How to Fix Superman Returns

Having watched Superman and Superman II: The Donner Cut last year, and enjoyed them, my wife and I decided to skip over Superman III and IV and go straight to Superman Returns (which itself ignores the last two movies, and is set five years after Superman II).

I remember seeing it in 2006, when it came out, and thinking it was a terrible movie. Rewatching it now, I think I missed what Bryan Singer was trying to do: this is a 1970s movie made with 21st-century special effects, an attempt to capture the mood and feel of the first two movies that mostly succeeds.

I definitely prefer its version of Superman — who, while flying by to rescue someone during the climax, casually uses his heat vision to melt shards of falling glass, keeping them from hurting people on the sidewalk — to Man of Steel‘s destructive hobo.

And in adopting the deliberate pacing of the earlier movies, it gives itself plenty of time to set up the relationships between Lois, Superman, Richard, and their son Jason that might have defined and deepened the sequels that (unfortunately) didn’t get made.

When Superman discovers he has a son, he’s presented with a unique challenge: he wants to be in his son’s life, and he needs to give his son guidance in the use of his growing powers, but he cannot reveal that he’s the boy’s father without destroying the life that Lois has built for herself while he was gone. That’s a great source of dramatic tension, and I wish we’d gotten to see more of it.

Much as I like it better this time around, two huge flaws still stood out to me: Lex Luthor’s evil plan, and the movie’s treatment of Kitty Kowalski (Luthor’s female companion).

Kitty is pulled right from the earlier films, a soft-hearted ditzy blonde that has no place in reality or in a modern movie. In some ways, she’s worse in this one, since the 70s version actually showed up Luthor a time or two, and her conscience led her to betray Luthor and save Superman. This Kitty is all tears and no action, a throwback to a more misogynistic period that should have been either updated or left out.

And Luthor’s plan — to destroy the Eastern seaboard to make room for his new continent — is simply ridiculous. I understand that Singer wanted to echo Luthor’s real-estate plan from the first movie, but they concocted something that was — frankly — dumb, and unworthy of a supposedly brilliant supervillain.

Instead, they should have had Luthor build his new islands somewhere in the Pacific, in the tropics, and set them up as new luxury vacation spots. Then the movie could have started after the islands were complete, and about to open for business. We drop in news stories in the background talking about the islands’ opening, about Luthor’s reform story, about how world leaders are showing up to get a personal tour of his creation, and possibly license the technology themselves to solve their own land shortages. Then, we get Lois assigned to cover the opening ceremony (against her will), with her family going along for the “vacation” part of the experience.

Once everyone’s on the island and the ceremonies start, Luthor unveils the evil part of his plan: he holds the world leaders hostage, shows them how destructive his island tech can be, then tells them he’s got seed pods scattered offshore of New York, Hong Kong, St Petersburg, Tokyo, etc. He demands a large payment, lucrative contracts, and sovereignty over all the land that he might create. He threatens to detonate the seed pods if his demands are not met.

This gives us the same basic setup for the final sequence of the movie — Superman arrives at the islands only to find he’s powerless because they’re Kryptonite, his child can discover his strength by defending his mom against kidnappers, Lois can save Superman, who in return lifts the islands out in to space before Luthor can detonate the seed pods — but now Luthor is threatening worldwide destruction in order to get what he wants, instead of causing destruction in order to get nothing.

It’s a smarter plan, and it gives us dramatic possibilities the other doesn’t, like Luthor setting off two seed pods at once, both to show the world leaders what they can do and to make Superman choose which one to save. It also helps drive home how long Superman has been gone, if Luthor’s had time to get out of prison, discover the Fortress of Solitude, create the islands, and rehabilitate himself as a purveyor of luxury.