Thursday, June 13, 2013

Exploring the ambiguity in "Superman Returns"

My Film School Rejects post on "Why the World Needs 'Superman Returns'" got a rather large response earlier this week.  I spent two days getting a lot of tweets, comments and emails from many Superman Returns fans who thanked me for paying tribute to a film they liked - as well as a few belligerent comments from people who... took exception to some of my points.

I also got a nice email from a guy named Jesse:

I just read your article on why the world needs "Superman Returns" and I just wanted to thank you for writing it. I hope that many people read it and that it hopefully alters their opinion even slightly away from all the hate that it receives. Everything you said is true, and I even saw some connections in there that even I had not picked up on and have made me love the film and appreciate it even more than I did before I read your article, and I did not think that was possible. I for one was devastated when they decided to reboot instead of continue Bryan Singer's story. From what I have seen so far from the trailers of Man of Steel, they don't look good at all in my opinion, and I would be interested to hear what you have to say about the film after viewing it. 

I'm actually pretty enthusiastic about it.  It looks to be rather different from both the Reeve and the Routh films but I'm open to different interpretations.  I really used to dislike all the liberties that Smallville took with the character until I learned to watch the show as kind of an alternate timeline gone wrong. So if Man of Steel turns out to not be your thing, I'd encourage you to look at it that way.

Since you clearly have a understanding of Superman Returns, I had a couple plot points that I was wondering if you could give me your opinion of . 

1. This presumably takes place after Zod invaded correct? 

Okay, I think I should state something up front - Returns is deliberately ambiguous about several issues and I don't think that's a bad thing.  I don't feel the ambiguity hurts the story at all, and it in fact leaves you with something to ponder afterwards.  The only issue I would have with this is if it was impossible to make any theory work, based on conflicting information.

Bryan Singer originally said that his film would put the first two Reeve films into a sort of "vague history."  By the time the film was released, he'd backed off from that, saying that that maybe only the first film was included in that vague history.  In truth, either interpretation is valid.  The only direct ties to the first film are:

1) The conception of Krypton and Kryptonian technology, including the Fortress.
2) Marlon Brando as Jor-El.
3) Lois's first Superman story is called "I Spent the Night With Superman."
4) Lex Luthor is obsessed with land.

Those are pretty much the only details unique to the Donner vision that carry over into Returns.

Nothing directly references anything from Superman II, so as far as I'm concerned it might not have even happened.  I lean towards the interpretation that we should only count the first film as gospel.  Either way, if you DO count Superman II, I don't think you can count The Donner Cut because at the time that Singer developed his film, the theatrical version was the only one the audience knew about.  In fact, WB didn't even start work on The Donner Cut until Returns was almost finished shooting.  It also wasn't even released until after Returns had completed its theatrical run.

There's also the fact that if you were to count the Donner Cut, the events of that film are completely erased by the ending of that movie.

I guess that's a long way of saying that I don't think Zod ever attacked the Earth in this continuity.  Though there's nothing inconsistent with him having done so and perhaps you could argue that finding the three Kryptonian criminals might have motivated Superman to head by to Krypton to see if there were other survivors somehow.

2. Lex Luthor had been to the fortress before and therefore new how to operate the crystals right? 

See previous answer for my reasoning.  I love that Luthor doesn't answer the observation, "You act like you've been here before."  The Fortress sequence works whether you assume Luthor is making a return visit, or if you think he's arriving there for the first time.  After all, the crystals aren't that difficult to figure out.  He intuits it pretty quickly in Superman II as well.

3. One thing that always bothered me was how easily Lex was able to get in the fortress and steal the crystals, did Superman have some kind of security system or something, or was he just not expecting anyone to show up? 

I suspect the latter.  In Superman II the Fortress lacks security features as well, save for one deleted scene where Superman has activated a force-field to slow down the criminals. I'd guess that the security system has to be activated from the inside, or that Superman never counted on someone finding the place.

