Jeffrey Taylor is a staff writer/moderator at The Superman Homepage, co-host of From Crisis to Crisis: A Superman Podcast, available at the Superman Homepage, iTunes and The Superman Podcast Network.You can find his new Man of Steel Countdown column here at Movies.com every other Tuesday.
In the Summer of 2006, I was moving across the country from Washington, DC to Northern California with my fiancé and a truckload of our stuff. We had a 24 hour break in Nebraska for two reasons. One: The future missus had to watch Argentina play Germany in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Her team lost. Two: I had to find a movie theater to finally see the long-anticipated Superman Returns.
What I was promised was a return to the continuity of my childhood because it would be a direct sequel to Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980), but would ignore the events of the third and fourth. Bryan Singer had directed some of my favorite films, like The Usual Suspects, X-Men and X2. I knew he was going to do a fantastic job. The ineffable Frank Langella would be playing Daily Planet Editor-in-Chief Perry White. The long-time fan favorite Kevin Spacey would be taking on the evil Lex Luthor. And my beloved Parker Posey was replacing the Miss Teschmacher character from the first two films.
What could possibly go wrong?
The thing is, I actually liked the film. Not as much as I wish I could have, but I still enjoyed it. On the Superman Homepage message boards, we still see constant hate for it. Some fans have continued to begrudgingly refer to it as “Singerman.” But with such promise, where did the film fail?
There were some groundbreaking moments in the film, especially the big action sequence at the end of act one. A proposed space shuttle launch piggy-backed off a Bowing 777 went horribly wrong, signaling Superman to not only help the shuttle complete its launch, but to then catch the jet before it crashed. It was easily the best action sequence in a Superman film so far. Let’s hope that Man of Steel tops it several times over when it comes out.
Brandon Routh often gets a bad rap for playing Clark Kent and Superman the exact same way that Christopher Reeve did. There may be a ring of truth to that, but from the extra features on the DVD and Blu-ray sets, it’s clear that he was making his own decisions about the character that simply held a few similarities. The comparison is unfair to begin with because Reeve is almost unilaterally revered as the greatest actor to ever put on the suit. A few may disagree, but I’ve never met a fan who believed Reeve did poorly in the role. Routh’s portrayal may have shared similarities, but I still contend that he did a good job.
Kevin Spacey also upped the ante as Lex Luthor. He could have been better, but he did a fine job with what he had to work with. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.
One of the biggest complaints among fans was the casting of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. Although she’s not a bad actress, she was simply unbefitting of the role. Past actresses like Noel Neill, Phyllis Coates, Margot Kidder and even Erica Durance seemed to have a firm handle on her tenacity. The character has always retained a certain spunky quality that was lost on Bosworth.
She landed the part of Lois Lane because Kevin Spacey had loved working with her in the film Beyond the Sea. At one point there were rumors that Spacey made this a specific demand and would have turned down playing Lex Luthor without her involvement. None of that was ever substantiated though.
Superman had been gone from Earth for five years as he journeyed back to the remnants of Krypton. He had been led to believe that his home planet might still exist, but both Superman and Clark Kent had disappeared from Earth for that time. It was a shaky concept to begin with because we, as the audience, already seen Krypton’s demise in this continuity and potentially in many others.
The whole movie centered around a new idea concerning the Kryptonian crystals Lex Luthor stole from the Fortress of Solitude. By launching them into the ocean, they would exponentially grow to create a new landmass, which he would own. He also somehow assumed that he would be safe from repercussions thanks to this alien technology, which was a bit silly and never really played out. This was all a throwback to the Gene Hackman version of Luthor from the Christopher Reeve films. He too believed that owning land was the secret to success and happiness.
Some of the worst comics from Superman’s history have come from creators who were more interested in putting their stamps on the character than telling a good story. There’s always room to do something new and interesting, but sometimes an idea is as big as it is bad. For example, giving Superman and Lois Lane a child.
The big surprise moment of Superman Returns that everyone was trying keep under wraps that that Lois’s son Jason White was not fathered by Perry White’s nephew Richard, but by Superman himself, presumably when they slept together in the Fortress of Solitude in Superman II. Superman wasn't just a father, he was now a deadbeat dad. The public was intentionally misinformed to believe that Richard was the father so that moviegoers wouldn’t suspect the truth. In fact it was so tightly kept that Marv Wolfman wasn’t even allowed to put it in the novelization.
The updated costume was a major point of contention, just as it has been so far in Man of Steel, albeit for different reasons. In Superman Returns, the “S” symbol was slightly altered and shrunk down. An additional “S” was added to the belt while the one on the back of the cape was removed. Also the colors were muted and darkened. Many fans wanted to see the old costume, but an update was never out of the question to differentiate this version from the previous. The problem is it just didn’t look as good as the original.
Follow the Money
Superman Returns was a hugely expensive film with a more than $200 million (US) budget, possibly as much as $232 mil. The box office was less than kind after its release. In the United States alone, the film failed to break even. The worldwide grosses came to about $390 million while Warner Brothers was hoping for a great deal more. Superman should be one of its flagship properties and the entire theatrical release failed to double its own budget.
A lot of additional effort was put into a scene of young Clark Kent on the farm in Smallville running and jumping through the corn fields and eventually floating to show that he could fly. Seven kilometers of road was constructed and fifteen hectacres of corn were grown for twelve weeks during a drought just to set up those few shots. Even though it may have seemed important in the script, it was completely wasted in the story of the film. It was a hugely expensive undertaking that never needed to be included. I have to guess that it would have been cut entirely if not for the amount of money and effort put into the brief sequence.
Although the film wasn’t a loss, especially after DVD sales and merchandising, there would never be a sequel simply because of its underwhelming returns and poor reviews. I would liked to have seen Routh continue as Superman and what the creative team might have done to make the story continue. But on the upside, Man of Steel is looking promising so far.
What Could Have Been
According to rumors, the sequel would have centered around Brainiac using a version similar to Superman: The Animated Series from 1996 where he was originally from Krypton. He would have followed Superman back to Earth from the remnants of Krypton during his five year trip.
There were further rumors that the bank robber who shot Superman in the eye around the middle of the film would turn out to be John Corben, a.k.a. Metallo for the sequel.
There was another rumored mandate from Warner Brothers to make the film darker than previous incarnations. That thought worried many fans who understood that Superman needs to be a symbol for hope. With that in mind, our expectation was that the world he inhabited could be darker, but that he would be the beacon of light in the middle of it.
When I imagined the story in my mind, I had a few distinct ideas to make that happen. First, I would have had the film open with Brainiac’s massive ship crashing into one of Earth’s oceans which would cause a massive tsunami that Superman couldn’t possibly save everyone from. Then later in the film after Brainiac had gained his trust, he would have altered Superman’s physiology to make him even more powerful, so that he would be unable to help people directly for fear of killing them with his touch. The thought of hurting people he was trying to aid would tear apart his psyche. There are many ways to take the story from there, but it would have been a much darker take on Superman without darkening who he actually is. Plus we may have finally seen him throw a punch.
What did you think of Superman Returns? If there had been a sequel, what would you have liked to see?