Superman Returns: What Went Wrong?
Superman Returns is much better than its reputation suggests, but it never quite connected with audiences.
In retrospect, Superman Returns‘ low-key, emotional approach is almost revolutionary, especially in light of our post-Avengers superhero movie world where most superhero movies are consistently trying to outdo each other with spectacle in the third act. There’s a lot to like in Superman Returns, despite some of its questionable choices, and it’s a movie that may have had the deck stacked against it from the start.
Superman Returns clearly wanted to appeal to a particular segment of the audience, namely Superman purists who grew up on Christopher Reeve’s films, which depicted a friendly, idealistic hero operating in a fairly black and white world. Bryan Singer famously made his broad Superman Returns pitch to Superman: The Movie director, Richard Donner, and was so excited by the prospect of directing the character that he walked away from directing X-Men: The Last Stand. After the success of Singer’s X2: X-Men United, which (for the time) was the rare superhero sequel that improved dramatically on the original, things seemed to be going the Man of Steel’s way.
The internet had spent much of the previous decade reading the developments surrounding Superman’s big screen adventure with horror. Superman Lives had seen a procession of talent that seemed mismatched to the project, with stories taking absurd liberties with the character and the legend, all in the name of modernizing Superman, killing him, resurrecting him, giving him a robotic exo-suit, selling toys, and stripping the character of the hope and optimism that he normally would embody. There was even a very different Batman v Superman movie in development. Superman Returns feels very much like a reaction against all of that, almost like a commentary on Hollywood’s behind-the-scenes mishandling of the character for a decade or more.
But even a Superman Returns defender (like this writer) is often perplexed by some of the film’s decisions. Bryan Singer set out to make a romantic, mature Superman movie, as well as one that paid homage to the world established in the films that starred Christopher Reeve, a franchise that ended in tatters with the embarrassing Superman IV: The Quest For Peace in 1987. That one proved deadlier than Kryptonite to the Man of Steel’s box office prospects for nearly 20 years. To that end, Superman Returns tells the tale of a Superman who has been absent from his world, just as he had been absent from the big screen, so the title is both about the character’s return to Earth and the franchise’s literal return to screens.
The logic here, in theory, is sound. Superman’s origin story is one of the most oft-told in all of pop culture, and the rationale seemed to be to avoid trying to top the version put forth in Superman: The Movie, arguably the single greatest realization of a superhero origin story ever put to film. Everyone knows the broad strokes of Superman’s origin, but by adapting some of the other familiar trappings of the Richard Donner film (Krypton’s design, the John Williams theme, Marlon Brando as Jor-El), Singer and co. use some effective cinematic shorthand, immediately establishing a recognizable continuity without having to do too much heavy-lifting. It’s a technique recently adopted by films like Creed and The Force Awakens, which more or less jettison the baggage of a procession of poor sequels in favor of letting the audience pick and choose what they want from the backstory.
But on the other hand, it was never quite clear just how much of the previous Superman franchise was actually supposed to exist within the confines of Superman Returns. The most likely scenario is that both Superman: The Movie and Superman II form the entirety of the Superman Returns backstory, which would account for what is perhaps the most controversial element of the film: Jason Lane.
The introduction of Lois Lane’s son, who to nobody’s surprise was fathered by Superman, left a bad taste for some. Regardless of the fact that Superman left Earth before he likely would have detected Lois’ pregnancy–meaning there was no way he could have known he had fathered a child–the “deadbeat dad” narrative took hold and never let go. It seemed like an unnecessary flourish in a movie that already spends considerable time depicting a Superman trying to come to terms with a more cynical modern world than the character had faced in his 1980s big screen outings.
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The youth of the core cast accentuated the problem with the new timeline. Brandon Routh (at 26) and Kate Bosworth (at 22) would have been well suited to a “Superman Begins” approach to a new mythology, but the idea that Superman had been gone for five years, after presumably having a career and friendship alongside Lois Lane that lasted at least two to three years prior to that, just didn’t seem to line up with the way these characters were portrayed on the screen.
Brandon Routh did a fine job with that material, though. His somber, haunted, lonely Superman was recognizably the altruistic icon, and you could see him struggling to maintain that noble, hopeful edge in a world that seems to have moved on without him. The effect may have been one in which audiences felt sorry for the Man of Steel rather than identify with his pain, and that could have been off-putting. On the other hand, it’s a different kind of alienation than producer Jon Peters had been desperately pushing during the previous decade of trying to bring Superman back to the screen, where Supes was alternately depicted as a neurotic, aloof alien or a cold loner. Here, with the film acting as a vague sequel to the Reeve films, you could at least see in Routh’s performance the shadow of the character’s past optimism, shaded with his new worldview.
On paper, this vision of Superman sounds brilliant, and even subversive. But the weighty themes weren’t couched in enough blockbuster convention to make it work for a broad enough audience, and there were some questionable editing choices early on. For starters, a massive sequence involving Superman visiting the ruins of Krypton was cut from the opening of the film. This sequence (it’s available on the Blu-ray) is not only visually impressive and gives the movie a needed dose of sci-fi spectacle early on, but it’s crucial to understanding why Superman was gone in the first place, and it’s referenced later in the film.
Instead, the movie opens on a cartoonish sequence involving Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor (a casting that was better in theory than it ended up being in practice) stealing a fortune from an elderly woman (played by Noel Neill, a legendary former Lois Lane actress, and who deserved far better than this) via some of the most inexcusable expository dialogue in recent memory. Superman Returns then unfolds at a glacial pace, and you don’t get to see Superman in costume until nearly an hour into the film, which is exactly what you would think skipping the origin story was intended to avoid. Other than a handful of big moments, the movie never quite develops a sense of pacing or urgency.
