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The Ending Of Superman Returns Explained

The 2000s were a very different time for superhero movies. "The Dark Knight" had not yet added prestige to the genre by winning the first above-the-line Oscar for a comic book film, while the MCU was still years away from rewriting the rules of franchise filmmaking. Back then, the superhero movie craze was just beginning, and one of its few well-established stars was Kal-El, aka Clark Kent, aka Superman. 

The Last Son of Krypton had been a pop culture icon for nearly seven decades when Warner Bros. released "Superman Returns" in 2006. The movie works as a semi-sequel to the "Superman" movies starring Christopher Reeve. In "Superman Returns," Brandon Routh takes over as the Man of Steel, who returns back to Earth after a five-year absence only to find that the world has moved on without him. 

As Superman attempts to reconnect with his loved ones, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) plots to take over the world using Kryptonian technology stolen from the Fortress of Solitude. By the movie's climax, the stakes are sky-high, and the story ends on a dramatic note that also sets up several intriguing questions for potential sequels (which, of course, never arrived). So, let's take a look at the ending of "Superman Returns," and see how it ties up the film's various narrative threads.

Disposing of the Kryptonite continent

Lex Luthor's main scheme in "Superman Returns" involves creating an entire continent on Earth using Kryptonian crystals that grow in water. Luthor intends to lay claim over the new landmass, and Superman can't do anything about it, since the entire thing is infused with veins of Kryptonite, Kal-El's most famous weakness.

However, despite being greatly weakened by the island, not to mention having been stabbed by Luthor with a shard of Kryptonite, Superman gathers his strength and lifts the entire continent out of the ocean, and then out of Earth's atmosphere. In his last moments before he plummets back to Earth, Superman sees the still-growing continent slowly drifting into outer space, away from our planet. 

So, what happens to Luthor's continent after the end of the movie? According to the novelization of the film, the landmass continued to grow, but did not re-enter Earth's atmosphere. Instead, it drifted further away, eventually settling into orbit somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. Even though the Kryptonite still poses a threat to Superman, the whole landmass is too far away to be a cause for worry for any Kryptonians living on Earth.

Luthor is left trapped and helpless

Lex Luthor is the most dynamic member of the "Superman Returns" cast, reaching incredible highs before sinking to desperate lows. Not only does he manage to worm his way out of prison and inherit a fortune by seducing a wealthy old woman, but Luthor's plans to use stolen Kryptonian tech to rule the world drive almost all of the movie's action. 

Luthor's plans come to fruition when he builds an entire new continent for himself using stolen Kryptonian crystals (never mind the destruction that follows; Superman minimizes all of that). But this success goes to Luthor's head, and he spends the rest of the movie bragging about how clever he is and how no one can stop him, not even Superman. The villain has to eat humble pie in the end, of course, when Superman disposes of the continent in space and foils Luthor's scheme. 

In the moments before Superman lifts the continent out of orbit, Luthor escapes in a helicopter along with his companion, Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey). However, by the end of the film, a lack of fuel forces Luthor to land on a deserted island with no means of escape. In his last moments, Luthor even seems to be considering eating Kitty's pet dog in order to survive, proving that the supervillain has fallen lower than ever.

Kitty gets a redemption arc

Kitty Kowalski was a new character created for "Superman Returns." Like Harley Quinn does for the Joker — or Eve Teschmacher does for Lex in the original Christopher Reeve film — Kitty provides support for Luthor while he hatches his fiendish schemes. Also like Harley and Eve, there comes a point where Kitty questions her loyalty to her boss, setting up a redemption arc.

At the start of the story, Kitty is too self-absorbed and selfish to care about the dangers posed by Luthor's plans. But as more is revealed, Kitty realizes that the creation of such a gigantic landmass will result in the death of millions of people, possibly including her own mother, and her conscience begins to bother her. By the end of the movie, Kitty no longer supports Luthor's plan. And yet, she's helpless to stop him. 

However, before Kitty and Luthor leave the continent in their helicopter, Kitty manages to throw out the remaining Kryptonian crystals, ensuring that Lex can't use them in the future. It's a small moment in the movie, but a big one for Kitty, representing her first steps towards a more heroic life. In the end, Kitty and Luthor are stuck on a deserted island together, and their relationship seems to be deteriorating rapidly — especially once Luthor sets his eyes on Kitty's pet dog as a possible way to stave off starvation.

