By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Superman Returnsdirector Bryan Singer is sitting on the wrong side of the camera. It’s an early June afternoon on Stage 17 of the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, and a photographer is about to take Singer’s picture for the purposes of this article. But were you to stumble in unawares, you might sooner think that the slender, boyishly good-looking man seated in a director’s chair and sporting a distressed Superman T-shirt was an actor auditioning for a role rather than the director behind this studio’s $200 million revival of a long-dormant superhero franchise. Then again, looks can be deceiving. Just ask Clark Kent.
A few hours from now, Singer’s Superman Returnswill have its first press preview — and despite weeks of round-the-clock sound mixing, color timing and visual-effects sessions, there’s still more work to be done, and more long nights ahead. “This particular film, at this particular time, was a unique grind,” Singer had told me earlier, noting that he shot Superman Returnshalfway around the world in Australia while simultaneously executive producing a six-hour miniseries (The Triangle) for TV’s Sci-Fi Channel and the hit medical drama House on Fox. But today, Singer puts on a game face. He jokes with the photographer about being scrawny and out-of-shape for a guy in a Superman shirt. Then, as the session nears its end, he suddenly leaps out of his chair, picks it up with both hands and holds it proudly above his head while a few more pictures are snapped. It’s the least of the heavy lifting Singer has been doing of late.
After a decade in development hell and a revolving door of directors (Tim Burton, Michael Bay, Wolfgang Petersen and Brett Ratner among them), far-flung concepts (from the death-and-resurrection of Superman to a Superman-vs.-Batman celebrity death match) and potential Supermen (including Nicolas Cage, Brendan Fraser, Paul Walker and Josh Hartnett), Superman Returnsfinally took flight under Singer’s helm last spring and is now set to land in theaters across the globe on June 28, two decades after the caped crusader’s last big-screen adventure. Then, millions of fans will weigh in with their verdicts — a force, Singer acknowledges, potentially more powerful than kryptonite. “Whenever you take any kind of franchise and you play it out, it starts to go into a temporary coma,” he says, “and when that happens, it takes a while, years even, for an audience to be welcoming to its return.”
The stories are the stuff of Hollywood legend: How a charismatic (if hubristic) producer named Alexander Salkind, who made movies in Mexico in the 1940s and had a hand in Orson Welles’ The Trial, together with his son Ilya hired a plane to fly a banner over the 1974 Cannes Film Festival announcing the production of a big-budget Superman movie. How Godfatherauthor Mario Puzo delivered a 500-page screenplay, which was subsequently rewritten by four other writers. How Marlon Brando was recruited to play Superman’s intergalactic father, Jor-El, for a then-astronomical $4 million plus 11 percent of box-office receipts. And how the arduous $50 million shoot dragged on for 16 months, with upward of seven production units filming scenes on three continents. But Supermannevertheless shot off into the stratosphere. Directed by former television director Richard Donner and starring unknown New York stage actor Christopher Reeve in the title role,the movie became the smash hit of the Christmas 1978 season, taking in more than $300 million at the worldwide box office. Among those standing in line to see it was a 12-year-old Bryan Singer.
“For a kid, it was incredible, because you saw people committing artistically as if they were making a legitimate movie like The Godfather,” he recalls. “[Uncredited Supermanrewriter] Tom Mankiewicz talks about how each part of the movie was structured differently: the first act, on Krypton, was very English and Shakespearean, almost of another time and another place; then it was Andrew Wyeth, the way the farm was depicted, like you were watching Giant or a John Ford picture. That part of the movie really got to me, because I felt like I was seeing a classic movie with sincere performances.”
But despite Superman’s success, and despite having already shot more than half of what was to become Superman II(1980), Donner was promptly fired by the Salkinds and replaced by A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester, who had originally been hired as a go-between of sorts when relations between Donner and the producers deteriorated toward the end of work on the first film. Lester finished Superman II and then stuck around to make the ill-fated Superman III(1983), which had Reeve playing second fiddle to a jive-talking Richard Pryor and which has few rivals in the annals of boneheaded Hollywood sequels, save for the same year’s Smokey and the Bandit Part 3. The Salkinds — to say nothing of moviegoers — had understandably had their fill. But four years later, Cannon Films schlock merchants Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — best known for their endless litany of Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson action movies — secured the Superman rights and enticed Reeve back for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, in which the blue-tighted one became an advocate for nuclear disarmament. The series’ lowest-grossing and most critically reviled entry yet, it signaled an end to Superman’s big-screen career six years before the masterminds at DC Comics famously killed Supes off for real.
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