Superman by the Numbers – From SUPERMAN to MAN OF STEEL

     June 15, 2013

superman returns brandon routh

Superman Returns

Year: 2006
RT: 76%
Domestic Gross: $200 million

  • superman-returns-poster$65 million – Estimated cost of pre-production development on a new Superman movie.  Warner Bros. regained the Superman film rights in 1993, and spent the next 11 years (and approximately $65 million) trying and failing to find the right idea to reboot the franchise, with Tim Burton, Brett Ratner, and McG each attached to direct at one point.  WB executive Jeff Robinov stated, “The smart thing would have been to let everything cool down, and spend some time figuring out what to do next.  But then we heard Bryan’s pitch [in 2004], and we were finally in business.”  The production budget for Superman Returns eventually reached $223 million.  Factor in the $100 million for worldwide marketing, and it cost nearly $400 million to develop, produce, and market the franchise revival.
  • 80% – Percentage of the filming that took place at the 9 soundstages of Fox Studios Australia.  The production hired thousands of local workers, and generated an estimated $100 million for the local economy.  In return, the Australian government offered nearly $20 million in tax credits.
  • 5 – Years Superman was MIA as Superman Returns opens.  Director Bryan Singer ignored Superman III and Superman IV, preferring to make Superman Returns an effective sequel to Superman II.
  • 1400 – Visual effects shots featured in Superman Returns.  The film’s only Oscar nomination was for Best Achievement in Visual Effects.  Notably, the VFX company Rhythm & Hues re-created a CGI version of the late Marlon Brando around unused footage of Brando shot for Superman and Superman II.
  • 154 – Runtime in minutes, making Superman Returns the longest Superman movie to date.  Superman and Man of Steel tie for second with a 143-minute runtime.
  • 20 – Minutes of footage that were converted to IMAX 3D.  Superman Returns was the first live-action feature to use IMAX’s conversion technology and presaged the rise of the IMAX and 3D formats.
  • $500 million – Worldwide box office expectations.  Then-WB president Alan Horn explained that at $391 million, Superman Returns grossed about $100 million less than he hoped for: “I thought it was a very successful movie, but I think it should have done $500 million worldwide.  We should have had perhaps a little more action to satisfy the young male crowd.”  Singer responded to such perception: “That movie made $400 million!  I don’t know what constitutes under-performing these days.”  Still, Singer and Warner Bros. started developing a sequel for a 2009 release.  The start date was pushed back when Singer took a break to make Valkyrie, and again when the WGA strike hit.  By August 2008, Robinov announced Warner Bros. would give up developing a sequel and move on to another reboot of the franchise: “Had [Superman Returns] worked in 2006, we would have had a movie for Christmas of this year or 2009.  But now the plan is just to reintroduce Superman without regard to a Batman and Superman movie at all.”

By 2004, Singer was celebrated for his considerable contribution to the superhero genre with X-Men and especially X2.  He actually left X-Men 3 to develop Superman Returns because he grew up with Superman: “In fact, it was the Richard Donner classic film that was my day-to-day inspiration in shaping the X-Men universe for the screen.”  He sure seemed like the perfect candidate to bring Superman into the modern age of comic book movies.  Instead, Singer’s devotion to the Donner films kept the character from such progression.  I argue Superman Returns falls on the right side of Flawed But Ambitious.  It was not a critical nor commercial failure upon release, grossing more worldwide than likeminded reboot Batman Begins did a year earlier.  That Warner Bros. did not continue with Singer’s Superman series is a black mark now, but I do wonder if the reputation of Superman Returns will grow as it ages.



