MFR Explores The DCEU's Road To Ruin: Column #3

– by LRM

[This Was Originally Posted On May 20. It's The Second In A Multi-Part Series That Lead Editor Mario-Francisco Robles Has Been Working On. He's Finally Prepared To Finish The Series. We'll Be Reposting The Previous Entries In Order To Catch You Up For Both The Finale And The Eventual Book] 

Welcome back to a special ongoing look at Warner Bros. and how it's handled its DC Comics properties. It's going to be a weekly, ongoing miniseries here at LRM. This entry will look at BATMAN BEGINS, SUPERMAN RETURNS, GREEN LANTERN, and more. We'll explore all of the interesting parallels and forks in the road that brought us to where the DCEU is today. 

Previous Entries In This Series:

Column #1

Column #2

Last week, we left off in 2004. Warner Bros. was preparing to relaunch its two DC Comics icons Superman and Batman, after flirting with jumping straight to a BATMAN VERSUS SUPERMAN movie. They backpedalled on that idea and, instead, poured all of their resources into re-establishing the characters as solo entities first, with the hope that a team-up or clash would eventually be in the cards.

BATMAN BEGINS

The first of these new films would be BATMAN BEGINS. Christopher Nolan, fresh off of critical successes with a few smaller films, was hired to direct the film. His approach, along with the script written by David S. Goyer, was to take the Batman mythos into a very grounded direction. It would explore the psychology of a man that would eventually start dressing like a bat and fighting crime in the shadows of Gotham.

They hired Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, someone who- similar to Nolan- was known for smaller, high-minded films and had a ton of street cred. They also, in a move that calls to mind the original DC superhero movie age, surrounded the lesser-known Bale with a ton of A-list talent. While Christopher Reeve got Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando, Bale got Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Liam Neeson. BATMAN BEGINS, from its inception, had an air of prestige about it.

The initial teaser trailer for the film boldly saved the reveal that it was even a Batman movie at all for the end, clearly positioning the film as a completely different kind of take on comic book movies.

The film came out during what was always “Batman Month” for WB/DC- who had released all of the prior four Bat flicks in June- June in the year 2005. The release month would be the only similarity between BATMAN BEGINS and the films that preceded it. A complete and total from-scratch reboot, BATMAN BEGINS wowed audiences with its grown-up, dark, cerebral take on The Dark Knight.

“Brooding and dark, but also exciting and smart, Batman Begins is a film that understands the essence of one of the definitive superheroes.”
-       Critic Consensus on Rotten Tomatoes

The film did decent numbers at the box office (more on that later), and- financially speaking- benefitted mightily from a relatively modest budget and scaled-down expectations. More importantly, though, it got the world speaking positively about Batman again. The bat brand was now reborn, after having become the butt of many a joke after 1997’s BATMAN AND ROBIN.

So Batman was back, next on deck: Superman!

SUPERMAN RETURNS

Bryan Singer, with most of his creative team from X2: X-MEN UNITED, filmed SUPERMAN RETURNS in Australia, and wanted to make a movie that would simultaneously build on the original movies while also reintroducing the character to a new generation of fans. It was a tall order, as the film vaguely wanted to position itself as a pseudo “real” SUPERMAN III while tweaking the overall design and timeline to move everything into the present day.

Marketing for the film relied heavily on nostalgia, using bits of the iconic score created by John Williams, including archived voice-over narration from Marlon Brando’s Jor-El, and emphasizing the softer, more romantic nature of the first films.

SUPERMAN RETURNS came out in June of 2006, a year after BATMAN BEGINS. The film garnered generally positive reviews.

“Bryan Singer's reverent and visually decadent adaptation gives the Man of Steel welcome emotional complexity. The result: a satisfying stick-to-your-ribs adaptation.”
- Critic Consensus on Rotten Tomatoes

It opened slightly bigger than BEGINS did, and would- ultimately- make more than the Nolan film did. However, its high budget and extremely high expectations would put Warner Bros in a tough position moving forward (more on that later). More notable than the box office, though, was the fact that RETURNS didn’t do what BEGINS did for Batman in terms of getting the character back on firm footing and surrounded by positive buzz.

