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Like Ang Lee’s Hulk, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was, on its face, commercial suicide. Giving a sacred, cut-and-dried hero to a director who would explore new, unheard-of depths that weren’t accepted canon is probably doable IF they aren’t given a bottomless budget. But Singer, like Lee before him, got carte blanche to take a different tract, resulting in a film low on conventional spectacle and heroism, and high on ruminations of loneliness, godliness, and legacies. It’s without question the saddest of contemporary superhero pictures, an elegiac tale of a man without a world, seeking and failing to become part of ours.
When the extravagantly-expensive Superman Returns stalled out slightly under $400 million worldwide, Warner Bros. remained contractually committed to a sequel with Singer. However, that light soon dimmed, and ultimately they opted to move along with a newer incarnation, one that became Man Of Steel, a film that ultimately registered slightly higher attendance numbers than Superman Returns, goosed further by inflation, 3D prices, and a more lucrative worldwide marketplace. Singer’s been singing, via Comic Book Movie, to Empire Magazine lately, on the eve of X-Men: Days Of Future Past, and he held court on the film’s divisive reception.
"Half of that I understand and half of it I never will. It was a movie made for a certain kind of audience. Perhaps more of a female audience. It wasn't what it needed to be, I guess. I think I could lop the first quarter off and start the movie a bit more aggressively and maybe find a way to start the movie with the jet disaster sequence or something. I could have grabbed the audience a little more quickly. I don't know what would have helped. Probably nothing. If I could go again, I would do an origin. I would reboot it."
If we’re to play armchair quarterback (it’s the offseason, we can quarterback anytime we damn well please), there are certainly edits that can be made to make Superman Returns a bit more palatable. Singer’s idea of chopping off that beginning and having Supes arrive at that plane crash would be startling, and a great way to kickstart the action. Of course, one man’s slow is another man’s methodical, and the opening passages of that picture are nothing if not meticulously directed. Compare that to 2006’s other superhero picture, X-Men: The Last Stand, with it’s slapped-together action sequences and free-for-all amongst third-tier characters. When Brandon Routh’s Superman takes to the skies, his cape whistles a symphony in the wind. Compare that to the wirework hell that is The Last Stand, with characters physically being thrown about the screen as if they were in a Universal stage show.
Singer apparently had these criticisms in mind when developing the sequel that wasn’t to be, even going as far as calling it Man of Steel (suck on that, Zack Snyder!) and banking on a pretty formidable foe: Darkseid. "I think Darkseid was going to be the villain," Singer says, "It was pretty world-destroying, actually." Darkseid, a galactic baddie that’s been rumored to be a Justice League antagonist for quite awhile, would have been necessarily escalation after Superman’s commercially-questionable tango with Kevin Spacey’s bumbling Lex Luthor. But it just wasn’t to be, and, reading between the lines, Singer takes some of the blame:
"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."
It’s pretty hard to be enthusiastic about making a movie for a studio when they themselves don’t really want to make the movie, so Singer’s newfound enthusiasm for collaborating with Tom Cruise does make sense. Though there is an alternate reality somewhere where Warner Bros. bit the bullet and went ahead with Brandon Routh in Man Of Steel, Singer never went back to X-Men, and Zack Snyder is working at an Orange Julius. Imagine that.