Andy B’s Op-Ed: Superman Returns R.I.P.

Here’s how I remember some of the more recent comic book films from the past few years:

The Dark Knight was dark and moody.
Spider-Man was bright and bouncing.
The Incredible Hulk…green, of course. And powerful.

All these films were distinct and entertaining. But none of them were beautiful.

Superman Returns was beautiful.

It was bold and majestic. Director Bryan Singer made me believe a man could fly, again. The man was Brandon Routh, who stepped into the shoes of the beloved Christopher Reeve and managed to do what was in my estimation a brilliant job. Superman Returns was a throwback to the classic Reeve films (Superman: The Movie and Superman II) and at the end of its 2+ hours, left me feeling hopeful.

Now that hope is dead.

At the end of August, Warner Bros. Pictures Group President Jeff Robinov announced that rather than continue with the mythology that Richard Donner created for film and Bryan Singer followed, the film company would do a complete Superman franchise reboot. The reboot has become a common practice with comic films today and is usually utilized when previous films have underperformed (Batman and Robin in 1997 led to Batman Begins in 2005, Ang Lee’s Hulk in 2003 begat 2008’s The Incredible Hulk).

According to a Robinov interview in the Wall Street Journal, “Superman didn’t quite work as a film in the way that we wanted it to. It didn’t position the character the way he needed to be positioned. Had ‘Superman’ worked in 2006, we would have had a movie for Christmas of this year or 2009, but now the plan is just to reintroduce Superman…”

I’m not sure which film Mr. Robinov was watching, but to say that Superman Returns “didn’t quite work” is a pretty ignorant statement, considering Warner Bros. had no issues green lighting the story Singer presented with writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. No doubt the decision to reboot comes not from the strength of the beautiful but occasionally flawed final product, but from its perceived financial failure. The key word is perceived.

According to Boxofficemojo.com, Superman Returns’ budget was an inflated $270 million. Of course, all that money doesn’t show up on screen. That number includes the various pay or play deals and failed attempts to reboot the franchise that were made in the years following 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and the ultimate decision to hire Singer in 2004. By the time Superman Returns ended its theatrical run following in June 2006 premier, the film had grossed $200 million domestically, and another $193 worldwide for a total take of $393 million. Even with its ridiculous budget, those are solid numbers and don’t even include the DVD sales, which by all accounts have been solid. If there’s any financial failure, I don’t see it.

Further more, Superman Returns’ North American take was only $5 million less than that of Batman Begins.

And we know how the next film in that franchise turned out.

But clearly in this case, perception is reality. And the perceived failure of Superman Returns has brought us to the end of the film saga Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve began 30 years ago. It’s left us without the chance to see what Brandon Routh could have accomplished in the next film. It leaves us without the chance to see Bryan Singer create a sequel he teased would be his Wrath of Khan. The decision to reboot The Man of Steel now leaves us with many questions, with one standing out above all others:

What next?

Whatever the answer is, I hope the next film finds some measure of beauty that Superman Returns contains. But knowing how Hollywood works you’ll forgive me if I’m missing the optimism. I hope I’m wrong.

I hope.

4 Replies to “Andy B’s Op-Ed: Superman Returns R.I.P.”

  1. beautiful, well put, and I think the sadness of it is upsetting. I think perception is important, though the effect of the movie also says something. The film is a masterpiece, but is ultimately a romance. Had it pumped adrenaline rather than touched the heart (which is does in, if not spades, than another more appropriate suite), there would be a “man of steel” to batman begins’ “the dark knight”. I think I’ve shown the film to a number of people who enjoyed it, especially the tension and relationship of lois and superman, and they fell in love. The challenge of the film to being the reboot of a 30 year franchise is that it wasn’t as directly marketable as the animated DCU. A ten-year-old couldn’t watch the film over and over while his parents take a nap, for example. Likewise, the “traditionalist” and occasionally malevolent fan would complain loudly about breeches in their continuity. Neither of these two are likely to appreciate subtlety or drama or human interest, mostly because the language to talk about these things isn’t spelled out for them in thirty seconds while plugging fruit rollups. Artists like Bruce Timm and Paul Dini have done work on DCU peices that can do this, and Brian Synger masterfully accomplished such in his XMen films. Superman Returns is, then, his pigmalyon statue the neighbours complain about because they miss the pretty lawn ornament.

  2. Although I do like this movie, I understand why so many viewers had trouble. Battling the kryptonite island was not an exciting enough challenge for Superman. Aside from the fact that it didn’t make sense within the internal logic of the movie (10 minutes earlier, contact with the island robbed him of his powers and now it doesn’t), Superman never punched anyone or anything. Remember how much fun it was when he fought in Superman II? This film lacked a compelling climax for the character.Even though I really like this movie, it’s not a surprise or tragedy that many viewers don’t view it as a success. The real tragedy is that Warner Bros. learned the wrong lesson from the experience.

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