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State of the Franchise - Superman Films

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

Let’s talk about James Bond for a moment. Yes, yes, I know, we’re supposed to be giving a State of the Franchise Address for the Superman films, but hear me out…it’ll become relevant, I promise. [And how often do you actually make good on that? – Ed.] You see, here’s a movie franchise that has survived multiple changes to the actor playing the lead role…and yet these changes are welcomed and even looked forward to by movie goers. A franchise that’s a bit more pertinent perhaps? Okay, as much as I hate to type it, let’s talk Batman. Same deal. And perhaps even more pertinent to the argument I’m about to propose for the remainder of this address, let’s take a look at each of those franchises hiatuses. The longest amount of time without a Bond film in theaters was from License to Kill in 1989 to Goldeneye in 1995: 6 years. Batman had a longer hiatus between Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins…from 1997 to 2005: 8 years. Now, given that the usual break between installments for both of these franchises is typically 3 or 4 years, you can see that Bond missed maybe 1 to 2 films, Batman right at 2 films. Not a big deal.

The Superman film franchise was absent from theaters from 1987 to 2006. That’s 19 years. Using the metric we established above, that’s 5 to 6 films. That’s a hell of an absence…and one that the character really hasn’t recovered from. What happens when a film franchise remains that stagnant for that long is that not only does the character become relegated to nostalgia, but the character also becomes fixed. What I mean by that is that, like concrete, our image of that character flows less and instead becomes solidly fixed in the form we last saw him. In the case of Superman, this means Christopher Reeve has become THE Superman. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing…his performance really is the basis of every modern interpretation of the character…and that is simply because he absolutely NAILED it. There’s no arguing that. The thing is though, with the aforementioned lengthy hiatus, the character has not been allowed to evolve in the eyes and minds of the general public…while the sensibilities of the general public and…well…the world have indeed moved on.

I can point to the last two films in the franchise, Superman Returns and Man of Steel, and their reception by both critics and by the general public as to why Superman hasn’t recovered from his lengthy vacation from cinema screens. Let’s start with Superman Returns. Superman Returns almost slavishly follows the plot of the original 1978 film but updated both in terms of effects and more mature subject matter. Critics enjoyed the film, typical movie goers…not so much. And this is totally valid. They took characters right out of the late 70s, gave ‘em a fresh coat of paint, threw them on screen and expected results. That’s like taking a classic car and comparing it to a modern one. Sure, the classic one looks great and brings back all kinds of memories…but it’s a stick shift, there’s no A/C, no power steering and it’s just something that generally, you’d find a pain in the ass to drive. The same problem befell Superman Returns. Brandon Routh’s impression of Chris Reeve is dead on…downright creepy at times it’s so dead on…the design elements all harken back to the 78 original, and of course there’s Lex’s usual land scheme. That last one…that’s the clunky, temperamental engine right there, that’s the thing that reminds you how much you should appreciate your modern car. That…coupled with, as I mentioned in my review for the film, the fact that it was sold as an action movie but is actually a romantic drama (aka chick-flick) led to a second hiatus…from 2006 to 2013: 7 years. Now, as I mentioned at the start of the article, Batman survived a hiatus of 8 years, so what’s the big deal? He wasn’t coming off a nearly 20 year long hiatus. Let’s look at this metric a different way. Starting with Superman IV in 1987 and running through 2013, Superman had 3 movies; Superman IV, Superman Returns and Man of Steel. Conversely, Batman had all 4 of the Burton/Schumacher films and the Chris Nolan trilogy; 7 movies. Thus, as Batman has stayed fresh in the public’s mind…well, you can see the effect that has had…the character has never been more popular. By the time Man of Steel came around, the concrete had set even more. So, while Snyder and Goyer set out to create a Superman more suited to our times, audiences became even more resistant to it…the biggest criticism being…you guessed it…it lacked the joy and lightness of the 78 movie. Sadly, by the time they got around to letting Superman evolve…no one wanted him to. Yet, when they were given a Superman firmly rooted in the continuity spawned by the 78 film, like in Superman Returns…they didn’t want that either. Superman has run into the problem that Batman had prior to the 89 Burton film…the lingering taste of cheese that was present in at least some form in the first two Reeve films and the dominant flavor of the latter two.