What’s frustrating is that Superman Returns could have still done virtually everything Bryan Singer set out to do, remained as faithful as possible to the tone and spirit of Richard Donner’s vision for the franchise, but told a fresher story. And yes, that could have included the kid and the leaving Earth angle. But instead, the film’s structure and character beats are too faithful to Superman: The Movie, with scenes and dialogue that play like loving tributes to the 1978 film. Audiences who were demanding fidelity to that vision of the character already knew that film by heart and wanted a new adventure, not another Lex Luthor land grab. There’s no reason these themes of Superman coming to terms with a world that has moved on without him couldn’t have been explored within the framework of a more exciting villain (Brainiac has long been waiting in the wings as Superman’s best big screen option, and has recently been realized brilliantly on the Krypton TV series).
But the deck was stacked against Superman Returns from the outset. When you consider that the budget for the movie was reportedly $270 million, something doesn’t add up. Let’s compare that to two other 2006 blockbusters, X-Men: The Last Stand ($210 million) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest ($225 million). Both of those films were much heavier on action, sets, costumed characters, and special effects than the relatively subdued Superman Returns, and yet cost far less to make (and ultimately did better at the box office). If those numbers don’t convince you, let’s compare that Superman Returns budget to that of Man of Steel, a far more action and special effects heavy film than its predecessor, which still only cost $225 million, nearly $50 million less than Returns, seven years later.
Superman Returns was likely “billed” for pre-production work done on the many iterations of the development hell cautionary tale, Superman Lives, and the J.J. Abrams penned Superman: Flyby. My theory (and it’s one that I’m certain will never be confirmed) has long been that Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns pitch was so appealing to Warner Bros. at the time precisely because it meant that it could be brought in on a relatively modest budget (by superhero movie standards), and the accountants could be kept happy. Even the movie’s best action sequence, the universally acclaimed space plane rescue, was fairly similar to an Air Force One rescue in Abrams’ Superman draft, right down to a landing in a baseball stadium. I’ve long suspected that some of the visual work had been bought and paid for by that earlier version of the project.
Warner Bros. may have been gambling on the momentum of the recently revitalized Batman franchise (via 2005’s Batman Begins) and the comparative new-ness of the superhero movie revival (keep in mind, in 2006 we were still lucky to get one superhero movie per summer, and Spider-Man 2 and X2: X-Men United had both proven within the last three years that the genre was no longer a fluke) to carry their more thoughtful Superman re-introduction to financial success, and then they could unleash a more action-oriented sequel down the road.
Of course, that wasn’t to be. Superman Returns just didn’t generate a lot of heat at the box office. It limped to a $200 million finish (with almost another $200 million worldwide), which ordinarily would have been enough to garner a sequel, but again, that inflated $270 million budget figure means that the film may have just barely broken even when all was considered. It was reasonably well regarded critically, and certainly not as reviled as that summer’s other superheroic offering, X-Men: The Last Stand (which did more business at the box office).
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But even that muted emotional response is a problem. Everyone has a strong opinion about X-Men 3. Fewer seem to even remember Superman Returns, let alone harbor particularly strong feelings about it one way or the other. For that reason, perhaps Superman Returns‘ box office underperformance can be attributed to its failure to excite core superhero fans, who were almost universally disappointed by the lack of new characters, any hint of wider Superman or DC mythology (the “shared cinematic universe” of today was still a pipe dream in 2006, although many hoped that Routh’s Superman could one day meet Christian Bale’s Batman), and its introspective tone.
The result? A sequel that never materialized. Despite the fact that Warner Bros. quickly said they were moving forward on a sequel (which would have been titled Superman: The Man of Steel) very little actual movement towards a Superman Returns 2 ever took place. Bryan Singer seemed to quickly sense that audiences were dissatisfied with the lack of actual superheroics and there was talk of a more action oriented sequel.
Bryan Singer admitted that he only discussed the possibility, telling Empire, “We did explore it a little. Just hammering out ideas. I think Darkseid was going to be the villain. It was pretty world-destroying, actually.” We’d be looking at a vastly different superhero movie landscape if Superman took on Darkseid in the summer of 2009, a year after The Dark Knight and Iron Man once again showed what was capable in these kinds of movies.
A breakdown of a sequel treatment that made the rounds several years back (which involved Brainiac arriving disguised as a hero, and Superman being forced to end the life of his young son after he was possessed by Brainiac) was a fake, and it never appears that things moved beyond the talking stage. Warner Bros. was likely willing to move on from Superman Returns long before they were ready to tell the people actually involved in the film.
Even Brandon Routh never really knew the shape it would have taken. “There were several conversations with me over the years, but I was never that involved,” he told us in 2016. “I heard rumors of what might be, but there was a lot of change happening over at Warner Bros. at that time, so things didn’t fully evolve and escalate and I think that was one of the challenges that potential sequel met with, there was just a lot of shifting going on there.”
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And maybe it’s appropriate that it never happened. For better or worse, Superman Returns never felt like the start of something new, but rather a farewell to an era of the franchise that never got the appropriate sendoff it deserved. For fans, it’s still worth a look, and it’s likely the last Superman movie we’ll ever see where the primary function of the character isn’t concerned with the just how much he can do with his powers on screen.
The airplane rescue is rightly touted as a high point in the character’s cinematic history, but don’t overlook the moment when he pulls the yacht out of the water, just at the moment when all seems lost for Lois, Richard, and Jason. I’m not sure any Superman movie has ever quite nailed that feeling of absolute hopelessness before the last minute rescue. It’s an extraordinarily tense sequence, but the moment of release when you realize everything is going to be okay as the music swells is something that future big screen Superman adventures should look to for inspiration.
Mike Cecchini is the Editor in Chief of Den of Geek. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @wayoutstuff.