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.
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.
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.