Superman Returns Set Visit

In three weeks, the Man of Steel will return to the big screen after a near two decade absence from that particular domain – but will he survive the challenge to come?

Superman is a pop culture creature that has endured much over the years, even his own sometimes painful legacy. His mark in moving pictures include the stolid, patriotic and corny serial drama of the 50’s; the initial cinematic masterpieces to the embarassingly crass sequels of the 70’s & 80’s; and assorted TV incarnations of the romantic, cartoonish and teenage prequel variety in the last two decades. As we approach his 70th anniversary in the comics world, the last son of Krypton has battled aliens, robots, villains who’ve died and been reborn many a time, and even his own death.

He’s a character who has left an indelible mark, and so naturally he’s also great fodder for a potential major franchise. Whilst they’ve always been around, comic book movies are much like horror films or historical epics – their popularity is cyclical in nature. The genre explodes with hits only every now and then before endless low-rent imitators glut the field and turn them into a walking joke. The past five years has seen that cycle hit a wave of success, most notably the “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” movie franchises which received critical lauding for the most part and have gone on to do superb box-office business. Yet these days comic book movies are once again becoming a bit of a punch line. for every truly great film like a “Batman Begins” or an “X-Men 2” there’s three or four misfires or simply awful adaptations to wade through (“Daredevil”, “Fantastic Four”, “Blade 3”, “Catwoman”, “Elektra”, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, “Hulk”, etc.).

Back when I started Dark Horizons in early 1996 was about the same time I first heard of a new “Superman” movie being in the works. Over the next decade I wrote a lot of coverage about all sorts of rumours that emerged on the film. There was the early period where Kevin Smith had a script which Tim Burton planned to direct and Nic Cage was set to star in. Several years later when that had long fallen apart, Wolfgang Petersen was readying a “Batman vs. Superman” film whilst McG was developing a “Superman” movie based on J.J. Abrams script and any number of Hollywood hunks from Josh Hartnett and Paul Walker to Jude Law and Ashton Kutcher were up for the role. Then the announcement came almost three years ago that Director Bryan Singer and his young writing duo from “X-Men 2” had jumped ship from Fox to Warners to do their own version of “Superman”, and the later subsequent reveal about the casting of unknown Brandon Routh in the title role.

Its been a long path to get this film done, more than any other comic book movie in recent history. With all the hype and talk there is no doubt that “Superman Returns” is one of the biggest films of the Summer, and fans of the character have been drooling over every little bit of information that has come out. Warner Bros. Pictures, who’re releasing the film, have also been quite forthcoming and open about the film’s making. Video blogs have regularly been pouring out from the set, marketing promotion for the film is ramping up to levels not seen outside of a “Spider-Man” movie launch, and an extended trailer at last year’s San Diego Comic Con with tons of footage is still being heavily talked about almost a year on from its premiere.

In spite all the buzz though there’s also been a steady level of caution from various sectors. for many months the only widely released public look at the film was a teaser trailer which drew mixed reaction. Subsequent trailers have appeared en masse in recent weeks, but again were met with quite differing opinions from hardcore fans. It wasn’t until the most recent preview with “X-Men: The Last Stand” that fan reaction finally reached a pretty positive level, and yet ‘industry talk’ remains much more sceptical of the epic. The first screenings for media and VIPs take place in the next few days however so expect reaction to the film to start trickling out across the Net shortly.

As long time readers of the site are aware I’m not a comics book fan, never have been. I have picked up the odd trade paperback every now and then in the last few years, but short of the “Death of Superman” serial I’ve never touched the comic. Yet the character is someone I’ve had a small affinity for. As a teen I enjoyed “Lois & Clark” and the Chris Reeve films (esp. the second one), whilst in recent years I have followed “Smallville” and some of the animated series incarnations of the character. Comic book movies for the most part I’ve enjoyed so far as well – the X-Men and Batman franchises in particular hold places in my heart (well, except those two Schumacher-helmed pieces of crap), and to a lesser extent I’ve enjoyed the “Spider-Man” and “Blade” films.

That said whilst I have been looking forward to ‘Returns’, there are some nagging doubts I have – quite a few of which were quickly quelled on either a visit to the set I did last year or from the footage I’ve seen so far, others however remain hanging around. Some elements I’ve been behind right from the start. Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor? Seems perfect casting right off the bat – he certainly has the ability to play up both the comical and dark sides of the character. Use of the old Donner film’s production design and music? A great idea if its handled with respect and care.

