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How Hit Movies Become Flops

by Matt Singer
June 12, 2013 4:00 PM
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"Superman Returns."

It's one of the core components of modern online film culture: in the run-up to a new installment of a long-running franchise, you consider what's come before. When there's a new "Star Trek," you rank all the previous ones. When there's a new James Bond, you pay tribute to your favorite interpretations of the character. When there's a new Superman movie, you write about the underrated Superman movies that fans don't properly appreciate. This week, as audiences prepare for "Man of Steel," a lot of writers are defending 2006's "Superman Returns." At Deadspin, Tim Grierson goes to bat for "The Little Superhero Movie That Couldn't." Little might be a stretch -- the movie cost at least $200 million to make (Box Office Mojo lists the budget at $270 million) -- but who cares. The movie, Grierson says, has its merits:

"With hindsight, we can see that 'Superman Returns' is something of a precursor to the approach that J.J. Abrams has taken with his 'Star Trek' reboots. Those movies function both as a nostalgic reminder of the franchise's past glories and as a self-aware twist on a story we think we know. Except 'Superman Returns' isn't nearly as cute and self-satisfied. Yes, the movie riffs on two of Superman's most well-known catchphrases ('Truth, justice and the American way' and 'It's a bird, it's a plane...'), but especially rewatching the movie you notice how incredibly innocent the whole thing is."

At Cinema Blend, Sean O'Connell has his own 3-point defense of "Superman Returns," which includes an appreciation of the way the movie looks away from its hero long enough to consider his impact on his (and our) society:

"And what would happen to us in his absence. Beyond Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) winning a Pulitzer Prize, Superman's 5-year journey to Krypton's remains and back dropped the world into turmoil. Kal-El's presence alone should have a deep impact on our planet and its society. When you have an all-powerful force of justice policing the planet, who's going to commit a crime? There are deeper themes at play in the Superman mythology that [director Bryan] Singer tried to explore. At times, he went off the deep end into religious symbolism. But there have been suggestions in Snyder's marketing materials that say he and screenwriter David Goyer will explore the hope Superman brings to our nation... and I think that was touched on in 'Superman Returns.'"

Playing off Lois Lane's Pulitzer Prize-winning article in the movie, Film School Rejects' Bitter Script Reader has his own essay on the subject entitled "Why the World Needs 'Superman Returns.'"

"It may not be a perfect film, but how often does one find such a film? 'Superman Returns' doesn't get enough credit for everything it does right, and for its ambitions to tell a different kind of Superman story. You can't judge the value of a film by how many sequels it spawned or how many careers it launched. Does the fact that Henry Thomas had few notable roles after 'E.T.' diminish the power of his performance there? Or the legacy of the film? Is 'Batman Begins' a great film only because it beget 'The Dark Knight,' or can we assess its creative success on its own merits? I won't dispute that there are metrics to measure the business success of a film but it would wrong to consider only those figures while giving the film a superficial reading."

The Script Reader's comments echo a tweet that floated through my feed earlier this week, with the following brief summation of the strange twists of fate that have befallen "Superman Returns" since its 2006 premiere:

"Weird fact: SUPERMAN RETURNS got good reviews when it was released, and made more money than BATMAN BEGINS. Now it's considered a flop."

True. When "Superman Returns" opened in 2006, it earned $391 million worldwide, slightly better than "Batman Begins' $374 million. At Rotten Tomatoes, "Superman Returns" still has a 76% approval rating from critics; only slightly worse than "Batman Begins"' 85%. But one movie spawned two sequels that were even more critically and commercially successful, and the other didn't. 

When "Superman Returns" opened, I remember having long conversations about the movie's beautiful visuals, its impressive special effects (particularly in the spectacular mid-air shuttle rescue), its glorious John Williams score, and Kevin Spacey's deliciously campy turn as Lex Luthor. Now if someone brings up "Superman Returns" in casual conversation it's mostly as an example of what not to do in a superhero movie; to make fun of Routh's Christopher Reeve imitation or Singer's obsession with Richard Donner's "Superman" movies, or the fact that (SPOILER ALERT) Routh's Superman is, in the words of others, a "deadbeat dad."

This is a curious phenomenon. The movie hasn't changed in the slightest -- it is, frame for frame, the same motion picture it was when it was released seven years ago. This isn't like going back to "The Adventures of Superman" from the 1950s and discovering that George Reeves didn't fly so much as he jumped around on springboards; "Superman Returns"' effects haven't significantly dated yet. And it's not as if superheroes have gone out of fashion in the intervening time and we now scoff at the naive, foolish moviegoers of yesteryear with their curious and inexplicable tastes. 

So how does a movie go from a hit to a flop in less than a decade? I think the culprit is something I've written about before on this blog: a movie industry that values hype over quality.