Man of Steel

Year: 2013
RT: 56%
Domestic Gross: TBD

  • man-of-steel-poster-henry cavill2008 – Year when Warner Bros. started taking pitches from directors, screenwriters, and comic book writers on how to revive Superman.  While working on The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan and writer David S. Goyer brainstormed a new take on Superman, and pitched the idea to WB in 2010.  Zack Snyder was hired to direct in October 2010.
  • 4 – Months that Russell Crowe says he spent on the movie before he saw a camera: “I also didn’t realize the type of organizer that Zack Snyder is, because this was really old school prep.  This is sort of David Lean-level preparation, and I really appreciated him.”
  • 5,000 – Calories a day in Henry Cavill’s diet to bulk up for the role.  He explained, “I’m training two and a half hours a day, pushing my body beyond its normal limits, putting on a lot of muscle mass and just making myself look like Superman.”
  • 13 – Academy Award nominations (including 3 wins) among the cast: Amy Adams (4 nominations), Russell Crowe (3), Kevin Costner (3), Diane Lane (1), Laurence Fishburne (1).
  • 121 Days of filming.
  • 100,000 – Years Krypton has been civilized, according to Goyer.  Kryptonians have traveled in space for 25,000 years.  Superman finds answers about his heritage in a Kryptonian spacecraft buried in 20,000-year-old ice on Earth.
  • $160 million – Revenue from promotional tie-ins with Gillette, Walmart, Twizzler, Chrysler, Nokia, Hardee’/Carl’s Jr., and the Army National Guard among others.  Warner Bros. teamed with an estimated 100 promotional partners.
  • 75th – Anniversary for Superman tied to the 2013 release.  Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938.

RUSSELL CROWE as Jor-El and HENRY CAVILL as Clark Kent(1) Man of Steel opens in the middle of a space opera on Krypton shortly before it is destroyed, as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) fights off madman Zod (Michael Shannon) to send his son to safety.  I would watch that movie.

(2) We meet Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) as a drifter, moving from town to town trying to keep his super powers under wraps.  But Clark’s idealistic obligation to help people in danger constantly reveals his nature, so he must ask himself if now is finally the right time to publicly own his true identity.  I would watch that movie.

(3) Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is an investigative journalist on the trail, following leads to put together the legend of a man unlike any other.  I would watch that movie.

(4) The world finds out there is life on other planets—an advanced race who have the power, and maybe even the drive to destroy us.  I would watch that movie.

(5) The good superhuman battles the evil superhuman in hand-to-hand combat that devastates cityscapes.  I would watch the hell out of that movie.

The problem: You can only fit so many movies into 2 hours, 20 minutes.  That is not enough time to tell the Superman story from the perspectives of Superman, Jor-El, Zod, Lois Lane, and the American military.  Goyer knows this to some extent, because Ma and Pa Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) are used sparingly as accents in Clark’s story rather than the drivers of their own.  But I think Goyer made the wrong choice in which father figure to feature.  Costner is great in a limited role—the heart of the movie (if the movie had a heart).  Crowe surely has the gravitas to play Jor-El, but he is mostly a hologram of endless exposition in his expanded role.  I would have sacrificed Jor-El’s understanding of the plot mechanics for more soul from Pa Kent.

This is a Superman movie, so (2) is the essential centerpiece.  Goyer and Snyder are right that every other component can branch off (2), just not in the same movie.  Snyder played to his strength in (5) with several astounding set pieces.  Cinematic technology has finally caught up to the force of Superman’s abilities—the audaciously destructive fights between indestructable alien beings are the price of admission alone to see on a giant screen.  No complaints there.  Regarding the othcer components: The design of Krypton and its gadgets are a visual treat in (1); Lois Lane is a clever, active agent subverting her damsel-in-distress image in (3); The question of how we would respond to the surprise of extraterrestrials that dominate us is a rich subject in (4).  But exploring (1), (3), and (4) means there is no time to explore any of those with sufficient depth, and most importantly draws too many resources from (2), Superman’s perspective, which should be paramount.

Man of Steel is a knapsack problem.  Snyder and Goyer had to choose between these components based on the value they contribute to the story.  Instead, they did not choose.  They threw just about everything except Smallville life at the wall and barely edited that down to “overstuffed.”  The result is often entertaining, but works only in parts, never across the whole.

That said, I hope to see an extended cut one day—like Snyder did with Watchmen—if more meaningful exploration of each storyline is on the cutting room floor.  Man of Steel feels like one of the few movies that would justify 3+ hours of screentime.

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