Last week, prolific writer-producer-director J.J. Abrams along with his Bad Robot Productions and WarnerMedia officially joined forces via a lucrative five-year overall deal worth a reported $500 million. The pact covers film, television, digital content, music, games, consumer products and theme-park attractions. The expectation is that Abrams will leverage WarnerMedia’s deep library of high-profile intellectual properties while also creating new original franchises for the company across mediums.
Throughout his career, Abrams has toggled back-and-forth between reinvigorating dormant brands such as Mission: Impossible, Star Trek and Star Wars while also shepherding original creations such as Super 8 and the Cloverfield series to the big screen. But one title that has eluded him all these years is Superman.
Abrams previously wrote a script for the character, Superman: Flyby, back in 2002 when Warner Bros. was considering a reboot. Ultimately, the studio passed and instead moved forward with 2006’s Superman Returns (which ironically was released the same year as Abrams’ feature directorial debut). With Abrams now in the WB fold for the immediate future, it’s likely that he has his pick of the litter when it comes to the studio’s blockbuster IP. Though WB has not said anything official, it seems reasonable that the creator would be interested in either rebooting the character or continuing it with Man of Steel star Henry Cavill. One issue, however, is that today’s Superman movies have failed to reach the same great heights as the 1978 original.
Features starring the last son of Krypton this millennium have proved divisive among fans and critics from a quality standpoint. But, more importantly, they have not posted the type of box office numbers the general public might expect from the most popular superhero.
Superman Returns cost an ill-advised $270 million ($343 million today accounting for inflation) while earning just $391 million worldwide and barely crossing the $200 million mark domestically (though its 3.8x multiplier is impressive). It was the sixth-highest grossing domestic movie of its release year, but the most expensive entry in the top-10 by a wide margin. Ultimately, WB decided to shelve the property rather than green light a sequel.
That led to 2013’s Man of Steel, another polarizing entry in the Superman mythos that didn’t quite live up to the box office hype (and also hit theaters the same year as an Abrams-directed feature). On a more manageable $225 million budget (before marketing costs), Man of Steel was absolutely profitable with $668 million worldwide and $291 million domestic. However, the reboot was overshadowed by both Iron Man 3 and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire at the box office that year. Whispers at the time even suggested that internal studio expectations for the film hovered around $1 billion, though that remains unofficial.
Then came 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which earned upwards of $870 million worldwide and $330 million domestic, but suffered a headlines-generating 69% drop in its second weekend and posted the lowest multiplier (1.9x) of any modern Superman movie. The infamous followup, Justice League, reportedly lost between $50 million and $100 million for the studio.
Can an Abrams-directed Superman picture reverse this trend?
His well-received Mission: Impossible III is the lowest-grossing entry in the franchise both domestically ($134 million) and globally ($397 million). His two Star Trek movies are both considered financial wins, but are also mini-major blockbusters in the era of the $1 billion global tentpole with a combined worldwide total around $850 million. His original E.T. homage Super 8 provided an impressive return on investment with more than $260 million against a mid-sized $50 million budget and Star Wars: The Force Awakens is obviously a record-setting achievement with more than $2 billion. December’s The Rise of Skywalker will undoubtedly reach 10-figures as well.
The track record of success is there for the most part, though the context surrounding each film did play a role in their box office performances. His three franchise revivals came after years of the properties standing on the sidelines, which sparked audience anticipation levels. Superman, in one form or another, has been a relatively steady pop culture fixture this decade.
Some argue that the earnest morality and the innate naiveté of “truth, justice and the American way” simply does not connect with contemporary audiences. But the consistently building box office success of Marvel’s similarly steadfast hero Captain America as well as WB’s own optimistic Wonder Woman would beg to differ. Both franchises managed to keep their hero’s sincere convictions alive while also revealing to them the flaws of of the real world. A Superman film that carefully centers his aww shucks throwback charm with the sensibility of today’s complexities could resonate with audiences in a way that no other comic book feature has managed to do.
We’re big believers in the Abrams brand and have enjoyed his filmography thus far. Though Superman has proven to be a tough property to effectively and consistently adapt—he is a bit a boy scout, after all—there’s endless potential from the source material to tap into. Regardless of which direction the Abrams-WarnerMedia partnership ultimately heads, successfully reviving the Man of Steel would be considered a defining victory.