Monday, July 03, 2006

Superman's returns

The July 4th weekend traditionally represents something of a highwater mark in the summer box office season. A day off from work here in the United States to celebrate (ironcially, these days) our break from the monarchy. In the industry, it means only one month to open your big summer blockbusters before the dog days of August kick in, a/k/a the island of misfit movies. This year, however, with the Fourth falling on a Tuesday, there isn't really one weekend that can claim the date. The closer of the two was this past, which saw the opening of Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer's restart of the film franchise. Pretending, as most Superman fans who are old enough to remember them have for years now, that the third and fourth sequels to the original never happened.

Fun Joel already posted his thoughts on why it might suck. Scott the Reader breaks down the reasons that it didn't work for him. Bill Cunningham is not a fan of this version. Because the flaws have been thoroughly explored, I won't get into a detailed review myself. As a movie in the comic book genre, I thought it (mostly) worked. The tagline for the 1978 film was "you'll believe a man can fly" but only now with the full power of digital effects does that become completely true. The sense of scale, speed, and strength of Superman are perfectly rendered. Less successful are the romantic moments between Superman and Lois Lane. Brandon Routh fills out the cape adequately but there simply are no sparks between him and Kate Bosworth. She's slight in every sense of the word. And Lex Luthor's plot for world domination, aside from not breaking much new ground (okay, maybe some new ground), doesn't ever quite put Metropolis in enough jeopardy to make the payoff as satisfying as it probably could have been. But for summer escapism fare, there was enough fun to outweigh the heavy-handed Supes-as-Christ imagery, which bordered on ponderous by the third shot of him floating in space, arms outstretched. Okay, we get it, Bryan.

More interesting to me are the reactions and spins going around town in reaction to the film's box office performance since premiering Wednesday. With $84 million in ticket sales over its first five days, Superman Returns has outpaced last year's franchise restart, Batman Begins, by a good $12 million dollars. If it maintains a similar margin over the course of its theatrical run, it should end up with around $230 million. Although the eagerly-anticipated Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest could undercut those legs if it connects with audiences as well as the first one did.

But in Hollywood (as with Wall Street, I suppose) perception is reality and the game is one of managing expectations. Speculation as to what the $84 number really means is a hot topic. On one hand, Warner Brothers execs are touting it as the biggest five-day opening in that studio's history. That's kind of true, although I believe all of the the Harry Potter series and The Matrix Reloaded took in more (but opened on a *Thursday* which makes them four-day openers. savvy?). And War of the Worlds, opening in essentially the same slot last year, managed $69 million over the Friday to Sunday period. Which makes Supes's $52 million for the weekend look not as super. For a (strictly-speaking) non-sequel opener of this type, I would put Superman Returns in the sold but not spectacular column. Given the high costs of production, a large portion of which were incurred under pay-or-play deals with previously-attached talent such as Nicolas Cage, Warner's would probably have been happier with a higher number (who wouldn't?). Nonetheless, it should be strong enough to warrant another installment with Singer at the helm (which is good for the studio in the long term).

Others, however, are not quite as sanguine about the film's prospects. In her Deadline Hollywood column, Nikki Finke quotes unnamed rival studio sources as estimating that Superman Returns will struggle to break the $200 million dollar mark. Perhaps not surprisingly, the comparison that the anonymous "rival studio bigwig" based their analysis on was the crater job that X-Men: The Last Stand did last month after a strong Memorial Day weekend bow. When a quote from an unnamed rival studio source begins "It's not unfair to note . . . " you can be pretty sure that what's coming next will be completely unfair. Although I can see the argument, e.g., when compared against the original Spiderman's $100 million weekend, that $84 million is a disappointment, I don't know that it fully accounts for the kind of poormouthing coming out of some quarters.

Studio rivalries are one thing but my completely unsubstantiated theory is that "it would not be unfair to say" that the fact that the film's producer is former Columbia Pictures head, Jon Peters, has something to do with the negative press as well. An article in today's Los Angeles Times details Peters's return from his fall from Columbia in 1991 to shepherding the Superman project through development hell to the top of the box office. The article also makes clear, from similarly anonymous sources, that Peters's personality and prior dealings have not endeared him to many around town. It isn't beyond the realm of possibilities to think that some of the people he clashed with on the way up (and down) just might be willing to give a comment or two off the record at the first opportunity. But that's just a theory. It may be, as Lois writes in the movie, that the world really doesn't need a Superman.


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