The hiring of Singer on the project is a good one – ok so “Apt Pupil” was a bit of a dud and the first “X-Men” kind of clunky, but “X2” is superb and “The Usual Suspects” remains one of the best Hollywood thrillers ever. Kudos also on the hiring of Mike Dougherty and Dan Harris for the script, both guys I’ve been acquainted with long before they landed their “X2” gig and both are true talents who’re finally getting the breaks they deserve.

The hiring of an unknown as Superman is a factor that could go either way and nothing I’ve seen so far has yet shown me definitively which way that is. If it works Brandon Routh will become a major star overnight (in some ways he already has, ala Hayden Christensen), the franchise has a secure future with a face that people will instantly connect with being Superman, and it’ll avoid much of the criticism that comes with a known star filling Christopher Reeve’s almost revered red boots. The problem though is that as an unknown he has yet to prove himself and gain the experience that’s required for such a demanding character – and as he’s the main character a lot rests on him.

The example to avoid is what happened back in 1969. At that time a young unknown Australian actor with no real experience by the name of George Lazenby was hired to fill the shoes of James Bond. Up til that point the character in previous years had been played by Sean Connery so well that to this day it remains one of the most iconic performances in cinematic history. Armed with all the people that made the previous films successful, and a story and supporting cast that many consider the series best, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” could’ve well been considered the pinnacle of the 007 series. Yet to this day hovers around the middle of many people’s ‘favourite Bond film’ lists because of one reason only – Lazenby’s wooden performance.

In recent years the franchises have learned to go with proven actors that whilst not household names, have at least scored critical acclaim in various roles. Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, Christian Bale as Batman, Eric Bana as Hulk, Daniel Craig as James Bond, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine – all these guys had given great performances before they were hired to take on their iconic roles. With “Superman” though Singer takes a risk with Routh whose only regular credits to date are a year on MTV reality series “Undressed” and a short stint on the soap “One Life to Live”. Hiring a soap only actor though has worked in the past – the likes of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Eva Longoria got their start on these shows and whilst none are exactly Oscar winners, they’ve proven themselves to be decent enough talents to hold their own.

Will Routh though? From what little I’ve seen he does the Chris Reeve impersonation thing quite well, but by being so close to Reeve’s take on the Clark Kent character it’ll invite that much more criticism if his take on Superman isn’t as strong. Trailers at conventions and in theatres have shown him the least of any of the main characters which could be taken as either a lack of confidence or more likely a marketing decision. The San Diego reel and the more recent trailer had his few lines of dialogue delivery come out pretty well, but some of the early trailers for this made him sound nowhere near as confident or polished.

The idea of doing a semi-sequel to the second one is interesting. With all these dark, serious superhero films of late its good to see one throwback to the tone of the more light hearted and family friendly late 1970’s films. It makes the use of the old elements like the Krypton design and John Williams theme more justified, and it avoids dealing with yet another origin movie of which we’ve grown kind of tired.

However that means those not familiar with the old films are going to be confused by the story, whilst the Donner films set such a high standard that by sticking so close in some ways and avoiding them in others opens it up to far more critical comparisons than if it had been an actual ‘restart’ of the series. Like it or not one of the reasons the recent wave of superhero films have been so successful is the closer ties to the original comics material whilst adapting said material to be believable in a real world context. This on the other hand is very much pure fantasy with a healthy dose of nostalgia and like the 70’s films, a somewhat different approach to the material than the comic.

One criticism that has come up with the casting of Routh and Bosworth is the ages. Whilst Routh maybe the same age as Reeve when he made the films, he looks a good deal younger. Bosworth is certainly younger than Kidder was in the first films. Yet this is set five years after the other movies which makes the discrepancies a little odd. As it’s a fantasy movie people will likely not care too much, yet seeing a 22-year-old Bosworth as someone who’s married, has won a Pullitzer prize, is raising a child of five and is thought of as a veteran in the hard-hitting world of newspaper journalism will be a stretch for all but the most flexible of moviegoers. Asked about this issue more than once, Singer ducks the question – his only reasoning being the logical economical statement that younger stars allows for a longer life for them to portray the characters in future sequels.

There’s also the global issue. Twenty years ago America was looked upon with great fondness. The past few years due to various factors ranging from the increased conservative element of the Goverment to the war in Iraq has caused it to lose some of that popularity – even amongst its allies. A decade ago a film about a very patriotically American hero would’ve soared without problem in Europe, Asia, etc. – these days it’s a much tougher call. It’s especially daunting now as while American summer blockbusters often do significantly better overseas than domestically, the superhero film genre is a notable exception with none of the recent wave of comic adaptations seeing its international tally come near their domestic take – even the household name ones.

