[Note: This is an article I had written on my own in late 2006 due to my frustration over the missed opportunities in Superman Returns. With the release of Man of Steel coming up next month, I thought this would be a good opportunity to revisit Superman Returns, the film that launched AND ended the career of Brandon Routh (just kidding, I think).]
“Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” Superman did indeed make a return to cinemas around the world in the summer of 2006, but not as triumphantly as he should have. Co-financed by Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures (with Warner Bros. handling the theatrical and home video releases), Superman Returns was directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men), written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (X2: X-Men United), and based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. It features a stellar cast that includes Brandon Routh (as the Man of Steel), Kate Bosworth (as Lois Lane), and Kevin Spacey (as Lex Luthor). In the United States the film earned $200 million at the box office. While at first glance it may appear to be an impressive number, it should be noted that the film carried a ridiculously enormous budget of approximately $270 million (the budget for this particular film actually turned out to be $209 million after tax rebates and incentives were accounted for, and there was another $60 million in development costs that dated back to the 1990s). It wasn’t until late October 2006 that Superman Returns finally crossed the $200 million mark (it was released back at the end of June).
One of the big questions concerning Superman Returns prior to its release was: Is Superman Returns a sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films? “Sort-of,” according to Bryan Singer. This film is supposed to take place five years after the events of Superman II (the original theatrical version), which would have been fine if the film had been made 20 years ago. A big problem with Superman Returns is that it skips over the origin story. With the Man of Steel being absent from cinemas for nearly two decades, the wise approach would (and should) have been to reintroduce Superman to audiences around the world. In simpler terms: Restart the franchise. The gap between Batman and Robin and Batman Begins was only eight years, and Batman Begins restarted the Batman film franchise. The first thought in making a new Superman movie should have been to restart the franchise. It’s shocking that no one at Warner Bros. thought of this (especially since they were the ones who had restarted the Batman franchise a year earlier). Was Bryan Singer not able to reintroduce the origin story while keeping it in the same spirit as the Richard Donner Superman films? More than enough time had passed, making it okay for him to do so. Singer claimed that Superman’s origin story had been done to death, but the fact remains that 1978’s Superman: The Movie is the only Superman feature film to depict the origin story. This new Superman film had been in development for years, and it’s a shame that when a director was finally able to get the project running, he (Bryan Singer) opted not to do the origin story. Singer also claimed that everyone knew who Superman was and that he felt there was no need to do the origin story. The problem with that is that not everyone knows who Superman is. There are actually numerous people (not just kids) who have either never heard of Superman, read the comics, or have seen any of the cartoons or movies. It is a huge assumption to say that everyone knows who Superman is when the fact is that not everyone knows who he is. Bryan Singer had a great opportunity in reintroducing Superman on the big screen, and re-doing the origin story would have been fantastic especially with today’s advancements with CGI. Instead, Singer created one of the first great missed opportunities of the 21st century (this one film-related). Perhaps we’ll get a Superman remake with the origin story reintroduced in about 30 years.
Making Superman Returns a quasi-sequel of sorts didn’t help at all. The events of Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace get skipped over entirely. Although Superman III was embarrassingly and stunningly horrible, Superman IV was a pretty good movie (the uncut version, which I hope gets a proper restoration someday, is supposed to be really good). But I digress… At the end of Superman II, Superman told the President of the United States that he wouldn’t let him down again. This meant that Superman wouldn’t go off somewhere and ignore the world (like he had done earlier in the film). But at the beginning of Superman Returns, we’re told that Superman has been gone for five years (looking for the remains of Krypton). In the theatrical version (hopefully there’ll be an extended version of Superman Returns released down the road), there’s a line of dialogue that is supposed to explain why he went looking for Krypton. It went along the lines of, “When I heard that it might still be there, I just had to see it for myself” (not an exact quote, but the general idea is still there). In the theatrical version, it isn’t a strong enough reason for Superman to just go off and leave Earth behind for possibly a few years. But another element added into this explanation could give it more weight. In scenes cut from the film, it’s learned that Lex Luthor may have had an involvement in tricking some scientists and Superman into thinking that Krypton might still exist. Thus, with Superman going off to find the remains of his home planet, he wouldn’t be around for Lex’s trial. What the trial was for is never explained; it is either on the cutting room floor or the audience is left to assume that it had something to do with the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films. In Superman Returns, Lex explains to Lois that Superman’s absence was one of the key elements in getting his early release from prison. If Bryan Singer did film a scene where Lex admitted to tricking Superman, then it should’ve remained in the film. It would’ve made Superman’s five-year trip come off as less selfish than it might appear. But there’s a logical reason for why the five-year absnece makes no sense: If Krypton hadn’t exploded, baby Kal-El would not have been sent to Earth. If we’re supposed to look upon Superman: The Movie as source material, then we all saw the destruction of Krypton (and we all saw it again before the opening credits of Superman Returns!). If Superman is on Earth, then it means that his home planet has long since been dead. Thus, any report of a possible finding of Krypton wouldn’t have a lot of (if any) weight to it. Superman wouldn’t get his hopes up of a possible find of Krypton, especially since he was told by his father Jor-El in the Fortress of Solitude that Krypton had long since vanished (in Superman: The Movie). This logical explanation would make Superman’s five-year trip to Krypton (or where it used to be) very selfish, which contrasts what he had said to the President at the end of Superman II (theatrical version). If only the writers had come up with a stronger reason for Superman returning to where Krypton once was, and luckily for everyone I have a suggestion. Perhaps Superman could have had ongoing visions of Krypton (or where it used to be) to the point where he would consult with scientists to determine if anything is happening in that region of space. With strange signals starting to be detected, Superman, with the approval of world leaders, goes off to investigate in case Earth might be threatened by what was going on there. This could serve as a good set-up for the villain Brainiac, and even perhaps the introduction of Supergirl (the signals could either be coming from Argo City, the only surviving part of Krypton that managed to sustain itself, or Brainiac himself).
(To be continued in:
75 Years of Superman: Why Bryan Singer Shouldn’t Have Made Superman Returns Part Two)