Bryan Singer made a few headlines last week when he blamed the box office failure of his film, Superman Returns, on the fact that it was targeted at a female audience – who didn’t turn out to watch it as highly as he’d hoped:
It was a movie made for a certain kind of audience. Perhaps more of a female audience. It wasn’t what it needed to be, I guess. I think I could lop the first quarter off and start the movie a bit more aggressively and maybe find a way to start the movie with the jet disaster sequence or something. I could have grabbed the audience a little more quickly. I don’t know what would have helped. Probably nothing.
Singer’s quotes have been taken out of context slightly, but the idea that the film was targeted at women is his most solid definition of the “certain kind of audience” he was chasing, and he thinks that there was “probably nothing” different he could have done.
What I think Singer was trying to say – and what my impression was when watching the film – was that he was trying to tell a story that’s interesting in it’s own right, rather than being a transparent set-up for some superhero action. In theory, the story is interesting – a popular guy with a whiter than white reputation returns to town after being away for several years, discovers his ex-girlfriend has a child which may be his, and struggles to contain his jealousy while trying to set the moral example he’s expected to. That’s potentially an interesting story, regardless of being in the superhero genre. And I can admire the bravery of deploying such a non-traditional story… but to me, and many other people, the execution didn’t work.
Additionally, if Singer was consciously targeting the film at women while it was in production, he could have helped his cause by… having more women appear. Cracked.com have pointed out that, whereas Star Wars has Han Solo and Luke Skywalker as leading characters, as well as colourful supporting characters like Obi-wan Kenobi and Boba Fett, Princess Leia is more or less the only named female character in the first three films.
Superman Returns had only Lois Lane and one of Lex Luthor’s henchmen – for a film that was supposedly targeted at women, that’s a pretty low number, and Returns’ depiction of Lois wasn’t particularly strong. Terri Hatcher and Margot Kidder both played memorable and strong versions of the character, intelligent and provocative. But I literally can’t remember anything about the way Kate Bosworth played Lois Lane, despite having seen the film less than a year ago. I don’t follow news of Hollywood economics and demographics, but I’m not surprised by The Mary Sue’s claim that Singer’s previous two films – the first two X-Men films – sold more highly among women. Obviously the best way to sell a film is to tell a good story, but having strong, cool characters that the target audience can identify with will help.
Some of the coverage I’ve seen of Superman Returns paints it as a broad flop, seemingly without considering the bravery of going against the narrow superhero film formula. But as Singer decided to pin the success or failure of the film on the audience enjoying the story, without many action set pieces, he should have made sure the story works. Unfortunately, in Returns Superman’s actions when overcome with jealousy – to me at least – cross the line from wrong but understandable to creepy stalker. In a character drama, having the male lead crossing a moral absolute and a dull female lead means that something’s gone wrong somewhere in the creative process.
I think Singer’s remarks are interesting in a broader way when thinking about storytelling. It’s common even for fans to blame whatever goes wrong on executive interference, while it’s not unique to hear creators blaming the audience for not getting their vision. The kind of film he was trying to make is the kind of film I’d have liked to see, but to me – and many others – he didn’t manage to pull it off.
Singer was at the peak of his popularity at the time – having delivered successful and critical admired X-Men films – so I’d assume he had a fair amount of freedom even on this blockbuster. On top of that, he’s not one of the big budget directors who’s accused of being a hack in the same way Michael Bay and Zack Snyder are. But even genuinely talented people can make really bad choices from time to time.