Franchise Expansion Or Implosion: Superman Returns

by Ben Martin

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
2018 marks the 80th Anniversary of when the medium of comic books changed forever when the creation of Superman gave readers the world’s first superhero. After Superman flew through comic book pages, the superhero became an absolute staple of comic books. December 15, 2018 also marks the 40th Anniversary of Superman: The Movie (1978), the film that created the comic-book movie genre. To honor this occasion, I will be examining The Original Superman Film Franchise! In this final installment of looking at the original Superman franchise, I’ll examine one of the early examples of using selective continuity and soft-rebooting, Superman Returns (2006)!

Everyone cites the pages of The Death of Superman (1992) as the first demise that the character ever experienced. But, the truth is that the world’s favorite boy scout died a cinematic death years earlier with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). That sequel was an absolute failure, both financially, and in terms of audience reception.  Shortly after that, Cannon Films lost the movie rights to Superman, which reverted to Warner Bros. At which point the studio let the last son of Krypton take flight on TV with Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997) and Superman: The Animated Series (1996-2000). Not wanting to let one of their flagship DC Comics properties remain in a cinematic prison cell, while it flourished on television, the studio began working on a new Superman movie.
Many attempts were made to get another Superman film off the ground. The first notable one was a script entitled Superman Reborn, written by Jonathan Lemkin (The Devil’s Advocate, Lethal Weapon 4). Superman Reborn involved the son of a now-deceased Superman taking over his father’s mantle and becoming the New Superman. As the world’s new defender, Supes Jr. would face-off against Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and Doomsday. Lemkin’s screenplay gained traction, but ultimately Warners felt it didn’t work and hired Kevin Smith to do a rewrite.

Being a fellow comic book fan, Smith jumped into the rewrite with vigor. Although, Smith’s famously noted having to rewrite Superman Reborn while adhering to many of producer Jon Peters (Batman ‘89) purported odd stipulations. Nevertheless, Smith’s Superman Lives turned out to be what the studio wanted. Following conventional Hollywood wisdom, WB and Peters decided to use the formula that made Batman ‘89 such a monumental success. Thus,Tim Burton was attached to direct the picture.

Upon coming on board, Burton made some unique choices. Firstly, the director had Superman Lives re-written by Wesley Strick (Wolf) and Dan Gilroy (Velvet Buzzsaw, and the upcoming Stan Lee’s Annihilator); as he reportedly wanted the film to have a more sci-fi oriented tone. Secondly, Burton approached comic book lover  Nicolas Cage (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) to play The Man of Steel. The film was made a high-priority, completing pre-production in late 1997.  Alas, Superman Lives died just three weeks before production was set to commence; thanks to the failure of Batman & Robin (1997) and many other Warner Brothers tentpole movies of that year. I hate that Superman Lives died prematurely as I think it would have at least been a fresh take on the source material. Luckily, there is an excellent documentary that chronicles the unmade blockbuster called The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? (2015), which I consider essential viewing for anyone interested.
At this point, it appeared that the comic book movie was dead as was a new Superman flick. Still, the genre didn’t stay “dead” for long; nor was Warner Bros deterred from getting Superman flying up on the silver screen again. Things went quiet until 2002 when writer J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Wars, Episode IX) turned in a script entitled Superman: Flyby. Like Burton with Superman Lives, Abrams’ approach with Flyby was to embrace the science-fiction elements of Supes more than anything else. As a result, the screenplay is said to have strayed from the traditional comic book mythos in many ways Despite this, Flyby almost made it into production; going so far as attaching McG (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator: Salvation). In the end though, Flyby crashed-and-burned due to being seen as too costly by the studio.
Thinking that going to an untapped filmic fountain was the answer, the Brothers Warner began developing a Batman vs. Superman project penned by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) and Akiva Goldsman (Titans). Soon enough, Wolfgang Petersen (The NeverEnding Story, Troy) was attached to direct. Not long after making movie news waves on the internet, this ultimately unrealized version of Batman vs. Superman was abandoned in favor of a more traditional solo film. (For or better worse though, we eventually got Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016). Thus, bringing us to Superman Returns, a film that took twelve years and many different approaches to come into fruition.
Director Bryan Singer (Bohemian Rhapsody) found notable comic book movie success with his 2000 film, X-Men; which was produced by Lauren Shuler Donner (wife of Superman: The Movie director Richard Donner). Therefore, it’s no surprise that one day on the set of X2: X-Men United (2003), Singer met Richard Donner. The X2 director couldn’t help but let Richard Donner know how much he admired Superman: The Movie (1978). Singer then went on to pitch the fellow director on what he would do given the opportunity to direct a Superman movie. The idea was simple, set the new film in the cinematic universe established by Donner and make it a direct sequel to his Superman adventures; ignoring any sequels thereafter. Unsurprisingly, Richard Donner cottoned to the concept as did Warner Bros.

