Movie Marketing Madness: Superman Returns

The success or failure of Superman Returns could determine the future of the comics adaptations as a whole. I’m dead serious about this. The movie reportedly cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 million to produce (I remember the headlines when T2 cost $100 million. Doesn’t that seem quaint now?) and the character is the one by which all others are judged. Superman is larger than life. He’s not of this world, invulnerable (just about) and symbolizes Truth and Justice in the comic world. And so not only is more demanded of the character but more will be demanded of the movie. I don’t care how well X-Men 3 just did, if Superman Returns bombs you’re going to see a lot of studios rethinking their comic adaptations long-term.

That pressure makes it difficult to market it. There’s also the little fact of the earlier movies starring Christopher Reeve. Returns seems to be using the idea that the last two of the movies made by Reeve didn’t so much exist and continues the story from where Superman II left off. That’s an interesting idea, and one that’s quite different from Batman Begins, which rebooted the Batman franchise by existing completely seperately from the Michael Keaton/Val Kilmer/George Clooney movies that wound up getting run into the ground. Essentially, a few years have passed since Superman II, during which Superman has been absent from Earth. Of course so has Clark Kent, but it doesn’t seem like anybody is putting that together. He comes back and, of course, Lex Luthor isn’t thrilled. Plus, he finds out Lois Lane has a kid. Things, of course, get interesting.

The Posters

The first teaser poster was basic but got its point across. Featuing a simple arrangement of the Superman “S” symbol against a blue background and text that just said “Returns. 2006.” at the bottom. Tremendously successful in getting across the message that a new Superman movie would be coming out soon. While I think the poster is, overall, really good, the poster bugs me visually. I think it’s the fading of the blue at the edges into black that hurts my eyes if I look at it too long. Maybe that’s just me.

The theatrical poster , which was only released at the end of May, featured the character himself hovering over the world with the state of Florida unfortunately placed to look like he has a massive, Florida-shaped erection. Oops. Interestingly, that seems to have been modified in later versions of the poster, with the world just clouded and obscured below him. Phallic symbolism aside, it’s a good poster that present an idealized image of the character. It also nicely continues a theme from the trailers, that feature him hanging out in the uppper atmostphere. That’s a nice move that presents some consistency to the campaign.

There were also some character posters created, most of which you’ll find online as desktop wallpapers. A lot of these were created especially for the IMAX release of the movie and have some cool imagery. I also really like the bus shelter poster that the Superman Homepage has a look at. CinemaBlend has a great round-up of the entire poster offerings and even compares them to the one-sheets for the two Richard Donner-directed movies. Really good stuff from CB. One of the posters, the one with Supes hovering over the Earth, of course got repurposed as a Netflix envelope ad.

The Trailers

First there was this clip/teaser that wasn’t really a teaser. Conventional wisdom held that this was a promo reel that was shown at the ShoWest industry trade show. Whatever it was it gave us our first look at moving pictures from the movie. Glimpses not only of the titular character, the Daily Planet building and a bunch of other stuff.

The actual teaser trailer featured a bit of footage from that promo reel but was about 20 times cooler. It opens with some of Marlon Brando’s dialogue from the original movie about Kal-El’s purpose among the humans. It ends with the first use of the image of Superman hovering above the Earth. Quite frankly I watched this about 15 times I thought it was so good.

The main debut that took place in the theatrical trailer was that of Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor. We also get views of Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, who are obviously there for comic relief. As I said at the time, that’s alright since that’s a good role for them. We also get a good look at Lois Lane and one of the main plot devices that will be used in the film, the fact that Lane has a child.

The third spot really turns the focus to Spacey’s Luthor. He becomes the centerpiece of the campaign. It works, though, since Spacey is just completely over the top in this.

Most of the TV spots recycled footage from the trailers and suffered from the same thing most 30-second spots do: That they’re too short and suck. I mean the footage is alright but the condensed time does not lend itself to movie advertising.

