I understand that the title of this post is quite lofty, but I do want to clarify one big thing regarding this statement before we begin. ‘Biggest Missed Opportunity’ is not the same as ‘Worst.’ In fact, in my own ranking of DC Movies Superman Returns landed right around the middle-of-the-pack. Also, strictly speaking, we’re not just talking about the film itself. Though that’s as good a place to start as any.
I do not hate Superman Returns, in fact I don’t really have any strong feelings about it at all. Which is part of the problem. I’ll actually start things off by discussing a few positives about the film. Brandon Routh & Kevin Spacey were both well-cast as Superman/Clark Kent and Lex Luthor. And, while Routh was a newcomer, and a pleasant surprise, Spacey’s name had been bandied about for Luthor probably dating back the 1994/95 after he scored big-time bad guy credentials with The Usual Suspects and Seven.
The film looks great, and is shot like a post-modernistic Norman Rockwell cityscape. Which works quite well for any Superman property. And there are two scenes I can think of that really captured some of what we want in a Superman movie. The first was the space shuttle rescue, where Superman made his first appearance since disappearing five years ago (in movie continuity). The other is at the start of the third act, when the earthquake triggered by Luthor’s master plan hits Metropolis, and the Man of Steel flies through the city saving lives, and stopping catastrophes.
The unfortunate thing is that there’s not much else in the movie that gets the blood pumping. By 2006 they had all the technology they needed to give Superman a worthy physical adversary. I mean, even the disastrous Superman IV: The Quest For Peace at least tried to show the audience a superfight with the Nuclear Man. The only thing that even remotely qualifies as a fight scene in Superman Returns is when a Kryptonite-weakened Superman get kicked around by Luthor and his generic goon squad.
There were some major story problems as well; some stemming from Bryan Singer wanting to make a direct sequel to Superman II. The Super Amnesia Kiss was pretty indefensible in 1980, and was only made worse 15 (actual) years later when we learned this resulted in the birth of a child. The super son story also never moved the needle for me, in and of itself.
It was very lazy to make Lex Luthor’s grand scheme a simple remix of his scheme from Superman: The Movie. Property Fetishist Lex Luthor is pretty far from the most interesting Luthor you can give us. While we’re talking about character problems, I had a big one with Superman himself.
Leaving Earth unprotected for 5 years to go see the remains of Krypton is not something I could ever imagine Superman doing. Especially since this was, once again, a direct sequel to Superman II, where three other supervillains basically conquered the Earth while Superman was hanging out in his Fortress of Solitude with his girlfriend for a week.
While on the subject of Lois Lane, I should mention that I feel it was a bad call to cast fairly blank slate Kate Bosworth in the role, especially when Kristen Bell had been out there doing a fantastic Lois for a few years already with Veronica Mars. I don’t think Bell would have saved the movie, but I feel she could have at least gotten me invested in the Superman – Lois relationship.
Again, a lot of these problems come from Singer’s irrational desire to make a sequel to a 15 year-old movie. They cast young for Superman and Lois, so why not just make this a full reboot? The smarter move would have been to essentially make Man Of Steel 7 years earlier. I have some issues that that film as well, but I feel like the instincts were right at least. Hell, they even could have used General Zod, so Singer – or whomever else they would have gotten to make the movie – could have paid homage to the old films.
But all of these issues really just resulted in a thoroughly mediocre movie. To understand the reason why I call this the biggest missed opportunity in comic book movie history, we need to look at this film’s place in history itself.
Superman as a franchise was killed in 1987 by the cheaply-made, and altogether terrible Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. Two years later Batman staked his claim as the go-to cash cow of comic book intellectual properties. It had a pair of highly successful, and fairly well-received, sequels in 1992 and 1995. But then Batman & Robin subsequently cratered out superhero movies as a whole in 1997.
One might call 1997 rock bottom for superhero movies, but it actually triggered something significantly more interesting. That something would be a full reevaluation of how to make a superhero movie. This would lead to absolutely huge things a few years later, but it all started pretty small.