Singer wisely re-teamed with X2 co-scribes Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris to create the film’s screenplay. Superman Returns picks up five years after the events of Superman II (1981) and finds that The Man of Steel has been mysteriously absent in the intervening years. However, Superman/Clark Kent (Brandon Routh) decides to finally return to Earth after finding nothing on his home planet of Krypton. Upon returning to our world, Superman is surprised to see the earth more stable than he expected. However, that doesn’t mean the hero doesn’t have personal matters to deal with like re-establishing his relationship with Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). Alas, Superman isn’t the only one making a return as a recently-resurfaced Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) enacts his latest dastardly plot for world domination. Now, Supes must once again resume the role of hero that he’d so long neglected.
Superman Returns has the distinct privilege of achieving a goal that most movies cannot. The film in review seems to be an uncompromised vision. It is also precisely what it set out to be; a faithful continuation of two beloved films’ story and tone. Such a goal could not be achieved without the right choices being made by Singer. First and foremost, Superman Returns maintains a consistent tone with the Donner films.

Moreover,  the casting is right on the money. Brandon Routh is the spitting image of Christopher Reeve; to the point where he seems to be the beloved actor reincarnated. There’s no question that Routh was the perfect choice for a new Superman/Clark Kent as he also manages to embody the spirit of the character. The same can almost be said of Kevin Spacey who plays an entertaining Luthor in the vein of Gene Hackman’s portrayal. Kate Bosworth also does a fine job of taking over for Margot Kidder as Lois Lane; though I feel Bosworth ultimately lacks the charisma and that Lois Lane needs. (However, she’s is still better than Amy Adams auditioned to play Lois Lane in this film and went on to do so in the current iteration of the character in The DCEU.)
Superman Returns achieves its goal of being a reverent continuation of Donner’s previous pictures. But, that very strength also proves to be the movie’s Kryptonite. For someone like me, who is a fan of Donner’s take on Supes, Superman Returns is a decent flick. By that same token though, it also suffers from ultimately being a pale imitation as opposed to a worthy continuation. The movie in review retreads a fair amount of familiar territory and nearly forgets action and excitement in the process. There are moments in Superman Returns that border on tedium during its 2-hour 34-minute runtime.
If you’ve followed this column, you know I’m a big fan of the first two Superman installments. Thus, I find the film in review to be a watchable one. The fact of the matter is though that there does not seem to be any story left to be told following Superman II. Therefore, the imitative cinematic continuation that is Superman Returns cannot help but be a Franchise Implosion, as it ultimately offers nothing new. Even so, part of me wishes the film would have received the sequel treatment.
Before the release of Superman Returns, a sequel to the movie was announced; set to be released in mid-2009. However, after its disappointing box-office returns, audience reception, and Singer’s choice to pursue other projects, the sequel never took flight. The film didn’t make a massive profit and in fact, was considered a box-office bomb by the studio. Although, at the time, Superman Returns was the second-highest grossing DC Comics adaptation after Batman ‘89. Despite its flaws though, I would still take Superman Returns over Man of Steel (2013) any day of the week!

Want to check the other reviews in this franchise?:
Superman: The Movie

Superman II

Superman III

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

Need more Supes? Read my other Superman articles:
Justice League

The Death of Superman

Reign Of The Supermen

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