When plans were afoot to make Superman Returns 2, a full Superman video game was also greenlit – and here’s the story of what went wrong.
Perhaps more so than any other superhero, a project involving Superman seems to be fraught with ‘challenges’. Several films have been developed yet cancelled, and a few video games too. But the one we’re look at here is 2006’s Superman Returns. For that movie, of course, Brandon Routh pulled on the cape and the blue tights, and the plan was for a sequel to the film where director Bryan Singer infamously said he wanted to go all 'Wrath Of Khan' with it.
But when the sequel film was abandoned – ultimately in favour of Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel – a video game tie-in was cancelled with it. This was particularly bad news for publishers Brash Entertainment and developers Factor 5, who were each working on the unfinished ‘Blue Steel’ game.
A bit of background. Brash Entertainment LLC sounds like it came from a Hollywood script, but with Legendary Films’ Thomas Tull among the founders (Legendary having backed Superman Returns) it set up shop in 2007 with an office on Sunset Boulevard – prime Hollywood real estate.
Tull was a gamer but none of the other senior executives, including CEO Mitch Davis, had much prior involvement in the video game industry. With $400 million in financing through private equity and leveraged debt, the Wall Street Journal argued it was “risky” for Brash to focus almost exclusively on games based around film intellectual properties. Yet that’s just what it did. A deal with Fox Studios led to the company rapidly developing three games in its first year of existence – Alvin & Chipmunks (based on the 2007 part-animated movie), Jumper: Griffin’s Story and Space Chimps.
Although Alvin sold over 300,000 copies, the critical response was poor to these three games. Each had been rushed to meet the release of the associated film, and that shone through.
Brash needed more film licenses to build on them, and entered into multiple deals.
Games based on the Saw films and Prison Break: The Conspiracy were in development when it also tied up a publishing deal with Warner Bros. This gave it access to the movie remake of Clash Of The Titans for a start, as well as DC Comics characters. Brash commissioned development studio Bottlerocket Games to begin work on The Flash, while Factor 5 was brought in to start a Superman project.
Factor 5 was a team of developers formed in Germany by five former Rainbow Arts employees, and it established an American office as the company grew. It became best known for the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series of games on Nintendo hardware, before developing PlayStation 3 title Lair.
With so much experience in flying mechanics, it was hoping to make Superman’s power of flight seem realistic and easy to control (unlike the terrible Nintendo 64 Superman game of a few years before, that has gone down in history as one of the worst games of its type).
Hoping to break the curse of poor Superman games then, Factor 5 gave the project an internal name of ‘Blue Steel’ – from Superman’s nickname Man of Steel of course, and also echoing George Lucas’ use of Blue Harvest to keep the filming of Return Of The Jedi under wraps in the early 80s.
The high definition graphics of the PlayStation made it the target platform, with a planned conversion to the Xbox 360 as well.
Brash was insisting on a Nintendo Wii version too, although not providing extra finance for its development. However many at the development company loved Nintendo hardware and wanted to make the Wii version happen, even if it never progressed far beyond tests of how to use the Wii’s unique motion controls.
Much like Superman Returns 2, Blue Steel would have featured many classic Superman villains – and the game went further. Darkseid and Braniac were reportedly due to appear in the cancelled film, but Factor 5 spread its net further and delved into DC Comics history to add more interesting villains including Doomsday (pictured below).
Perhaps the biggest task in development was dealing with the destructible open-world setting that had been planned for the game. Furthermore, in battles with the villains the idea was to let Superman grapple them and then plunge them into a nearby building to reduce their energy level. An early concept trailer shows this could have been a QTE (Quick-Time Event) moment, with the player timing the press of buttons based on prompts that appeared on screen.
With Singer choosing to work on historical drama Valkyrie, filming on the Superman Returns sequel was delayed into 2009. That said, Warner Bros hadn’t been quick to greenlight another film anyway when the costly movie hit some critical backlash, and its box office didn’t quite match expectations.
Furthermore, Brandon Routh’s contract to appear in a sequel was set to expire at the end of the decade too.
Warner Bros was looking at another movie option in the midst of this as well. The cancelled George Miller-directed attempt at a Justice League film (with D J Cotrona as Superman and Armie Hammer as Batman) in 2007 meant Warner Bros put Superman Returns 2 on pause.
Brash Entertainment was burning through money fast – some reports put it at $100 million spent in a year – and that had serious repercussions for its subcontractor, Factor 5.
Without a film to tie in to, the game it was working on was rebranded Superman: Man Of Steel. It was poised to look even deeper into Superman history, including a fight with General Zod and the Kryptonian villains, inspired by the cinematic battle in Superman II. Lex Luthor was due to pop up in an exoskeleton as well.
But Brash was running out of time. In fact, its last two releases were Six Flags: Fun Park for Nintendo DS and The Tales Of Desperaux; this latter game was also based on a film, but the Xbox 360 conversion was cancelled.
Senior figures at Brash began to leave and the money was running out . Plus, the worldwide credit crunch meant new funding was unlikely. Variety reported Brash was on the brink of closure, and the doors did indeed shut on 14th November 2008.
Of the games it was working on, the Saw rights were sold back with the first game eventually published elsewhere in 2009. Factor 5 valiantly tried to keep development on Superman: Man Of Steel going with its own funds. But when employees failed to be paid two months running, leading to long-running lawsuits, the end was inevitable. Factor 5 itself closed just before Christmas 2008 and Blue Steel was left unfinished.
Brandon Routh at least got his chance to revisit the Superman role in the Arrowverse TV crossover episode Crisis On Infinite Earths. It would be David S Goyer’s concept for rebooting Superman – pitched to Warner Bros by Christopher Nolan, off the back of his success with The Dark Knight – that ultimately brought Superman (in the shape of Henry Cavill) back to the big screen in 2013’s Man Of Steel. This of course heralded the start of the DC Extended Universe.
However, even to that, there would be no video game tie-in – and The Dark Knight never got one either (see more on that story here).
Superman did make multiple appearances in the LEGO Batman games (voiced by Travis Willingham) and took part in the Injustice beat ‘em ups from NetherRealm Studios (developers of the Mortal Kombat series). But as things stand, the underwhelming tie-in to Superman Returns remains the last solo Superman game we’ve seen. Given the sheer potential here – just look at what’s been done with Spider-Man in recent times – surely someone out there has a plan to do something about that…
With thanks to the brilliant Unseen64 for the images and uncovering the story behind Blue Steel.
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