’s been a lot of talk on our message boards about the future of the Superman franchise. At this point the talk isn’t about where the series will go but rather will there even be a series? I’m not feeling the positivity – the film cost too much and underperformed too much to make a sequel sensible.

Today’s Variety has an article about just this issue, and they shed some interesting light on the whole situation. One of the things that confuses average moviegoers the most seems to be how films earn money at the box office and what films are truly successful. The experts at Variety seem to think that Superman Returns is on target to lose money for Warner Bros and their co-financer, Legendary Pictures, to the tune of 20 million a piece – before the marketing costs are even added in, and some estimates have the film at 100 million for prints and advertising alone. If the film does very well on DVD, those losses could be lessened, but the film would have to VERY well on DVD to make a huge difference.

The problem there is that no one has figured out why Superman can’t fly. Is it because of Pirates? Is it because the character is hokey? Is it because the film just isn’t that good? If it’s the first one, the DVD could do very well. If it’s the second two, there’s trouble in Metropolis. Everyone keeps comparing Superman Returns to Batman Begins, but besides the fact that their budgets are very, very different, Batman had legs, which indicated good word of mouth. That later materialized as good DVD sales. Superman has legs like Christopher Reeve, and that could mean a poor showing at the video store.

One thing is certain – if Superman does return again, it’s going to have to be cheaper. Variety says that the word around town has Warner Bros demanding a budget south of 200 million dollars, a big chunk of change away from the original’s 240-260 million dollar cost. While Bryan Singer was at Comic Con last month touting a 2009 release date for his Superman sequel, Warner doesn’t even have him nailed down yet, and any deal is almost certainly going to include an enforced budget cap. Could the studio demand more control over the sequel?

A sequel doesn’t make much sense to me on any level. Singer promises a more action packed movie, but how is he going to pull that off with a budget below 200 million? Rumors have Spider-Man 3 clocking in at 300 million plus, and there’s an indication that the Pirates sequels may well cost 700 million combined. Like it or not, the effects film budget threshold is getting higher and higher, and Superman Returns had a hard time competing with a big budget as it was.

But beyond that, no one needs a Superman sequel. These films should be blockbusters or they shouldn’t exist at all. It isn’t like Warner Bros needs a film franchise to move Superman merchandise – the character does pretty well all on his own. Why sink millions more into another boondoggle film when you’re already getting the auxiliary benefits anyway?

 Of course no one knows where this will end up going. This buzz on the studio lot could just be Warner Bros being prepared in case the DVD does explodes like Superman’s home planet, or to minimize the perception of the film as an underperformer. And even if the studio does intend right now to go ahead with a new Superman, that could all vanish in a puff of smoke if the studio has another year as poor as this one is turning out to be. Hell, everybody who works there today could be gone by this time next year. Or the studio could be serious about making this franchise work, and we really will see Bryan Singer returning to the Man of Steel in 2009.

Maybe in Bizarro World.