Why Superman Returns is One of My Favorite Superhero Movies Ever


Confession: I’m not much of a horror movie expert, especially not by the standards of this site. But even though I’m woefully out of my depth when Halloween rolls around, I still wanted to find something that at least kinda fit the occasion.

And then I saw an entry in my pitch list: Superman Returns. For one reason or another I never got back to this subject in the wake of Man of Steel, but you know what? I’m gonna roll with it. I’ll say it fits the season for a couple of reasons. One, the movie is about a guy dressed up in a silly costume and two, some of you might think my take on it is a little spoooOOOOOooky…

Ahem. Meet me below.

One of the biggest problems Superman poses to film adaptations is the sheer sense of scale the character has. This man is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive… you know the drill. Onscreen adaptations of the character for film and TV have repeatedly tried and failed to hit this lofty goal. Most recently, Zack Snyder took a shot at it in Man of Steel. His approach? To manifest the degree of Superman’s powers in scenes of wanton destruction, set alongside a movie full of Malick-lite images of small-town Kansas.

Sorry. I’m really not writing this as a hit piece on Man of Steel. But it irked me when folks were looking at the trailer for that movie and declaring it to sort of… like, capture something about Superman that we hadn’t seen before. Especially because Superman Returns captures the joy and beauty of the character better than any other feature film to date.

Truthfully, most of the things that Superman Returns was criticized for are the very things that I loved about it, like… oh, let’s start with the tone.


Strangely, Returns was slapped with accusations of being mopey and “emo” at the time of its release. I don’t get it. I mean, yes, there are scenes where Superman is quiet; where you genuinely feel the weight of the world on his shoulders, but tonally the movie is pretty freakin’ positive.

I love the “moments” of this movie. Superman hanging in space, listening to the pleas of everyone on earth. Or flying above the clouds to drink in the restorative golden light of the sun. Or Lois Lane catching her first glimpse of his red cape in flight. This movie practically worships the character and his capabilities. Mopey? No. That sadness you sense in parts of the movie is Superman’s sense of responsibility and loneliness; both totally fair game for a movie about this character.

Especially since when not being contemplative the movie is frequently hilarious. Superman Returns is one of those movies that goes out of its way to find little gags and moments in scenes that don’t strictly need them. It’s not over-indulgent like the recent spate of improv-heavy comedies have been, or like the jokefest of Fantastic Four. Rather, Superman Returns is thorough. Each beat is played in a specific and often clever manner. Think of the cannibalistic Pomeranian, or Lex Luthor brushing his teeth. Or pretty much anything Jimmy Olson does.


Superman Returns is aggressively against the sort of gritty, realistic storytelling that’s come into vogue since Nolan-mania struck. It’s old-fashioned and throwbacky, unafraid to grin and crack jokes and have absolutely ridiculous villains helped by moronic henchmen* in one moment, and then be completely sincere and sentimental in the next.**

It also exudes positivity because this is one of the rare superhero movies that doesn’t get off on the level of screen violence it can conjure. Like the first two Raimi Spider-man movies, the action is more fun than visceral; there’s a sense of specificity and flow to the superpowered feats that we rarely see these days. This movie even goes one further and completely eschews man-on-man violence.

Sharp-eyed viewers noticed this, though many of them treated it as a criticism that Superman doesn’t throw a single punch in this movie. I… guess? It’s less a criticism and more like just something that happens. It’s not like the movie lacks heroics or anything.


I mean… right?

I’ve been over this, but while seeing a super-powered being fight can certainly be thrilling, the character of Superman is good for so many things that aren’t violence. (Also let me remind you that there’s not a punch thrown in the first Donner Superman movie, and that’s the SECOND-best Superman movie to date, so… yeah.) Many of Supes’s great qualities are on full display in Superman Returns. This movie, more than any other onscreen rendition of the character, comes closest to embodying this fantastic quote:

“You have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their highest aspirations. They will race, and stumble, and fall and crawl… and curse…  and finally — they will join you in the sun, Kal-El.”

By the way, you can find this quote in All-Star Superman,*** which for me is sort of the definitive text on the nature of the character. As are most books by Grant Morrison, for most of the characters he writes.

