Is Superman being shortchanged by the DC movie universe?

Superman will appear at least three times in movies in the next five years. But will any of them be a standalone Man Of Steel adventure?

A further, potentially important casting rumour for Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice landed over the weekend. The bottom line remains of Zack Snyder’s March 2016 movie is this: it’s going to have an awful lot of DC characters in it.

Originally mooted as the follow-up to 2013’s Man Of Steel, the film is said to pick up from where that movie left things, but also add a whole host of new faces. It’s already well known that Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman are on board. But rumours suggest we might also get an appearance from Aquaman (as played by Jason Momoa), whilst Jesse Eisenberg joins as Lex Luthor and Jeremy Irons as Alfred. That’s on top of the characters returning from Man Of Steel.

Warner Bros is gambling hard on this one, for a multitude of well known reasons. The main two? Well firstly, it’s effectively a reboot of Batman, the studio’s prized comic book movie asset. Secondly, it’s going to lead in to a further ten – at least – DC Comics movie adaptations, that the Warner Bros movie strategy is heavily based around until 2020.

However, the more we hear about the DC Comics movie line-up, and about Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, the more we can’t help wondering: is Superman the character getting a raw deal here? Because, even appreciating that there are DC plans we don’t know, it is starting to feel that way.

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The Reboots

Warner Bros has twice gambled hard on resurrecting the Superman movie series. In 2006, it had lured Bryan Singer away from X-Men: The Last Stand to instead direct Superman Returns. Pretty much a sequel to the first two Superman films, it was a hugely expensive movie to make and market, albeit one that couldn’t match the critical or commercial impact of 2005’s Dark Knight reboot, Batman Begins. Given that it’d been nearly 20 years since Superman had appeared on the big screen by that stage – and yep, we retain a strange soft spot for Superman IV: The Quest For Peace – the performance of Superman Returns was a disappointment.

For some time, Warner Bros puzzled over what to do next. For a while, in fact, it looked as if Bryan Singer would return to direct Superman Returns 2, infamously promising to go “all Wrath Of Khan on it” if he got the job of making another Man of Steel film.

But he did not. Instead, he went off to make Valkyrie and Jack the Giant Slayer, and it would be Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer, nattering whilst making The Dark Knight Rises, who would unlock the next big screen outing for Superman. They hatched a story they wanted to tell, Goyer went off to write it, Zack Snyder was hired to direct, and 2013’s hugely divisive Man of Steel was the result.

Man Of Steel was an even more expensive film to make and market than Superman Returns, and one that, to this day, sets off raging fan debates over whether it’s a good movie or not. That, and whether it’s true to Superman or not. That notwithstanding, one thing it did do was reboot Superman, and the film’s slightly disappointing global box office take – $668m – was enough to get things started with. A sequel was duly ordered, and Snyder was confirmed to return.

Things Change

But then the plan seemed to alter. The Superman sequel has since become a vehicle for reintroducing an older Batman to audiences, rather than having its focus being solely Superman. So whilst Henry Cavill will be one of the stars of Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, it’s unclear just how much space he’ll get in the film. It’s surely notable that his character doesn’t even get top billing in the title though, in a film that was supposed to be his sequel.

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Furthermore, and this isn’t the fault of the filmmakers directly, most of the talk to do with the movie has been about every character other than Superman. Sure, we’ve had a snap of Henry Cavill in costume doing the rounds, but it’s inevitably every other character being squeezed in there this time that’s attracted more attention.

That makes sense to a degree, given that the character of Superman has already been re-introduced. The novelty lies elsewhere this time. But the fear is – and it’s plainly too early to call this – that Superman will take second place in the movie. That whilst he may be the catalyst for what’s going to happen in the film, Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice will become a Justice League film by any other name.

[related article: Everything You Need to Know About the Justice League Movie]

To temper that, what’s just as likely is that the movie will introduce the new-to-the-screen DC characters briefly, setting them up for the next adventure (a tactic Sony deployed, not entirely successfully, with The Amazing Spider-Man 2). But still: just how much Superman are we going to get? Having waited seven years between Superman Returns and Man Of Steel, how much longer before we get a standalone Superman adventure again?

The current plan

Well, possibly at least seven years by the looks of it, given that Warner Bros has announced its DC movies up until 2020.

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Superman will be appearing three times on cinema screens between now and 2019, though, but each time, in an ensemble piece. After Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Henry Cavill’s next two Superman adventures will be Justice League: Part One in 2017, and Justice League: Part Two in 2019. Warner Bros has confirmed, we’ll get standalone Superman (and Batman) movies again, but they’re not dated. The announcement last week suggested we’ll get them within six years (“Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema will release a slate of at least 10 movies—as well as stand-alone Batman and Superman films—from 2016 through 2020 that expands this prized universe of characters”).

[related article: A Closer Look at the DC Superhero Movie Release Calendar]

But still: it feels like there’s nothing definite here, and a sense that Superman in an ensemble is more useful to Warner Bros than he is in his own movie.

The problem is that the Clark Kent/Superman story, begun in Man of Steel, is surely a long way still from being told, and even if it’s just two ensemble films now before we get him on his own again, it feels like his narrative will be continued in fragments. We hope not. When we left him at the end of Man of Steel, Superman was just about to start exploring the adult Clark Kent side of his character, and that deserves full exploration. Sure, we’re promised that Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice will deal with the aftermath of the wholesale destruction in Man of Steel, and the world’s attitude to Superman. But is there going to be space to explore Clark now? To tell the smaller, arguably more important story there? About the problems of leading a double life? And what about the rich, deep history of Superman comic stories that don’t have any DC character crossover? Is there room for those in the DC movie universe?

The Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films occasionally referenced and crossed over characters, of course. Or were content to give some characters a little bit of space, but no more. Yet the difference here is that Nolan seemed to have the choice. The demands on Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice aren’t, though, coming just from fans, eager to see DC’s mightiest pair face off on the big screen. They’re coming from the board room too. The jury remains out on whether Zack Snyder is the man to take what’s effectively the Joss Whedon role in the DC movie universe, but Warner Bros is gambling hard on him. The need to position Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice as a springboard movie is arguably a big part of that. That, for instance, Wonder Woman has to appear in it, because Warner Bros needs to sell a Wonder Woman movie in 2017. Is Superman the collateral damage of that strategy?

That said, I’m far from one of those who’ve written off Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice. On paper, it’s perhaps not the Superman film I most wanted to see, but I’ll still be buying my ticket for day one. But what I dearly hope is that as a consequence of broader business needs, that Superman hasn’t been relegated too far in his own sequel. And that, furthermore, Warner Bros affords space and time to explore Henry Cavill’s take on Superman/Clark Kent. If not, Cavill might be the second actor to play Superman in four films, only to get through about half of Superman-specific storytelling in that time.

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That may not prove to be the case of course, and this all may be much ado about nothing. But from the outside looking in, it does feel disappointing that Superman won’t get a standalone movie to himself until what looks like 2020 at the earliest. And given that’d be seven years after Man Of Steel, who in truth would wager against that being another reboot anyway? 

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