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Scene Analysis: Rooftop Scene of Superman Returns

04/13/2011

[Editor’s Note: This is a fairly lengthy paper I wrote my Sophomore year that details everything worthy of note in a single scene from Superman Returns.  It covers all the Mis-en-scene here, and clearly shows my love for the movie.  I have chosen not to edit it down for the blog, but have kept it in its entirety.  Feel free to skim.  If you were looking for my analysis of Comic Based movies as a cinematic trend, then click here]

The scene I have chosen to discuss for this paper is a dialogue between Superman and Lois Lane in the movie Superman Returns.  This is an interesting situation, where the plot is almost synonymous with the primary character arc.  That is, Superman’s effort to re-integrate himself into society after a prolonged absence, during which the rest of the world has learned to live without him.  In this scene, Superman tries rebuild his relationship with Lois, who has received critical acclaim for her article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”  I will establish in this paper not only why the entire movie hinges upon this one scene, but also why this scene defines the character of Superman as a whole.

The scene starts as an aerial wide-shot, focusing on Lois Lane as she walks onto the roof of the Daily Planet.  The roof is wet, as if it has been recently raining.  Above her is the giant spinning globe that is the symbol of the Daily Planet newspaper.  As the shot pulls in, she begins fiddling inside her purse for a cigarette.  A close-up shows us that as she tries to light it, the flame blows out.  The next angle reveals Superman to her left flying gently in.

The lighting here (and throughout the rest of the scene) is very expressionistic.  Superman is strongly top-lit, giving the effect that his entrance into the scene is one of towering confidence.  This also accentuates Superman’s muscles, as they cast shadows over one another, they exaggerate the tone of his body.  While the light on Superman is a scorching bright white, Lois’ face is lit primarily in yellows, giving her a warm appearance.  As they start to move closer together, their lighting styles begin to blend.

Throughout the first half of the scene, we get the implication, by way of color tones, that the only warmth in Metropolis during the night is at the top of the Daily Planet.  Everything in the background is primarily in dark colors, implying a chilly atmosphere (especially after the aforementioned rain), whereas the top of the Daily Planet is lit with lots of yellows and browns, giving us a feeling of warmth between these characters, and increasing the sense of distance from the rest of the world.

The beginning of the scene is fairly quick-cut, increasing the shortness of patience that Lois has for Superman.  The cinematography subtly gives us clues as to where the characters are and aren’t connecting with each other.  For instance, in Superman’s introduction into the scene, it is Lois’ face that is in the foreground, and Superman stands stoically in the distance to the left of her.  This gives us the subtle impression that it is specifically Lois’ face that Superman is looking at.  Then the angle cuts back to the close-up of her lighter going out.  Superman alerts her to his presence with the statement, “You know you really shouldn’t smoke, Miss Lane.”  For a brief moment they look at each other, and the cinematography shows us that they are connecting on some level, as they appear in the same frame together.  But that quickly passes, and the framing goes back to one-character-at-a-time cinematography.

Superman walks closer, Lois stands still.  The blocking here gives us the impression that Superman is making the effort to reconnect with Lois, but she is not making the same effort quite yet.  But the cinematography tells a different story.  The characters have come to a point where they are lit almost identically, and the framing is much closer on the two of them, implying a connection.

Lois asks Superman where he went for the past five years.  He says that when astronomers thought they had found his home planet of Krypton, he had to see for himself.  This moment of introspection is demonstrated to us through all aspects of mis-en-scene.  In his acting, Brandon Routh (Superman) is careful to show no outward emotion, because if he had, then the concept of internal emotions would be demoted strictly to external activity.  But he does blink and change his eye-line once, which demonstrates that he is not as statuesque as first appearance would make it seem.  The blocking demonstrates the internalized nature of his response simply by the fact that he turns away from Lois when he says it.  The lighting shows us elements of disconnect between Superman and Lois, because the only side of his face that is lit is the side toward Lois.  The other half of his face is in shadow.  Then he turns back into the light to face Lois.

This time it’s his turn to confront her about something– the article she wrote.  She is immediately defensive and reminds him that she will be receiving the Pulitzer the next day.  He interrupts her and asks, “Why did you write it?” to which she returns, “How could you leave us like that?”  The significance here is that each character is accusing the other of something terrible, and they’re both guilty.

