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In 2006, after several false starts, the Superman movie series was re-launched with Superman Returns. Directed by Bryan Singer (who left the third X-Men movie to do Superman), this film promised to bring Superman back into the cinematic spotlight. Unfortunately, that did not quite happen. It disappointed audiences (even though it scored 75% on Rotten Tomatoes) and was a financial let-down. Basically, it did not put Superman where Warner Bros. wanted him to be, so any follow-up to Superman Returns was shelved. What exactly went wrong?
Superman Returns is such a fascinating and unique case of a movie. In 2006, “billion dollar movie” was not a common thing like it is today. It is ridiculous to think that Superman Returns was a flop if comparing it to today’s box office standards. People tend to forget that Returns grossed close to $400 million dollars, more than what Batman Begins did the previous year. It made a solid chunk of change that WB would normally be very pleased about.
Here is the thing, though. Superman Returns’s budget was outrageous. It cost well over 200 million to make. For 2006, that is insane! I honestly do not know what WB was expecting. Also, not helping matters at all is the fact that the money spent on all the false starts on a Superman film going back to the mid-90s was tacked on to Returns’s budget. This placed the movie at a completely unfair disadvantage when computing its monetary intake.
Even if audiences embraced it, there was no way Superman Returns was going to churn the profit WB wanted. For more on Hollywood’s out of control budgets, see Zack’s fantastic editorial.
I suppose of audiences were warmer towards the film, WB would be encouraged to do a sequel (albeit with a lower budget). So, what happened there? Personally, I think there were a couple of things.
First, there was the casting of Superman and Lois Lane. Now, I like Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth in their respective roles. I think they did a fine job. However, they were incredibly young for what their characters were supposed to be. The film states that Superman has been around for a while and Lois is a very well-established journalist. They even (spoilers) have a five year-old kid together. Yet, they look like they are in their young twenties (in fact, I remember there was some internet chatter at the time that Routh was actually younger than teenage Clark Kent, Tom Welling, in Smallville).
I get why they cast young (WB likely wanted a series of films over a ten-year period), but it did not work for the story trying to be told. Perhaps if they cast older actors, some of the Returns backlash would not be there. Alternatively, had this been a “origin” film (like Man of Steel appears to be), I doubt people would complaining about the casting choices.
I also think that – and this is a big one – the film Bryan Singer made was not the film audiences were expecting. I think audiences wanted a Superman film where he threw down and engaged in some terrific action sequences which could not have been made during the Christopher Reeve era (especially with an $200 million price tag). Instead, Singer made a quieter film focusing more on Superman’s interpersonal struggles. Singer’s approach is not inherently wrong, just not the one people were expecting.
Author’s Note: I’m not saying these are the only things problematic with the film, but I think they are the two biggest things.
I like Superman Returns, but it obviously has its flaws. It is a shame that the film will always be considered a one-off misfire at best. It was a very ambitious film which took several bold risks (something you rarely see in today’s superhero movies – I’m looking at you Marvel Cinematic Universe). But, I also think that the film had the perfect storm to be that misfire. Hopefully Man of Steel does not fall into that same trap. We’ll find out soon enough.