In 2006, Superman returned to the big screen after a two-decade hiatus. The film could have been great. It had the right guy playing Superman, and it picked up the storyline five years after the events of Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II. But it also suffered from dubious creative decisions and a bloated budget of $270 million which is hard to account for onscreen. As such, its $390 million worldwide box office was only a moderate success, even when compared to the $373.7 million earnings of Batman Begins a year earlier.
Nonetheless, Warner Brothers planned a sequel for either a 2009 or 2010 release date. Tentatively titled, Superman: Man of Steel, this needed to correct mistakes made in Superman Returns and give the man wearing the cape, Brandon Routh, the classic Superman story he deserved.
Superman Returns’ Failure To Fly With Audiences
Director Bryan Singer, who was a big deal in the mid-2000s after directing X-Men and its sequel X-2: X-Men United, famously pitched his idea for Superman Returns to Richard Donner. He jettisoned the idea of rebooting the character in Superman Returns. This was a sequel to Superman II, and Singer had found the perfect actor to follow-on from Christopher Reeves. Brandon Routh had a similar look, and did well in imitating Reeves, while also making the role his own. So, moviegoers expected to see this film kick into gear early on, with some classic Superman heroics from the opening scene. Alas, Superman does not make his appearance until almost an hour into the film when he saves an airliner from crashing into a baseball match.
Singer had actually filmed a visually memorable opening for Superman Returns that would have tied the film nicely to Richard Donner’s classic Superman films. In the sequence, which exists as a deleted scene (below), Superman returns to the ruins of Krypton in the same spaceship his father, Jor-El, had placed him in as an infant.
The ship’s design immediately connects Superman Returns to Donner’s films, and it nicely mirrors the beginning of Superman–the Movie. Superman, once again, has to escape Krypton.
No explanation was given for cutting the opening sequence. But Singer said in an interview with Empire Magazine in 2011, that he wanted to focus on the love triangle between Clark, Lois Lane, and her new husband to attract a “female audience”. This meant less action–especially in the first half. Singer said in 2007 that his film needed more exposition to re-establish Superman, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and introduce new characters such as Lois’ husband and Lois and Superman’s son, Jason White.
The slow burn was a critical error. Singer failed to recognize Richard Donner’s perfect blend of romance and action in his two Superman movies. He also failed to recognize that the female audience–especially the long history of female DC comic book readers–wanted to see Superman in action from the get-go, too.
Another misstep was the introduction of Kal-El and Lois’s son, Jason White. The idea of Supes having a son wasn’t the problem. The problem was that by the time the film starts, Superman has been missing from Earth for five years. He just disappeared. Lois was left by herself to give birth and raise their kid. While Superman never knew she was pregnant, the idea of him being a “deadbeat Dad” circulated online, poisoning the film.
Singer had considerable work to do on delivering a satisfactory sequel. An avid Trekkie, he compared Superman Returns to the slow-moving Star Trek: The Motion Picture in an interview with TrekMovie.com in 2007. But he promised the sequel would have far more action; it would be his Star Trek: Wrath of Khan.
“With the second one, you can dive right into the action of the story and the drama and take things to another level. I look forward to do that. It is the nice part of having made the first part. It is the same thing with X-Men 1 and got to do a lot more with X-Men 2.”
What Was The Sequel About?
In his interview with Empire Magazine, Singer said his sequel was entitled Man of Steel. In fact, the full title was Superman: Man of Steel.
He also stated that Darkseid was meant to be the villain.
“I think Darkseid was going to be the villain. It was pretty world-destroying, actually.”
Nonetheless, Singer apparently outlined a variety of storylines for Superman: Man of Steel during the production of Superman: Returns. At least one outline featured Brainiac as the villain. The alleged synopsis of the sequel exists online, but no concrete proof exists that it is genuine. This is purely a what-if; but it does have some interesting–and strange–ideas.
In the synopsis, Superman: Man of Steel picks up a few years after the events of Superman Returns. Jason, the son of Superman and Lois, has a pivotal, high-stakes role. As does the fast-growing island that Superman flung into space at the end of Superman Returns. If you remember, Lex Luthor created the island with the crystals and kryptonite he stole from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.
In the synopsis, this land mass has grown into a small spherical moon labeled New Krypton. The new planetary body catches the attention of a visitor who arrives in Earth’s orbit in a massive spaceship, which was able to detect new Kryptonian technology thanks to the small planet. Superman flies up to intercept and soon discovers the visitor is another Kryptonian survivor, which answers his lingering question about whether he is the last of his kind.