The cinematography shows them in the same frame, even from different angles, so we as the audience still interpret them as being emotionally connected on some level.  But the actors demonstrate an increasing level of emotional stress as they continue their conversation.  This is especially true for Kate Bosworth (Lois Lane) who begins to bob her head and blink excessively.  She isn’t crying, but her body language implies a loss of internal security.  She tells Superman that, “The world doesn’t need a savior, and neither do I.”  He steps away from the light and turns away.  They do not appear in the same frame again for several shots.

The music in this scene is very slow and melodic.  It recalls the love theme that John Williams wrote for the original Superman: The Movie, while not bringing too much attention to itself for the first two minutes.  It largely follows the rhythm of the actors, rather than the editing, stopping when they stop, and starting again with them.

When Superman turns back to look at Lois, he has regained his sense of composure, and can ask her to come with him, up into the sky.  This is noteworthy because, up until this point, it has been Superman walking toward Lois.   But now, he requests that she come to him.  Reluctantly, she walks toward him and takes her shoes off before placing her feet onto his.  The fact that she is barefoot increases the impression of vulnerability.  The framing is very tight on their faces as they begin to come off the ground.  After a brief dialogue, Lois looks down and notices how high up they are.  She embraces him tightly and says, “I forgot how warm you are.”  Right as she says this, they pass the glowing “Daily Planet” globe, which casts a warm halo-like appearance over the two of them.  It is also an important line for the audience to hear, because it recalls the fact that Superman gains his power from the earth’s yellow sun, thus making him “warm.”

The second half of this conversation takes place in the air.  Because Lois is holding onto Superman tightly, they share frame space throughout the rest of the scene.  The lighting is completely surreal at this point.  The source of the light appears to be coming from between the two of them, helping to imply their connectedness.  The music is much fuller now too.  It really leads the montage of Superman and Lois flying above Metropolis.

While staying in a constant position relative to the city, Superman tells Lois that even though she “wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior. Everyday I hear people crying for one.”  At this moment, Lois can put aside her selfish pain and understand the true need for Superman.  But more than that, he apologizes.  The camera circles behind Lois’ head to show us the other side of Superman’s face, which gives us the impression of seeing another part of his personality.  The very next line is, “I’m sorry I left you, Lois.”  That’s it.  He doesn’t attempt to justify himself, and he doesn’t use his responsibility to the city as an excuse for being distant.  He apologizes, not for leaving the earth, but for leaving her specifically.  Then he takes her home.

This scene is the hinge-point for the entire movie because it sums up quite literally where all the characters’ frustrations are coming from.  Before this scene, Lois and Superman had only seen each other briefly during a plane-crash.  From this point on, Superman and Lois are reconnected.  There still exists some frustration, as she has moved on with her own family.  But the connection is there.  And at the end of the movie, when Lois is in real danger, Superman is there to save her, and then to save the world.

In the romantic scenes between Lois and Clark (Superman’s disguise personality), it is really Lois who is the stronger leading figure in the relationship.  Clark follows her lead.  But when Lois has a romantic scene with Superman, it is he who is the leader in the relationship.    The only man who can make Lois vulnerable is Superman.  Lois is Superman’s connection to the earth.  He is not really human, but he has human emotions.  Despite the fact that he will never totally fit in on earth, his relationship with Lois gives him a face to ascribe to all humanity.  That every person he saves, is someone else’s ‘Lois.’ In the sky, when Superman listens to all the cries for help.  He must choose the one person to save.  Every time someone dies on his watch, he blames himself.  The key to Superman’s psychology is that he blames himself for the pain that he could not prevent.  It would seem that even a Man of Steel, suffers still.

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6 comments

  1. It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it.


  2. Reading this made the scene that more emotional for me. Thank you.


  3. Reblogged this on Thekryptonknight's Blog and commented:
    Emotionally insightful


  4. Reblogged this on davidtheseaman and commented:
    A good primer for my Superman Returns review coming up.


  5. […] those flaws, the story is still pretty good.  The rooftop scene is very touching.  Here’s a great analysis of […]


  6. This scene is the best of all…despite making confession with Lois, he is able to make realize how much responsibility he is burdened with ..which she isn’t aware of….that the voices and prayer for help he receive every moment… Full marks to the team for creating one of the best scenes



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