a feature phone. This is patently absurd–we all know what camera phone photos looked like in 2006, and they didn’t look like perfectly posed publicity stills–but it’s also somehow fitting for a film in which Superman cannot be regarded with anything but total awe and wonder (or its opposite, Luthor’s utter contempt and distaste). His return is the only news story, filling every section of the paper and dominating the global media. He is the only celebrity (making Lois’s husband’s ignorance of Superman’s basic statistics, abilities and weaknesses somewhat ridiculous). The world of the film is built around Superman, his gravitational pull affecting everyone, his absence felt by all. It’s a sealed-off space where nothing more modern than computer passwords is allowed and the characters have all been defined by their pasts, half-remembered (the Reeves film) and half-invented, and the decisions they made there.Unlike Captain America (another vanished ideal returned to modern day), Superman doesn’t stand for anything political; just innate goodness of spirit, heroism and self-sacrifice. Just like Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, the film is filled with characters who mirror Superman, reflecting his aspects back upon him. Lois’s son evokes Superman’s childhood, frightening until he begins to grasp the power he truly possesses. Richard, Lois’s husband, reflects Superman’s decency and humanity, acting courageously to save his family even without any superpowers. He refrains from being jealous of Lois and Superman’s relationship (although he doesn’t know the full extent of it). And he’s present, unlike Clark; he’s there to buy the burritos and raise the kid. He didn’t run. The film’s major weakness is also its most fascinating element: an ambiguous love triangle where we’re not sure who to root for. The three points of the triangle (and the son) seem inextricably, problematically tangled in a way that can’t easily be undone to anyone’s satisfaction. Superman is a paragon of goodness, the movie seems to say, but is there still a place for him in the world? He’s an alien and always will be, his dead planet more important to him than his living friends and lover, his crystalline architecture cold and unyielding and inimical to humanity. His Clark can barely communicate. He spends the film unable to connect with anyone, off apart from the family that should be his, following the memory of his father’s voice in space and in deep water. At last it is the boy who represents hope for Superman, someone he can nurture and teach, someone he can finally relate to.The film twice references 2001: A Space Odyssey, evoking Kubrick’s famous shot of planets aligned in the beginning and then directly quoting the film’s use of hollow, scraping howls for the desolation of space when Superman, wounded and bereft, falls from the heavens in a Christ-like pose. 2001 was also a movie about inscrutable aliens who set a path for humanity, with neither species capable of truly understanding or connecting with one another. (It’s also a movie controversial because it largely discards entertainment in the search for art and meaning.) Obliquely, through Routh’s stoicism, through the unconventional love triangle, through stillness and strangeness, through the words of a dead actor recut and remembered, Superman Returns conveys the vast and lonely gulf between the character and the aliens he would protect better than any other film before or since.For all its flaws, this is a clear and intentioned movie, brimming with ideas and emotion, crafted with great love. The film itself has a rich and beautiful texture to it. The music is luminous, the cinematography like a dream. It’s a very long film for the amount of plot it contains; the actual chain of events could have been laid out in a Fleischer cartoon with room to spare. Instead of twists and turns, the movie uses the time to savor its material, from a gentle, dancing flight with Superman and Lois to the genuinely eerie sequence where the family is in danger of drowning. Again and again the movie strikes for iconicism and hits home–the dramatic airplane rescue, the bullet bouncing off his eye, Superman like Atlas with the Daily Planet’s globe resting on his shoulders. It is not the movie fans wanted; it is not about punching or Silver Age robots or heat vision. In that sense it is like Ang Lee’s Hulk, an artist’s utilization of the medium of the franchise property to create something decidedly unsuited to sequels and merchandise. It’s not an action film or a blockbuster summer entertainment. If that’s what you wanted, it’s not for you. But it is a movie of ideas, executed with grace and clarity, expressing a singular vision born of deep emotion. What more can we ask for from a film? Now that, after Man of Steel, Superman Returns is freed from the burden of being the sole modern cinematic representation of the character on film, I hope that it can be rediscovered as an uncommonly beautiful, interesting, and moving film.