The world believes in Superman again

"Superman Returns" starts with the Last Son of Krypton returning to Earth after a five-year absence. Since he had not told anyone about his plans to visit the remains of the planet Krypton, there had been much speculation on Earth about whether or not Superman had abandoned the planet and the people of Metropolis.

After returning to his home city, Kal-El tries to get back into the swing of things by resuming his superhero career and returning to his civilian identity, Clark Kent. But Clark discovers that the world has grown suspicious of Superman during his time away. That even includes Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who wrote a Pulitzer-winning article while he was gone titled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." 

Throughout the movie Superman struggles to regain the trust of the people of Earth, especially the ones he feels closest to. In the end, though, the entire world sees Superman put his life on the line to remove the Kryptonite-infused continent from Earth. His sacrifice wins everyone over, and the world finally starts seeing Superman as its champion once again. Lois also reconciles with Superman, writing a new article titled "Why the World Needs Superman."

Richard to the rescue

In "Superman Returns," the titular hero faces an unexpected opponent: not a superpowered villain or criminal mastermind, but the perfectly charming and handsome Richard White (James Marsden). Richard is Daily Planet editor Perry White's nephew, an ace pilot, and the guy who's currently dating Lois Lane. 

Despite getting in the way of Lois and Clark's love story, one can't help but like Richard. He is a stand-up guy who treats Lois' son, Jason, like his own. Richard also proves that, while he is not as strong as Superman, he is not lacking in courage, as he flies out to the new continent that Lex Luthor builds in the middle of the ocean despite the clear danger. 

Not only does Richard help Lois save Superman, but he also gets Lois and Jason away from the landmass before Superman lifts it out of Earth's orbit. Thanks to Richard's assistance, Superman recovers from the Kryptonite stabbing by flying beyond the clouds to soak up some much-needed rays of sun. The film ends with Lois reaffirming her commitment to Richard, even though it's clear that she still has feelings for her superhero paramour.

Superman becomes his father

One of the most important new characters in "Superman Returns" is Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). He's the son of Lois Lane, who is now a single mother. Clark Kent is amazed to discover that Lois has a child, especially one who just happens to be five years old — how long has it been since Superman was intimate with Lois, exactly?

Throughout the film, one of the biggest mysteries concerns whether or not Jason is Superman's kid. Lois refuses to discuss the matter, and unlike the nigh-invulnerable Superman, Jason appears to suffer from a number of physical ailments. However, by the end of the movie, Jason proves there is more to him than meets the eye; he pushes a piano into a henchman who is about to attack Lois, and may not need his inhaler after all.

Thus, it's essentially confirmed that Jason is indeed Superman's progeny. After Lois confesses her secret to a comatose Kal-El in the hospital, an overwhelmed Superman visits Jason at night. As Jason sleeps, Superman recites a speech that he once heard from his own father, Jor-El. Particularly striking is the monologue's final line: "The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son." In that moment, Superman does indeed become like his own father, gazing down on his child and vowing to look over him for the rest of his life.

Lois pulls away again

Lois Lane has always been the most important character in Superman's life, even more than his parents (both sets of them) or his superhero pals. In "Superman Returns," Lois feels hurt by Superman's five-year departure, particularly since he didn't tell her his reasons for leaving, and since she was forced to raise their son on her own. 

In Superman's absence, Lois moves on with her life and gets together with Richard White. Then, Superman comes back to Earth, and Lois has to wrestle with her feelings for him all over again. When the two star-crossed lovers cross paths once more, they cannot help but feel that old attraction. However, Lois is engaged to Richard, a kind and caring man who has taken care of Lois and her son for years. There's no longer any room for Superman in Lois' personal life. 

In the end, Lois mends her relationship with Superman enough to reveal that Jason is his son, but this doesn't mean that they're getting back together. "Superman Returns" ends with Lois still engaged to Richard, although her standing with Superman is also on a stronger footing, since he's vowed that he will never leave Earth — or Lois — again.

Superman is lonelier than ever

Although "Superman Returns" takes place in the same continuity as Christopher Reeve's "Superman" movies, it's much more somber. This is made clear at the start of the film, which details how Superman traveled back to the location of his home planet, Krypton, in hopes of locating people who survived its destruction, only to find nothing but a planetary graveyard.

Things become even worse when discovers that the people of his adopted planet have moved on without him. Even Lois has a son and is engaged to someone else. As "Superman Returns" goes on, Superman grapples with feelings of loneliness, which he fights even as he saves Earth from Lex Luthor and the stolen Kryptonian crystals. 