Today's blockbusters are designed to open as big and as wide as possible. Maximizing box office in a movie's first three days is not about quality -- it's about hype. Quality isn't what packs people into a multiplex on opening night; hype does that. Quality is what keeps them coming back for weeks or months on end, a business model that is increasingly irrelevant in modern Hollywood.

Big hype translates to big opening weekends. But hype can be dangerous as well. As I wrote a few months ago in a piece about the lukewarm reaction to the heavily hyped "You're Next" at South by Southwest, we become so fixated on the hypothetical movie in our minds that we're almost inevitably letdown by the actual movie on the screen. Eventually "the pleasure of assumption trumps the pleasure of discovery... as soon as [a movie] becomes tangible, we nitpick it to death, explain what it should have been instead (based on our extensive, authoritative analysis of the hype), and move on to the next obscure object of our desire."

Researching this blog post, I found an interesting article on Rotten Tomatoes from 2006 about the reaction to the first negative review of "Superman Returns," which was written by Movie City News' David Poland. His original piece doesn't appear to be online anymore, but Rotten Tomatoes' article quotes from it. Here are some of his comments:

"It's terribly cast, poorly conceived, extremely light on action, features a romance that is not remotely romantic, doesn't feature a single memorable, 'gosh, that was great' repeat-to-your-friends moment in a positive way (the blunder bits start early and often).

It's not a hideous piece of crap. It really is about a step behind 'X-Men: The Last Stand,' equally poorly directed, equally missing complexity, equally not up to the standards of the first two films, but with less interesting characters and absolutely zero sense of humor about itself."

Today, "Superman Returns" is considered a flop and a failure, so no one would bat an eye at Poland's comments. But guess what happened when he wrote them back in 2006?

He was vilified like a bald genius industrialist trying to create a new land mass in the Atlantic Ocean. 

In a post on his blog, Poland republished a few of the emails he received after panning "Superman Returns:"

"I've seen the movie and I'd like to congratulate you on the sale of your soul. I hope you got a good price.

go fuck yourself! you suck as a movie critic. Get a new job. Your work place should hire me

nobody gives a shit about your stupid review of superman so shove it prick."

That right there is hype run amok. 

It's interesting to note that "Superman Returns" wasn't just well-reviewed; in the early going, it was uniformly praised. Even after Poland's pan, the movie still had a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. One wonders if the overwhelmingly positive early reviews actually contributed to the eventual backlash by hyping the movie even further, and increasing the potential for disappointment.

It's too bad these emails to Poland are unsigned and anonymous; it'd be great to see whether these people have left the same or similar comments on negative "Man of Steel" reviews praising the movie (sight unseen) for returning the character to his roots in action and away from Bryan Singer's more touchy-feely interpretation. And even if these folks like "Man of Steel" now, how will they feel in seven years? Will they still like it? Or will the wind have changed again? 

It all depends on the hype. For "Superman Returns," hype was both the life-giving rays of the yellow sun and the deadly radiation of Kryptonite. 

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More: Superman


  • jon | October 29, 2013 1:02 PMReply

    Don't u guys think that superman in SR is kind of dumb. Dumb plot, dumb acting and dumb decisions ( Louis Brought her son into the boat) and who can forget Lovesick Stalker superman LOL.

  • VoidKnightsc | June 17, 2013 9:39 PMReply

    Superman Returns is one of the very few films I anticipated enough to watch at the cinema. I liked it, and still do.

  • Donella | June 16, 2013 3:07 PMReply

    I liked Michael Keaton in Batman and felt that Tim Burton did an excellent job as director. I was disappointed to see the dismissiveness of Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale towards a pretty successful superhero movie. I'm hoping their comments were more directed towards Batman and Robin and if so, then I could agree.

  • Oliver | June 14, 2013 11:25 AMReply

    David Poland defended William Friedkin's atrocious visual revisionism of 'The French Connection'. Just sayin'.

  • frozenhero1 | June 13, 2013 10:46 PMReply

    I remember hating Superman Returns when it came out. I didn't want to see actors impersonating other actors. Brandon Routh wasn't portraying Clark/Superman, he was acting to be Christopher Reeves. The same goes for Spacey's Lex Luthor, who wasn't Lex -Spacey was Gene Hackman. I'm sure that's what they were asked to do, but something became lost by doing that. I didn't go to a Superman movie to see actors pretending to be other actors, that took me completely out of the movie and left a foul taste in my mouth.

  • Donella | June 13, 2013 5:36 PMReply

    I liked Superman Returns. The reason why I liked Superman Returns was because of its many homages to Richard Donner's Superman series. From Brandon Routh's resemblance to Christopher Reeve to Kevin Spacey's reinterpretation of Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor to the Fortress of Solitude. SR's reimagining made me nostalgic for the 1978 epic and definitive Superman movie. So nice, I watched SR twice.

