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Superman Returns: A Retrospective

It has been almost four years since Bryan Singer's Superman Returns hit theatres and for the most part it has remained maligned by the community. Superman is a huge part of the collective consciousness of the pop culture lexicon. The story of a man who leaps tall buildings in a single bound is well known and all those familiar with Superman/Clark Kent's origin can find something to relate to.

Superman Returns arrived at theatres with the excitement of seeing the Man of Steel returning to celluloid for the first time in nineteen years. Unfortunately, the return was met with stunted optimism in the midst of two wars, diminished prestige of the United States, and the beginnings of an economic downturn.
The spectacle of Returns never seemed to really captivate with all of the action sequences requiring Superman/Clark Kent (Brandon Routh) to only catch a plane, carry an island out of the ocean, and getting shot in the eye. The film seemed like the reel was dragged through a sepia toned universe where a flying man is only registered as, "Hey that guy used to live here before he unexpectedly disappeared!" The optimism that came tied with Christopher Reeve is met only with mild distaste by the citizens of Metropolis.

Superman's disappearance is noted only by the child he leaves behind with Lois (Kate Bosworth), to raise with her new husband, Richard White (James Marsden). It's obvious that Superman felt like an extended leave of absense was entirely necessary, but when he comes back the World has moved on. "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman" is a prominent article in the film and we get the feeling maybe Clark should hang it up and go nomad. Lois doesn't want him there and really there are so many horrors in the world that a global Superman could undo.

With the first Superman film in almost twenty years the villain showdown was expected to be a big deal, but what happened was less a beatdown of a supervillain than the reality that - like in real life - the villain wins. The final showdown with Lex (Kevin Spacey channeling perhaps the world's most insane real estate agent) is hedged by - what else? - Kryptonite. Unfortunately Superman gets the wrong end of a shard broken off in his abdomen and the megalomaniac who has dreamed of this day for years has finally won. When audiences watched the victory (albeit short-lived) of Luthor over Superman many felt that the film had gone too far in a dark direction. But it was not for nothing as the film's implications had much more to say about the world we lived in.

Implications of 9/11 and the War on Terror do not go lost, the airliner going down brings back many painful memories of that fateful September morning. In this world there is a Superman and Osama Bin Laden does not go unfound, the towers do not fall and there is no constant threat of global annihilation. The political allegory of Returns is far more interesting than any battle between The Man of Steel and Doomsday/Brainiac/Darkseid. Superman, much like the United States at that time, had undergone a transformation in the public eye, and we don't know if he'll be forgiven.

A lingering romance between Lois and Superman has always existed, but where Returns veers off the old dirt road is that Lois isn't too dumb to not catch the resemblance rather the opportunity for their love is gone. Nothing can change what happened when he left. And Lois, struggling with her own resurgent feelings, can only skirt an actual relationship with the man seemingly always staving off another disaster.

The biggest problem with the film, for many, was the realization that Superman is a deadbeat father. Only when at the end of the film when Superman tells his son that, "he'll always be different an outcast who can pass as a human being but will never truly be one" does it come clear. Just as Superman was raised by Martha and Johnathan Kent, Jason belongs only with Lois and her new husband. Jason, unlike Superman, can be a part of this world, but - mirroring the Jor-El relationship to Kal-El - eventually the son must surpass the father and when that time comes Superman will be there.

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