Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns turns 10 this month, and over the last decade, it’s managed to build up something of a mixed legacy.
A quasi-sequel to the Superman films of the 70s and 80s starring Christopher Reeve (well, the first two, at any rate), the film received generally good reviews, with critics praising Singer’s heartfelt direction, the fine performances of the cast, and the strong visuals courtesy of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas.
And yet Superman Returns ended up having a polarising effect on audiences. Among the more commonly criticised aspects of the film were its oddly melancholic undercurrent, Lex Luthor’s nonsensical evil scheme and the introduction of a cute kid who – spoiler warning! – effectively transforms Superman into the Deadbeat Dad of Steel.
Fans also took Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris to task for the film’s romantic tone – although this tends to be downplayed by many naysayers these days, now that they’ve been confronted by the dour nihilism of the Man of Steel reboot – and its lack of a proper, superpowered dust-up.
Admittedly, many of the set pieces in Superman Returns do boil down to “Superman encounters heavy object, lifts it”, and the film is hamstrung by the absence of any real physical threat to the Big Blue Boy Scout.
Still, it featured at least one action scene that everyone seemed to agree was pretty damn amazing, which is when the Man of Steel wrangles a failing Boeing 777 in mid-air, a pulse-pounding demonstration of just how difficult this sort of feat would be, even for a guy who can do pretty much anything.
For those of you who haven’t seen Superman Returns in a while (or at all), I’ll set the scene for you.
Basically, Superman (Brandon Routh) has been out of the picture for five years thanks to an ill-advised holiday back to his home planet (or at least, the cosmic debris that now litters that part of space).
Arriving back to a world where the public – not to mention Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) – has moved on and learned to live without him, Superman begins to question his place on Earth, and just generally feel a bit bummed out.
He’ll be needed soon though, after a twisted experiment by Luthor (Kevin Spacey) results in a city wide electromagnetic pulse, shutting down a plane in mid-flight carrying an experimental space shuttle AND filled with reporters, including Lois!
As the saying goes: This looks like a job for Superman…
The plane rescue scene is proof positive that Singer and co had it in them to make a truly great Superman movie that would have resonated with a much wider audience. They cram so much of what makes the character great into these five-odd minutes of screentime, that it’s just a shame the rest of the film doesn’t quite soar as much as you’d like it too.
The opening scene is a massive exercise in audience anticipation; we’ve been waiting over 30 minutes – hell, it had been 20 years since the last Superman film, by that point – we want to see Superman, dammit!
Singer, Doughery and Harris play with this expectation, teasing us at every turn.
First we see a fast-moving arrow on a radar screen, then a barely-glimpsed humanoid shape flashing across the screen (out-pacing two jets!) and past the plane’s windows, and after all that, we’re still made to make do with a view of a familiar pair of red boots touching down on the fuselage, before seeing the Man of Steel in all his glory.
Along the way we’re treated a nice little character moment, as even with Superman MIA for the past half decade, we notice that Lois’ reaction when faced with mortal peril is to look to the window, because in her heart of hearts, she still expects – and will always expect – him to be there for her.
Anyway, back to the rescue effort itself, and we’re treated to our first shots of Superman using his Heat Vision to sever the couplings attaching the space shuttle to the 777, as it’s boosters have already blasted off and are shredding the plane’s tail.
The Heat Vision visual is a conceptualised nicely enough as a heat haze-inspired optical distortion, although frankly, it’s almost too subtle.
I’m not saying the visual effects gurus at Sony Pictures Imageworks necessarily needed to go for the full-on laser eye-gasms seen in Man of Steel, but a happy middle-ground between the two might have been more effective.
Still, who cares about minor quibbles such as these when John William’s classic “Superman March” has just started to kick in?
It’s such an unabashedly bombastic score that using it in a modern film could have come across as quaint, and it might have, if not for the larger than life imagery – our hero is lifting a space shuttle over his head, for Pete’s sake! – on display.