  • Andrew | June 13, 2013 3:03 PMReply

    SeanO'Connell's 3 part defense was also packaged with an equal 3 part attack of "Superman Returns." O'Connell was not just defending it.

  • Jom | June 13, 2013 2:16 PMReply

    I think there are a few factors at play, the main one being anticipation. People were waiting a long, long, long time for a new Superman movie. Anything that was better than terrible was bound to garner praise.

    That said, I found the movie underwhelming. I can't remember one thing from that film, other than when the kid smashes a dude with a piano. And, as is often the case when a movie is highly anticipated, once the glow wears off, people become hypercritical. Again, it wasn't a Bad Movie, just a tad bland (in my opinion). So when it doesn't hold up in repeat viewings, people lash out.

    Lastly, Rotten Tomatoes averages are always a loaded proposition. What do you call a middling review? Fresh? Rotten? If I reviewed Superman Returns, it probably could be construed as a fresh or a rotten review.

    Lastly-and this is where I take issue with the bent of this article-you're mixing fan reaction, critical reaction, and financial success. Plenty of bad movies make tons and tons of money. Again, people hugely anticipated another Superman movie (how could you not?), and came out in droves. Now, seven years later, you can assess the movie as its own entity, separate from the hype. So while people don't necessarily hate it now, I really don't know anyone who would put it in their top 10.

  • Claudia B. | June 13, 2013 1:55 PMReply

    I watched Superman Returns on theaters more times than I want to admit.. loved it then and still love it, very moving and majestic. Never understood the hate. Sad there wasn't sequels.

  • JP | June 13, 2013 2:49 PM

    must agree. I bought the DVD. And now my 2 year old son doesnt let a 24 hour time span lapse without demanding to see "Superman catch the airplane", or "superman raise the boat" or "Superman lift the island". He is amazed with it, and i have to admit, its a GORGEOUS film. The story holes, im willing to ignore, because its just beautiful to watch, and the score is enthralling. John Williams original mixed with the new "Savior" pieces, blend so well, you would think they were composed all at once. I chalk the negative cloud around it, with two things: 1. Folks are so enamored by what they felt was the "perfect" portrayal of Superman (Reeves) that no one else will ever measure up. and 2. In today's society, unfortunately its just NOT cool to be impressed by anything anymore. Everything is blase, and meh. I for one LOVE Superman Returns. Its a great piece of film making, and i know in 20 years, it will be considered one of the master pieces of the Superman movie collection. Truthfully, it surpassed them ALL, with the exception maybe of the original in 78.

  • Jonathan Poritsky | June 13, 2013 12:32 PMReply

    It's worth noting that the $270 million budget cited on Box Office Mojo includes money spent on false starts for a Superman film over the course of a decade. It didn't cost that much to make the film we see, but that much had been poured into the project over the years. The film would have to overcome that deficit to be a financial smash; since it still did (and probably did even better on video) it's not really a flop. Bryan Singer was, in fact, hired to do a sequel but dropped out to make Valkyrie after the schedule got moved around (or something).

    And also, while I'm at it: John Williams didn't score Superman Returns, John Ottman did. He also co-edited the film. Of course, Williams' original score appears throughout and over the iconic opening credits, which did warm my heart when I saw it in theaters.

    Anyway, great piece. I'm tired of people dismissing this film.

  • Gerardo Valero | June 13, 2013 11:53 AMReply

    I can understand people's reactions to bad reviews of highly anticipated films. "Man of Steel" just broke into the 50%s approval and I'm dissappointed with every new negative review that surfaces. The difference is that I assume they are there for a reason (assigning the film's direction to the guy who made "Sucker Punch" always seemed to me like the equivalent of giving the "Terminators" to McG).

  • jimmyolsenblues | June 13, 2013 11:04 AMReply

    superman returns cost $300 million dollars, and more with advertising.
    The plot was not that good.
    I would rather see a good story than special effects.
    People who go see Upstream color are not the same crowd that watch Large Robot movies without Megan Fox.

  • Waderpants | June 13, 2013 12:11 AMReply

    Why does no writer ever reference audience reviews from Rotten Tomatoes?
    Check Superman Returns 67% from audience. Batman Begins 90%. Man of Steel 97%.
    Remember... Critics don't buy tickets, fans do. Returns was a beautifully filmed, but boring movie. Only scene in the film that felt like Superman was him saving the airplane. Stalker Superman was just creepy.

