In Which Superman Returns, Looking Kinda Mopey

Cover image: Adventures of Superman #514 (detail)

hide captionBroody heroes? We've been down this road before, and the scenery ain't always pretty.

DC Comics

So Warner Brothers has decided it needs to clean the slate and reboot the Superman film franchise.

Okay, I get that. Sorta.

I mean, yes, sure, Superman Returns got too mired in sticky-sweet nostalgia for the '70s Richard Donner film.

But it banked over $200 million in U.S. theaters, and that's not counting sales of DVDs and Superman Returns Limited Edition Four Cheese Pasta Roni. This is a flop?

Here's the bit I really don't get, though: Now that The Dark Knight has become the highest-grossing film of the year, Warner Pictures President Jeff Robinov says he wants his next pack of superhero movies to be bathed in the same brooding tone. He sees exploring the evil side to characters as the key to unlocking some of Warner Bros.' DC properties.

"We're going to try to go dark to the extent that the characters allow it," Robinov says. That goes for the company's Superman franchise as well.

Hoo boy. Hey, moviegoing public? We comic book geeks have something to tell you, because we've been down this road before.

It was called the '90s. And, trust us, it doesn't end well.

Why you should fear the super-mullet, after the jump.

The year is 1986. Ronald Reagan is President. A musical group called Motörhead has the nation up on its feet and boppin' to a brand new beat.



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Hear, Hear!

Even with Kevin Spacey there was not enough winking in the latest Supes. That's not to say that he still needs some reworking for an age where the cold war is hot again and newspapers are going out of style. You want a dark film, make Clark a victim of job cuts, stand in unemployment lines, lose his house, and end up on the street. You want really dark? Give him a twitter account.

Sent by John Frost | 1:47 PM | 8-27-2008

1. It also depicted him as, well, Jesus.
2. More mullets on superheroes? YES!!

Sent by Luke | 1:57 PM | 8-27-2008

Speaking of darker not always working for Superman, Brandon Routh's costume in Superman Returns just looked awful between the darker colors and the odd-sized "S" emblem. Hopefully the studio/director get it right the next time....

Sent by Tom Murnane | 2:24 PM | 8-27-2008

"Another thing: How exactly does Superman Returns -- a movie that, you may recall, depicts the Man of Tomorrow as a deadbeat dad who stalks and super-eavesdrops on his baby-momma -- not already qualify as "dark?""

hah! Exactly! But Routh is Superman now and they shouldn't even think of replacing him. If anyone feels the same, go here and join the bring back routh campaign.

Sent by absoluteimp | 2:49 PM | 8-27-2008

I half-remembered seeing boxes of Superman Returns Fruit Roll-Ups in stores when the movie came out, so I was originally going to go with them in the fourth graf, instead of the pasta.

But: The pasta in question was shaped into teensy Superman S-shields, which, I think we can all agree, is just objectively, empirically awesome.

Also, when I went a-googln' to check that I hadn't just dreamed the Super-Roll-Ups, I came across scads of message boards full of disgruntled fans unfavorably comparing Routh's cape in the movie to said pectin-rich tubular snack food. Heh.

Sent by Glen Weldon | 3:54 PM | 8-27-2008

Wonderful post, Glen! Hope to read more from you.

Sent by Kae | 5:02 PM | 8-27-2008

A couple of thoughts. First, not to fly the geek flag too much but ... a slight (albeit nitpicky) correction: the achy breaky haircut featured so prominently on Adventures of Superman #514, which was released in July 1994, actually appeared AFTER superman's death. Superman's death occurred in Superman #75, a comic released in 1993, and the Super-Mullet debuted in Superman: Man of Steel #25 in Sept. 1993.

Despite this small error, I would wholeheartedly agree regarding the clear error in thinking evidenced by Warner Bros.' "darker=better" mentality. Instead of making every DC comics charater Batman, make movies that are appropriate to the characters and watch the people will come. Case in point: Iron Man, the #2 movie at the box office this summer, and a movie much lighter in tone than the Dark Knight.

Sent by Kevin Samples | 6:54 PM | 8-27-2008

*author hit the nail on the head!

Sent by Aceqwerty | 9:40 PM | 8-27-2008

Egad -- I've been well and truly outgeeked. Kevin's right. Superman did indeed take out the post-traumatic stress of death and resurrection on his coiffure.

Not the first time my memory's conflated character death and fashion death, alas. Back in the 80s, Supergirl took to sporting a strip-of-cloth headband thingy, a look that aimed for "hip" but ended up closer to "Solid Gold dancer." Soon after, she was dead (note to non-comics people: she got better.) In my mind, that's a clear instance of cause-and-effect, right there.

Sent by Glen Weldon | 9:15 AM | 8-28-2008

If one remembers corrrectly Superman came back with long hair AFTER he returmed from the dead...

Sent by SonnyCrockett | 2:55 PM | 8-28-2008

Not to nitpick, BUT...the second biggest film of the summer worldwide is....(drumroll please)..Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull....not Iron Man.