Whilst all this has been going on, poor Lois has been in the wars. Putting her in direct danger gives the audience a good emotional foothold on the fate of those inside the plane, and even if it does cast her as a damsel in distress, at least she’s only playing that role because of an earlier brave and selfless choice to help someone else at her own expense.
Back up in the outer atmosphere, Superman is busy releasing the space shuttle into the wild, and the digital double used here is spot on, holding up to intense scrutiny even during the close-up shots. In fact, I’m betting most people thought it was actually Routh himself in this footage, trussed up in a flying rig!
The space shuttle might now be fine, but the 777 is still plummeting back down to earth like a bat out of Hell.
It’s worth noting that the brief moment here when the plane’s sudden drop in altitude leads those aboard to become weightless is more than just a nice aesthetic and vague nod to science.
It’s also a subtle reminder of why a world with Superman in it would need him so badly, rubbing it in our faces that we humans are at the whim of gravity, whilst Superman can bend it to his will in order to save us.
Luckily, salvation is at the forefront of the Man of Steel’s mind, and the CGI work continues to be top notch as he streaks towards the rapidly descending plane.
Particularly impressive are the morphs between flesh and blood and pixellated performers, which work almost seamless and allow the audience something human to connect with amidst the predominantly digital spectacle.
Speaking of spectacle, Singer has certainly come a long way since his first action film, X-Men, and here we see how accomplished he’s become at overseeing popcorn cinema thrills.
He and Sigel make some great camera positioning choices, allowing us to take in a full view of the plane spiralling through the sky from afar, before it whips past us with Superman still latched onto its wing.
Editors John Ottoman and Elliot Graham also deserve a shout out for their contribution throughout the scene, working with Singer to balance the coverage of inside and outside the 777.
The cut from a POV shot of the window to a beautifully fluid camera movement that pulls out “through” that same window, connecting the plight of the journalists in the cabin with Superman’s endeavours on the wing, is top shelf stuff.
Just on that, I remember Superman’s unsuccessful attempt to slow the plane’s descent by strong-arming one of its wings garnering special attention at the time, as it was quite possibly the first time that a rescue like this was shown as more than just par for the course superheroics.
Unlike the original Superman film from 1978 – where the Man of Steel takes less than a minute to stabilise the wayward Air Force One – here, Singer uses the more advanced technology available to him in 2006 to address the fact that even a superhumanly strong man would have his work cut out for him trying to stop a crashing plane.
It makes sense from a structural point of view, if nothing else; I mean, how many aircraft can you think of that were designed to be manhandled? And then there’s the practical issues of trying to get an actual handhold on the damn thing, and fighting back against the ridiculous amount of downward momentum its built up.
While I’m not a huge fan of introducing “realism” into superhero stories at the expense of eliciting a sense of wonder, sometimes a controlled, superficial amount can actually pay off in a big way (so yeah, I do love The Dark Knight trilogy as well).
In this instance, Singer gets the real world physics/escapist fun ratio just right, enabling the former to maximise the latter.
So yes, thanks to Isaac Newton’s three laws, just as it looks like Superman finally has the situation under control, the wing he’s holding rips loose, and it’s back to square one, only now he has even less time to work with.
The instant just after the wing tears free offers up yet another solid character beat, when the (digital) Superman momentarily diverts his gaze to the gigantic piece of debris now crashing back to Earth and potentially endangering yet more people.
He quickly realises that the wing is going to fall harmlessly into the sea (or maybe not – sorry, Aquaman), and races after the plane once more.
This might seem like a minor thing, but it absolutely nails who Superman is without sucking the fun out of the action.
It serves as a quick refresher about one of the core principles at the heart of the character: he cares about EVERYONE, he doesn’t follow a “greatest good” ethos, and if that wing had been bearing down on a populated area, he would have done everything in his power to prevent both catastrophes.
This awareness of the collateral impact his actions can have on his environment – and on the fragile mortals around him – is something that most fans felt was sorely lacking from Superman’s portrayal in Man of Steel, and very presence of moments like these in Superman Returns has helped to rehabilitate the film’s reputation to some extent in more recent times.