  • Kenji | June 14, 2013 3:18 PM

    I agree with Waderpants. The hired critics are terrible at reviewing movies more often than not. Its usually the audience Critics that tell the story for a films success, hit or miss. The actual critics get it wrong a vast majority of the time. Some of the movies the main critics like I have often found are extremely boring. THE AUDIENCE are the real critics and they should always weigh heavily on what most people would want to see.

  • Whodatninja | June 12, 2013 10:27 PMReply

    Still disappointed we'll never get a follow up to Returns. It had some flaws that could have been relatively easy to fix (tighter run time for example) but it was a great mix of respecting classic Superman details to being bold enough to introduce some new controversial additions. It is incredibly unfair to the film to judge it's performance at the box office because of it's budget as a big chunk came from previous failed attempts to get a Superman onscreen. This article is interesting and it's nice to see someone commenting on the revisionist thinking that goes on after a film has come and gone.

  • Music Guy | June 12, 2013 8:03 PMReply

    Superman Returns wasn't scored by Williams, though it did use some of his past work. It was John Ottman.

  • Peter | June 18, 2013 1:10 AM

    Glad you mentioned this, I was about too.
    The movie made the excellent decision to use some of Williams' themes (good luck trying to come even close to them otherwise) while still allowing another composer to ply his trade and try and put his stamp on the picture.

  • Daniel S. Lee | June 12, 2013 7:38 PMReply

    This is one of the best articles I've read regarding SUPERMAN RETURNS. I've followed the development of the 2006 release for years, and I was puzzled as to how it went from acclaimed but moderate success to being strangely vilified. The same thing apparently happens to any new superhero movie that ages more than 5 years after its release. Fan-boys went nuts over SPIDER-MAN (which I though was only okay) and now they throw it under the bus as if embarrassed over the hype. Thank you, Matt Singer, for a analysis I will share with friends and movie-fans alike.

  • Bryan | June 12, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    Not sure where you got the general consencious that Superman was a hit. First of all it didnt pull in that much money, second, the average review from the time were all ranting about how terrible it was.

  • Whodatninja | June 12, 2013 10:20 PM

    Are you commenting on the actual article or are you having some weird traumatic flashback to an article you read in the past?

  • Micah Wilson | June 12, 2013 7:47 PM

    Did you read the article?

    This is a mind-numbingly stupid comment.

  • Luke Boyce | June 12, 2013 6:43 PMReply

    I don't know. I very much agree with your points, especially about the hype machine being so dangerous, but part of me wonders if SUPERMAN RETURNS is kind of a bad example. First off, I remember it being considered a flop right away. A lot of that had to do with the expectation of it making a proft, but because it was a film that was the culmination of almost a decade of pre-production costs, that $391 million was barely enough for it. I remember WB being fairly disappointed in it fairly quickly upon its release.

    On top of that, it seemed that the yearning for a new Superman movie was very much a part of it's initial hype and acceptance, but once the movie itself settled in people started to turn against it. I myself saw it multiple times in theaters. Loved it. Still like a lot of things about it, but a lot of that had to do with the fact that I'm a diehard Superman fan and had waited and waited for a new Superman movie and was just so happy to see it. But over time I grew upset at it's insistence on sticking to the Donner continuity, or the fact that Lex is played once again as a mad genius instead of the brilliant billionaire CEO he's been in the comics for the past 3 decades. I still appreciate it's earnest nature and attempt to apply drama to the character, but having already seen MAN OF STEEL I can tell you that Superman is most definitely better suited with some action. It makes more sense in the scheme of things, and I think the backlash against SR might actually have been somewhat warranted. Again, not necessarily cause it was a bad movie, but because it was realized that it was just the wrong approach at the wrong time.

    Honestly, it's too bad these movies cost so damn much, cause SUPERMAN RETURNS would have actually made a successful Indie-Superhero movie if those existed, which I wish they did.

  • BrianZ | June 12, 2013 5:04 PMReply

    I agree with all of this. It's an odd turn of events. Superhero movies seem to have this strange shelf-life, like when people call Iron Man the first Marvel movie. Sure, it's the first of "Marvel" as a united group of movies, but there were roughly a dozen Marvel movies before. Equally, people forget that Spider-man in 2004 was one of the year's best reviewed movies and on many top 10 lists, yet got no Oscar love outside the tech categories. Yet, when Dark Knight came out, it was as if it was the first superhero movie ever looked over.

  • Monica | June 12, 2013 4:36 PMReply

    I have not seen Man of Steel. Only'll see next month, thanks warner Brazil!
    I saw Superman Returns, I wanted to like, tried, tried, gave two chances, but the film is unbearable. It seems that nothing happens.

    But I recognize that it is visually beautiful. But it is just that.
    Ah, it is very good for those who have trouble sleeping. :P

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