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.
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