By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
But as any comic-book aficionado worth his salt knows, you can’t keep a good Kryptonian down, and already by the early 1990s, Warner Bros. had wrested control of the Superman character away from Cannon and the Salkinds and had begun planning a new Supermanadventure. Little did anyone suspect that bringing Superman back would make the original film’s protracted incubation look like a cakewalk. One fired screenwriter, Clerkscreator Kevin Smith, complained publicly that Superman Returnsproducer Jon Peters was hell-bent on the idea of a “modern” Man of Steel stripped of his trademark blue tights and going mano a mano with the likes of a polar bear and a giant mechanical spider. Then, finally, in 2004, the project seemed set to go with Charlie’s Angelsdirector McG at the helm — only to fall apart again when McG turned skittish about the film’s planned Australian shoot, due in part to a fear of flying. Reenter Singer, who had earlier been courted by Warners to take the Supermanreins, but was rebuffed when he insisted on starting over from scratch with his own story idea and his X2screenwriting team of Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. This time, with Singer’s negotiations to direct a third X-Menmovie stalled at Fox, the studio was all ears.
“They were going to do a retelling of the original story, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to tell a return story,” says Singer, who’s quick to praise Warners president Alan Horn and production president Jeff Robinov for their willingness to believe in his vision. It’s early May, and as Singer and I talk over dinner on the patio of that industry mainstay, Orso, in Beverly Hills, he offers me his pitch, much as he did to Robinov and Horn those many months ago: Astronomers, it seems, have found the remnants of Superman’s home planet, and so Superman, evidently never having read Thomas Wolfe, leaves Metropolis to take a proverbial tour of the old neighborhood. By the time he comes back, five earth years have passed. Whereupon, Singer says, Superman finds that life on Earth has managed to go on without him. “Lois Lane has a fiancé, but she’s not married; and she has a kid. Kryptonite is basic, but how do you get beyond another man who’s not a bad guy? And more importantly, how do you get beyond a child with that other man? Those become the obstacles at the heart of the movie.”
It’s a considerably more romantic notion of what a Supermanmovie might be than you’d expect from Singer, whose two hugely successful X-Menmovies were notable chiefly for their steely asceticism. But it’s all in keeping, Singer says, with his desire to tell a story at once relevant to a modern audience and respectful of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original superhero character.
“It’s about taking a nostalgic figure and making him contemporary without losing his classical nature, his idealism or the essence that makes him Superman,” Singer says. “The time at which the movie takes place is completely modern — everyone has cell phones — but the costumes and art direction are more of a nod to the late 1930s, the post-Depression era, which was the time of the comic book. Likewise, I’m using a state-of-the-art Panavision Genesis camera to shoot digitally, but using lenses and lighting that are more old fashioned. So, the blending of old and new is kind of my technical mechanism for telling a nostalgic story today. The last thing you want to do is look at a movie that you remember fondly and have it feel really dated.”
That’s not all. Like Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Superman Returns (which I saw shortly before this article went to press) is an impassioned valentine to the classical science-fiction and fantasy films that helped to form its maker’s creative imagination and, at the same time, a movie unmistakably of this moment. It is a movie that asks whether or not the world still needs a savior and, after surveying the recent course of global events, answers with a resounding yes. For Singer is only too aware that a Superman who returns to Earth from a five-year hiatus in June 2006 had already left us by September 2001.
Between Bryan Singer and the last surviving son of the planet Krypton, there aredifferences. For one thing, Singer grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. But for the moment, we’re focused on the similarities. “I personally am adopted,” Singer tells me, “and as a boy, I loved the notion that Superman was the adopted son of this bucolic farm-dwelling family. Even though my parents were wonderful and great and I absolutely love them, I think as a kid I fantasized that I had some special royal alien heritage. I identify with the character on that level. Oh, and I have blue eyes and he has blue eyes.”
Still, if you’d told the director who won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival with his debut feature, Public Access, before making a much bigger splash with the dazzling neo-noir The Usual Suspects(1995),that he’d end up bringing not one but two classic superhero franchises to the screen, he’d likely have said thanks but no thanks. As Singer has often noted, he was a comic-book neophyte in the years before the first X-Menfilm, until his friend (and X-Menexecutive producer) Tom DeSanto explained to him that the fictional battle of wills between Magneto and Professor X was an allegory for the real-life ideological contretemps between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. “I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to try to figure this out and see if there’s a way for me to see into this universe, to introduce it not just to the comic-book fans who are already familiar with it, but to the rest of the world,’?” Singer recalls. “Because for all the people who read comic books, there are millions more who do not.”