In 1998, Blade showed Hollywood how to make comic book characters more appealing to a wider audience. And it did so without having to break the budget bank. It brought a darker, and more adult approach to the material.
In 2000, X-Men took that template, built it out, and gave the people an adaptation that they’d been waiting decades for. It kept the dark tones, and dark wardrobes (for better or worse). But X-Men ironed out the subject matter to bring it down from an R rating to PG-13, which opened the door for these movies to become bonafide blockbusters. I’d be remiss to not mention that Bryan Singer directed this as well, and it no doubt put him on Warner Bros’ radar.
In 2002, Spider-Man literally brightened things up, by not shying away from red and blue spandex. It smashed box office records, and is well-reviewed by critics and audiences across-the-board. This truly was the closest thing we’d ever seen to a comic book brought to live action.
In 2003 and 2004, X2: X-Men United and Spider-Man 2 show sustainability, and improvement over their respectivce predecessors. At this point, more comic book movies start hitting theaters to varying results. But, suffice to say, the revolution had begun in-earnest. I’ll note that Singer was pretty much hired directly off X2, and onto WB’s first Superman project in nearly 20 years.
In 2005, Batman Begins got DC back in the game in a big way. Blade, X-Men, Spider-Man, and even some less stellar outings such as Fantastic Four, and Ang Lee’s Hulk were Marvel properties. WB decided to hold off on jumping back into the fray until they had what they believed to be a home run. This young Batman origin story was incredibly well reviewed, and was also a box office beast. Warner Bros and DC now had a fully blank slate to carve out their new movie legacy.
This brings us to 2006. Superman Returns comes out one year after Batman Begins, and cast a young actor as Superman. This was the golden ticket, the lost city of El Dorado, the chance to set a new course for the future of filmmaking, and a shared universe 3 years before Marvel would even start planting those seeds. The two most recognizable superheroes on the planet could finally share a movie screen together, and break fandom wide open.
Here’s the thing, WB/DC didn’t even have the same obstacles that Marvel Studios did. Warner Media owned the film rights to every single DC character. Unlike Marvel who had sold the film rights for their most popular characters: Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four.
And with the WB Studio backing them, they didn’t even have to take the same sort of massive financial gamble that Marvel did to bankroll Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008. They could have easily given us the first ever truly shared cinematic universe filled with some of the most popular characters in pop culture history.
Instead, they made a sequel to a 15 year-old movie, and made no attempt to tie it to any other characters. Not even a wink, or a shout-out. The first time we saw multiple Marvel heroes together on-screen was Iron Man, War Machine, and Black Widow in Iron Man 2 in 2010. But, we could have seen Superman and Batman together on-film before then. And it wouldn’t have been too hard to roll out Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and any other character they so pleased before the Avengers ever assembled in 2012.
This was most likely due to a lack of foresight, or even straight-up creativity, by the suits running WB. But, had a filmmaker come to them with a stronger pitch to start working toward a universe shared by Superman, Batman, and countless other superheroes and supervillains, then maybe he or she could have opened some minds.
2008 brought us The Dark Knight, which is a great movie. But it’s not like we couldn’t have had that, along with a Superman / Batman movie in 2007 or 2009. Don’t get me wrong, I love the MCU. And, regardless of what WB/DC did, I would not want to see Disney and Marvel do anything different with their shared universe. I’m not looking for a replacement, I’m just looking for more of a good thing.
It was 2016 before we ever saw Batman and Superman in a live action movie together. If Superman Returns is my choice for biggest missed opportunity in comic book movie history, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is my choice for most disappointing film in comic book movie history.
Warner Bros and DC seem to have found their groove a bit more with recent releases like Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and SHAZAM after a rocky period stemming from the fallout of BvS. I’m personally hoping they can stay the course this time, and finally give us the connected DC movie universe (or multiverse, I suppose) that we’ve been waiting nearly 20 years for. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop wondering what it could have looked like if they’d taken that big swing when they had their first shot at glory.