If this had been a simple little $80 million movie, there would be nowhere near the concerns that there is being generated over the film – it would be a slam dunk hit no matter what the end product quality was like. It isn’t though – this is a film with tens of millions in development costs, a production budget that’s in all likelihood one of the most expensive ever (anywhere between $190-250+ million), and close to all that much again sunk into marketing, merchandise, etc. Make no mistake, this is a near half a billion dollar gamble for everyone involved and one that faces a daunting challenge in that its second weekend will see it go head-to-head with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel – arguably the most buzzed about film of the post-Da Vinci summer.

I know this may seem like a ramble and I thank you for sticking with me but I had to get that stuff of my chest. I did this to ensure to you that this is not just a puff piece, that I can stand back and objectively share with you my concerns and hopes for “Superman Returns”. If the film is good I hope it’ll soar but whatever the case I have no plans to deliver a verdict on the film itself until the point that I’ve seen it, just like any other movie. I maybe a little iffy on a few things beforehand, like I am on most major movies, but Singer has proven me wrong for doubting him more than once and I hope he’ll do so again.

What I’m about to do here is arm you with knowledge to help you get the most out of the experience when you step into it. Mid-last year I visited the set of the film along with a bunch of other journalists to check it out. Over the course of two days we got to see a few sets, watch a tiny bit of filming, and more importantly chatted with all the important people involved.

The sets themselves, what was left of them, were impressive. As we moved from warehouse to sound stage to production office, we all saw a variety of things like a battered old prop plane, the remains of the Daily Planet main entrance, and two quite impressive set pieces. The first was a massive train set built like a scale model of Metropolis. Glimpses of this set have appeared in the trailers and whilst much of it was destroyed by Kryptonian rock crystals, the wreckage that was left looked pretty good.

The highlight of the sets themselves though was the luxury yacht. Lex, having swindled an old heiress out of her fortune, now has ownership of a giant boat and the major lounge room inside was still standing full scale. A hugely impressive piece of work, the glass-bottomed elongated room was covered in rich old wood floors, book cases, intricate glass carvings and even contained a grand piano.

The same day we also got to visit the production offices of the film which were covered in artwork from not just the movie but the comics too. Amongst the sketches we saw a flaming space plane falling to Earth, various shots of Krypton’s remains, the Kent farm set, and various scenes of Superman rescuing people. Less flashy but just as interesting were some of the alternate designs for character costumes ranging from a wig for Lex to assorted couture for his assistant Kitty and numerous versions of Superman’s red boots.

Later that night came a visit to watch some filming taking place in the Australian Museum. The scene has Luthor and his cronies stomping through a museum entrance and the man himself dismissing the ticketing girl as they walk by. It’s quite a surprise to see a bald Spacey, but the man quickly said hi and joked around about assorted things including a then still quite topical Russell Crowe phone incident.

The following day we checked out the costuming department and after a long chat with the two main people involved in their manufacture we got to do something that surprised all of us – cop a feel. The Superman suit was set up on a mannequin in front of us the whole time and we all got to essentially play with it for twenty minutes.

Having thoroughly given it a once over I can tell you that only the calves and the buttocks are the only sections of it that don’t have padding, the rest does (even the crotch and abs). The suit itself though is surprisingly thin – near panythose thin in fact. As explained in the interview, Routh had to get his various skin moles covered in makeup before they put on the suit because they quite literally could be seen through the material in certain places.

The suit itself is quite stunning in person, the detailed etchings (laser engraved diamond shapes, ‘S’ symbols and waistline curves) completely covering it are excellent and tge blue looks glorious. The muddy red still seems a little odd though, even as the brighter red underside of the cape is stunning and cleverly shaded to highlight the Man of Steel himself.

As set visits go this was one of the most well-planned ones I’ve ever done. We essentially got to not only interview all the key members of the cast and crew, but had close to an hour or more with every single one of them – something unheard of before. The San Diego Comic Con footage was screened again for us in proper digital projection environs (far better than the murky displays at the actual Con which made the film look very “Sky Captain”-esque). Whilst much of the sets were gone, they did their best to show us what they had. In many ways the production crew seem very proud of their film and excited about its potential.

Don’t take my word of it though. Below you’ll find in-depth, uncut and uncensored interviews with everyone involved. I’ve kept all the transcripts intact word for word, which means whilst at times the English many not be the most eloquent, its at least accurate. Enjoy them, and I hope we all enjoy “Superman Returns” when it hits theatres June 28th.