Rather than unite the fan base, it divided it. Some didn’t buy that Superman would ever drop everything and abandon earth to search for Krypton, others couldn't stomach a sequence where Superman seemingly uses his powers to stalk Lois Lane in her home, some loathed the inclusion of a son for Kal-El, while others couldn't get over the fact that Superman never punched anyone. Less fanboy-driven complaints were that the film was too long, the villain’s plot too hokey, the tone was too gloomy, and contained far too little action considering what Superman can do and the technology at Singer’s disposal.

At the end of today’s column, I’ll post my own thoughts on SUPERMAN RETURNS but, for now, let’s continue with an opinion-free look at what was going on at the time.

A LARGER WORLD

Warner Bros. has always prided itself on being filmmaker-driven. While they wanted to create a shared world where Nolan’s Batman could one day share the screen with Singer’s Superman, they didn’t make any mandate or force either filmmaker to set that up. The focus for each film was to simply get the characters back off the ground. Nolan, wanting to focus on a smaller, more human story, didn’t include any allusions to a larger world of superheroes out there in BATMAN BEGINS. Singer, on the other hand, seemed slightly more willing to play ball with WB’s hopes for the future.

The opening titles for SUPERMAN RETURNS include a reference to Superman being “our greatest protector,” which was the first-ever implication that there are other heroes out there. The film also included a reference to Superman being spotted in Gotham City shortly after revealing himself to the world again. With BATMAN BEGINS taking place, seemingly, during Superman’s five year absence from earth, it made sense that the Man of Steel didn’t factor into Ra’s al Ghul’s attack on Gotham.

So the stage was somewhat set for an eventual crossover. However, with the perceived under-performance of SUPERMAN RETURNS at the box office, and the bickering that it led to amongst fans, Warner Bros. had a real problem on its hands. People loved Batman again, but were so-so about Superman. Where would they go from here? They opted to play the hot hand and proceed with Nolan’s Batman series, while putting Singer’s Superman into limbo.

Seeing an opportunity to really make the story his own now, with Warner Bros. unsure if they’d continue with their world-building plans, Nolan clamped down and decided his movies would remain completely insular.

Had SUPERMAN RETURNS lived up to the hype, the BATMAN BEGINS sequels might have looked very, very different.

"BEGINS" AND "RETURNS" BY THE NUMBERS

Before we proceed, let’s take a look at the numbers. Over the years, the perception of what went on with these two films' performances at the box office has become a tad skewed. An understanding of what they actually did is important as we look at where WB went with things post-SUPERMAN RETURNS.

BATMAN BEGINS

Reported Budget: $150 Million

Opening Weekend Domestic: $49 Million

Final Worldwide Total: $374 Million

Rank Amongst BATMAN Films When Adjusted For Inflation At The Time of Its Release: 4th

 

SUPERMAN RETURNS:

Reported Budget: $270 Million

Opening Weekend Domestic: $53 Million

Final Worldwide Total: $391 Million

Rank Amongst SUPERMAN Films When Adjusted For Inflation At The Time Of Its Release: 3rd

Now, remember last week when I told you to keep a mental note of the production costs on all of the failed SUPERMAN relaunches of 90s and early 00s? This is where that comes in handy. That insane $270 Million price tag you see for RETURNS actually includes all of the money that went into those aborted projects. That’s right: Things like the $20 million paid to Nicholas Cage to not play Superman are part of that figure. In actuality, SUPERMAN RETURNS cost $204 million to make. The rest of that bloated price tag came from productions that had nothing to do with Singer’s film, yet they helped stack the deck for what it would take for RETURNS to be a hit. So the film was in a financial hole before Singer and co. ever placed a foot on the set.

Still, as with everything- and as some fans are learning these days- it all comes down to expectations. BATMAN BEGINS makes $374 million, is considered a hit, and the series moves forward. SUPERMAN RETURNS makes $391 million, is viewed as a disappointment, and the series goes into limbo. Nowadays, people say Warner Bros. wanted BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE to do AVENGERS numbers. Back then, it was thought that Warner Bros. wanted SUPERMAN RETURNS to do SPIDER-MAN numbers.

Expectations are a very interesting thing.

SEQUEL CHATTER

In later interviews, Bryan Singer and SUPERMAN RETURNS star Brandon Routh, would shed light on what the aftermath of that film was like.