4. My interpretation of the "goodbye lois" that superman said was that he was not only thinking that he was going to die, but that even if he did not die he was accepting Richard and her's relationship and was not going to interfere, because it is the right thing to do. I think that at the beginning of the film when he first returned to earth that he WAS trying to rekindle the romance and relationship with Lois, but then as the movie progressed, he realized that he was interfering and it was too late for them. And like you said at the end when he discovers he has a son that he will be a part of his life even if he is not with Lois in a romantic relationship anymore. 

I agree with you on all of this.  Routh invests that "Goodbye, Lois" with a lot of layers.

5. Does Richard know that he is not the father at the end? My opinion is he does not, but do you think that Lois will tell him the truth? I guess we may never know the answer but I was just curious on your opinion. 

I don't think he does, but this is a good place to bring up another popular point of contention.  People love to pick apart the timeline of Lois getting pregnant. After all, for her to be pregnant by Superman yet somehow think that Richard was the father would require the following to happen in short order:

1 - Superman and Lois have sex.
2 - Superman leaves.
3 - Lois meets Richard and becomes sexually active with him.

Some people have a hard time reconciling that.  I don't - especially if you count Superman II.  Because in that scenario Superman and Lois are intimate, but then he has to erase her memory and basically give up on any chance of a relationship with her.  Given that heartbreak, it might even be easier to rationalize him taking some time away from Earth to seek out Krypton. So then he leaves without any warning and Lois happens to fall hard for Richard around the same time.

(It's still possible for the kid to have powers even though Superman was depowered when they slept together.  The red sun rays would merely cancel out his abilities, not literally turn him into a human.  Thus, his son would still be genetically half-Kryptonian and have some of his powers.)

The only hiccup in this scenario is that when Lois sees her son display superhuman strength, she should wonder exactly how it's possible for her to have given birth to Superman's kid.  If it had been left to me to answer this, I'd probably have revealed that some time in the intervening years, Lois's memory started to come back to her.

The other possibility is that Superman II didn't happen at all and that Superman and Lois merely had an intimate relationship before she left.  I can buy that too, as it would certainly explain just how hurt and angry she is at him.  Of course, this would mean she'd have to at least suspect that Jason is Superman's son.  Perhaps the fact he was so "fragile" until his powers activated led her to assume that she was pregnant from her encounter with Richard.  I guess under this we assume that maybe the Lois/Richard pairing occurred very quickly.  But again, that's not irreconcilable.

For what it's worth, in the bonus features on the blu-ray, we see a bit of a conversation involving Kate Bosworth where the question is posed if Lois knows Jason is super. "Oh, I totally know!" Kate says, going on to say something to the effect of Lois not being the type to sleep around.  So as far as Kate's concerned, she plays it like Lois knows for sure and the only shock is that the boy turns out to have inherited his father's powers.

 A lot is left ambiguous here, but multiple interpretations are possible.  A sequel might have been forced to nail down some of this firmer, but just from the perspective of Superman Returns, I'd say interpret the evidence whichever way makes you most comfortable. 

Thanks for taking the time to answer these if you can, again I really enjoyed reading this and you mentioned that Tarantino is writing a piece as well? Do you know when that is scheduled to be finished? and where I can read it? Is it being published or just on the internet? 

Tarantino has talked about his 20-25 page review in several interviews over the years, but it's never been published and as far as I know, there are no plans for it to be published.  If it does get released, rest assured that I'll post a link to it on my site.

As this goes live, we're less than a day from the opening of Man of Steel. I'm sure some of you are as excited as I am!  Expect a review on Monday!


  1. Bryan Singer is what Michael Bay shape-shifts into when he's on ritalin.

  2. The problem with Superman Returns definitely wasn't the vague backstory of Superman: the movie and Superman II.

    Superman Returns had some extraordinary visual and narrative elements, there's no doubt about it. For me being a Superman fan for as long I can remember, it still holds an important place in my heart.

    That being said, Superman's kid was a huge problem concerning the narrative. The writers built it up as a huge reveal. Even if you don't know the backstory, you went into the movie wondering if the kid might be Superman's from the first moment you laid eyes on him. It really didn't work as a surprise.

    Add the stupid villainous plot of Luthor's to the mix and you get a slightly underwhelming experience.