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Review: Superman Returns


So, you're thinking "Has the Bad Astronomer gone mad, reviewing a Superman movie, or is this just a shameless attempt at scoring hits from Google by leveraging off a highly successful movie?"


But seriously, even if it's based on literally comic-book science (and, therefore, will be more realistic than Armageddon), there is much to see and understand about science in the movie. Some of it is actually pretty cool, although, as usual, a lot of it is also nitpicky nerd stuff that will no doubt garner me angry emails from (the few) people nerdier than I am. So be it.

Warning! Super spoilers below!

The Review

Overall, I liked it. I didn't love it. I loved the original, if I may call it that, from 1978. The music, the effects, the self-acknowledged cheesiness and satire (the open phone booth gag is still a favorite) -- these all added up to a great flick.

"Superman Returns" was a good flick, but not a great one. It took itself a little bit too seriously, for one thing- lots of long, serious poses of Superman hovering over the Earth, looking out over Metropolis, or just thinking super thoughts. Lois with a kid I'll buy, but dagnappit, isn't one freaking person just a little bit suspicious about Kent returning after an unexplained five year absence, the same day Superman does?

I know, it's not really the movie's fault, since that plays in to the whole genre of Kent's sole disguise being a pair of glasses like the ones my dad used to wear. Still, it's distracting.

Plus, was I the only one to notice Superman is a jerk? He was purposely wooing Lois, a woman he knows is with another man! Superman is many things, but a cad? C'mon. And he doesn't seem to care much about human life that's off-camera, either. More of that later.

Speaking of which, let's get to the science, shall we? Reality must intrude on comics, at least when it's on my website.

In an early sequence, we see the planet Krypton orbiting a red giant star. The star suddenly collapses, then explodes as a supernova. It tears Krypton to pieces, flinging them outward into space.

It's comic canon that Krypton orbited a red giant star. It's also canon that the planet itself exploded, not the star. Oh well. But things get worse...

Stellar evolution, the process by which a star is born, lives out its life, and dies, is a rich and complex field. But simply speaking, the way a star lives depends on how much mass it has. A star like the Sun will one day expand into a red giant, and stay that way for some tens of thousands of years. All during that time it blows a super-solar wind, and eventually blows away all its outer layers. All that's left is the core, a white-hot cinder that cools over billions of years. But note: it does not explode.

A much more massive star will explode. If you want to know why, then read my series of pages about it. But the bottom line is, a massive star expands into a red supergiant, much larger than a red giant, before it blows up. Only stars with more than about 20 times the mass of the Sun blow up. So Krypton must have orbited a red supergiant, a massive star.

But there's a problem: massive stars don't live long. At best, you can hope for a star like that to live for a few dozen million years, and then blam! That's not long enough for life to evolve on Krypton, let alone create luminous white lab coats and triangular phantom-zone mirror thingies.

There are possible outs, though. Maybe Kryptonians didn't evolve there but migrated there in the past. Or maybe they did something to their star that caused it to explode. Are any Hollywood types reading this? I will be happy to retcon your scripts for a small fee.

Finally, I don't think it would pulverize the planet like it did in the movie. It would actually ablate it, heat it until it became a vapor. Instead of shards of kryptonite crystals, we'd see an expanding cloud of kryptonite vapor. But that won't help the plot any.

Superman and Martha Kent, 
in front of his meteorite spaceship Bad:
Clark returns to Earth after visiting Krypton in a meteor spaceship, just like in the first movie. It comes flaming in, roaring, and then smacks into the ground leaving a trail.

First off, where did he get the spaceship? Well, maybe from the Fortress of Solitude. I might buy that. But it's implied that it goes faster than light, since he is only gone five years -- 2.5 years per leg to and from Krypton. There is no collapsed remnant of a supernova 2.5 light years away, so the spaceship must go faster than light. I suppose I can accept that, if I can accept other things from the movie, but it seems inconsistent; I just get the feel that the writers screwed that up.