So how do we overcome this? In my mind, it’s two things. First, you have to recapture the magic that the first Reeve film had. THIS DOES NOT MEAN REPEAT THAT FILM. We tried that in Superman Returns, it didn’t work. No, what I mean by that is that you need that perfect marriage of people both in front of and behind the camera that absolutely love the material. Look and listen to interviews with Richard Donner on the making of the first film…he’s said it many different ways but it boils down to the fact that all the major players had a respect and near-reverence for the material and especially for the characters. Further evidence? Look at the turn around in attitude toward the film in two of its major stars: Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando. Hackman didn’t want to stoop to playing a ‘cartoon character’ as he felt it would tarnish his standing as a serious actor, but rose to Donner’s challenge of taking the role and making something of it. Ultimately, he grew so fond of the character and material that once Donner was fired from Superman 2, Hackman walked as well…forcing Lester to find a stand-in and a sound-alike for any remaining unfilmed Luthor scenes. Brando simply took the film as a paycheck and had terms in his contract that absolutely no press were allowed while he was on set, making certain that he could distance himself from the production as much as he could. Upon actually reading Tom Mankiewicz’s script, however, he told the author that the film was “a fucking valentine” and for the remainder of the time he was associated with the production it was he that was bringing press on set and talking up the movie. Chris Reeve treated the role as a vital part of American culture that he was the temporary custodian of…and all the respect and gravitas that entails and requires. Donner has said it himself, “This is apple pie, ham and cheese sandwiches. This is Americana.” And it shows throughout the film and, thus, why it’s widely regarded as a classic.

The second solution is a matter of the character’s history. In Superman’s six films, we’ve had Superman 1 and 2 focusing on Lex Luthor and General Zod, 3 had a business tycoon created specifically for the film, 4 had Nuclear Man (and the less said about that, the better), Returns had Lex again and Man of Steel had Zod again. 3 films each for Zod and Luthor and two original ‘creations’ (although the term abominations is probably more apt. What Superman villains have we NOT seen? Most of them: Brainiac, Darkseid, Parasite, Intergang, Doomsday, Bizarro, Metallo, Mongul, Imperiex as well as many more minor ones! Yeah, I know, I didn’t include Mr. Mxyzptlk because…just…no. Any of the other characters I listed though could both be cinematic visually and give Superman a run for his money and they’d all be fresh to the general public. Look, if there’s one thing that Marvel’s current domination of the box office has proven is that the general movie going public is open to new ideas…and if we want the genre of comic book films to remain fresh and viable, then there HAVE to be new ideas. And we have to allow Superman into that sandbox. Once again, let’s take a look at the villains that Batman has fought in his run of films thus far: Joker (twice), Catwoman (twice), Penguin, Riddler, Two-Face (twice…ha), Poison Ivy, Bane (one and a half), Mr. Freeze, Scarecrow, Ra’s al Ghul and Talia al Ghul. Now, sure, many would argue that Batman has a better and deeper rogues gallery than Superman, and there is a point to be made there. But that really doesn’t apply here…since Superman’s films have barely touched upon even the smaller number of major villains that character has!