Still, good intentions won’t save the 777, and while Superman is easily able to catch up to the plane, he’s no closer to actually slowing it down.
Real world physics (or the Hollywood version of it, at least) rears its ugly head again, when the other wing breaks free and comes hurtling towards our hero as he makes his re-approach.
Singer and Sigel opt for the classic, over-the-shoulder framing of Superman in flight here, and it leads to a great adrenaline rush moment when we can clearly see the Man of Steel accelerating into the path of this latest piece of debris headed his way.
It’s got to be said that Routh does a solid job selling the Man of Steel’s determination as he pursues the wayward aircraft, and his physical performance goes a long way to selling the shots where it’s him doing the flying in a rig, rather than a digital double.
The moment when he bursts through the wing feels as powerful as it should, too, and is underscored brilliantly by Ottoman’s score (he pulls double duties as composer as well), which adds a nice choral accent to the collision.
As if bashing straight through the wing of a plane didn’t make it clear just how committed Superman is to averting disaster, immediately after we get the vivid imagery of the 777 torpedoing towards the camera, and the Man of Steel following doggedly after it – the look on his face and his lightning quick pursuit reinforces once again that this is a man on a mission, singlemindedly and neverendingly there to save the day.
Intercutting this with passengers illustrates once more just how much Singer wants to make sure we’re aware of what’s at stake if the rescue fails.
That said, the shot of one of the passengers praying – while no doubt a realistic inclusion, given the circumstances – seems a little on the nose (and was almost certainly included as a reference to the “Superman as Christ” motif that most big screen adaptations of Superman seem to be obsessed with).
When developing the flight effects for Superman Returns, the VFX team discovered early on that in order to make the flying convincing (not to mention dynamic), it was important to have Superman move along the Z-axis – ie fly towards and away from the camera, not just side to side.
Whilst you see this in most of the flying sequences, the best example of how well this works comes during the next part of this sequence, when Superman flies down the length of the fuselage towards the plane’s nose.
Once he gets there, Superman manages to plant himself on the nose and starts pushing back against it, but physics come back to bite him again, and he’s unable to change its course.
It’s at this point that Singer decides to ratchet the tension up even further by revealing that the soon-to-be crash zone sits slap-bang in the middle of a packed baseball stadium.
It’s a smart bit of storytelling, as it increases the sense of peril and potential fallout should Superman fail. More importantly, as we’ll see shortly, it gives Superman an even bigger audience to witness his triumphant return.
Because of course Superman saves the day; that’s just what he does, it’s his thing. He also does it better than anyone else.
True, the close up shots of the Man of Steel’s digital double beavering away at the front of the plane weren’t exactly credible then, and look even more shaky now.
And sure, it’s a little dubious as to just what it is inside the 777’s nose that Superman’s grabbing hold of, and how he’s able to manipulate the plane from this position without snapping it in two.
But Singer and the VFX crew have at least added the nice touch of shock ripples running the length of the fuselage (as if to suggest the plane’s structural integrity is only just hanging in there) and I mean, c’mon: our man character is a guy who can fly and shoot microwaves from his eyeballs – if you can’t suspend your disbelief when he’s holding a plane, perhaps superhero stories aren’t a good fit for you.
Ottoman earns his pay cheque once more during this final stretch, cleverly weaving in a re-working of the “Superman March” that builds our expectations for the moment when the rescue is at last complete, and making the unconventional choice to cut the cue – rather than launch into the main fanfare – the instant the plane touches the ground safe and sound.
This allows the main audio element we hear to be the cheering of the crowd, which fits nicely as it perfectly mirrors our own feelings as an audience.
The final cut back to the cockpit, with the computerised voice urging the relieved pilots to “fly up” is a bit goofy, but honestly, I like it, and I think it suits the tone Singer is shooting for in the scene.
Indeed, if more of Superman Returns had featured this exact blend of high octane action, spot-on characterisation and breezy humour, I’m positive it would have been a much bigger hit with audiences.