Not Guilty: Superman Returns revisited

In Not Guilty, we look at movies that the general consensus tells us that we should feel bad for liking, but that our hearts tell us we should embrace -- "guilty pleasures" we don't feel guilty about. We kick things off with the sequel that brought Richard Donner's Superman movies back ... almost literally: Bryan Singer's Superman Returns.

With Batman vs. Superman in preproduction and The Justice League officially announced, now is as good a time as any to take a look back at one of the last son of Krypton's previous appearances on the silver screen: Superman Returns. More specifically, I want to give it the appreciation it seldom gets despite having earned it. Originally successful (more on that in a bit), it's grown to be generally looked down on by fans, seen as a knockoff of Richard Donner's style and unfavorably compared to the superhero flicks that have followed it. Here's why that's a bum rap.

It successfully merged the old with the new

Unless you're over a certain age, odds are your first and most impression-making exposure to Superman wasn't Richard Donner's 1978 film. Your experience of Christopher Reeve as the gold standard likely came via home video (and was likely a bit tarnished by a viewing of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace), and you hadn't had the experience of letting John Williams's epic score wash over you in a theater setting.

Bryan Singer was direct in his intentions to pay homage to Donner's film from the start, and he managed to do so without seeming like he was ripping off his predecessor. Superman Returns brings the most famous incarnation of Superman into the modern day effortlessly by paying tribute to its predecessor without alienating a new generation of fans. It manages to be nostalgic (for example, incorporating Marlon Brando's 1978 performance into the scene in which Lex Luthor discovers the Fortress of Solitude) and relevant (Perry White's dig at Jimmy for a 12-year-old with a camera phone taking better pictures than he did) at the same time, without ever feeling like a parody. The end result is part love letter to Donner, one of the pioneers of the superhero genre on film, and part setup for what life is like for the son of Jor-El in today's world. It's just a shame Warner Bros. failed to give Bryan Singer the support to finish what he started.

The effects were ... well, super

When it comes to superhero and sci-fi films, there's a fine line between visual effects and CGI that enhance the film versus effects and CGI that distract from it (ahem, Star Wars prequels). Here's another area where Superman Returns deserves its due. Mark Stetson's work on the film earned him his third BAFTA award for visual effects, and rightfully so. From the subtlety in showing Superman breaking the sound barrier when he flies to bouncing bullets off his chest, the dazzling visuals orchestrated by Stetson were so well executed that they reached that level of impressive, yet believable, and never once upstaged the actor or the story. Furthermore, in the eight years since its release, Superman Returns' look is aging well, which is another testament to Stetson's work.

Brandon Routh nailed it

On first appearances it's pretty clear why Brandon Routh landed this role: He looks a lot like Christopher Reeve. And despite recalling the late actor's mannerisms in his own performance as Superman, Routh topped Reeve in one area: Clark Kent.

Possibly one of the most important elements for a solid Superman is an equally solid Clark Kent. Where Reeve's portrayal of Clark was a little over the top and cringe-inducing at times, Routh made Clark Kent not just more realistic and likable, but an obvious extension of the hero himself. Kal-El needs Clark to understand and relate to the world he lives in. More importantly, could he ever truly defend a race that grows more indefensible as time goes on without the empathy gained from living as Clark Kent? The answer, as comics fans know, is no.

In addition to saving the world, the Superman of Returns is experiencing something that all of us will go through at least once in life: The realization that an ex has moved on and it's really over. The hero not getting the girl actually works in his favor. While donning the cape and tights, Superman is never vulnerable (without the presence of kryptonite, naturally), but as Clark, he displays the same insecurities and other borderline immature behaviors we all do when it comes to matters of the heart. He fishes for information from Jimmy, gets jealous when he sees Lois's family picture, and even trips over himself when trying to explain to Lois why Superman never said goodbye. Routh made Superman more human, and in today's world, people are more likely to root for the hero they feel connected to.

Up, up and gone away

Superman Returns is a bit of an anomaly. It did well at the box office (it had a bigger opening than Batman Begins), received generally positive reviews from critics and moviegoers, and was nominated for numerous awards (taking home Best Fantasy Film at the 33rd Saturn Awards). Due to the studio's unrealistic monetary expectations and the 2008 WGA strike, however, the film's sequel was dead in the water, and we wouldn't see Superman back in theaters again until Man of Steel arrived six years later. Meanwile, the film's legacy is reduced to not much more than an unwarranted reputation for, well ... sucking. Suck it does not. It's not without its flaws, but its capacity for good is there -- you only need the light to show you the way.

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