Anyway, the flaming meteor is almost right. Most meteors are not hot when they hit the ground. But this is a ship, not a meteor, so maybe it retained the heat of re-entry. But there's still a problem: we hear it, and it causes the ground to rattle, long before it goes over Martha Kent's house. That means it's traveling slower than the speed of sound! So really, it did have plenty of time to cool off in the upper atmosphere. The flaming stuff isn't right.

Incidentally, in one scene from Kansas we see rolling hills in the background. I've been to Kansas, and even in the "hilly" part they aren't that hilly. Kansas is really flat.

Hang on for this one.

When we first see Lois Lane, she is on a Boeing 777 with other press, covering a Shuttle launch. It's a new design, with the Shuttle Orbiter strapped on top of the plane from which it will launch. A glitch messes up the launch routine, and the Orbiter cannot disengage. It launches still attached, pulling the plane along with it. Superman comes along, zaps the restraints with heat vision, and flies the Orbiter to safety. However, the Orbiter engines have burned off the tail of the plane, which is now spinning down to Earth. Superman grabs a wing, which rips off. The other wing tears off, and he is only barely able to stop the plane from hitting the ground by flying in front, and pushing up on the nose.

Well, yikes. OK, first, why would NASA put press on the plane underneath a launching Shuttle? I know NASA has made some bad decisions, but that's a doozy.

Second, you just can't launch a Shuttle Orbiter that way! It takes a vast amount of fuel to lift something as heavy as an Orbiter into space. The two solid rocket boosters on the real Shuttle are needed to get it off the ground. That giant orange tank? That carries the fuel for the Orbiter to burn on the way up. Did I mention it takes a lot of fuel to get the Orbiter up? That tank is big. Giving the benefit of the doubt to the movie, maybe there is some new kind of fuel used. We do see black smoke from the Orbiter in the movie, when in real life the flame from the Orbiter is blue, with no smoke. I'll note, though, that black smoke in a burn sequence usually means a very low efficiency burn; the burning is incomplete and you don't get nearly as much thrust. But maybe I'm reading too much into a dumb movie sub-sub plot.

image of the Orbiter and 747 But could a Boeing 777 carry a fully-fueled Shuttle Orbiter? Sure, you've seen images of the Orbiter on top of a plane, but that's when they land it in California and it gets returned to Florida. The Shuttle is empty, without fuel. So let's see:

The dry weight of the Orbiter is about 170,000 pounds. With fuel it weighs about 254,000 pounds. A 777 airplane has a max takeoff weight of 632,000 pounds, and a dry weight of 314,000 pounds. That means it actually could carry an Orbiter (254,000 + 314,000 = 568,000 pounds, less than the max weight of 632,000 pounds). I'm surprised, but that part of the movie is correct!

But you still can't launch it that way. It would destroy the plane with its exhaust, even if it weren't still attached when the engines ignite. But attached it was. The thrust from the engines would have torn the top right off the plane.

Third, grabbing the wing of the plane was a dumb idea, and the movie got it right. It cannot support the weight of the plane (at least, not when it's torqued like that!), and it tore off. The other wing tore off due to air resistance, which was also correct. But before you think the movie got all this right, remember, he stopped the plane by pushing up on the nose, slowing it. I don't think the nose of the plane can support that much pressure! In the movie, you see the metal of the fuselage crumple a little, but I think instead Superman would have pushed a hole right through the plane. A better idea would have been to punch through the outer skin of the plane and grabbing the frame underneath. That would have been just as cool.

I have to say, though, that this scene was maybe the most exciting in the movie, and very fun to watch! But still-- I hate forced coincidences in movies. Good thing Superman returns on the same day Lois would have been killed if he were still away. Feh.

Superman, like the NSA, is watching over us. We see him floating above the Earth, well outside the atmosphere, cape flapping slowly, as he listens. He hears a noise, and knows it's time to fly back down and save the day!

image of Superman floating
over the Earth

Yeah, well, you know, no sounds in space and all that. Silly.