Kal-El takes his new Kryptonian acquaintance on a journey across the Earth, but the visitor is perplexed by Superman’s inaction in using his superhuman abilities to solve global problems such as hunger and war.
Superman explains that he never interferes in the development of Earth and its inhabitants, but his visitor disagrees. The Kryptonian is determined to use his powers to “fix” the world and immediately sets out to intervene in a conflict between two third world nations. Before any real battle occurs, he swiftly annihilates both armies, bringing an end to the conflict.
He declares the world a “War free” zone and threatens severe punishment to any perpetrators.
The major nations of the world applaud his stance and unite in an instant global peace. In return, the Kryptonian pledges to share advanced technologies, combat famine and eradicate diseases.
The entire world celebrates, and any remaining pockets of opposition are quickly subdued by this trusted Kryptonian protector. Superman, in the meantime, has become an outcast. Why didn’t he bring an end to war? Why didn’t he share Kryptonian technology to eradicate disease and solve world hunger? To the people of Earth, this new Kryptonian has done more than Supes ever did.
But all is not what it seems.
Suspicious of this new arrival, Superman sneaks onboard his ship. There he discovers identical clones of the so-called Kryptonian and after accessing the ship’s computer, he learns the Kryptonian is really a sophisticated artificial intelligence created on Krypton called Brainiac.
Superman learns the terrible truth that Brainiac destroyed Krypton. He tries to warn Earth’s leaders but is confronted by Brainiac. A cataclysmic fight ensues. Superman gets the upper hand and is about to deliver the death blow when Brainiac downloads his consciousness into a new clone.
The Man of Steel decides the only way to kill Brainiac is to destroy his ship and all the clone bodies with it. Just before the ship explodes, the computer scans for another Kryptonian body to download into, and finds the only compatible body remaining is Superman’s son, Jason.
This leads to a moment darker than when Superman snaps General Zod’s neck in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Superman is forced to face his son, who is now just a shell to hold Brainiac’s consciousness. Brainiac’s consciousness has forced Jason’s body to age into an adult. Brainiac believes Superman will hold back and not risk harming Jason’s body.
Does Jason survive? Unfortunately, no. Whenever Brainiac’s consciousness downloads into another body, the previous one is left brain-dead. Did Superman harm his son’s body in order to kill Brainiac? That is the big question left unanswered. No explanation is provided. If he did, then this ending would have divided audiences.
The synopsis leans into the common Christ metaphor associated with the Man of Steel. But instead of Jor-El sending his only son Kal-El as an example to the people of Earth, the metaphor relates to Superman having to sacrifice his only son to save humanity.
Why Superman: Man of Steel Never Happened?
But the film never happened. The bloated budget, and the mixed reviews for Superman Returns, coupled with the protracted time the sequel spent in development ultimately led to Zack Snyder’s reboot, Man of Steel. Singer didn’t help when he halted development on the sequel to direct Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise. Screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris decided to leave the project as a result.
Development was further complicated by the Writers’ Guild of America strike in 2007. Warners had to push the release date out from 2009 to 2010. Routh’s contract would also soon expire, so the pressure was on to begin production. Ultimately, Warners chose to reboot Superman with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Singer admitted in hindsight that rebooting Superman would have been the better option. He also said that Henry Cavill had originally been up for the Superman role that eventually went to Routh.
History repeats, and opportunities lost sometimes come around again. Cavill wore the cape for Snyder’s Man of Steel in 2013. And though Cavill got to play Superman a few more times, the direct sequel to Man of Steel languished in development hell for a decade. Cavill got jerked around by Warners–and so did the audience–when he announced his return to the role in late 2022. Then, a few months later, James Gunn announced a new Superman played by a younger actor would headline the new DCU.
Once again, Warners denied DC comic fans the chance to see Brainiac on the big screen. He had been set to be the big bad in Tim Burton’s ill-fated Superman Lives (played by Pierce Brosnan), and it has recently been revealed, that Brainiac would feature as the main villain in Cavill’s canceled Man of Steel 2.
Brandon Routh did get to play Superman one more time in the Arrowverse’s crossover event, Crisis on Infinite Earths. No doubt Brainiac will also, someday, get the big-budget debut he deserves.
- Disney Star Wars Has A Luke Skywalker Problem - October 7, 2023
- Ahsoka Part 6 Review: Dave Filoni Copies Lord of the Rings And MacBeth with Dismal Results - September 20, 2023
- The Full Story of the 1966 Batmobile & Burt Ward’s Near Death Experience - September 17, 2023