Superman is getting a new show on Warner Bros.' CW network, but so far, the big screen has proven to be his kryptonite.
The box office flop of "Justice League," along with negative reviews for a majority of films that included America's favorite hero in blue in the last 20 years, have created a noticeable struggle for the iconic DC-Warner Bros. character in theaters.
Most recently, Superman was featured on CW's "Crisis on Infinite Earth" television series, a well-received crossover event between multiple DC Comics characters and alternate versions of themselves. One Superman, played by Tyler Hoechlin, will star alongside Elizabeth Tulloch in the spin off series, "Superman and Lois." Yet, despite CW's ability to create well-received content centered around some of DC's most beloved characters, Warner Bros., owned by telecom and entertainment giant AT&T, has struggled to receive the same acclaim in theaters.
In all fairness, Warner Bros. and DC, its subsidiary, have hit quite a hot streak with the likes of "Wonder Woman," "Aqua Man" and 2019's "Joker," which earned over $1 billion worldwide and received a nomination for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards.
But Superman has not accumulated the same levels of success. 2013's "Man of Steel," a Superman reboot starring Henry Cavill, earned a modest $668 million worldwide on a $225 million budget, and Cavill's next two stints with the red cape were plagued with criticism and a huge box office blister in 2017's "Justice League."
"The franchise has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows at various points throughout the last few decades," said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for Boxoffice.com, adding that the successes and failures range "from a history-making blockbuster to sequels that stumbled to reboots that won over some fan adoration."
Reports also circulated the web for the last year and a half that Cavill was to be removed from the character, but he has since gone on to say, "The cape is in the closet… It's still mine." However, Warner Bros. and DC made it clear in a statement back in 2018 that "we have made no current decisions regarding any upcoming Superman films." Warner Bros. declined to comment on whether that had changed.
With more diverse projects in the cannon for Warner Bros., like the all female team up "Birds of Prey" coming in 2020, Superman's cinematic fate is now a looming question, especially since diversity has become such a proven necessity at the box office.
"Diversity on screen has proven to have tremendous appeal to audiences around the world, so nothing is really off the table," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst for Comscore, in regards to the possibility of diversifying Superman. "Innovative and inspired casting can often reinvigorate a brand or character in one fell swoop."
Yet Robbins believes that prioritizing the narrative is another must, in terms of perfecting the cash cow recipe.
"There's no question that audiences demand more diverse representation in movies, rightly so, and the recipe for box office success equally includes the quality of the final product," Robbins said. "To embrace diversity but not give those actors quality material to work with is to undermine the very effort of making a film truly inclusive for everyone."
And Daniel Richtman, a media influencer and pop culture insider, suggested that Superman is simply not relatable enough: "Some consider him too cheesy and are not sure how to keep the spirit of the character as a symbol of hope while trying to modernize him," he said.
Part of the trouble in making a Superman movie, besides the fact that he is nearly indestructible, is that cheesiness that Richtman is referring to. Consequently, creating a character with such a strong moral compass creates complexities.
"He's a challenging character to make relevant in today's increasingly complex society and pop culture while still honoring the spirit of his character," Robbins said. "Marvel faced a similar challenged with Captain America and made all the right decisions in bringing that character, once presumed to be dated and out of touch, into modern day relevance. The same can be done with Superman."
Marvel Studios' Captain America, portrayed by Chris Evans for close to the last decade, was notoriously pushed to act against his moral inclinations in 2014's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which grossed $714 million worldwide, and in 2016's "Captain America: Civil War," which grossed over $1 billion worldwide.
But Jeremy Conrad, editor-in-chief of DCEU Mythic, a site that covers all things related to the franchise, believes that "reinventing" Superman is what has gone wrong in the first place, citing his admiration for the 1978 classic "Superman," directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve. The movie earned an impressive $300 million worldwide, despite working with only a $55 million budget.
"Donner and Reeve got it right. It think the problem is people trying to 'reinvent' Superman with their own twist on it," Conrad said. "Superman represents the best of us and is an ideal to aspire to."
While ideas of the character vary, one thing is certain: despite Warner Bros. and DC's ambition to explore different characters from their catalog of intellectual property, Superman is still an important piece of the puzzle for the future of DC.
"It may be wise to let the character have a temporary break and be missed, but in the long run, he has to be involved," Robbins said. "The DC universe is filled with iconic characters that can carry their own weight, but any future vision of a larger DC cinematic universe without one of the original and cornerstone characters of the genre will always feel incomplete to fans."