In the period directly following the release of the film, Singer explained that the first film was always intended to be more of a romantic, nostalgic table-setter. His intentions all along were to make a sequel that was going to be more an intense action/adventure with more sci-fi elements. He famously cited that his plan was to sort of follow the path that the STAR TREK movies did. The first film in that series was a gentler, somewhat offbeat adaptation of the beloved series, while the sequel, “The Wrath of Khan,” was a total game-changer.“I plan to get all ‘Wrath of Khan’ on it,” he famously told Comic-Con goers at the time.

What I was referring to was the fact that, when you do a first film like X-Men, for example, you’re introducing a world and a set of characters. Once those characters are introduced, once we’ve lived with them for awhile and we know them, when you get into a second film like an Empire Strikes Back, or a Wrath of Khan, you can make an action-adventure film and you don’t have to bank all that time getting to know the characters. Now you can raise the stakes, raise the jeopardy and make a leaner, meaner movie.
-       Bryan Singer, September of 2006, Today Online

While he was evoking films from the STAR TREK and STAR WARS series, Singer could’ve just as easily pointed at his own X-MEN films. X2 was a far bigger, more action-packed, and overall better-received film than X-MEN was.

So Singer was intent on following that same trajectory with Superman.

The movie was going to be called MAN OF STEEL. “That was the title. Actually, my buddy, one of my two best friends, came up with that,” Singer told Empire in 2014. “We did explore it a little Just hammering out ideas. I think Darkseid was going to be the villain. It was pretty world-destroying, actually.

By all accounts, the sequel was going to have all of the action and visual flare that Singer has demonstrated in his X-Men films, while- ostensibly- setting the stage for a shared world that would’ve included Nolan’s Batman.

As for Routh, the fact that the sequel went into limbo for so long was hard on the actor.

“That will be a book someday, when I fully realize that whole experience. But I think just the lack of knowing what was going on for so long was definitely a challenge, because I felt the need to uphold an image. No one asked me to uphold one, but that's how much I cared about the character. I felt certain things might be off-limits, certain roles. At least for the first couple of years when I thought we'd be coming back.”
- Brandon Routh, April of 2016, Empire Magazine

Note that Routh points out that there was no clear-cut decision for quite some time. While fans have rewritten history to say that SUPERMAN RETURNS “flopped” and was automatically thrown into a trash heap, the truth is that a sequel was still being considered for years.

Ultimately, Singer got tired of waiting for Warner Bros. to make a decision and moved on with his career. “I ended up having the opportunity to go and make Valkyrie, and I think the studio lost interest at that point. I can't say it was all the studio's fault and I can't say it was all my fault. It just fizzled out,” the director told Empire.

As recently as 2009, three years after the film’s release, there had been a cryptic tease from one of the film’s writers, Michael Dougherty, telling fans to “keep watching the skies” because a big announcement was coming at that year’s San Diego Comic-Con.

Alas, we all know that nothing ended up coming from it and the SUPERMAN RETURNS sequel, MAN OF STEEL, never happened.

NOLAN BECOMES THE MAN

As was eluded to earlier, following all of the uncertainty post-RETURNS, Nolan became the Golden Goose for Warner Bros. His BATMAN BEGINS had not only reinvigorated the Batman brand, but it damn near revolutionized the industry. Suddenly everyone wanted to make gritty, “grounded” blockbusters. That film helped usher in a whole new wave of pop culture that made it okay for adults to see, love, and rave about comic book movies.

His follow-up, 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, was thought to be a contender for a Best Picture Academy Award nomination. While that nomination never materialized, Heath Ledger did posthumously win for his portrayal of The Joker in that film. The film also made a mint at the box office, with a final worldwide total north of $1 billion.

The WB’s decision to grant Nolan full autonomy had paid off. While their BATMAN VS SUPERMAN plans were now dead as a doornail due to his insistence on keeping his films insular, the studio now had a global franchise, the love of fans, and the respect of critics.

And yet…Warner Bros. still wanted a bigger comic book landscape. Their desire gave birth to another peculiar chapter in WB/DCEU history…

JUSTICE LEAGUE MORTAL

Back in 2007, with MAN OF STEEL in limbo after SR under-performed, and with Nolan not wanting to expand his Batman world now that BEGINS had given him the clout to stand up to Warner Bros., the studio started putting together the pieces for a film called JUSTICE LEAGUE MORTAL. They hired writers, they tapped George Miller to direct, and they eyed a 2009 release for the film. What’s interesting here is that it would’ve landed smack dab in the middle of Nolan’s eventual trilogy, yet it wasn’t going to include Nolan’s Batman.

