Standing at the Edge
Why the World Didn't Need Superman (Quite as Much as Warner Bros. Wanted It To)
By Christopher Brosnahan
04 September 2006 Warner Bros. seemed to have it all tied up. A budget of somewhere between $250 and $400 million dollars (depending on which reports you believe), with at least another $100 million spent on merchandising and advertising. Superman Returns was going to be the movie event of the summer. If you weren't running out of the cinema with your sweater knotted around your neck, pretending you could fly, then they hadn't done their job.
And at first, it appeared to be working. Easily the most hyped movie since 1994's Independence Day, Bryan Singer's Superman had everybody talking. It was impossible to walk down a street without seeing a newspaper advert, a magazine, a bus shelter poster or something which proclaimed the same thing. Superman was coming. Everything was going to be okay.
However, a number of things prevented the popping of champagne corks in the halls of WB. The first was the most obvious issue for them the reviews came out. While they didn't pan the movie, the majority didn't praise it either. The general consensus seemed to be that while it was good, it lacked something and was a disappointment. This was immediately problematic for the production company. This movie didn't need to be just good. This needed to be the biggest movie in history. Not the biggest opening weekend in history the biggest movie in history. Fifty-three million didn't even come close to putting it in the black.
This has been a gamble that has worked before. James Cameron's Titanic spent so much money that it absolutely needed to be the biggest movie in history in order to recoup its costs it succeeded with plenty of change to spare. However, conversely, it's also a gamble that has failed miserably before just look at Kevin Costner's Waterworld, or Michael Pilimino's Heavens Gate. But then, Superman had something that neither of those films had, and not even James Cameron had. It had the single most recognizable character and intellectual property on the face of the earth.
What the film desperately needed was word of mouth, as well as a smart advertising campaign. It needed to have everybody coming out and not just loving the movie, but telling all of their friends how much they too would love the movie, and how they had to go see it and if that involved them going to see it again, well, that was fine, because the movie was just so darn good.
This year, that did happen. Everybody came out loving the movie, and telling all of their friends about it. It took not just the biggest opening day of all time, but also the biggest opening weekend of all time, the biggest opening week of all time, and shows no signs of slowing down. Unfortunately for Warner Bros., that movie was Buena Vista's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.
What was remarkable about the (as early signs indicate) unparalleled success of Pirates of the Caribbean was that it wasn't so hyped. Sure, the posters were out there, the toys were out there and it made similar numbers of magazine covers, but it didn't quite make the newspapers salivate in the same way that Superman Returns did. After all, newspapers give coverage to what they think will sell more papers while nobody thought that Pirates would be a flop, nor did anybody see the huge success it would be. And just to add insult to injury, not only did Pirates do this the same year as Superman it did it the week after.
Panic stations, at this point, should have been hit internationally for Warner Bros. Unfortunately for them, they committed a huge mistake. They stuck to the original international plan. Superman was released internationally a couple of weeks after it was released in the US. The plan appears to have been to capitalize on the (no doubt) glowing reviews at home, and the record breaking box office. Then, to fly to the blue skies of Europe, and take in record figures there. This couldn't have been a worse decision, because in the meantime, Pirates was released on the same day internationally. While the first film was a hit, word of mouth and smart DVD packages led to the fan base increasing exponentially, and immediately broke the record. And then, word of mouth ensured that the following week, Dead Man's Chest continued to do huge business.
I can use an example local to myself to show just how bad things were internationally for Warner Bros. My nearest cinema in East London is the Stratford Picture House. While it's a chain, it isn't a huge one; however, it has relatively large screens, and advertises itself well. When Pirates came out, they pushed the boat out (pun not fully intended), decorating the bar, selling pirate-based cocktails, having a fancy dress party for kids, quizzes, etc. It was such a success that not only did they fill every showing of screen one, they had to change plans at the last moment and also filled screen two with people paying to see Pirates. The following week, Superman came out. It was on screen two. What was screen one showing? Screen one was still showing Dead Man's Chest. This was happening all over the country. The cinemas put what people wanted to see in screen one, and people wanted to see Pirates.
In the battle of marketing, Johnny Depp and a silly accent swash-buckled their way to the front. But why? Personally, I believe the reasons are quite simple.
