The year after Batman Begins released, the first major attempt to restart the Superman film franchise since Superman IV finally released, after decades of cancelled projects. The road to even getting to Superman Returns is a long and complicated one, so I’ll only talk about the most fascinating attempts to reboot the Superman film franchise. Not included will be the Superman vs. Batman movie originally planned for 2004, since I already mentioned that in my Batman Begins post.
Before Superman IV failed, Canon Films considered a fifth Superman movie, with Albert Pyun as the director. Not only did Superman IV’s failure kill any chances of a Superman V, but when Canon Films went bankrupt, the film rights reverted back to Ilya and Alexander Salkind. That story would see Superman dying, and resurrected in the shrunken bottled city of Kandor. The concept behind this story actually predated the 1992 comic story arc, The Death of Superman.
After the success of said Death of Superman story, Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to Superman from the Salkinds in 1993, with the intention of creating a movie, Superman Reborn. A script for this movie was completed in March of 1995, and there were even toy companies ready to make merchandise, given they at least saw the script first. In that movie, Clark and Lois would be having relationship troubles, and it would also feature Doomsday as a major villain. Somehow, Superman’s life energy transferred into Lois after he dies, and Lois has a virgin birth. That baby grew to 21 years of age in 3 weeks, becoming the resurrected Superman.
Warner Bros didn’t like the script, feeling the themes were too similar to Batman Forever when it comes to the title character’s obligations of heroism. A rewritten script also added Brainiac as the creator of Doomsday. This time, Superman would be resurrected by a team of scientists, but wouldn’t regain his powers right away and needed to wear a robot suit instead. That mess of a script also included Parasite and Silver Banshee as villains. Somehow that script impressed Warner Bros, but when they hired Kevin Smith to rewrite it, he felt that version of the story didn’t respect Superman’s mythos. To me, that script sounds like a disaster.
Next on the list of cancelled projects is Superman Lives, initially pitched by Kevin Smith. Although the producer at the time liked the story, he wanted certain conditions to be met. One being that Superman couldn’t fly, arguing it would make Superman “look like an overgrown boy scout.” He also wanted some sort of giant spider fight in the third act, a scene where Brainiac fights a polar bear at the Fortress of Solitude, and a space dog that Brainiac presents to Lex Luthor purely for toy sales. The script that Smith came up with also included the Eradicator (a Kryptonian robot), resurrecting Superman after he’s killed by Doomsday, and this robot then becomes Superman’s robotic suit until his powers return. Ben Affleck was considered for the role of Superman. He would later portray early Superman actor George Reeves in the 2006 movie Hollywoodland, and Batman in Batman V. Superman and Justice League.
That version probably was the closest to actually being made out of all these cancelled projects. They even hired Tim Burton on a pay-or-play contract of $5 million, meaning with some exceptions, they’d need to pay him whether they kept him as the director or not. Nicolas Cage also signed on as Superman with a $20 million pay-or-play contract. Burton said of the casting that Cage would be “the first time you would believe that nobody could recognize Clark Kent as Superman, he could physically change his persona.” Kevin Spacey was considered for Lex Luthor, a casting choice they actually stuck with for Superman Returns, while Christopher Walken was Burton’s choice for Brainiac. Chris Rock was cast as Jimmy Olsen. Michael Keaton was also going to be involved, although he wasn’t going to reprise his role as Batman. Well, in his words … “not exactly.”
As insane as Superman Lives sounds, I can’t help but imagine it would at least be entertaining with such a wild premise and the strange casting choices. Rewrites and further pre-production continued for Superman Lives up until 1998, when Warner Bros finally put the movie on hold. They had already spent $30 million on pre-production, but Burton leaving to direct Sleepy Hollow was a factor, along with creative differences with the producer.
“I basically wasted a year, Burton said. “A year is a long time to be working with somebody that you don’t really want to be working with.”
Another writer, Alex Ford, also pitched an idea that Warner Bros. liked, that even contained a multi-film plan. He too left due to creative differences. Ford explained his reasons with, “I can tell you they don’t know much about comics. Their audience isn’t you and me who pay $7. It’s for the parents who spend $60 on toys and lunchboxes. It’s a business, and what’s more important, the $150 million at the box office or the $600 million in merchandising?”
Michael Bay, Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale), Brett Ratner (X-Men 3: The Last Stand), and Bollywood actor/director Shekhar Kapur all turned down directing duties for the movie. Superman Lives was rewritten in early 2000 to contain minor elements resembling 1999’s smash hit, The Matrix. Oliver Stone was offered the director’s seat, but declined. Will Smith was offered the role of Superman, but he turned it down due to ethnicity concerns. The film was slowly abandoned after that, yet Kevin Smith said as late as November 2016 that he’d be up for some sort of animated version of the movie, with Nicolas Cage voicing Superman. Although that was eventually abandoned, Cage voiced Superman in Teen Titans Go! To The Movies.
