SU­PER­MAN RE­TURNS

Nos­tal­gia-drenched mis­fire or a love let­ter to a ’70s clas­sic? Ten years on, Luke Dormehl re­calls the Man of Steel’s con­tro­ver­sial come­back

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents -

It’s ten years old (oh yes), so we look back at the film that res­ur­rected the Man of Steel.

in the first half of the 2000s, screen adap­ta­tions of Su­per­man were some­thing of a poi­soned chal­ice. On tele­vi­sion, the char­ac­ter had flour­ished, with both The New Ad­ven­tures Of Su­per­man and Smal­lville prov­ing big suc­cesses. The big screen was an­other mat­ter, how­ever. There hadn’t been a new Su­per­man movie since 1987’s Su­per­man IV: The Quest for Peace, which had de­servedly flopped at the box of­fice, a sad end to the fran­chise Richard Don­ner had started in 1978. Warner Bros pur­chased the Su­per­man movie rights from orig­i­nal pro­duc­ers the Salkinds in 1993, but noth­ing much hap­pened. Scripts went through re­write and re­write, but the only things ap­pear­ing on screen were grow­ing de­vel­op­ment costs on a Warner spread­sheet.

“It had been through a string of direc­tors,” Guy Dyas, the pro­duc­tion de­signer on Su­per­man Re­turns, tells SFX. “Ev­ery­one, if you can be­lieve it, from Tim Bur­ton to Oliver Stone for a split-sec­ond. James Cameron had had a look at it, and then there was McG of Char­lie’s Angels fame – who, leg­end has it, couldn’t do it be­cause he was fear­ful of fly­ing, of all things for some­one who was go­ing to di­rect Su­per­man. He couldn’t get on the plane to Aus­tralia which is where [Warner] in­tended to make the film.” Hav­ing come the clos­est with Tim Bur­ton’s abortive

Su­per­man Re­born movie, star­ring Ni­co­las Cage, the pro­duc­ers scored a major coup when they signed Bryan Singer, fresh off the highly-suc­cess­ful first two X-Men films.

Singer had suc­cess­fully built the X-movies around the char­ac­ters and wanted to do the same with Su­per­man. “[His idea was to make a film that] was about peo­ple to­day,” re­calls pro­ducer Gil Adler. “[It was about get­ting us] to care about Su­per­man not be­cause he’s the Man of Steel, not be­cause Zod or any­one else is go­ing to de­stroy him, but be­cause he had the same prob­lems, is­sues and con­cerns that you and I have. To us, that gave us an an­chor that should ap­peal to men and women.” Singer first met with Adler at a din­ner meet­ing that be­gan at nine o’clock in the evening and con­tin­ued un­til four the fol­low­ing morn­ing. Singer wasn’t, in fact, a big comic book fan, but his sug­ges­tions fas­ci­nated Adler. As well as the fo­cus on Su­per­man’s hu­man­ity, an­other big theme of the Su­per­man Re­turns pitch was to make a point about the ab­sence of the char­ac­ter from the life of au­di­ences. This is some­thing the comics had al­ready done with the “Death Of Su­per­man” story arc, not so much a Su­per­man story as a story about the nega­tion of Su­per­man – and whether he had any place in the mod­ern world. In Singer’s vi­sion, filled in by screen­writ­ers Michael Dougherty and Dan Har­ris, the char­ac­ter has been away from the world for five years, and re­turns to dis­cover that things have moved on with­out him. Love in­ter­est Lois Lane has even had a child and moved on to a new ro­man­tic in­ter­est, while win­ning a Pulitzer Prize for an ed­i­to­rial en­ti­tled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Su­per­man”. “What re­ally ap­pealed to Bryan about Su­per­man was the as­pect of the char­ac­ter that a lot of us for­get: that he’s on his own, alien­ated, and the only sur­viv­ing per­son from his planet,” says Dyas. One way of do­ing this was the con­tro­ver­sial move of mak­ing Su­per­man an ab­sen­tee fa­ther: with Lois Lane hav­ing (spoiler!) given birth to his son, un­be­knownst to Su­per­man, while he’s been away.

the new “out­sider” Su­per­man was played by rel­a­tive new­comer Bran­don Routh, who bore a strik­ing re­sem­blance to pre­vi­ous Su­per­man movie ac­tor Christo­pher Reeve. Routh’s Hol­ly­wood agent had ac­tu­ally signed him on this ba­sis, gush­ing that, “if there’s an­other Su­per­man movie you’re go­ing to get it.” Like Reeve, Routh was a vir­tual un­known at the time of pro­duc­tion. Just 25 years old, he had pre­vi­ously played bit-parts in shows like the soap opera One Life To Live and the Christina Aguil­era mu­sic video “What a Girl Wants”. In­ter­est­ingly, Routh ac­tu­ally au­di­tioned for the role of Clark Kent in Smal­lville in 2000, but failed to get it.

Kate Bos­worth was cast as Lois Lane while James Mars­den, Cy­clops in Singer’s X-Men films, played her love in­ter­est, Richard White. Kevin Spacey be­came the new Lex Luthor, in­her­it­ing the role from Gene Hack­man, while Al­fred Hitch­cock’s North By North­west lead­ing lady Eva Marie Saint was signed to play Ma Kent. Hugh Lau­rie – work­ing on the Singer-pro­duced med­i­cal se­ries House – was orig­i­nally set to play Daily Planet edi­tor Perry White but had to drop out and was re­placed by Frank Lan­gella.

