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It’s not hard to imagine the executives at Warner Bros. looking at a chart of Marvel’s successful superhero movies over the last decade and a half — including five “X-Men” movies, four “Spider-Man” films, three “Iron Man” smashes, plus successful franchise-launchers “Thor” and “Captain America” and massive group hit “The Avengers.” Then, the Warner suits look at the same period’s superhero smashes based on characters from Time Warner’s own venerable DC Comics publishing line and sees Christopher Nolan’s three Batman movies… and nothing else. Then they look back at all the Marvel hits and mutter, “Why we no have?”
Really, it should have been a no-brainer for Warners to build successful franchises out of DC superhero stalwarts like Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern, and to have them all come together, Avengers-style, for a series of Justice League movies. After all, DC’s characters are just as familiar, if not even moreso, than Marvel’s. And Warners is the Hollywood studio that’s devoted itself more than any other to a strategy of creating blockbuster franchises, from “Harry Potter” to “The Hangover” to “The Lord of the Rings” (via Warner subsidiary New Line).
And yet, Batman aside, the studio has stumbled in its efforts to launch franchises based on such DC heroes as Green Lantern, as evidenced by the costly 2011 Ryan Reynolds flop. Most egregiously, it’s fumbled repeatedly with Superman, which is why the new “Man of Steel” is only the second Clark Kent movie in 26 years.
After the Christopher Reeve “Superman” series fizzled out in 1987, the studio spent the next 19 years — and perhaps hundreds of millions in development money — trying to get another “Superman” off the ground. (For a thorough summary of the bad ideas for stars, directors, and plots of two decades of aborted “Superman” movies, read this 2010 roundup by Moviefone’s Eric Larnick.)
Finally, the studio seemed to decide that what fans wanted was a return to the kind of “Superman” movies Reeve made (at least the first two). Director Bryan Singer, who’d done such critically acclaimed and popular work launching the “X-Men” franchise, seemed a solid choice to reboot “Superman.”
And yet the result was 2006’s inert, overly reverent “Superman Returns,” in which Brandon Routh offered an eerie mimicry of Reeve’s performances, and in which Singer replaced action and humor with somber introspection. The movie made nearly $400 million worldwide but was still considered a disappointment by both fans and Warners’ accountants. Singer planned for a sequel with Routh, but that plan fell through.
Meantime, director Nolan and writer David S. Goyer were knocking it out of the park with their brooding “Dark Knight” trilogy and its tormented take on Batman. No wonder Warners handed the Superman franchise over to them, hoping they’d make lightning strike twice. Along with director Zack Snyder — who brought “Watchmen,” DC’s grim, revisionist take on superhero-dom, successfully to the big screen — Nolan and Goyer are responsible for the brooding, tormented Superman played by Henry Cavill in “Man of Steel.”
The studio’s difficulty in relaunching Superman is all the more puzzling given that the same period has seen not one but two successful, long-running primetime TV reboots of Superman: ABC’s “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” (starring Dean Cain as a Clark Kent trying to balance heroics and romance with Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane) and the WB/CW’s “Smallville” (starring Tom Welling as the teenage Clark Kent, gradually discovering his place among the familiar heroes and villains of the DC universe).
One reason Superman may have had trouble returning to the big screen is that DC is tied to a single studio, corporate cousin Warner Bros. True, Marvel is owned now by Disney, but before 2009, it was independent and allowed multiple studios to work on its franchises. (Even today, with Disney having absorbed “Iron Man” and “Thor,” Marvel still lets Sony make “Spider-Man” movies and 20th Century Fox handle the “X-Men” franchise.) If you have a good idea for a DC character movie and Warners turns you down, there’s nowhere else you can go.
Also, the studio still hopes to make a Justice League movie eventually. So whatever happens with the “Superman” franchise affects every other potential Warners-DC franchise. The studio has some big, scary decisions to make.
Still, there’s 75 years worth of Superman comic-book stories that Warners could draw from. In the last quarter-century alone, DC itself has revamped Superman several times, from the controversial “Death of Superman” storyline in 1992 to the brand new “Superman Unchained,” about an angry young Kryptonian exile who is clearly operating outside the law and is far from the big blue Boy Scout portrayed by Reeve, Routh, and other previous incarnations. Some of the story elements from recent “Superman” comic-book series have found their way into “Man of Steel,” but for the most part, this is a vein that’s gone untapped.
It’s not clear yet whether the “Dark Knight” filmmakers’ bleak, weighty tone that worked on Batman will work on Superman as well. It’s possible that the story innovations that play to DC readers will prove too esoteric or alienating for mass audiences that haven’t read the recent comics. But it’s also possible that Warners has been overly cautious with its most iconic character. After all, Superman is so mythic and grand that he can handle multiple, conflicting interpretations. He can be both the cheerful defender of “truth, justice, and the American way” and a lonely Kryptonian exile who must hide his strengths to protect those he loves.
At least Warners believes it’s solved its Superman problem. Now, how about getting a Wonder Woman movie up and flying?