The last cancelled project before Superman Returns is Superman: Flyboy, which was to be directed by J.J. Abrams (The Force Awakens, Rise of Skywalker, the Star Trek 2009 reboot). This movie would include a civil war between Jor-El (Superman’s Kryptonian father) and his brother, Kata-Zor. As far as I know, Kata-Zor doesn’t exist in the comics … or anywhere besides Abrams’ pitch. In this movie, Krypton wouldn’t be destroyed, and Jor-El would be in a prison on Krypton. As strange as this movie sounds, Christopher Reeve joined in at one point as a consultant. A number of actors turned down the role, worried about typecasting. At one point, Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies) was in talks to play Lex Luthor, and Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) was even cast as Lex Luthor. The project eventually got dropped after a number of casting delays. Eventually, Warner Bros. replaced Abrams with Bryan Singer (Four X-Men movies), and that resulted in Superman Returns. Shortly after signing on, he dropped out of X-Men: The Last Stand. Singer wasn’t a fan of the comics, but enjoyed the original 1978 Superman film, often citing it as an influence of his.
On the note of not being a fan of the comics, he actually didn’t allow the cast to read X-Men comics on set. Although I haven’t read the same for Superman Returns, it wouldn’t surprise me.
From the start, Superman Returns was designed as a spiritual sequel to Superman II, with Superman returning to Earth after spending 5 years traveling to Krypton to see its remains. After looking at thousands of young actors, believing someone unknown would be best, they cast Brandon Routh for the title role. Routh also auditioned for Clark Kent for the Smallville TV series, but lost to Tom Welling. Dana Reeve, Christopher Reeve’s wife, found Routh’s physical resemblance to Christopher striking.
Kevin Spacey was the only actor ever considered for the role of Lex Luthor, helped by the fact that he and Singer are friends. The writers specifically kept Spacey in mind while working on the script. For Lois Lane, Spacey recommended Kate Bosworth after co-starring with her in Beyond the Sea. Amy Adams, who would later portray the character in Man of Steel, also auditioned for the role. Other cast members include James Marsden (Cyclops in X-Men) as Richard White, Frank Langella as Perry White, Parker Posey as Kitty Kowalski (based on Eve Teschacher from Superman), and posthumous appearances by Marlon Brando as Jor-El.
Instead of test screenings, Singer instead showed the movie to some of his trusted associates, which Warner Bros. agreed to. The production went smoothly enough that they actually moved the release date forward to June 28th of 2006. It went on to earn $391 million on a net budget of $204 million. Although it was successful, and the 9th highest grossing movie worldwide in 2006, it wasn’t successful enough to convince Warner Bros. to go ahead with Singer’s proposed sequel. They were hoping for at least $500 million.
The movie did decently well with the critics, earning a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 7/10. Time Magazine ranked it as one of the best superhero films. The Wall Street Journal also gave a positive review, but it wasn’t as glowing, criticizing Routh and Bosworth’s acting as “somewhat dead or super average.” Rolling Stone said that the movie “perfectly updates Superman for the modern audience.”
On the other hand, Roger Ebert gave the movie 2 out of 4 stars, calling it a “glum, lackluster movie in which even the big effects sequences seem dutiful instead of exhilarating” He also said that “Brandon Routh lacks charisma as Superman … he may have been cast because he looks a little like Reeve.” He also noted that “It’s strange how little dialogue the title character has in the movie.” The San Francisco Chronicle review argued that Warner Bros. should have straight up rebooted Superman along the lines of Batman Begins, and that Bosworth (22 at the time of filming) was too young to portray Lois Lane. That review also criticized the climax as not matching “the potential of the tiring 154-minute-long-film.”
Years later, in 2013, Singer admitted that Superman Returns was made for “Perhaps more of a female audience. It wasn’t what it needed to be, I guess.” He also pondered the idea of cutting out the first quarter or so, starting the movie with “the jet disaster sequence or something” to hook the audience in faster.
The movie was nominated for Best Visual Effects at both the Academy Awards and BAFTA, but lost both to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. At the Saturn Awards, Brandon Routh won Best Actor, John Ottman won Best Score, and the movie also won Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Fantasy Film.
As for myself, when I first watched this back in the late 2000’s, I hadn’t gotten into comics yet, despite being casually interested. I very much enjoyed this movie back then, even if I realized it was on the slow and melodramatic side. Well … since I got into comics, my opinion of this movie has drastically changed. First, let’s talk about the good.
This movie is really slow when it comes to action, but when there is action, it’s generally very good. The jet rescue scene is kind of legendary. There’s a short, yet effective scene where Superman faces off against a guy with a really big gun. But perhaps the most impressive sequence is when Superman is saving hundreds of people throughout Metropolis in a short amount of time. It might actually be the best Superman action scene in cinematic history, involving all of his powers, visual effects that have aged fairly well, and a great soundtrack behind it. On that note, the cinematography and soundtrack are both great in general.
While the writing behind his character feels off, Spacey is admittedly pretty good as Lex Luthor. He’s basically a colder, more intimidating version of Gene Hackman’s performance, while still having at least some of the humour. Langella is also pretty good as Perry White.