Warner Bros. created a YouTube playlist of these spots and trailers for convenient viewing. If you’re an Xbox Live player you can also download hi-def trailers and more for viewing within the platform. That’s kind of an awesome move.


The marketing push for Superman Returns began quite a while ago, well over a year before the movie was scheduled to come out. The first components released were the video diaries created by director Bryan Singer and published on These walk the line of being kind of officially unofficial but provided fans with a great lok at the movies production and generated a lot of buzz about the movie, which is always a good thing. Much like they did with the trailers, Warner Bros. eventually compiled all of these into one YouTube playlist.

The movie’s official website is pretty traditional and uninspired, save for Thursday the 22nd when Lex Luthor took over the site. You really had to see it to belive it but it was a lot of fun. Video, About the Film, Photos and Downloads all are pretty much what you’d expect if you’ve been reading M3 for a while. There’s some interesting stuff in Downloads but nothing too extraordinary. There are a couple links at the bottom of the page that deal with the history of Superman and an overall celebration of the character DC/Warner Bros. is engaging in this year. Legacy is all about the “Year of Superman” and Documentary has the deets on “Look, Up In the Sky!“, a documentary of how the character has been adapted for TV and films over the years. It’s good stuff.

I’ve gone back and forth over the months on how I feel about the blog that Warner Bros. setup for the movie. At first I was really enthused about it. Then I ranted a bit about how it didn’t seem to be used very much. Since then I’ve come to see it for what it is: A good way for the studio to ping subscribers and readers about what’s new on the site and when a new trailer appears. And you know what? That’s fine. It’s a good move for a movie where it doesn’t seem there’s someone to be populating the site with new editorial content so I’ve accepted that using it for fact-based updates is a perfectly valid function.

Oh, and they created a MySpace page asking the profile’s “friends” to submit pictures of themselves wearing Superman garb as part of the “Show us your ‘S'” campaign. I have to say this is one of the better uses of MySpace for movie marketing, something I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

One line from this Fast Company story really jumped out at me. When the producers were starting the process, they reached out to, a Superman fansite that wound up hosting Singer’s Video Journals. They supported the site’s servers and allowed them to host the videos and do more to really expand their reach. A great example of embracing the community in a real and meaningful way.

Other Efforts

There are a ton of other promotions going on around the movie. One of the biggest is a partnership with PepsiCo. That deal has a number of components. The Daily Planet website, co-branded by both Pepsi and Yahoo, seems to be the focal point of the deal and will be where the online efforts all point back to. Some of the features of this promotion include:

  • Jeff Gordon driving a DuPont/Pepsi/Superman Returns car on July 1st at Daytona.
  • Enter a code found on Pepsi package products online to “Fid Lex Luthor.”
  • Lay’s potato chips has a contest where if you enter a code from packaging you’re entered to win a trip to a national monument somewhere in the U.S.
  • Lay’s also has a cool “Fly With Superman” thing that uses Google Earth to play a fun online game.
  • They also have an “Enhance Your Superpowers” promotion where you can do something cool.
  • Quaker Oats products have also been branded with Superman images and renamed to be, for example, “Superman Crunch” instead of Cap’n Crunch.

You can read all the details on PepisCo’s promotions over at SuperHeroHype. The Daily Planet website also has some other stuff on it, like a playable demo of the Electronic Arts game for the movie. But it’s important to keep one thing in mind – you need a Yahoo account to access the content. You must be signed in to Yahoo in order to play the games, view the comics or do really anything else on the site. While I get that this is a Yahoo page and all, that requirement rubs me raw since there’s no reason for it other than to collect information. They’ve done little but succeed in alienating those people who don’t already have and don’t feel like creating a Yahoo account. Argh.

