HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Superman (Finally) Returns

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we discuss how the journey to Superman Returns ended.

J.J. Abrams almost lost me with his treatment of the next Superman film. I never watched Felicity or Alias. I never saw Lost (I know, I know. By the time everyone I knew told me I should be watching it, it was already two seasons into continuity and I didn’t want to invest the time catching up. Sorry). I almost didn’t go see his Star Trek reboot, which was great. And I think his Super 8 was spectacular.

So why did his Superman go so wrong?

Before we get to his treatment, we should talk a little bit about the history behind it. Abrams’ script came in after Paul Attanasio’s and was able to sway director McG to direct it. McG dropped out to film Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and was replaced by Wolfgang Peterson. However, before Peterson could start on Abrams script, Andrew Kevin Walker’s Batman vs. Superman script caught Warner Brothers’ eye. The studio shifted focus (and Peterson) over to that project while Abrams continued to tweak his script.

The poster for Batman vs. Superman as it appears in I AM LEGEND

Batman vs. Superman dealt with the breakdown of the friendship between the heroes after the Joker kills Bruce Wayne’s new bride and sends Batman into a murderous rampage (you can almost hear all the comic book fans’ going apoplectic all at once while reading that statement, can’t you?). Superman has to stop his old friend from killing the Joker, which leads to a knock-down brawl between the two. The film was even scheduled for summer of 2004 before Warners decided to go the solo film route with Batman Begins and Abrams’ revamped script.

Concept art from J.J. Abrams' SUPERMAN script

Abrams’ treatment moved away from the “Death of Superman” adaptations that were proposed up to this point, although Superman does die in his script. But that’s not the only thing he moves away from. In his script, Krypton doesn’t explode. Martha Kent is almost raped by an evil landlord. Clark Kent’s nebbishy neurotic nature isn’t an act, it’s really how he feels because he is a superpowered freak. Lex Luthor is a CIA agent hunting aliens who is secretly a deep cover Kryptonian himself. Lara dies after being tortured by the bad Kryptonians. Jonathan Kent dies of a heart attack after Clark makes his debut as Superman. Superman dies trying to rescue Lois. Jor-El kills himself after psychically “feeling” Kal-El’s death so he can convince him to come back to life. And so on.

There is something in Abrams script to piss off every Superman fan. Most fans will hate all of it. Lex Luthor as a Kryptonian? That doesn’t bother me much. Krypton not exploding? That does. The fact that Superman is the last of his race, that his birth parents made the ultimate selfless sacrifice so their son could live was with the character from the first page of his first appearance. It adds depth, pathos and tragedy to the character. Keeping Krypton around just so you can have more Kryptonians for Superman to fight is an irritating reason to lose such a defining characteristic of the character.

I’d like to think the bad parts of the script show the hands of Jon Peters and not Abrams. That could very well be the case. But the fact that the script made it so far into development, first with McG, then with Brett Ratner, then with McG again is simply sad.

The Abrams script died when McG insisted on shooting the film on the North American continent rather than in the cheaper Australia the studio wanted. Bryan Singer, famous for doing the awesome X-Men films we’ll talk about later, was brought on as director and brought a new script by X2 scribes Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris with him. That script became Superman Returns.

It is almost impossible not to be hypercritical about Superman Returns, without all the negative emotions created by the previous attempts to reboot the franchise. Perhaps if this was the only attempt at a new look at Superman, perhaps I would have liked it more. As it is, all I see is the films flaws.

Singer gets points for treating the film as an ipso facto sequel to Superman II. Although, that being the case, it creates the first flaw of the film as the last line of dialogue Superman has in that film is “Sorry I’ve been away so long. I won’t let you down again,” and this film starts with Superman returning from a five-year mission in space. That’s a long time to be away after the character had just apologized for being away so long.

The influence of Jon Peters appears to be kept at a minimum, although elements from his time as a hands on producer are still felt (with Superman’s near death experience and the strained relationship with Lois carrying over from earlier drafts). The fact that Richard White (James Marsden), angle “C “in the Superman and Lois love triangle, is portrayed as a decent, nice guy makes that element pop. Too often the competition to the hero is portrayed as a cad which while making us root for the hero to win the affection of the girl, makes us wonder what the girl saw in the cad in the first place. Having the other man be a better man in many ways than Superman makes the love triangle more complex and more interesting to watch.

However, there are irksome elements too. Luthor’s plan to create a new continent in the Atlantic, killing billions in the process, goes well logically with Luthor’s plan in the first movie to create oceanfront property in Nevada by sinking California into the Pacific. But that scheme was one of the campy elements that took away from the first film. And considering Superman Returns was a darker, more serious film than Superman, that bit of camp is much more distracting.

And this is something that might bother only me, but I have a serious problem with Superman lifting Luthor’s continent into orbit at the end of this film. The first film established that a piece of kryptonite the shape of a person’s fist would be sufficient to weaken Superman so that he can’t even lift the metal chain the rock is attached to over his head. Yet, in Superman Returns, he is able to lift an entire continent composed mostly of kryptonite up into outer space, all while having a chunk of the stuff buried in his rib cage. I’m willing to suspend disbelief a lot, but not when it flies in the face of what was previously established in the franchise.

Superman Returns made over $391 million at the box office worldwide. However, the film cost anywhere between $204 and $350 million dollars to make, depending on who you ask and whether or not they add all the previous failed attempts into the calculation. Warners decided to go with a reboot for the next film instead of a planned sequel to Superman Returns. That reboot, titled The Man of Steel, is being produced by Christopher Nolan, written by David S. Goyer and directed by Zach Snyder, three men with a lot of success in the field of the comic book movie. The one concern with the film is the sense of urgency in its production, as Warners was rushing the film through production to gain a 2012 release date so they could have a film property they couldexploit in the theaters before the Superman copyright permanently reverts to the estates of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 2013. However, the release date pushed back until June of next year. The project was undergoing script rewrites as it was shooting, so who knows what the end result will look like.

If all this behind the scenes talk about Superman was too heavy for you, then look out! Next time, the conversation gets even heavier…and more metal.

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About Bill Gatevackes 2029 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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