Now, the point. What’s the state of the Superman film franchise? In my opinion…not good. As I mentioned in my Man of Steel review, I loved the film. It’s not perfect though and it does fall into the problem pointed out in the preceding paragraph…that being Zod as the antagonist…AGAIN. Sure, you have to use Krypton and a Kryptonian-based villain for the first film, I get it, but take a look at what Bruce Timm and company did when they launched Superman: The Animated Series in the late 90s, they altered Brainiac’s origin that, while not embraced by DC into their mythology, was readily accepted by fans. The next issue has popped up not just in film, but in ALL Superman media (except, surprisingly, Smallville, but sadly, even in the comics!)…when you lack faith in the character, bring in Batman to save the franchise! On the one hand, I understand what Warners is trying to do…ultimately, it’s a game of catch-up. The sequel to Man of Steel has to serve as a springboard to a DC cinematic universe due to Marvel’s commanding lead in this arena…and I get that. Of course, this means getting Batman into the universe as soon as possible…then as many of the others when possible. So yeah, Superman, then Batman v Superman, then Justice League…but how the second film is titled, putting Batman first, shows where Warners have their faith…and it’s not in Big Blue. On top of this is the fact that we keep hearing about WB wanting to get a solo Bat film off the ground with Affleck. What have we heard about a sequel Superman film? Nothing. Some have speculated that Superman may be relegated to a similar role as the Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I can’t quite buy that. I mean, on the surface, sure, it makes sense…both characters are extremely powerful and can be difficult to write for…but realistically, the reason for Hulk’s lack of additional solo films in the MCU deals with two practical matters: his first MCU outing is generally felt to be one of the weakest MCU offerings and, more importantly, Marvel/Disney still doesn’t have full cinematic rights to the character…Universal still has them…and I’d wager Disney doesn’t want to hand money to one of their competitors if they don’t have to. WB doesn’t have that latter problem with Superman…and SHOULDN’T have the former. With the list of unused villains I’ve already provided, Superman’s strength becomes a non-factor because either it’s nullified because the villain is equally or more powerful or he can’t use it without major blowback.

Where the franchise goes from here will depend greatly on Batman v Superman. I imagine that, unless there’s an extremely vocal dislike of the Superman elements in the film (which would be a shame because it’s clear that Cavill has the same respect and near reverence for the role that Reeve did), there will (hopefully) be another solo Superman film after this…but there’s no guarantee, since we will see the character again in the two already scheduled Justice League films. The franchise finds itself in a difficult place…it needs to evolve but it also needs to be given the chance to evolve. People were turned off by the perceived darker tone of Man of Steel. Let’s take a look at samples of Goyer’s work, shall we? The Crow: City of Angels, the Blade trilogy, Dark City, the Dark Knight trilogy and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance…sense a theme here? While I don’t agree that Man of Steel was necessarily ‘dark’ and I liked the approach Goyer took…it’s very easy to tell that he’s more of a Batman guy. And that’s cool. It works for him and he’s built a career off of it. It’s kind of like one of those things…one of those strict choices that is presented in any fandom…whether it’s ‘Elvis or Beatles’, ‘Transformers or G.I. Joe’, ‘Star Wars or Star Trek’, and, yes, ‘Superman or Batman’. Goyer is clearly ‘Batman’. Find a writer that is clearly ‘Superman’…and you just went a long way to getting this franchise back on track. Same thing with a director…but to a slightly lesser extent. I’ve got nothing against Snyder. [And that’s why we don’t get invited to all the cool internet parties. – Ed.] But when you compare his comments about Superman, “I’ve always felt Superman was okay for someone to like. He’s like a god up on the hill…” to those of Donner…well, it just doesn’t feel the same. Donner’s comments imply a closeness, Snyder’s…not quite. Plus, with Justice League parts 1 and 2 on his plate and I’m sure there’s other non-comic book films he’d like to make…he’s not really an option. Here’s another way that Warners can take a page from Marvel’s book: don’t buy a name director…buy a director that has a passion for the project.

Saying that these things will fix the franchise makes it sound easy…but it won’t be. Hell, Bryan Singer had passion for the 78 film and look at how his Superman Returns came out. But so long as Marvel continues to prove time and again that it IS possible to find that perfect marriage between filmmakers and content, WB has every opportunity to do the same. What they may not realize is that they have to do it and do it soon…because ANY additional hiatus will make it just that much harder to get the public excited about the character...and the moss that’s been building there since the 80s will just continue to get thicker and thicker…

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