Movies based on comic book super-heroes are more difficult to write well than they appear. These stories are a sub-form of the action genre, with a number of fantasy and horror elements thrown in. Mixing these three genres properly is tricky, which is why most super-hero films are huge and expensive flops. Superman Returns has a better script than the Superman films of 20 years ago. The writers have obviously learned two big lessons from recent successful super-hero films like Spider-Man, The Incredibles and Batman Returns.
The first lesson is: give the hero a serious weakness and need. The writers don’t just recycle the usual Superman history, which is generic by now and has little psychological force for the audience. Instead Superman’s weakness is focused on his relationship with Lois Lane. Clearly they were in love and he abandoned her, and it has had painful consequences for both of them. This is written and played seriously, so while the man has superhuman strength, he is recognizably all-too-human.
The second lesson is: give the superhero a dangerous opponent. Some have complained that Kevin Spacey’s performance is too jokey (I don’t agree). But as written, this Lex Luthor is not campy, like the opponent Gene Hackman played in the original Superman. He’s nasty and deadly. In the Great Screenwriting Class, where I talk about how you create the right opponent for your hero, I start with one of the keys to great storytelling: your hero is only as good as the opponent he fights. This is certainly true when you write a super-hero story. You begin with a big problem: the super-hero is almost never in believable jeopardy. So creating an opponent who can give the hero a fair fight is extremely difficult already. If you then make him a campy joke, you have effectively killed your plot.
The Superman story uses another storytelling trick that audiences love. I refer to it as the Scarlet Pimpernel technique. In The Scarlet Pimpernel, the hero appears to be an effete and effeminate bon vivant who cares about nothing but the latest fashion. Secretly, he is a dashing action hero saving the unfortunate (but not poor) victims of the French Revolution. Superman pretends to be the bumbling and possibly cowardly nerd, Clark Kent. In reality, he is the Man of Steel, saving mankind from all sorts of crimes and disasters.
The contrast between these two personas – the weak and the heroic – is inherently fun for the audience. It also makes the central thematic point of these stories, which is the importance of living courageously. Just how much the audience loves this technique is readily seen in any Superman film. In The Scarlet Pimpernel, the hero does his heroic deeds in disguise, so his pose as a fop is completely believable. In Superman, the hero simply removes his Clark Kent glasses and greases back his hair. Apparently no one in Metropolis has facial recognition, and the audience couldn’t care less.