Ten years ago, Superman Returns reached theatres with the promise of reinvigorating the Man Of Steel's big screen presence. It had a director who had twice proven himself in the superhero genre to tremendous results, actor Kevin Spacey portraying villain Lex Luthor, Marlon Brando (through the magic of outtakes) reprising his role of Jor-El, a newcomer cut in the mold of the iconic Christopher Reeve in the lead, the John Williams theme and a firm connection to the beloved Superman: The Movie and Superman II.
For Brandon Routh, who had been hired for the dual role of Superman and Clark Kent, Superman Returns was expected to be the start of a meteoric rise in Hollywood that would likely see him in a number of sequels while parlaying his newfound fame into other parts. And for director Bryan Singer, it represented the opportunity for him to achieve something extraordinary. Having come off the one-two punch of X-Men and X2: X-Men United, this seemed like the perfect match of material and director. Additionally, he was the man who had cut through 10 years of development hell to get the last son of Krypton back on the big screen nearly two decades after his last film, the disastrous Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.
But something happened on the way to those expectations when talk of a follow-up stalled following Superman Returns' soft (compared to budget) box office. Rumblings of a sequel surfaced every so often, but dissipated, with Singer being fairly non-committal about what was going on and Routh more or less powerless to offer anything substantial regarding updates. Conjecture became moot with the announcement that Zack Snyder would be directing Henry Cavill in the 2013 reboot, Man Of Steel.
"That will be a book someday, when I fully realize that whole experience," smiles Routh, currently starring as Ray Palmer/The Atom in the TV series DC's Legends Of Tomorrow, "but I think just the lack of knowing what was going on for so long was definitely a challenge, because I felt the need to uphold an image. No one asked me to uphold one, but that's how much I cared about the character. I felt certain things might be off-limits, certain roles. At least for the first couple of years when I thought we'd be coming back. As it got further away, that became less and less of an issue."
Singer, who has done quite well cinematically, thank you very much, is represented this summer by X-Men: Apocalypse. It is, he says, difficult for him to assess Superman Returns, pointing out that it actually didn't perform that badly, particularly during the summer when there are certain expectations for that sort of movie.
"I think that Superman Returns was a bit nostalgic and romantic, and I don't think that was what people were expecting, especially in the summer," he muses. "What I had noticed is that there weren't a lot of women lining up to see a comic book movie, but they were lining up to see The Devil Wears Prada, which may have been something I wanted to address."
While in the throes of making a movie, he feels, there isn't always a clarity of thought about that sort of thing. Instead, "you're thinking, 'Wow, I want to make a romantic movie that harkens back to the Richard Donner movie that I love so much.' And that's what I did."
Which, he concurs, conflicted with audience expectations, given what he had accomplished with the X-Men films, which were more realistic and edgier. Additionally, there was the romantic relationship between the Richard White character and Lois Lane, which grew even more complicated with the return of Superman after two and a half years, and his presence in Lois' life. Add to this a child who turns out to be Kal-El's son - all of which might have thrown people off.
"Quentin Tarantino and I had a big conversation about it," Singer notes. "He has a fascination with this film, but the Lois Lane part of it has always been a stickler with him. This is me extrapolating, but the relationship in the Donner film was so black and white and here it was complex. Then there was the child. Again, I really do think I was making it for that Devil Wears Prada audience of women who wouldn't normally come to a superhero film."
Routh expresses that he really likes the movie. While acknowledging that Superman should have thrown a few more punches and that he would have preferred more practical flying effects than CG, those are not areas where he was able to have any influence. "Those are," he says, "small, personal things. But I think it was a very nice movie; it may not have been the Superman movie everyone wanted and I completely understand that - it's hard to please everybody - but I'm very proud of it still. And proud of Bryan and everyone who worked so hard to make it."
Singer shares the sentiment, though the biggest differences he could see in making the movie now would be to have tightened up the first act and maybe open with the exciting plane rescue sequence that occurs later on. One thing he does concede is that perhaps he was too much of a fan of Donner's take.
"What's interesting," he offers, "is that people know I'm a big Trekkie and they're always saying, 'Why don't you do a Star Trek?' and I say, 'I think I'm too big a fan of Star Trek. You'd feel like you were watching Wrath Of Khan again.' So with Superman, I guess it was a similar thing. On the X-Men films, I tried to shed all the comic-ness and tried to make it real. Here, though, I embraced the comic-ness and made this alternate, bucolic Metropolis. But I am very much in love with the Donner picture. For me, the journey was exciting because I got the chance to reprise those images and explore it. When you're fascinated by something and you love it, part of making the movie is trying to please everyone and make a successful movie, but part of it is an experimental kind of thing."
In retrospect, Routh believes that everything has worked out okay. When he first signed on to play Superman, beyond the fame he knew the part could bring, there was concern about the potential stigma, particularly as he was knowledgeable of actors who had previously played the character and the challenge they had in their future acting careers.
"But I certainly think the opportunity was bigger than any fear," Routh relates, "and that's how I approach life, I guess. I find the positive always outweighs the negative in everything that I do, and that's why I do it. There's going to be fear in anything, and as long as you go through it with positive intentions, of making the best out of it, usually you can make magic or find something positive. Or in the end learn something. So I was just excited about the opportunity and made the best out of it."