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