But worse, perhaps-- why was his cape flapping? He wasn't moving, so the cape shouldn't be either. Yes, I know, the Apollo flags appear to flap in footage, but that's because the astronauts were moving the flagpole trying to get it upright in the surface. With Superman floating motionless, his cape should have been, too. By the way, I missed this; Mrs. Bad Astronomer is the one who caught it.

The bad guys are on a rooftop, and have a very large gun. As Superdude approaches, the bad guy starts shooting at him, with bullets ricocheting every which way.

Superman, you should know better! Those bullets are still traveling very quickly, and when they ricochet off can still kill bystanders. We see buildings all around, so those bullets should have been taking out windows all over the place. Anyone working late would get a nasty surprise, if they weren't actually killed outright.

Superman doesn't seem to care so much about these people, and would rather grandstand dramatically on a rooftop. What else should we expect from a guy who tries to seduce a woman who is with another man? Well, maybe not negligent homicide, but still.

Lois Lane's password on her PC at work is "superman".

Puhhhhllleeeeeezzzze. IT at the Daily Planet must really suck. I bet the other papers steal their stories all the time.

Lex Luther stabs Superman with a piece of green kryptonite.

His suit can stop bullets, but not a sharp rock? Sure, you might say, his suit is made from materials from Krypton, so only Kryptonite can penetrate it. But then how was his suit made? Did Martha Kent use kryptonite needles?

I have to add that the kryptonite Lex stole was from Addis Ababa, which is where he got the kryptonite in the first movie. That was a nice touch. I also saw that it had a plaque that labeled it as a Pallasite meteorite, which was also cool-- Pallasites are crystalline in nature, with greenish (!) olivine crystals lodged in a web matrix of iron. These are my absolute favorite kind of meteorite, and I wish I could afford one.

Superman catching the Daily Planet ball-like thingamajig An earthquake-like event rolls through Metropolis, causing wide-spread destruction. The giant "Daily Planet" ball-like thing on top of the Daily Planet building falls off. Superman catches it, and plops it down on the ground.

Well actually, he plops it on a car, and he didn't seem to check to make sure the car was empty. Maybe he used X-ray vision. Anyway, just like with the plane above, all that weight from the metal ball on his hands would have punched a hole in the ball (is there a name for something like this-- I have to keep calling it the ball, which sounds silly). Strength isn't the issue, tensile strength of the material is.

A man falls from a building, and Superman swoops in, catches him, and plops him down to apparent safety.

The man had fallen for several seconds, and would have been moving pretty quickly (after three seconds of falling, he would have been moving about 60 miles per hour, highway speeds!). Superman simply catches him. That would kill the guy! It's not the fall that kills you, as the saying goes, it's the sudden stop. Flying or no, catching a guy without safely slowing him down first would kill him just as thoroughly as impacting concrete. Probably it would damage the guy more, since the impact would be concentrated over the area of Superman's arms, and not spread out over the guy's body. It might tear him in half, though probably it would only just massively rupture his organs and shatter his spine.

So Superman kills again, and the audience cheers. Suckers.

Superman escapes with the help from Lois and family, and flies above the clouds to the be in sunlight, from which he regains his strength.

The Superman lore is that he gets his strength from our yellow Sun, though specifics differ over the years. I have a hard time seeing, scientific geek that I am, how that can help him fly. Red giants are red (hello, duh) and don't put out much ultraviolet light, while our Sun is much bluer, putting out quite a bit of UV. Superman wouldn't get superpowers from the Sun, he'd get supersunburn!

Does he store this energy like a plant? Seems to me he'd need a lot to fly, lift tall buildings, stop a steaming locomotive, and all that stuff. And if he does well with our star, imagine if he went to a blue one like Vega, or a white-hot supergiant like Deneb! He'd be able to do anything! Even write a better script!