Shoot­ing on Su­per­man Re­turns be­gan in Aus­tralia in Fe­bru­ary 2005, with a bud­get stretch­ing north of $200 mil­lion. “We were all ex­tremely scep­ti­cal about go­ing to shoot in Aus­tralia and try­ing to recre­ate this clas­sic art deco Amer­i­can look for the movie,” Dyas tells SFX. “How­ever, we ended up hav­ing a fan­tas­tic ex­pe­ri­ence. The crew was sec­ond-to-none, hav­ing just come off work­ing on The Ma­trix se­quels. We also found some amaz­ing lo­ca­tions. We shot the Kents’ farm scenes in a place called Tam­worth, which turned out to be the coun­try mu­sic cap­i­tal of Aus­tralia. From the ground-up we built this en­tire farm with a barn and live­stock, ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems and fields and fields of corn. It was an enor­mous set that stretched about five or six acres.”

Film­ing on Aus­tralia’s Gold Coast went well, af­ter which there was a one-year pe­riod for edit­ing and op­ti­cal ef­fects to be added. This in­cluded the recre­ation of Mar­lon Brando – by the special ef­fects house Rhythm & Hues, based on orig­i­nal archival footage – for a cameo as Su­per­man’s fa­ther, Jor-El.

The fin­ished movie de­buted on 28 June 2006. Within five days of its launch, Su­per­man Re­turns had earned $84.2 mil­lion, set­ting a new record for Warner Bros, and beat­ing their pre­vi­ous record for The Ma­trix Revo­lu­tions. Re­views were gen­er­ally pos­i­tive too, with some – like Time’s Richard Corliss – rank­ing it among the best su­per­hero films ever made, al­though oth­ers took is­sue with the film’s per­ceived glum tone. The movie’s undis­puted high­light was the scene in which Su­per­man saves a plane car­ry­ing Lois Lane. It is a mag­nif­i­cent ac­tion se­quence, and pro­ducer Gil Adler says he en­joyed sneak­ing into cin­e­mas dur­ing the film’s the­atri­cal run to hear how the crowd re­acted to it.

Over time, how­ever, the au­di­ence re­sponse to Su­per­man Re­turns cooled – and with it the com­mit­ment of the stu­dio, who had orig­i­nally in­tended it to spawn, at the least, a tril­ogy. “I don’t think we ever got an an­swer to [why they didn’t con­tinue with the fran­chise],” Adler says. “It seems to me that the stu­dio wanted more ac­tion than we gave them. They felt that the movie would have gone fur­ther had it had more ac­tion. This is all in ret­ro­spect, of course. We’re all Mon­day morn­ing quar­ter­backs. We in­ten­tion­ally set things up in the first movie to have an arena in which to place a sec­ond movie, but they just chose to go an­other way.”

Guy Dyas says that the movie orig­i­nally had more ac­tion se­quences, but that these were cut for bud­getary rea­sons. “By the end of the film … we were be­ing reined-in,” he notes. “There were many scenes that Bryan was de­vel­op­ing in the form of sto­ry­boards that would have brought a height­ened level of ac­tion to the film than you even­tu­ally saw. We couldn’t do it be­cause the stu­dio was ner­vous.”

Had the movie fol­lowed the tem­plate of Singer’s X-Men movies, Dyas be­lieves the se­quel to Su­per­man Re­turns would have been more ac­tion-ori­ented. “X-Men 1 was about de­vel­op­ing the char­ac­ters, X-Men 2 was where we saw the char­ac­ters do­ing a lot of ac­tion,” he says. “That sort of process would have been ab­so­lutely fan­tas­tic [with Bryan’s Su­per­man films].”

The­mat­i­cally, the lack of se­quel for Su­per­man Re­turns is not al­to­gether in­ap­pro­pri­ate. Al­though it had a gen­er­ally young cast, and fol­lowed Bat­man Begins to cin­e­mas as a metaphor­i­cal “re­set” but­ton for an ab­sent fran­chise, it is a film which looks back – not for­wards. Any­one leav­ing the cinema af­ter watch­ing it was likely to want to re­visit Richard Don­ner’s orig­i­nal 1978 film, which served as the film’s chief in­spi­ra­tion, rather than an­tic­i­pate a fur­ther se­quel. Su­per­man Re­turns is, in a lot of ways, a nos­tal­gic film: even the big­gest mo­ments of tri­umph are un­der­scored by John Wil­liams’s orig­i­nal Su­per­man march, which was dusted off again for the film’s theme.

This isn’t to say that Su­per­man Re­turns is a bad movie, though. The least char­i­ta­ble thing one might say about it is that it’s an in­ter­est­ing fail­ure. It came at a time when su­per­hero movies, far from be­ing mi­cro­man­aged stu­dio pro­duc­tion line prod­ucts, were be­ing handed over to the in­die dar­lings of the pre­vi­ous decade. In this vein, Su­per­man Re­turns fol­lowed on from Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk and Chris Nolan’s 2005 Bat­man Begins: the for­mer an un­der­rated char­ac­ter study, the lat­ter the movie which helped reignite in­ter­est in the su­per­hero genre. Su­per­man Re­turns is cer­tainly a film that de­serves reeval­u­at­ing.

“I’m still a lit­tle sad in ret­ro­spect, be­cause I think that given the chance Bryan would have made an ab­so­lutely spec­tac­u­lar sec­ond Su­per­man film,” Dyas says about the pro­posed fol­low-up, which – like Zack Sny­der’s sub­se­quent re­boot – would have been called Man Of Steel. “I’m con­vinced it would have been on the level of The Dark Knight. But he never got that chance.”

i Think that given The chance bryan would have made an ab­so­lutely spec­tac­u­lar sec­ond su­per­man film

“At least I’m not Jesse Eisen­berg!” He’s be­hind you!

The red un­der­pants were still alive in 2006. Bryan Singer di­rect­ing the first of a tril­ogy that never was.

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