The film was going to be somewhat of a stab at creating a multiverse at your local movie theater. Had it happened, you would've had Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT in 2008 with Christian Bale as Batman and JUSTICE LEAGUE MORTAL in 2009 with Armie Hammer playing Batman in a completely unrelated movie. MORTAL was set to go full-swing into production in 2008, with sets being constructed, costumes being created, and an entire cast of actors being put in place. What stopped the film from happening? The Writers Guild of America strike of 2007-2008. It caused such havoc on the production, which was going to need some serious work done on its script, that the whole thing got delayed and eventually scrapped.

Just like SUPERMAN LIVES gave way to a full-fledged documentary film, so did JUSTICE LEAGUE MORTAL. I encourage you to check it out to witness another chapter of the WB/DC saga.

GREEN LANTERN

Still intent on the idea that mainstream audiences would accept the idea of a multiverse, Warner Bros. did manage to release a DC film that was meant to kick off a shared cinematic universe that had zero connection to what Nolan was doing with his Batman movies. That film was Martin Campbell’s GREEN LANTERN. It came out during the WB’s favorite month for DC releases, June of 2011.

There was hope that GREEN LANTERN would open up a whole new world for Warner Bros. Just as Marvel Studios had done in 2008 when it took a B-level hero like Iron Man and used him as the gatekeeper for a huge world of heroes and villains, the WB hoped Green Lantern would allow them to create a cinematic landscape that would include the rest of the members of the Justice League.

With a director who had kickstarted not one, but two different reboots of the James Bond franchise (Campbell launched both the Brosnan and Craig eras), a likable lead actor in Ryan Reynolds, and a $200 million budget, they thought they’d given the production everything it needed to be a bonafide hit. Unfortunately, the film landed with a thud. Ravaged by critics and fans alike, and with a final worldwide haul of only $220 million, GREEN LANTERN was a non-starter.

It was back to the drawing board for Warner Bros., in terms of creating a DCEU.

NOLAN WRAPS THINGS UP

With Singer’s MAN OF STEEL scrapped, with JUSTICE LEAGE MORTAL aborted, and with GREEN LANTERN dead on arrival, Warner Bros. would continue to put all of its DC Comics hopes on Christopher Nolan. Unfortunately for them, the director remained adamant that his next film, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, would not only be his final DC film in the director’s chair, but would be the end of that version of Batman as we knew it.

It’s true. 2012’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES was the end. With a storyline that, again, made it virtually impossible for other superheroes to exist, and a conclusion that saw Bruce Wayne (Bale) fake his own death and hang up the cowl, Nolan did his best to slam the door shut on his work ever getting picked up again by another filmmaker.

During this period rumors would swirl, and reports would come out that Warner Bros. made all kinds of offers to Nolan to continue his work, or at least oversee- in a Godfather capacity- the expansion of the DCEU. There was even talk that he’d consider doing so in a producer/consultant capacity, but that it was Christian Bale who ultimately killed the deal. With no Bale, and Nolan finally only agreeing to help produce a new Superman film, Warner Bros. had no choice but to hope that a movie with a familiar title would be their next big chance to create a shared world. That film was MAN OF STEEL.

Join me next week, when we look at everything that’s transpired post-THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and conclude with where we are in the present day.

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MY TWO CENTS ON "SUPERMAN RETURNS"

Look, it’s weird to be reviewing/analyzing a film that’s now 10 years old and ultimately went nowhere. But I’d like to just share with you what SUPERMAN RETURNS was for me, and where it stands today.

Something I’ve made mention of several times to my readers is that I watched MAN OF STEEL three times in theaters. As an avowed Superman fanatic, I wanted/needed to give that film a fair chance. Something I’ve never shared with you is the fact that I saw SUPERMAN RETURNS eleven times in theaters. Eleven.

