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Alien Nation: What the Aborted Superman Returns Opening Sequence Tells Us About Bryan Singer’s Man of Steel…

I’ve already talked a great deal about Superman Returns and why the movie doesn’t really work as a Superman story, but I was still fascinated to get a glimpse at the aborted $10m dollar opening sequence that never made it to the final cut, but only wormed its way onto the internet today. The clip is well-made and there’s no doubt that it was abandoned fairly late in the process, almost ready to fit in Bryan Singer’s epic story about the Man of Steel. It’s fascinating what the clip tells about how Singer sees his protagonist, and how the clip bolsters his own take, while demonstrating some of the more fundamental flaws with his vision.

The five-minute clip see Superman revisit his dead homoworld, destroyed shortly after he was born. Superman never knew Krypton, so he takes the opportunity to visit the graveyard that his planet became. There’s nothing waiting for him, except the shards of his own planet, a giant “S” logo standing like a tombstone for the House of El, his parents and everyone they ever knew. The sequence is artistically shot, with lots of close-ups on Routh as Superman, giving the character a chance to grieve for the planet he lost, before he could even remember. Singer manages to skilfully evoke that sense of loss and pain, and Routh proves himself worthy of the iconic role.

It’s well-made and technically impressive. It also underscores the sense of isolation and loneliness that Singer’s version of Superman feels. Not only has his hero been hurdling through the void alone in a tiny ship (so isolated he sleeps for the journey), but he returns home to gaze on a radioactive wasteland. There’s something very poetic in the core idea of Kryptonite, the radioactive shards of his home planet that are now toxic to Superman, and can render him practically useless. Seeing them bubble an ominous green beneath the surface of Krypton beautifully evokes the idea. Imagine the sheer weight of tragedy bearing down on Superman, where contact with his own homeworld could potentially kill him. It’s a powerful idea, and its one that Singer hits here, perhaps more effectively than he does over the course of the rest of the film.

Homecoming...

Indeed, the clip does make a lot more sense of the rest of the film, with the idea of Superman fathering a family back on Earth packing all the more punch once he has sifted through the wreckage of his own ancestral home. In fact, one could read the entire journey of Superman over the course of the movie as one of rejecting his destroyed Kryptonian heritage and embracing his new home on the surface of Earth, with the hero actually tossing a chunk of Kryptonite out of the atmosphere and into space, a symbolic rejection of his biological roots in favour of his adoptive planet. The opening scene telegraphs and outlines all these ideas, making Singer’s narrative line significantly clearer than a brief reference to the trip in a conversation with his mother in Smallville. You can see very obviously what the director was attempting to do.

However, the fundamental problems remain. At its core, Superman’s story isn’t about the journey Singer wants to take him on. Kal-El doesn’t need to learn to let go of Krypton, because he doesn’t remember it. His only knowledge of his home planet is the academic information provided by his father’s hologram. The introduction makes it clear that Kal-El did return home, but it doesn’t make it clear why he did. Did he have a mid-life crisis? Did he suddenly decide to just give up and find his roots? Or did something push him? He did, after all, apparently disappear shortly before Lois gave birth (don’t think too hard on that one). It’s easy to imagine why an immigrant might want to visit the old country, after migrating in his youth, but the problem is that this isn’t who Superman is.

The weight of the world on his shoulders...

Superman is the idealised American. He wasn’t born on American soil, in the same way that most Americans can trace their DNA back to the original settlers, but he is American. Much as many immigrants, first- and second-generation, define themselves as American first and foremost, rather than by their parent’s country of origin. Superman is the American Dream writ large. He’s the idea that you can come to America from anywhere and make yourself something – and never have to look back. It’s not a rejection of your roots (after all, Superman wears his Kryptonian colours and communicates with the spirit of his father), but he’s driven forwards and he doesn’t dwell on the long and complicated history behind him. He can forget about the life he would have had in the “old country” and make himself his own man here.

There’s something inherently wrong with a Superman movie opening with our hero surveying a long-dead graveyard. It just doesn’t fit with the character – a character who would never consider Krypton as his “true home” or anything like that. Batman is defined by the first tragedy in his life, the loss of his parents. It defines who Batman is. Superman isn’t tied in a similar way. His life begins after, rather than being anchored in that moment. The morning that the Kents found Clark in the wreckage of his pod is a far more important moment in his life than the death of two parents he never knew. He may attempt to honour their memory, but he doesn’t obsess over a world he never knew.

