This document only exists in my mind, but it’s how I imagine Bryan Singer’s pitch meeting with Warner Bros. for Superman Returns sometime back in 2005 . . .
Warner Bros Executive: Good morning, Bryan. What have you got for us today?
Singer: I know you guys have been trying to get Superman back off the ground for a long time now.
WBE: We had a great take on it with Tim Burton, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Singer: Well, I think you should reboot Superman as if Superman III and Superman IV never happened and just make this a direct sequel to the 1980 Donner film.
WBE: I’m listening . . .
Singer: Superman has been gone for five years and comes back. We keep the John Williams theme and the cheesy, late ’70s opening credits.
WBE: I like it!
Singer: Wait, there’s more.
WBE: More you say? Go on!
Singer: Yes. I have a ton of great ideas. For instance, Superman has an illegitimate son with Lois Lane that he doesn’t know about.
WBE: A bastard son of Krypton? I love it! Wait, how does he have a son?
Singer: He banged Lois in Superman II and then erased her memory of it.
WBE: How does Lois think she’s been impregnated, if she has no memory of the sex? Does she think she’s had an immaculate conception?
Singer: Not important. Nobody will care about that.
WBE: Does the kid have powers?
Singer: Yes, he kills a guy with a piano.
WBE: That’s a very empowering message for young people.
Singer: I know. So, now, Lois and the kid are living with her boss’ nephew.
WBE: Does that imply that Lois is getting special treatment at work, because she’s having sex with her boss’ nephew?
Singer: Of course not. So, Superman comes back and starts stalking her. Lurking around her house. Using his powers to eavesdrop on her.
WBE: Isn’t that kind of creepy?
Singer: No, not at all. In the ensuing five years, Lois has won the Pulitzer Prize.
WBE: For science?
Singer: No, that’s the Nobel Prize. The Pulitzer Prize is for journalism.
WBE: I see. Who do we want to cast as Lois?
Singer: Kate Bosworth.
Singer: She was in Remember the Titans.
WBE: Oh. She’s a teenager?
Singer: She’s 22 years old.
WBE: But, if Superman’s been gone for five years then that means Lois won the Pulitzer Prize when she was 17?
Singer: Yes. Happens all the time.
WBE: It also infers the sex between Lois and Superman in the second film was statutory rape.
Singer: I don’t care.
WBE: Nor do I. Who do you want to cast as Superman?
Singer: Brandon Routh.
Singer: He’s an unknown actor, just like Christopher Reeve was.
WBE: Ratner wanted to cast some guy named Henry Cavill.
WBE: I think he’s Australian. So, is this Routh kid any good?
Singer: Sir, he’s stupendous. He’s got star written all over him. Playing Superman is going to make him one of the biggest actors in history. Eight years from now, he’ll be bigger than Brad Pitt and George Clooney combined.
WBE: That’s very exciting. Is there a villain?
Singer: Yep, it’s Lex Luthor. He’s the world’s greatest criminal, and he surrounds himself with inept buffoons.
WBE: Just like in the Donner films!
WBE: Wow, Bryan, this is really amazing. Anything else?
Singer: Yes, the movie should cost over $300 million and have only one large-scale action sequence.
WBE: That’s kind of pricey for a limited amount of action. Where’s the $300 million going to go?
Singer: The Daily Planet set is going to look ah-mazing.
WBE: Brilliant! What’s the ending?
Singer: Superman lifts a big rock into the sky.
WBE: Those are the best ideas I ever heard. I’m sold! Got anything else for me today?
Singer: I’ve got an idea for a Jack and the Beanstalk movie that will make us all rich beyond our wildest dreams!
Okay, so perhaps it didn’t go exactly like that (probably), but it may as well have. Seven years ago, when Warner Bros. was desperately trying to reignite interest in Superman, the main story ideas for Superman Returns were just dreadful. Superman has an illegitimate son? Seriously, who signed off on that? Superman Returns wasn’t a flop exactly, but it also didn’t spawn any Brandon Routh-fronted sequels. In theory, Superman should be a cash cow as a film property. The “S” symbol is one of the most recognized bits of iconography in the world. Despite all it has going for it, not to mention all the cache Warner Bros. has behind it, Superman has floundered as a screen presence.
This is the part of the review where I should say “until now,” as if the code for creating a great Superman film has been broken. It hasn’t. That’s not to say that Man of Steel is a bad film. It isn’t at all; however, director Zack Snyder has crafted a good film instead of a great one. The frustrating thing is you can see the great film in there, struggling to get out. Occasionally, it does, mostly during the film’s truly jaw-dropping action scenes. But, it’s big, emotional beats don’t quite work.
They could have just as easily called it Superman Begins, as the film borrows very heavily from producer Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins in terms of story structure. This isn’t a straight-through narrative. The first twenty minutes or so take place on Krypton, which looks like a sepia toned version of Pandora. This is in stark contrast to the Donner films, in which Krypton looked like the world of the Snow Miser. In the opening Krypton bit, we get Zod staging a revolution, the Phantom Zone, Jor El sending a baby to earth and the planet exploding. A LOT goes on in the first 20 minutes, and I think that’s indicative of what weakens the film to an extent. There’s a lot of exposition and plot going on, so much so that the film really doesn’t have time to breathe and it’s over two hours and 20 minutes long. Kal El is literally born just as explosions from Zod’s rebellion ring out.
Once we get to Earth, we get a cross section of scenes connecting a twentysomething Clark Kent roaming the globe trying to find his place in the world with a teenage Clark trying to come to grips with his powers and his alien heritage, similar to the Batman Begins’ structure. It’s Zod escaping from the Phantom Zone and locating Kal El on Earth that lead to Superman being outed, so to speak. Clark must reconcile Pa Kent’s sense of caution with Clark’s own desire to use his powers for good.
People who were unsatisfied with the amount of action in Superman Returns aren’t going to be disappointed here. Disaster porn guy Roland Emerich made a movie about the end of the world, and that film doesn’t hold a candle to the mayhem Snyder and company have conjured. Metropolis takes a severe beating, one that makes the destruction of Chicago in Transformers 3 look like a paper cut. The New York battle in The Avengers is child’s play. There’s never quite been superhero action on screen quite like this. A battle that takes place on the streets of Smallvile is really extraordinary.
But, for all the great action, I wish the film had more heart. It’s not that they didn’t try. It’s just that the emotional beats are all kind of half baked. I am a huge mark for Kevin Costner, and I thought his casting as Pa Kent was brilliant, at least partially because of all the father-son baggage Costner inherently brings due to his past roles. But, he’s hardly in the film at all. I wanted to see more Smallville, because it’s that Midwestern upbringing that makes Kal El into Clark Kent. There’s a lot more Krypton, and I didn’t find their take on Krypton all that compelling.
As was the case in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the casting is uniformly superb. Henry Cavill turns out to be a great choice for Supes, he looks great in the suit, and exudes human decency while still being kind of sexy. Amy Adams is a massive improvement over whats-her-name, and her scenes with Laurence Fishburne are so good, I hope the sequel has a lot more Daily Planet in it. Michael Shannon is just a beast, and he brings great intensity to Zod. He’s a far more formidable foe than the campy Terrance Stamp ever was.
I really feel like Man of Steel does lay the groundwork for a much stronger sequel. Lex Luthor never appears but Lexcorp does. So does Wayne Industries, for that matter. I wonder why . . .