Telus mobile phone users can download Superman ringtones and other goodies. When they do so they’re entered into a contest to win a trip to Los Angeles to take a tour of Warner Bros. Studios. Superman was also featured in a new “got milk?” ad. He’s also got some themed 7-11 Slurpee drinks/cups, a Build-A-Bear promotion all of his very own and a contest. Even Duracell got into the game, with a super hero themed spot that tied into the movie. The commercial shows Superman using his x-ray vision to see that his alarm clock uses Duracell batteries. The deal also will have some Superman-branded battery packaging on store shelves. Samsung has a promotion where you can download various Superman themed goodies to your cell phone or get Superman swag when you purchase select products. (Disclosure: Samsung is a client of my employer, but we did not work on this effort.) Hallmark even has a Superman Father’s Day e-card you can send to your dad that plays John Williams’ famous score.

Warner Bros. has also created a wireless access portal that allows visitors to download some stuff for free and purchase other mobile phone content. Brandon Routh appeared at the MTV Movie Awards, where he presented an award to Christian Bale. There was also a new promotion and a clip from the flick that were shown within the broadcast. Just this past week Burger King launched their Kid’s Meal promotion with eight toys available.

And of course let’s not forget the ton of magazine covers Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth have been featured on. It’s a little ridiculous. More importantly it points to how much free publicity the movie is getting by virtue of these covers. Add up the impressions, including passers-by who might see but don’t necessarily pick up the magazine, and see how that compares to the paid media buys, like TV spots and print ads and then do a simple cost analysis. And don’t forget the skydivers . Yes, I said skydivers. And they projected the Superman symbol on a number of landmarks across the country, including Niagra Falls. For those of you who didn’t see it, here are some pics of the Falls.


Nice solid campaign that plays it completely safe. Seriously, there’s not a risky move here. There are innovative moves, but nothing that betrays anything but a sense of awe and wonder about the its subject. The trailers are wicked cool, if a bit repetitive after a while. The posters are a tad Freudian but still very well designed and pretty. The online aspects of the push range from standard to safely innovating, with the website representing the former and the blog the latter. I can’t say there’s a misstep in the entire campaign other than the Yahoo-hosted website, but that’s probably not going to impact a lot of people. Just the ones who matter.

I think this story is interesting that Warner Bros. asked high-octane producer Joel Silver for advice on how to market Superman in a more manly manner. That’s reported to be a course correction after, you know, the big gay campaign that was the subject of dozens of stories but which I never really saw. I thought that was a case of one person saying it and then that opinion echoing around the media world. Asshats.

Personally I can’t wait.

Technorati tags:

By Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.


  1. I get what you’re saying about Superman being an icon, but I no longer think he is so big of an icon that the success or failure comic adaptations from now on is tied to this movie’s performance. 20 years ago, maybe, but now the audience is much more fragmented, and you have many more popular heroes. 20 years ago it was still basically Spidey, Hulk and Cap America for Marvel, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman for DC. An X-Men movie would have struggled, IMO. There would NEVER be a Ghost-Rider movie even being considered.

    I think that if Superman Returns bombs, that some of the less-popular characters that are being considered for future films might get shelved, but I don’t think it will affect potential movies for the popular characters. Definitely not for the Marvel stable, I haven’t seen Fantastic Four yet (but it looked good), but really the Hulk was the only one I’ve seen recently that I didn’t like. But I was never a huge Hulk fan anyway. DC has already had the horrible Catwoman, and the Batwoman movie has bomb written all over it. And I’m not too excited about Wonder Woman either. If anything, I think Supes bombing would be a sign that Marvel does better comic adaptations than DC.

  2. Some of the points you make are valid. The fate of Supes is unlikely to derail, say, the just announced Wolverine spin-off but could impact lesser properties. That being said, even if they’re not completely killed, studios are going to start scaling back budgets.

    You’re right in in saying 20 years ago (when I was collecting comics) this sort of problem would never have existed. I DREAMED of an Avengers movie but no one was seriously thinking X-Men at that point.

    BTW, the FF movie blew. Only watch it if you’re into aggresive self-hatred.

  3. Pingback: By the way…

Comments are closed.