In this case, it seems this interpretation of Superman was doomed from the opening scene.

10 Responses

  1. I wish I had a single thing worth adding to what you’ve written here, but at least the fact that I don’t indicates something of how much I agree with you. Well said, sir.

    Hear, hear

    • Thanks Colin, that really means a lot. Let’s hope Snyder can do better justice to the character.

      This isn’t Singer bashing – he’s a talented director, just not suited to the Man of Steel… I suspect that he could have done a decent Batman or a powerful Martian Manhunter, main distinction from Superman (apart from being green) is that he lost his home as an adult rather than an infant who couldn’t remember. Not that we’d ever see a Martian Manhunter film.

  2. Me too agree with you whatever you said above is 100 correct.

  3. For some reason I just assumed he flew to Krypton without a spaceship. Obviously that doesn’t make sense since we see him crash land on Earth when he gets back, but there was something about him flying alone through space that appealed to me.

    • It’s interesting. I thought I’d point out that Superman doesn’t need to breath oxygen, as demonstrated by his trip into orbit in Donner’s Superman and at the climax here, but I didn’t want to seem that big of a nerd.

      However, Superman’s powers are triggered by a yellow sun. It’s quite possible he would have been travelling through systems with red stars, or even travelling through the empty void without enough yellow light to sustain him. Yes, I am a nerd. But yes, there is something slightly strange about Superman needing a space ship.

  4. Hi Darren, a very entertaining post as always. Man I wish Zack Snyder is reading this before filming Man of Steel 🙂

    It’s mind-boggling to me that the scene cost $10 to make! And to have it deleted, my goodness!! I totally agree that the big picture was already off from the start, thus damaging the continuity, never mind logic of the whole SR movie. I like parts of the movie but as a whole it just doesn’t hold up for the reasons you mentioned here.

    As for why Supes need a space ship, perhaps to help shelter him from all those Kryptonites? I agree with the argument about the lack of yellow light to sustain his power, but on top of that, I think the spaceship help lessen the effect of those toxic green rocks, otherwise he might’ve easily poisoned to death.

    • Thanks Ruth! And even inside the ship, you could see him weakening a bit, so I think you’re on to something

  5. I’m sure Singer wanted to make a connection between Superman and the currently most alienated portion of the United States. I really have no evidence to speak of, but it seemed like the whole film was a portrayal of a man who is keeping himself from everyone, but that wasn’t always the case with Superman.

  6. I think Superman not wanting to see Krypton for himself is a pretty radical assumption. There already is precedent of writers depicting a Superman that does have feelings for the “old country”. Please allow me to nerd for a moment:
    In “For the Man Who Has Everything”, a Black Mercy is latched onto him and we see him fantasize about a normal life on a living Krypton.
    In “Superman: New Krypton”, he is visibly distraught at the tension between Earth and New Krypton. He even lives on the latter for a while.
    Even in “All-Star Superman”, he wears traditional Kryptonian robes to have dinner with Lois.
    In retrospect, I feel like Singer’s only mistake was that he presented a Superman story exploring the character as opposed to a super power exhibition.

    • But the whole point of For the Man Who Has Everything is that Krypton isn’t a paradise, and that his life would have probably been much more mundane had he stayed and had it survived. New Krypton had great potential to explore the conflict between Superman and his heritage, but it just ended up being this massive soulless crossover which was one of DC’s weaker cosmic books. (And I write that as a fan of Johns’ run on Action Comics leading into it, and the way the event used Zod.) In All-Star Superman, it’s a nice scene, but it’s nothing on the scale of abandoning his adopted planet

      I wasn’t entirely satisfied with Man of Steel, but I liked the way that it dealt with the conflict between his origins and his family on Earth. Yes, he was excited to discover his heritage, and yes he was completely blind to how his enthusiasm would make Martha feel, but he didn’t hesitate to pick a side at the first sign of conflict.

      Synger’s Superman got Lois Lane pregnant, possibly gave her a rohypnol kiss depending on how closely Returns builds on II, abandoned his pregnant girlfriend (and his adopted planet) without warning to cruise through space for five years and than stalks her and lectures her (“you shouldn’t smoke”) when he gets back.

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