Yes, I know. I’m crazy. Here’s the thing, when it came out, it hit me right where I live. I knew it had its flaws, but- for me- it hit many of my favorite notes. While we like to whitewash SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, and label it a corny, campy movie, I think we overlook what a somber tale it was. Thanks to Reeve, and the suggestions of Tom Manciewicz, there was a very melancholy undertone for the movie that helped me connect with it on a really emotional level as a kid growing up. I was an only-child with all kinds of interesting obstacles in my personal upbringing. I felt isolated, alone, and often powerless. I related to the Superman in that film because he, too, was isolated. He was an orphan, who would always be different from those around him- yet, despite this, didn’t use that angst to be cruel or mean. He somehow rose above the loneliness of being the only person he knows that’s the way he is, to become a friend to everyone he met.

SUPERMAN RETURNS depicted that version of Superman beautifully. He was kind, he was thoughtful, he was selfless, but he was still- at his core- a loner. And the one time he ever opted to be selfish, and pursue the one thing he’s always wanted- to connect with others like him- not only did it not work out (Krypton was really gone), but he lost the one truly beautiful thing in his life: Lois. That was poetically tragic, and it spoke to me.

I also appreciated the thematic bookends of the story. It begins with him being selfish in rushing away to find Krypton, and ends with him doing the most selfless thing one can do when he practically kills himself getting rid of the Kryptonite-laden New Krypton that Lex Luthor was creating. And think of that for a second. By the end of the film, Superman has to push away the closest thing he’ll ever find to his home. He’d have to let go of that so that his adoptive home may live. Heavy stuff.

Then, through this selfless sacrifice, what is he given? The entire arc of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, SUPERMAN II, and SUPERMAN RETURNS comes to a conclusion with Lois revealing to him that Jason is his son. He has a son! A human being (Lois), from the planet he’s given everything to, has given him a son. He’s no longer alone, and the entity that gave him this extraordinary gift isn’t some cosmic disembodied voice in the Fortress of Solitude, or ancestors he’ll never meet, but a flesh and blood woman with whom he can raise a child. “I’m always around,” he tells her, communicating that he no longer has any need or desire to chase after his roots because she’s given him a home here, before flying, rejuvenated, into the sunshine with the knowledge that everything would be different now.

SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE began Kal-El’s arc with Jor-El saying:

“You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father; The father becomes the son.” But Kal-El is able to add one important phrase before he shares these words with Jason: “You will be different. Sometimes you will feel like an outcast, but you’ll never be alone.”

Perfect.

So that movie hit me right in the feels. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I see all of its flaws. I really do. It needed more spectacle, tighter editing, and certain important elements were glossed over while other, sillier elements were way too prominent.

But I appreciate it for what it was, and it’ll always be the symbolic conclusion of a Donner Superman Trilogy for me.

I also appreciate what it was for Singer, and what he was trying to do. Singer, like Clark, was adopted. And Singer, like Clark, had a secret in his closet for much of his life as a gay man. Singer likely grew up feeling like an outsider looking in, always wanting to feel like he found someplace where he belonged, while doing the best he could with the gifts he had. In SUPERMAN RETURNS, Singer did what many a filmmaker has done before: He used a fictional story to explore deeply personal themes.

Many people didn’t like what he did with the story of Superman, but he makes no apologies. He has said he would do things differently now, but that SUPERMAN RETURNS was the film he wanted to make then, and he stands by it. Warner Bros., to their credit, let him make that movie without any tampering.

All that said, I understand why the film upset some people, and I fully understand why WB ended up rebooting Superman.

Before I wrap up: One of the complaints I’ll never agree with, though, is this theory that Superman was depicted as some sort of “stalker.” To me, it’s as ridiculous as I’m sure it is to fans these days who hear people say MAN OF STEEL turned Superman into a “murderer.” I never once interpreted the sequence in question as Superman stalking Lois. It was Superman doing what any of us would do when you return home and find out that your sweetheart is now with someone else. If you’re human, you ask your mutual friends for the lowdown and you jump on your ex’s social media accounts to see what’s up with them these days. If you’re Superman, you go see for yourself. He spent what amounted to about 90 seconds outside the Lane/White household wanting to see for himself if Lois had really moved on. Then he flew away, and that was the end of it. Perhaps you would’ve rather a scene where Clark gets a laptop and clicks through all of her Facebook photos and Statuses, but I never had an issue with him floating by to see what was up. It made him that much more relatable, flawed, and human for me. We’ve all done some version of this.

Anyway, thanks for humoring me. I'll be bringing this whole thing home next week.

ADIOS!

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