But even if we get past the lack of violence, the length, and the tone — and the acting, which… okay, let’s just deal with this. Kate Bosworth is fine; she’s a little weak but she doesn’t make any grave missteps. Everybody else — Routh, Spacey, Posey, Langella, Huntington — is pretty much good to great. And an extra-special mention for James Marsden and his character for being a genuinely likable “other guy” when it would have been much, much easier to just make that character a douchebag.

Anyway, once you get past all the surface-level criticisms people offer up, there’s still the elephant in the room. This movie is a direct sequel to the second of four Christopher Reeve movies, that ignores the other two and also serves as a bit of a reboot. It’s a strange place for a movie to be.


I’m okay with that. In the end, it’s the difference between having a slightly strange movie that I love or ignoring all of the thing Superman Returns does right because it’s a bit awkward. A lot of fan criticism takes on shades of “the movie I would have made;” essentially, people criticize a movie for the perceived flaw of it not doing what they specifically wanted it to do.

It’s not uncommon. IMO, this is a large part of the negative reaction to Ang Lee’s Hulk, the Star Wars prequels, or even something trite like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It’s tempting to get stuck on an idea of what a movie should be instead of trying to take it on its own terms.****

Part of loving Superman Returns is making peace with the slightly awkward creature that it is. A sequel to a movie made over 25 years earlier, that actively ignores two other sequels and basically serves as an apology for Superman.

Because that’s the ultimate point of Superman Returns. It means to remind us what is good about Superman.

The much-maligned Christ symbolism fits here, by the way. The parallels have long tagged along with the character; Superman Returns simply chooses to embody them fully. As with many other aspects of this movie, the Christ allegory is thorough as opposed to simply indulgent. In other words, there is a point to all of this.


I talked about loving the “moments” in this movie. I neglected to mention Superman holding the whole world on his shoulders when it could be crushing the people on the street. That’s who Superman is — to me anyway. That particular Superman still has something to show us, still has some worth, even if we forgot about him while he was gone.

When this movie came out, I went to see it “just because.” I didn’t get all the fuss about Superman, the character or the old movies. I felt like I didn’t need Superman.  Which means that Superman Returns was directed exactly at someone like me.

And what can I say? It worked.



*Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor, by the way, gives one of my absolute favorite “I am surrounded by idiots” performances in this movie.

**Lex Luthor’s much-maligned grand scheme, while admittedly a bit daft, is only maybe one shade more bizarre than his plan to blast California off the map with stolen nuclear missiles.

***That’s where Goyer/Snyder found it, too.

****Admittedly, this is part of my frustration with Man of Steel: It simply isn’t about the Superman I care to see. I would personally argue that it also fails at the movie it wants to be, as I was genuinely interested in the setup proposed by the movie’s opening. Unfortunately, it pretty much fell on its face from a dramatic standpoint so all I’m left with is an ineffective take that I don’t agree with in the first place. Anyway.


Similar Posts


  1. Got to disagree here – I found it more troubling and tiresome . This superman was dull and meaningless. Man of steel had a naive, confused, not really competent superman, but that was more interesting to the superman that had no personality. On the other hand, I’m not ry a fan of the original movies, so perhaps we will bever agree

  2. Seems you just like to be contrary 🙂

    All I can say is that in my opinion the movie was boring, the illegitimate child angle was weird, the setup didn’t make much sense and lacked punch (I didn’t miss Superman because for me he was never gone), and the final villain was just flat-out disappointing. Does a superhero movie need to be all fistfights and punching? No, but I certainly want some action in my superhero movie. Man of Steel, while not perfect, I think was a far more enjoyable movie which still managed to deal with some interesting issues. That’s my two cents at least.

    I do agree though, props to Marsden for a great performance. Shame he didn’t get to play Cyclops but X3 was a pretty bad movie so I guess he didn’t miss much there. Have to say though, those few minutes he was in X3 where the most I liked Cyclops during the whole X-men movie series, I don’t know when everyone decided Wolverine was the best X-man, Cyclops will always be #1 for me.

    1. Marsden has been quietly great in movies for a while now without getting nearly enough recognition for it. I don’t know if he’s too handsome or just doesn’t pick the right projects or what, but I can’t call to mind a bad performance from him.

  3. Giving a superhero a new kid is never, NEVER a good angle. It was stupid for Batman (Morrison), and even stupider for Superman. It’s probably the single worst (and most avoidable) possible cliche. And how is it that a speck of Kryptonite renders Kal powerless in seconds, but he can spend like ten minutes slllloooowwwllllyyyyy lifting an entire damn island of the stuff into space? The first half of the film was admittedly glorious and very much fit the character in a way never before portrayed onscreen, but holy crap the second half was bad.