There are a lot of things wrong with this movie from both a writing and acting standpoint. Routh isn’t necessarily bad, but he’s bland as Superman. There’s also no real difference between Clark and Superman from a mannerism standpoint. That’s something that Reeve was really good at, adding subtle changes in his persona like slouching a bit as Clark Kent, and a different tone of speaking beyond just his pitch. Routh and Bosworth have no chemistry on screen – they mostly just stare at each other. Clark and Lois are written as if they’re idiots as well, when they’re both supposed to be intelligent.
There’s also a major sub with Lois Lane having a 6-year-old son, and a fiancé; Perry White’s nephew. This isn’t a spoiler because the movie does a terrible job at hiding it, but over the course of the movie, you learn that Lois’s son is actually Superman’s son, not her fiancé’s. Even if it’s unintentional on his part, turning Superman into a deadbeat dad feels wrong on so many levels. It’s just not in his character, nor is it in his character to leave Earth without saying goodbye to her, even if it’s hard. He’s also supposed to be smart enough to know if there’s a risk that he fathered a child, instead of needing to be told.
The writing behind Lex also feels wrong, but more from a story standpoint than a character standpoint. Apparently, despite how he nearly killed hundreds of millions of people and was serving a multitude of life sentences, he was released from jail purely because Superman couldn’t appear at his parole hearing. He starts the movie off by weaseling his way into inheriting a mansion from some old lady, when he should have the means to get one all on his own. It’s just an uncomfortable scene that doesn’t feel right for the character.
It doesn’t help that the credible accusations of pedophilia towards Spacey make watching him on screen a bit uncomfortable. On that note, Singer’s also been accused of sexual misconduct, and as I said earlier, they’re friends in real life. Nothing’s been proven in court of course, but it does make watching this movie a bit uncomfortable. What’s also uncomfortable is that Spacey’s recently been cast in a movie where he plays a detective investigating someone who’s been falsely accused of pedophilia. Yeah … not exactly the best way to return to the screen from a public relations standpoint.
How kryptonite is portrayed in this movie is also wildly off, which is consistent with Singer’s superhero movies in general. He seems to get the general idea of these franchises, but his understanding of character and lore is very hit and miss. Kryptonite is supposed to weaken Kryptonians in close proximity, cause a lot of physical pain, and eventually kills them through its poisoning. Direct physical contact tends to kill them very quickly. From what I’ve seen, Smallville might actually have the best on-screen portrayal of Kryptonite so far. This particular scene is kind of terrifying.
With Superman Returns, Lex Luthor is able to start building an entirely new continent made at least partially of Kryptonite. Yet when Superman lands on it, he’s not immediately uncomfortable. He doesn’t even notice that he’s lost his superpowers. He merely sweats, and then gets beaten up by Lex’s thugs. Even when he’s stabbed with kryptonite, it doesn’t poison him. It merely works like a regular stab wound on a human. Worse yet, for the movie’s climax, he manages to lift this city-sized rock into space, even as pure kryptonite crystals start breaking through and scratching his skin. Even within this movie, it’s inconsistent.
With all that said, this movie’s biggest problem is its pacing. It’s 2 and a half hours long, yet all of the story, character development, and action, could be contained in a movie that’s a full hour shorter. The movie isn’t well written enough to justify its melodramatic nature. Most of the acting is bland, and there isn’t enough humour to balance out the pacing. Even the action, while good, could have been cut down to make it feel faster and more intense. Sure, the theatrical cut of Superman II had that same stretched pacing with the Metropolis fight, but that kind of pacing was much more common back then, and Superman II doesn’t have pacing problems as a whole. The worst pacing comes at the ending, which drags on and on. The movie tries to convince you that Superman might die, and even included imagery resembling Jesus. Of course, anyone watching the movie knows they wouldn’t kill off Superman in the first movie of a soft reboot. Then there’s Lois telling Superman about his son, Superman visiting his son at night, and … it’s just too long. As good as the soundtrack is, there are a lot of moments within it that are just softer, slower versions of different John Williams themes, and that doesn’t help make this movie feel any faster.
Superman Returns is a mixed movie when you evaluate it on its own. The more you know about Superman from the comics, the less likely you are to enjoy it. That said, there are those who love this movie, and I would never try to take that away from them. If you enjoy the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, it’s at least worth one watch. Just keep in mind that this movie is slow, inconsistent even with its own Superman mythology, and in multiple ways it feels like a betrayal from a lore and character standpoint. Even Superman IV didn’t do that. Then again, as far as I’m concerned, it’s still nowhere nearly as bad as Man of Steel on the betrayal front. But I won’t be looking at that movie for this blog series.
Next up is The Dark Knight. Then I’ll finish up with The Dark Knight Rises and 2019’s Joker. After that I’ll do some catchup with Disney, Pixar, and X-Men movies, before I kick off a classic musical theme month.