By the end of the film, Superman's link to humanity is reforged via the discovery that Jason is his biological son. Still, the feeling of alienation remains, as Lois and Jason continue sharing their lives with Richard, not Superman. In the movie's final scene, Superman soars alone into Earth's outer orbit and gazes down on his adopted home world. The implication is clear: He's a watchful protector, but also a very lonely one.

A new superhero is introduced?

"Superman Returns" sticks to the model established by 1978's "Superman" by having Kal-El be the only superpowered being in the world and showing how his presence affects humanity. Near the end of the film, however, it's revealed that there's another being with powers on Earth, and that he's none other than Superman and Lois' son Jason. 

So, what does Jason do with his powers when he becomes an adult? Does he pick up his father's cape and enter the family business? That's never made clear, but we do know that Jason is still around years later. During The CW's mega-crossover "Crisis of Infinite Earths," Brandon Routh reprises his role from "Superman Returns." At one point, he remarks, "He looks just like my son, Jason," implying that Jason is alive and well.

The comic books may offer some clues here, too. While Superman has had a few different children in various continuities, the most recent Super Son, Jonathan Kent, traveled through space with a not-quite-dead Jor-El and was trained in the future by the Legion of Superheroes. At 17 years old, he returned to the present to take over for Kal-El when Superman had to leave the planet for a bit. It's not hard to imagine Jason following a similar path; at the very least, Clark has a ready-to-go replacement to keep Earth protected the next time he's away.

A tragic continuation

After hanging up the blue tights in 2006, Brandon Routh stepped back into the Superman costume for the 2019 CW superhero extravaganza "Crisis on Infinite Earths." In it, a multiverse-level crisis forces superheroes from different realities to come together. One of them happens to be Routh's Superman.

But this older, gray-haired version of the character has had a much harder life than the end of "Superman Returns" implies. The new costume worn by Routh is more sober and toned-down, with the yellow in his chest shield replaced by a somber black. In the crossover, it's revealed that Superman eventually got back together with Lois, and that they told Jason the truth about his parentage. 

Unfortunately, the super-family's life was torn apart by an attack from the Joker, which resulted in the death of Lois, Jimmy, and Perry White. This left Superman deeply traumatized, and he grew distant from human society, echoing the beginning of the ultra-popular "Kingdom Come" graphic novel. This version of Superman has also grown much more powerful due to many years of exposure to Earth's yellow sun, and is acknowledged to be the greatest Superman in the multiverse.

Finally at peace

The version of Brandon Routh's Superman who first appears in "Crisis on Infinite Earths" is a deeply tragic figure. Sure, he's the most powerful version of the character out there, but he's also lost the most, and is thoroughly beaten down after years of fighting villains and losing his loved ones. 

As the crisis unfolds, Routh's Superman joins the other heroes in trying to stop the Anti-Monitor from destroying all of reality. Again and again, Superman proves why he is one of the greatest superheroes in the multiverse. But his efforts, even combined with those of the other heroes, is not enough to stop the Anti-Monitor's rampage. Fortunately, a last bit of strategic planning by the heroes of the CW's Arrowverse manages to undo the effects of the Anti-Monitor's machinations. 

In the newly restored multiverse, Lois and the rest of Superman's loved ones return to life, and he's finally able to find peace. Ending Superman's personal journey on such a positive note meant a great deal to Brandon Routh. "[I have] a lot of gratitude for having the opportunity to do this again," the actor stated in an interview on Michael Rosenbaum's podcast, "Inside of You" (via Screen Rant). After shooting his scenes as Superman, Routh says, "the emotional wound or scar that was left by my experience on 'Superman Returns' was mostly healed."

Launching the DCEU

"Superman Returns" opened to mostly positive reviews and made a decent amount at the box office, but the movie was not without its share of detractors. One of the biggest complaints was that the movie spent too much time paying homage to Christopher Reeve's "Superman" movies, and not enough striking out on its own. 

The movie also suffered from a lack of compelling action scenes. "I thought [Superman Returns] was a very successful movie, but I think it should have done $500 million worldwide," Warner Bros. Pictures President Alan Horn told the Los Angeles Times (via SuperHeroHype). "We should have had perhaps a little more action to satisfy the young male crowd."

This line of thinking, along with some shakeup among Warner Bros.' executive staff, eventually led to the cancelation of the planned "Superman Returns" sequel. Instead, Warner decided to strike out in a completely fresh direction. Thus, the stage was set for 2013's action-packed "Man of Steel," directed by Zack Snyder and starring Henry Cavill as Superman, which became the launchpad for the entire DCEU.