Sent by Henry | 2:58 PM | 8-28-2008

People didnt go see The Dark Knight because it was dark and depressing they went to go see it for two reasons the first being the success of Batman Begins and the second being Heath Ledgers unrivaled performance.

Superman Returns is a great film that depicts the characters of a landmark comic and delivers the true essence of what it means to be a super hero. People will say its a romanctic peace trying to please a Richard Donner crowd, what is so wrong with that?

Superman is a character driven movie not a sensless action film with a weak and cliche story line. If you cant apprectiate Superman Returns then you cant appreciate a good film that embodies exactly what is means to be a superhero, exactly what is means to be The Man of Steel.

Dark Knight was good but it wasn't a super hero movie, it was an inspirational movie trying to send the idea that you don't need a cape and a mask to make a difference. I think it dragged in a few places and that the whole Harvey Dent and Two Face introduction into the NEW Batman Saga was uneccesary and took away from what the movie already was with Heath Ledger as The Joker.

Warner Bros. needs to understand that Batman is not Superman. So please don't ruin The Superman franchise to line your pockets with money, Dont change The Man of Steel

Sent by RJ Wallen | 11:42 PM | 8-28-2008

I have NO problem with Superman having an "edge" or attitude in the new reboot. I liked the tagline "An Angry God Returns!"

I'm not going to belabor the differences we all know between Superman and Batman, BUT the next Superman film should have a great villain (Darkseid)with lots've action wrapped around a great story developed by some of those great writers over at DC. Remember, Superman Reurns actually sold a bit better than Batman Begins (although it cost a bit more s well) and there is NO reason why a "Superman Man Of Steel" can't be as good or better than a terrific film like The Dark Knight.

Bring back the vibrant red, blue and yellow colors, make sure the guy who plays him can fill out the suit, act the part (Routh with an additional 20 lbs maybe? Anyone?), get writers who have a genuine love and knowledge of the character (there are so many: Loeb, Waid etc.), a director with the same vision and love for the character, stay away from the "Great Scott!" and "Luthor, you snake!" (stay away from Luthor PERIOD!) silver age character (Donner and Reeve were GREAT, for that time.), tweak the attitude as I said and make a relevant movie that we will all love befitting the world's greatest super-hero. It's not that difficult, really.

Sent by Rick | 9:35 AM | 8-29-2008

I'm not so phased by the prospect of future Superman movies going every more noir, as the implied shock-horror of having a 90s mechanical engineer aspire to superhero status. Why not a mech eng?

Perhaps in a future column you will explain the preferred professions for such fantasy figures?

Mary Ann Fox

Sent by Marian Fuchs-Carsch | 12:19 PM | 8-29-2008

Having lived through the "grim-n-gritty" phase of comic stories, I have no desire to witness that trend on-screen.

Certain characters, like Batman, lend themselves to that tone. Batman is an obsessed vigilante, fighting a never-ending war against the most twisted psychotics, in a corrupt landscape. Superman is a messianic figure, representing the best traits of humanity.

That's not to say you can't place Superman in a darker story; he just needs to stand in contrast to the darkness.

The producers of the Warner Bros. animated versions of Superman and the Justice League demonstrated beautifully how to place Superman in darker stories, but still have him maintain and reaffirm his virtuous traits. If the studio wants to change things out, try a new threat, like Brainiac. He was used quite effectively for darker stories within the afore-mentioned Justice League series.

In the 90's, everyone copied Alan Moore and Frank Miller's darker tones, especially Moore's. Moore's reaction was to demonstrate how to tell great stories in a lighter vein.

Hollywood needs to learn that a great story, well executed, is what draws the crowds, not gimmicks.

Sent by jeff nettleton | 6:01 PM | 8-29-2008

I completely agree - dark is NOT the way to go with Supes.

I'm a HUGE fan of Superman Returns - it's the reason I became a Superman fan - but even so, I'll admit that the tone of the movie was darker than would be ideal -- especially for a summer release. To me, Christmas, Thanksgiving, or late fall would have been a much more suitable choice.

Despite it flaws, I'd very much like to see WB give Singer and Routh a chance at a sequel. Overall, I found Superman Returns to be a rich, exciting, and utterly magnificent telling of heroism and love, and I believe it brought a profound and inspiring depth to The Man of Steel.

As for Routh's performance as Superman, I thought it was just breathtaking - one of the most powerful and deeply moving male characterizations I've ever seen on film.

I believe Bryan Singer has the passion, talent, experience, and cast to give us an even better film than SR - one that can honor his vision of Superman and do a better job of pleasing long-time Superman fans and the general movie-going public. His desire to take the sequel in an action-packed, "Wrath of Khan" direction sounds like an excellent alternative to a reboot, and I feel he has the ability to maintain a compelling storyline while bringing eye-popping, heart-stopping action to the Man of Steel.

Sent by iolani | 2:53 AM | 8-31-2008

Kevin Samples:

Good post, but a quick typo: Superman #75 was released Nov. 18, 1992. Not 1993.