    1. Why is it an inherently stupid idea, though? I rather like what it does both for Morrison’s Batman and for Singer’s Superman. Here it both harkens back to the way Jor-El left his son Kal on Earth, and it additionally serves as a reminder that Superman is going to leave a legacy on Earth; he literally changes people by being here. And it’s not like they went the Mummy Returns route and had the kid snarking off to the bad guys at every turn, which would indeed be stupid. But to say that’s just a rule is strange.

      As for the Kryptonite thing, I think that being on that island was poisoning him from the get-go; being stabbed just sealed the deal. After that, Supes recharges in the sun and goes back for round two, which mostly takes place IN the sun, and he only barely succeeds in lifting the rock out of Earth orbit. I follow it.

      1. I guess you can chalk it up to personal preference. I’ve never liked the idea of someone like Batman using a child as a diversion for murderous criminals. It just does not fit and in Superman Returns, it was an incredibly unwelcome distraction from everything good in the story. In general, children are added for no other reason than a cynical ploy for audience sympathy when the writer can’t think of anything else to do. It’s the oldest sitcom trope in the book. I expect better.

        Oh, and does anyone else get the giggles when someone calls Nolan’s storytelling “realistic”? What with all the convenient atom bomb power generators, rooftop jet car chases, and motorcycling through parking garages blowing up all of the cars with missiles?

        1. I don’t exactly get the giggles so much as I get the eye-rolls, but yeah. “Gritty” and “realistic” have somehow become synonymous when they really shouldn’t be. One thing that IS fairly realistic about Batman Begins at least is that he really justifies each of the decisions Bruce Wayne makes on the road to becoming Batman. While it’s still very much a movie, there’s an honesty to that guy’s psychological makeup that makes a lot of sense.

  4. Funny thing about SR is, you can tell that for MOS they didn’t wanna repeat certain things, so certain elements were basically shoe-horned into MOS. 1. There’s hardly any face close-ups of Supes flying in MOS. This is probably due to people’s complaints about Routh’s “CGI face” in SR. Plus it’s also easy to CG render a little red and blue blip than an entire face. 2. Superman never threw a punch of SR, so in MOS he throws plenty.

  5. The movie was fairly boring, but Lex Luthor in the movies was always a sad take on the character. Aside from Kevin Spacey, the cast was generally a snooze fest. And while Spacey brought some interesting sociopathic trends to it, the idea of Lex being a “master”
    criminal with schemes centered around real estate grabs has always been kind of lame when compared to the powerful and calculating comic book version.

    Additionally, the idea of superman having a child with a human remains laughable. Read Larry Niven’s Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex for a full explanation of why, or watch Hancock. Aside from the issues of attraction and compatability, sex with superman would kill end Lois’s life faster than any super villians plot, and in a much messier way.

  6. Sorry, but as a 40+ year reader of all things Supes, RETURNS was awful, through and through. I’d rather not revisit the massive onslaught of errors fraught in an absolutely terrible script that should’ve known better, but I’ll say this: much like Grant Morrison’s take on Supes, it just doesn’t feel like Superman to me. Grant tends to tinker with the mythology elements a bit too frequently for me to take him seriously as a ‘writer for the ages’ and, instead’ seems oft times to be attempting to appeal to only the current generation of fans … or folks who tire of Marvel’s stuff and long for a DC character who looks like he belongs in the Marvel Universe.

    I know that much was made about Supes’ portrayal as a modern-day metrosexual — he was — but I quickly debated it whenever I saw it mostly ’cause the comics have several arcs wherein the Man of Steel leaves Earth temporarily for personal missions and/or private reasons. Sure, there was some other inklings to this effect that could’ve been avoided and/or softened, but, again, I grew tired of trying to point out how RETURNS took a good idea and handled it poorly (which it did consistently).

    And, no, I’ve never cared for the bumbling shtick that the movies have made of Lex Luthor. That’s just patently ignorant, not so much absurd. Following that line of reasoning, one might conclude that Luthor bumbles his way into supervillainy, and I can’t begin to tell you how stupid that sounds.

    As always, everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion. I tend to think RETURNS demonstrated how ‘not’ to do a Superman film unless, as I said, you want Marvel fans watching.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.