Man of Steel
Bryan Singer overcame a path paved with kryptonite to bring back Superman
Superman Returns director Bryan Singer is sitting on Stage 17 of the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. Were you to stumble in unawares, you might sooner think that the slender, boyishly good-looking man seated in a director’s chair 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.
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 and Josh Hartnett), Superman Returns finally 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.
The Superman stories are the stuff of Hollywood legend: How a charismatic (if hubristic) producer named Alexander Salkind hired a plane to fly a banner over the 1974 Cannes Film Festival announcing the production of a big-budget Superman movie. How Godfather author 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.
Superman nevertheless 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 recalled.
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. He 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.
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. 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.
Little did anyone suspect that bringing Superman back would make the original film’s protracted incubation look like a cakewalk. One fired screenwriter, Clerks creator Kevin Smith, complained publicly that Superman Returns producer 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. In 2004, the project seemed set to go with Charlie’s Angels director McG at the helm—only to fall apart when McG turned skittish about the film’s planned Australian shoot, in part because of a fear of flying. Re-enter Singer, who had earlier been courted by Warner Bros. to take the Superman reins but was rebuffed when he insisted on starting over with his own story idea and his X2 screenwriting team. This time 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,” said Singer, who’s quick to praise Warner President Alan Horn and Production President Jeff Robinov for their willingness to believe in his vision.
Singer offered me his pitch, much as he did to Robinov and Horn those many months ago: Astronomers have found the remnants of Superman’s home planet, so Superman leaves Metropolis to take a proverbial tour of the old neighborhood. By the time he comes back, five Earth years have passed, whereupon 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 all in keeping, Singer said, 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 said.
Between Singer and the last surviving son of the planet Krypton, there are differences, but for the moment we’re focused on the similarities. “I personally am adopted,” Singer told 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.”
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, 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-Men film, until his friend (and X-Men executive producer) Tom DeSanto explained 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 recalled. “Because for all the people who read comic books, there are millions more who do not.”
For the director, that meant finding, in Stan Lee’s neofuturistic world of heroic and villainous mutants, the theme that has been central to all of his own films. Whether it’s The Usual Suspects’ criminal mastermind Keyser Soze passing himself off as a helpless cripple or Superman stumbling about Metropolis as his mild-mannered alter ego, Singer’s favored characters are all men (and women) of great and sometimes terrible power, forced to live incognito in a society inhospitable to their true identities.
“People are more complicated than what we see,” Singer said. “They choose what to reveal of themselves. Like right now I’m on tape, so I’m choosing what to reveal of myself.”
In conversation, Singer is engaging but guarded. You can hardly blame him. Journalists writing about Singer, who is openly gay, often have seemed more interested in their subject’s sexuality than in his filmmaking. Publications ranging from the celebrity gossip Web site Defamer to the Los Angeles Times have questioned whether Singer’s take on Superman will be “too gay,” despite the lack of evidence that it will be gay at all.
During the Superman Returns press junket over the weekend of June 9, Singer responded to the accusations by telling Reuters that Superman “is probably the most heterosexual character in any movie I’ve ever made.” But I wonder if Singer should even have dignified the question with an answer. It says something dispiriting about our supposedly enlightened, post-Brokeback Mountain age that so much worry should be expended on how a filmmaker’s sexual orientation will affect a cherished pop-culture icon—a discussion it is impossible to imagine arising were the director in question straight.
Of his recurring interest in identity, secret or otherwise, Singer cited feelings of outsiderdom he suffered during his childhood and adolescence. He was the only Jew on an all-Catholic street. “And then my parents got divorced when I was 13, so that was even more different than everyone else on my block. Those Catholic families did not get divorced.”
He wrote stories—often when he should have been doing his schoolwork—and made 8-mm movies. Then, one storied night when he was 16 years old, Singer had his eureka moment, when the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 profiled the life of Steven Spielberg. “I saw the show at a friend’s house, and literally on the walk back from their house to my house—I even know the exact moment of sidewalk on which it took place—I decided: Now I know what I want to do with the rest of my life. And from that moment, it was as though a huge weight had been lifted off me. I was ecstatic.”
According to Singer, he’s rarely been out of preproduction, production or postproduction since. He went to film school, first at the School of Visual Arts in New York and later at the University of Southern California, and eventually settled in Los Angeles. At 40, he’s at the top of his game, with a large house in the Hollywood Hills and a collection of high-end European sports cars to show for it. But sometimes the view from on high can feel a bit like looking out from inside a fortress of solitude.
“When you’re a film director, you have a lot of perceived power,” he said. “As Francis Coppola says, it’s sort of the last vestige of the dictatorship. You can make a lot of things happen, and you’re surrounded by a lot of people, and you get a lot of attention. But when you go home at the end of the day—if you’re not married, and you don’t have a family, and film is very much your life, as it is mine—you feel an undeniable sense of loneliness.”
Singer said his close friendships are what’s most important to him, though he admitted to wanting to fall in love, even if “you know you’re going to have to make choices, and it’s going to be tough for that person.”
For now, though, the focus is on whipping Superman Returns into final, fighting shape. “It’s going to be odd, I think, when it comes to an end, and it’s going to come to an end soon whether I like it or not. In fact, I’m very much looking forward to a period of vacation.”
Sometimes even the Man of Steel needs a holiday.