I recently found the deleted opening scene from Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, which is rumored to have cost $10 million (huh?) and was meant to show where Superman went and thus where he’s returning from (thus the title), so I was psyched to view it since I’ve always felt that this unanswered question in the theatrical release was the biggest thing that torpedoed the first half of the film (and the second half’s torpedo came in the form of Lex Luthor’s preposterous real-estate plan).
In fact, when I break down my Beat Sheet in my book, Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay and discuss the crucial “Opening” beat, I use Superman Returns as a BAD EXAMPLE:
The opening of Superman Returns launches the initial Central Dramatic Question of the film: “Where did Superman go for four years?” Eventually, we are told that he went back to the location of his home planet of Krypton based on a shaky scientific lead that there may have been survivors. Huh? So what did he do there and why did it take him four years? This is never answered.
And, by the way, there weren’t any survivors, so the effect is…he’s now more lonely than before?
Now, it’s the darndest thing, but after watching this legendary deleted scene (embedded below), I still don’t know the answer! Firstly, he’s not really gone, he’s just astral-projecting (for lack of a better term) from the Fortress of Solitude, right? At least, that’s what I think he’s doing. Secondly, it sure doesn’t look like this trip would take four years to get there and back. And finally, once he gets to the meteor-thing (which I assume is a chunk of his home planet after it exploded?) he doesn’t really do anything. The scene doesn’t end with a conclusive beat. Now, I haven’t seen the movie in a while so maybe this is meant to generate the question, “What happened after we cut away from this scene?” and this is addressed later in the film, but there’s just so little real action in this opening that it’s not generating my curiosity the way that a great opening can. And from what I remember, it isn’t addressed later in the film, at least not in any kind of active way.
Here’s the scene — hopefully YouTube won’t take it down…
In my humble opinion, the entire movie was just a bad idea to begin with. When discussing this film, which will no doubt be forgotten once the “new” Superman comes out (the third incarnation of this franchise, because we need that), I always talk about the issue of bad concepts, which can ruin a film more than anything else, because it’s the foundation of the story. If we don’t like or believe in a central idea in the film, it’s going to pull us out of the story and we’ll be left scratching our heads.
With Superman Returns, I thought there were several concepts that were just bad ideas from the get-go and went against the Superman canon:
1) As said, the Central Dramatic Question is never answered. It’s in the title, Singer! If Supes is returning, I want to know from where and why?!
2) The use of Marlon Brando from the original Richard Donner film, and the concept that Superman Returns is to be wedged chronologically between Superman II and Superman III, just made Singer’s film feel like it couldn’t stand on its own and needed to borrow from the Christopher Reeves films.
3) Clark and Lois Lane having a baby, who is revealed to be a “Superboy.” Firstly, wouldn’t Clark, um, kill Lois if they did the nasty? (Just sayin’, but okay, I’m trying to apply logic to a guy with a red cape who flies and puts on glasses and no one recognizes him). Secondly, if Singer meant for this film to launch a new franchise, then why would he paint himself into a corner by necessitating their child be present in the sequel? Has anyone ever wanted a Supergirl or Superboy?!
4) Superman is nearly killed and he’s brought to the hospital and saved by human doctors and the love of the citizens of Metropolis. Superman doesn’t need our doctors or medicine, he’s Superman!
5) Lex Luthor’s ridiculous plan to use shards of Kryptonite to create prime real estate off the coast of Manhattan. Unfortunately, he succeeds in creating only craggy rock formations that couldn’t possibly be hospitable. It’s also not personal to anyone, it’s just a get-rich-quick scheme, so we never invest in it and it never creates emotional stakes. Like the rest of the film, it’s oddly sterile.
Now that I’ve beaten Supes to a pulp, let’s learn from all of this, shall we?
If you’re writing a spec screenplay, I suggest that you work on your Logline for the story and your Story Engines for each of the four Acts. If the Story Engine, or “dramatic situation” for an Act is not particularly interesting, clear, or not logical to the “rules” of your fictional world, then the reader will tune out. There needs to be an organic, “shown” motivation that drives the Protagonist’s pursuit of their goal in that chapter of the story it needs to be compelling for the reader/audience (i.e., don’t bore us). On that note…
Up, Up and Away!
Related: The Dark Knight Screenplay Analysis
Related: X-Men Story Map in the Story Maps Booster Pack #1