Pirates is a damn good movie. Superman, to put it simply, isn't. It's certainly the better looking movie the special effects are sensational but it isn't the better prospect. It's the double edged sword of Superman. While the Man of Steel certainly has his fans and is recognized worldwide, he doesn't inspire the love in everybody that people think. An awful lot of people find him too corny, too wholesome and too much like a boy scout. Not to mention, a lot of people have issues with the simple plot point that a pair of glasses doesn't change somebody's appearance that much. As a glasses wearer, I can vouch for this.
It also didn't help that Superman had some huge, gaping plot holes of its own. While it is possible to accept that the disguise of a pair of glasses fools most people who take a quick glance, we are expected to believe that Lois Lane could, five years ago in Superman II, sleep with Superman and not recognize him when he tousles his hair and puts on those glasses. Her being a genius reporter doesn't help matters. Also, the lack of an ability to do some basic math doesn't do the movie any favors. We are repeatedly told that Superman left five years ago. During which time, Lois gets pregnant, gives birth and gets into a new relationship. Leaving aside the fact that Lois must have gotten together with Richard incredibly fast for him to think he's the father. We also have the obvious problem that... that kid isn't four. He's about seven. Which makes him only about 16 years younger than Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane. De-aging your characters is one thing (since Singer went to such pains to make this a sequel to Superman II, I don't feel that this is nitpicking), but giving characters children immediately ages them.
It gets worse. Superman doesn't just have gaping plot holes it also suffers from lazy writing. Attempts to make Superman come across as being upset / in pain / somewhat emo, involve him spying on Lois' family. Stalking is hardly appropriate behavior for an icon. Not only do we have the newly brooding Superman, but we also have an unforgivably lazy bit of repetition. In fact, we have two.
Following a beating at the hands of Luthor, Superman is seemingly dead. That's the plot point. He's left for dead. We then get the comeback, and eventual triumph. Following which, Superman is seemingly dead. This all takes place within half an hour. Even worse is exactly the same plot point following itself within 10 minutes: when Lois' pilot boyfriend is having problems with the plane, it falls in mid-shot, seemingly to it's doom, before rising like a phoenix closer to the camera. It's a tense shot, no doubt, and it's immediately memorable. Which is unfortunate, because a little later, Lex Luthor's helicopter falls in mid-shot, seemingly to it's doom, before rising like a phoenix closer to the camera. That's laziness to a degree that makes Dan Brown's indenti-plots look like constant career renewal.
And finally, for a movie that has such confidence in itself, it obviously lacks confidence in Brandon Routh. While he nails the part of Superman and he does, he utterly nails it his Clark Kent is both lacking, and underserved. For what reason, other than lack of confidence in the actor, would the character of Clark Kent vanish completely for the last 40 minutes of the movie? The only possible other reason is a fundamental misunderstanding of the mythos of the character, which is a disturbing thought for a franchise that has just spent more than the defense budget of a couple of countries. Since Clark provides the humanity of the character, it is more than an oversight.
Despite all of this, I did like Superman. Really, I did. But that's not what needed to happen. I needed to love Superman. That's what Warner Bros. needed everybody to do, and it just hasn't happened. And, to compound the problem, in the same couple of weeks, Pirates of the Caribbean has proven to be the movie people loved. Suffering none of the problems that Superman had, and showing a lot of creative guts (not least in the ending), it's done exactly what Superman needed to do.
Perhaps it's all because of the prospect of the two titles. As I mentioned previously, Superman just isn't as popular as a lot of comic book fans think he is. He's an icon, certainly. But an interesting character who people will pay to go and see? To an extent, yes. But even that is underestimating the level of interest in the character. Whereas Pirates II was a no-brainer. It stars one of the most popular actors alive today, in the sequel to a surprisingly offbeat mainstream box office smash.
If Warner Bros. had the balls, they would have released Superman worldwide, rather than drip-releasing it around the world. Because of this, Pirates stole the Man of Steel's thunder. Perhaps if Bryan Singer hadn't been so in love with the original two movies, he would have delivered a standalone movie, which people would probably have been more receptive to people like origin movies, it's that simple. And if Warner Bros. hadn't rammed it down everyone's throats, people would be more inclined to look favorably on it in the long run, which sadly hasn't happened.
Superman Returns didn't outright fail, but it did fail its mission objective. It should have been better, and it should have been bigger. It should have reinvented Superman, not outdated him. It should have been the best movie of the year, and sadly, it wasn't even the best movie on Bryan Singer's résumé.