It is one of Hollywood’s greatest understatements that the “Superman” franchise definitely needs a reboot. This was the case long before Bryan Singer made “Superman Returns” as the series laid dormant for years after the embarrassing fiasco that was “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace,” and directors were looking for the opportunity to bring him back in a new way. Many hold Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman” in the highest regard, and it is one of the greatest comic book movies ever made. But for this franchise to get a new lease on life, it cannot be held prisoner by its past.
First off, I want to say that I really liked Bryan Singer’s take on the Man of Steel. With “Superman Returns,” the “X-Men” director succeeded in bringing back depth and feeling to the series which was largely missing from Parts 3 and 4. Superman was not treated like a punch line for a change, and Warner Brothers did an immaculate job of producing it. Everyone involved in it thankfully realized that the less jokey the “Superman” movies are, the better they will be.
But the real Achilles’ heel of “Superman Returns” is that Singer loves Richard Donner’s film so much that he treated his version as homage to it. This was apparent from the start as John William’s “Superman Theme” played loudly over the opening credits which were the same design as the 1978 film. While I loved that Bryan kept that theme (one of my all time favorites by John Williams), it illustrated the main problem with “Superman Returns;” it could not have existed without the films that preceded it.
Whether Singer intended it or not, “Superman Returns” invited direct comparison with Donner’s film, and it suffered as a result. It couldn’t escape the fact there were elements in previous movies that were stronger. As good as Kevin Spacey was as Lex Luthor, he can’t hold a candle to what Gene Hackman did. Kate Bosworth ended up miscast as Lois Lane and paled in comparison to Margot Kidder. Frank Langella is a marvelous actor, but his take on Daily Planet editor Perry White feels a bit lifeless compared to the memorable work of the late Jackie Cooper. As for Brandon Routh, I felt bad for him because following in the footsteps of the late Christopher Reeve could not have been enviable.
Looking back at some of the ideas of what could have been is interesting as many went in a far different direction. Directors like Brett Ratner, McG (“Terminator Salvation”), and Tim Burton had their own interpretations of what Superman could become. Kevin Smith even wrote a script that stayed very true the DC Comics version, and I would love to read it sometime. Actor Nicholas Cage, who was a one point slated to play Superman, said he would play him as “a beautiful freak.”
Not many of these visions and designs on the Man of Steel would have ever worked, but hearing about them makes a reboot seem all the more logical. Of course, reboots (much like remakes) are loudly sneered upon by audiences as a movie studio’s way of making a cheaper movie where they cast actors who cost far less than Tom Cruise. But there are instances where a reboot really works to a franchise’s advantage. Their success is all the more laudable as they have resurrected franchises which appeared far beyond their burnout point.
One example is the James Bond franchise. While Pierce Brosnan’s last go at Bond in “Die Another Day” was entertaining, it also threatened to descend the series into self-parody as it had all the usual elements and nothing new to show for them. With “Casino Royale,” they brought in Daniel Craig who really is the best James Bond since Sean Connery, and they brought the character back to his beginnings to where he seemed brand new again. We were all stunned at just how good “Casino Royale” was, and it made us realize that previous 007 movies were best enjoyed with reduced expectations.
Another example, this time of a franchise reboot that didn’t need previous movies to justify its existence, was Batman. Tim Burton brought the Caped Crusader to beautiful gothic life with “Batman” and “Batman Returns,” but then Warner Brothers made a drastic error in lightning up the series with “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin” which camped up the series to fans’ collective disgust. Like the Superman franchise, it was silent for years as filmmakers looked for suitable ways to bring the character back, with or without Robin (preferably without).
What I love about Christopher Nolan’s franchise reboot with “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” is that while watching, I didn’t find myself comparing them to Burton’s films (comparing them to Joel Schumacher’s is pointless and far too easy). Danny Elfman’s music score, which I loved, was nowhere to be found and was replaced by the epic score of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It didn’t matter if Michael Keaton was a better Batman than Christian Bale or not. These particular movies stood on their own terms and did not invite easy comparisons to what came before.
As I write this, Zack Snyder is prepping his Superman reboot with the aptly titled “The Man Of Steel with David S. Goyer writing and Christopher Nolan producing. This one promises to present Superman in a more modern context. While Snyder was dealt a critical and commercial disappointment with “Sucker Punch,” he is still responsible for the visual wonders that were “300” and “Watchmen.” Together, these three should give us a Superman movie that reflects the times we currently live in.
Actually, one great thing about “Superman Returns” is that it was proof that this character could be resurrected for another generation. While many consider Superman a “boy scout” and nowhere as interesting as Batman or any of the X-Men, there was reason to believe that we really could use a savior like him in this day and age. Now all we need to do is play around with this classic character in a new way, and out of that should come a new cinematic piece of work.