The 70s-80s Christopher Reeve Superman and the 80s-90s Michael Keaton-Val Kilmer-George Clooney Batman were many things, but one of them was not realistic. They were comic book films made by studios that thought superheroes were still best when served up just a little bit silly. This was ironic because the actual comic book adventures of these two heroes were getting grittier every year and the problems and conflicts more and more adult. Still, we had to get to the 00s of the 21st Century to see studios wise up to the idea that audiences wanted more — they didn’t want to escape so much as they wanted to immerse. Batman Begins kick-started an entire new look at the franchise that was wildly successful followed by Superman Returns the next year with a more mixed critical response. Now Batman is nearing the end of its proposed trilogy and Superman is getting a re-re-boot. That’s a story for later; right now, let’s look at these two monster-sized franchises and see which new beginning did the best job.
Superman Returns blasted onto movie screens with more of a whimper than a bang, presenting a soft, character-driven story about a god-like alien’s search to find his messianic place on Earth and an old foe’s attempt to exploit the hero’s alien heritage. Under Bryan Singer, fresh off his success with the first two X-Men films, Superman returns to Earth after five years of searching for his destroyed homeworld to find an engaged Lois Lane with child and his old nemesis, Lex Luthor, scheming to recreate Krypton on Earth. Although having a plane rescue that is arguably one of the best shot, scored, and realized action sequences in superhero history, Superman Returns seems more comfortable in the tense silences between its characters as they struggle to find one another in this somewhat overly long movie.
The Defending Champion
Christopher Nolan tore into the psyche of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, the first film to chronicle exactly how a billionaire playboy evolves into a night-stalking vigilante dubbed Batman. Armed with a tank-like Batmobile and military-grade armor, Nolan’s Batman wages war on Gotham’s corruption before facing a fanatical international terrorist hellbent on saving the world by destroying it. This happens just in time for Batman Begins to cater to action and comic fans who expect big explosions, fast fighting, and clever one-liners to tie up all the loose plot ends in an efficient, if cliche, manner.
This is a tough one. However, the key here is the nature of reboots and tone. Reboots are only as successful as their ability to bring something fresh to the table, and a quick way to do this is establish a new tone. Batman Begins gives an entire backstory to Bruce Wayne that is only hinted at in previous live-action Batman films and television shows. This is a darker story at first, exploring themes of revenge and justice. However, once Bruce returns to Gotham, the film largely becomes action-oriented and the darker tones established early in the film are abandoned. The obsessive lust for revenge that Bruce Wayne harbors is lost as Batman politely excuses himself to criminals, gives fashion compliments to the homeless during battle, and gets chummy with Gordon to prevent the ticking time-bomb scenario of the film’s predictable climax.
Though the Superman/Lois dynamic and Luthor’s real estate interests in Superman Returns may seem like retreads too, Singer contextualizes them in such a way as to make Lois reflect Superman’s yearning for acceptance and Luthor’s scheme mirror the haunting fact of being the last survivor of his race. When Superman confronts these challenges on Luthor’s bastardized version of Krypton, he suffers a lynching at the hands of Luthor and his thugs, nearly dies tossing the last of his homeworld into space, and finally discovers that Lois’s child is his own. The film ends as Superman gives up his only son to Lois and her fiancee in much the same way that his own father gave him up to Earth. The characters have found each other but Singer has thrown them into a new emotional world full of challenges, threats, and most importantly: hope.
So, Superman and Batman go toe-to-toe and…
Superman Returns squeaks past Batman Begins and does so on the merit of its ending. Nolan gives a fresh take by taking Bruce Wayne through his dark psyche but leaves him in a situation that could easily be a launching point for any of the previous Batman films we have seen. Superman Returns builds upon what’s come before, but during its final moments leaves its characters in new — and controversial — situations. None of Superman’s previous films even hint at a child, nor explore so deep as this one Superman’s alienation. For this reason, Batman Begins has no cinematic kryptonite to best Superman Returns.