Lex's evil plan is to create a new continent out of crystal he stole from the Fortress of Solitude, and laces it with kryptonite so Superman can't stop him. It grows out of control, but Superman uses his superstrength to superfly the supercontinent (okay, I'll stop now) up, up, and away. He pushes it out into space. However, the kryptonite weakens him, and he falls to Earth, making a smallish crater upon impact.

Like the situation with the plane and the Daily Planet ball thingy, it's hard to believe a chunk of rock and crystal miles across won't snap in half when being held up by Superman's hands. Again, strength is not the issue, tensile strength of the rock is. Imagine trying to hold up a water balloon using the tip of a scalpel. The balloon will rupture. That's about the same scale we're talking with Superman holding up an island.

But it gets worse. He flies into space and flings it outward. To do that, according to Newton's Third Law of Motion, he would get thrown backwards at a speed proportional to the ratio of the island's mass to his own mass. The island would weigh millions, billions of times his weight, so he would get thrown backward at about the speed of light.

Okay, so he used his flying ability to hold him up while he flings the island away. But then he falls gently back to Earth. It seems to me that if he uses his flying ability to do that, he would leave the Earth as well, not fall back.

But he does fall back to Earth. I'll be honest: the impact crater he makes is a poser. Would he really make one, or would he make a Superman-sized hole in the ground like Wile E. Coyote does when he runs through a door? I'm not sure. I think it might be both. The energy of impact would spread out in a circle, making a crater, but he would also punch through the surface. I'll note he was shown laying in the crater, on top of the ground. In reality he'd bury himself in the ground from the speed of impact.

Oh, one other thing: this movie has the same plot as the original! Lex is trying to make new land that he can sell, which will kill lots of people, and Superman has to stop him. Lex even surrounds himself with goofballs. I guess he never read The Top 100 Things I'd Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord (note: this joke was stolen brazenly from a comment on my blog). The biggest difference in all this, I suppose, is that Parker Posey is no Valerie Perrine.


OK, that's about all I saw. There were lots of good things in the movie (did anyone else see megarich Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson as the Shuttle pilot? I didn't know he was in it until I saw him, and that cracked me up! That was a pretty funny (and appropriate) cameo). There were lots of little in-jokes in the movie, and homages to the original (though there were also entire lines of dialogue lifted from it, which fell pretty flat in my opinion).

But there were lots of little bad things, too. Like why did Lois ask the NASA rep on the plane why only one network was allowed to have cameras, and why did the rep blow her off? That seemed sinister, but nothing more was made about it. There were lots of things like that. Perhaps most disturbing of all, why was Kumar beating up Superman? Was Superman keeping him from White Castle?

All in all, I'd say this was a good flick to see in the theater, but I would have liked more action and more, uh, superiness. I really could have done without the subplot of the kid being Superman's son (and if you wonder how Superman and Lois could get it on, then you must read Larry Niven's incredibly wonderful and hysterically funny essay "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex". Just go read it. Now!). That subplot was inconsistent, poorly explained, and obviously just a reason to make a sequel (and to be a plot device when needed). I will say it was funny how they drew parallels of Lois's reporter/pilot beau to Superman (when he rescues Lois in one scene, she asks him, "How did you get here?" and he responds, "I flew."), and to be honest I found myself liking him more than that thoughtless manslaughtering cad Superman. Even if he did get his job through nepotism (Perry White is his uncle).

One last thing: my good friend, Richard Saunders, was an extra in the movie. I missed him, even though I knew where to look. I guess I'll have to wait for the DVD. Much of the movie was filmed in Sydney, and in that scene where I missed Richard I did see the fountain used in the "Construct" in The Matrix. Don't remember it? Here's a shot of it:

image of fountain in Australia

I'm no Superman, but I can give Neo a run for his money.


There are a million Superman sites, of course. Here are some cool ones:

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