Sent by Siper2 | 12:12 PM | 8-31-2008

Long live the mullet. And the superhero!

'Nuff said.

Sent by Keith May | 7:32 PM | 9-2-2008

maybe there's a lukewarm middle ground. how bouts bizarro? that could give movie audiences a dark superman-like character without sacrificing the immutable morals of the real superman. you could even throw in a turn where superman struggles with a desire to adopt dark methods in order to beat bizarro more quickly...or something.

Sent by jack | 11:26 AM | 9-3-2008

Anyone remember the LAST episode of Justice League Unlimited when Superman FINALLY goes all out and pummels Darkseid? THAT is the Superman we need to see...THAT power contrast against the darkness. Superman returns was a good film, albiet a bit long in the tooth and the kid story-line was pretty dumb. Kate Bosworth was also a bit too mellow for me. Phyllis Coates the first Lois in the George Reeves TV show and Eric Durrance seem to have the "attitude" needed in my humble opinion.

Sent by Rick | 12:10 PM | 9-3-2008


Sent by Rick | 2:31 PM | 9-3-2008

The real draw in any Superman movie is Lex Luthor. When I heard that Spacey was the villian I was expecting a performance only second to Ledger's Joker. That's where the darkness comes from - Mr. Luthor himself. Superman was always seen as a symbol - "Returns" allowed him to be a regular guy.

What was wrong with the movie? The evil plan pushed our suspended disbelief to the maximum. A nuclear strike to create a new west coast was more believable.

Sent by Semi | 2:57 PM | 9-3-2008

We need SUPERman not superMAN.

Sent by Rick | 4:03 PM | 9-3-2008

Superman Returns was awful. I had no idea what it was about. It was set-piece after set-piece of loud, crashing bangs, shot with missing lights, with an actor playing him who has all the range of a cabbage. And all the best dialogue was stolen from a vastly superior original it so sadly failed to emulate.

On the other hand, The Dark Knight works for this simple reason: it's a superb story that knows what it's aiming to achieve, and from there all good things come. I love the Donner Superman. SR was a terrible failure. It may have made some money, but there will never be any affection for it.

Sent by Daniel | 2:15 PM | 9-9-2008

It is just an opinion, but I agree with Daniel, Superman Returns was awful. Re-booting is an excellent idea.

On the question of the article which is whether 'darkness' is the way to go, I think we first have to examine what we mean.

For me, what is meant by 'darkness' in this context is not necessarily 'Sin City', multiple body counts, etc...

What the writer of the article refers to as 'relevance' is closer, but what I think 'The Dark Knight' and 'Batman Begins' have, that most comic book movies do not have, is that as far as it is possible in the genre, we take the characters and what happens to them seriously.

And for that to be possible we have to be able to believe that things are not necessarily going to work out -- because that is the difference between the real world and the traditional comicbook universe. For people to find some relevance in a comicbook universe, they must be able to connect with the characters and believe that their experience, however different to their own, has something in common with their own -- notably that life is tough, and that it takes a significant effort to come out ahead. What makes Batman heroic is not a suit or his gizmos, its the triumph of his character in adversity, and how, as difficult as it sometimes is, he makes the right choices.

This is not something that is just appropriate or applicable to Batman. If comics are to be considered modern myths that have things to say about human experience and the real world, then it is the way we need to look at all comics.

The important caveat in the studio's statement is that this must take place within the bounds of the character, and that is obviously right, because we don't want revisionist histories and 'writing in.' But there is nothing wrong with delving a little deeper than the surface of characters.

So with that in mind, how 'dark' is Superman? Well, I'll leave it for you to decide, but his entire race no longer exists. Okay, they were destroyed by nature and their own hubris, but should that make him feel any better than a Holocaust survivor? If anything, it's going to feel worse, because he will wonder whether the same weaknesses reside in him, and it would be understandable if he had a problem with God and the universe, as people who experience loss in such circumstances often do. There is literally no one like him, so he is, excuse the expression, a 'super outsider', which is generally considered to be an excuse for dark brooding moments.

There is an American election soon, which is a serious thing, because for the next 4 years one of the candidates is going to be the most powerful man on earth. Well, in the DC universe Superman is more powerful than every single nation on the face of the planet put together. If he put his mind to it he could destroy the whole world.

And you know what they say about power, that it corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I'm not saying Superman is corrupt in any way; what I am saying is that the goodness that is so essential to his character is an achievement every bit as incredible as any physical feat he has ever performed -- more so, in fact, because it must take incredible effort, and that effort is what makes him a hero, not the fact that he can leap tall buildings, etc...

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. If you actually think about who Superman is, you find just as much darkness, inner struggle and turmoil as you do in Batman, if not more so.

I think the studio should get Nolan to do Superman, and that they should bring him in person into the Batman universe he has created, along the lines of the lines of Frank Miller 'The Dark Knight', which I consider to be one of the greatest comic books ever written.

Sent by Jake West | 11:56 AM | 9-15-2008

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