Why It Took Twenty Years, Nine Writers, Four Directors And Hundreds Of Millions Of Dollars To Make Superman Return
Cleveland-born Jerome ‘Jerry’ Siegel and Canadian-born Joe Shuster were classmates at Cleveland’s Glenville High School when they teamed up to work on an amateur magazine, Science Fiction. The third issue, published in January 1933, contained a Siegel short story entitled ‘The Reign of the Superman’, about a super-powered megalomaniac. Siegel subsequently realised that Superman might work better as a hero than a villain, and came up with the concept of a superhero who hid his true identity under the guise of a mild-mannered reporter. Although Siegel and Shuster subsequently created such characters as ‘Dr Occult’ and detective Slam Bradley, it was four lean years before comic book publisher Detective Comics (later DC Comics) offered them $10 per page for a thirteen-page Superman story, which ultimately appeared in Action Comics #1, published in June 1938, with a hopeful coda: ‘AND SO BEGINS THE STARTLING ADVENTURE OF THE MOST SENSATIONAL STRIP CHARACTER OF ALL TIME: SUPERMAN!’ Siegel and Shuster may have been the only ones who truly believed this blurb, yet their words would prove prophetic: the adventures of Superman immediately gripped the nation, turning the newly-launched Action Comics into an overnight success, and quickly becoming the most widely-read adventure serial in America. By January of the following year, Superman had his own nationally syndicated newspaper strip, written and illustrated by Siegel and Shuster, running uninterrupted until May 1966. Much of the Superman mythology — including his origin on planet Krypton, special powers, and trademark suit with its characteristic ‘S’ symbol — originated in the syndicated strips, which fed the public’s appetite for superhero stories, of which Superman was undeniably the first.
The comic book was not even two years old when Superman made his radio début in The Adventures of Superman, which began in February 1940. A year later, Vienna-born cartoonists Max and Dave Fleischer (Gulliver’s Travels) brought him to the screen in a series of fourteen animated shorts, now widely regarded as classics of the medium. Then, in 1948, Kirk Alyn donned the red and blue costume — albeit in black and white — for Superman’s first live action incarnation, a fifteen-chapter ‘Saturday morning’ movie serial, subsequently reprising the role for a sequel, Atom Man vs Superman (1950). In 1951, thirteen years after his comic book début, Superman became the star of another fledgling medium, as George Reeves made his first appearance in the TV series The Adventures of Superman, which ran until 1957. A decade later, Superman conquered yet another medium, as the star of a hit Broadway musical, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman, with book by David Newman and Robert Benton, both of whom would go on to earn writing credits on Superman: The Movie.
Producer Alexander Salkind and his son, Ilya, originally optioned the film rights to Superman in the mid-1970s, signalling the seriousness of their intentions by signing two of the biggest stars of the time, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, and commissioning a screenplay from Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather. By 1977, however, Superman: The Movie had been in development for three years, and with barely three months to go before filming was due to begin — Brando was locked into an immutable start date — Guy Hamilton, director of the Bond movies Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever, quit the project, leaving the film with two stars, a script and a start date, but no director and, perhaps more importantly, no Superman. The Salkinds solved the first problem by hiring former television director Richard Donner, fresh from the success of The Omen. Donner solved the second by casting an unknown actor, Christopher Reeve, to fill the famous red boots. A star was born — and so was a franchise. Released in the US on 15 December 1978, Superman became one of the first multi-million dollar film franchises, grossing $134 million in unadjusted US dollars — the equivalent of around half a billion today — and a total of $300 million worldwide, making Superman the first bona fide blockbuster based on a comic strip. Its success paved the way for three sequels which, sadly, proved the law of diminishing returns: Superman II (1980) grossed $108 million in the US alone, Superman III (1983) earned $60 million and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) just $15 million, sending the formerly super-powered film series to the Fortress of Franchise Solitude for the next five years.
Then, in 1993, Warner Bros, part of the media conglomerate which owned DC Comics, purchased the rights to make Superman movies from the Salkinds. The studio announced its acquisition with suitable fanfare, taking out full-page advertisements for something called Superman: The New Movie in the trade press, depicting a shining gold ‘S’ symbol familiar to millions of Superman’s fans. The future looked bright for what the studio considered its next billion-dollar franchise, not least because interest in the fifty-something superhero had not waned in the wake of the series’ demise. The same year saw the publication of Superman #75, the culmination of a best-selling DC Comics miniseries, hastily collected under the title The Death of Superman, in which the supposedly indestructible son of Krypton meets his end at the hands of Doomsday, a monstrous supervillain contrived by writer Dan Jurgens for one purpose: to kill Kal-El, alias Superman. Gaining the kind of national newspaper coverage which had not been seen in the US since funny paper favourite L’il Abner got married in 1952, The Death of Superman — ironically — revived the fortunes of one of the few superheroes who still considered wearing his underpants over his tights to be the height of crimefighting fashion. DC took the bold step of retiring its Superman titles for six months, publishing in their place the intriguing World Without a Superman series, which explored what life — ours and the DC Universe — would have been like without Jerry Seinfeld’s favourite super-guy. Then came Superman Reborn, an inevitable but effective revival of both the character and the fortunes of DC’s monthly titles.
Warner wasted no time in capitalising on Superman’s new-found comic book success, launching a weekly prime-time television series entitled Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and assigning Batman producer Jon Peters the role of bringing the Man of Steel back into cinemas. Peters, in turn, approached one of Warner’s favoured script doctors, Jonathan Lemkin, to write Superman’s next big-screen adventure. “I think, based on the action of Lethal Weapon 4, some of the more supernatural elements of Devil’s Advocate and the fantasy elements of Demolition Man, everyone felt comfortable with going forward with me as the writer of Superman Reborn,” Lemkin told Cinescape, referring to other scripts he had worked on for the studio. Lemkin was equally comfortable working with Peters. “He knows this genre,” he said, adding that, “the brilliant thing about Jon is that he comes up with fifteen ideas in any sentence. He is a constant fount of ideas, and probably has more ideas in a single day than most producers have in a year.”
Major toy companies, which effectively had as much power to decide Superman’s fate as Doomsday, insisted on seeing a draft before the deadline for Toy Fair, the industry’s annual trade show. Lemkin told Entertainment Weekly that he was asked simply to “write a great movie”, ideally based on The Death of Superman and its follow-ups. “Let’s face it, I’ve been entrusted with this corporate asset, and it’s a very different process than any other script I’ve ever worked on,” he told Cinescape. “This is a huge corporate asset, and if you look at the marketing that can come from this, it’s phenomenal. So they’re being very careful with what we do.” Lemkin was keenly aware of the difficulties facing him. “How do you bring Superman into the nineties and keep him fresh? The good thing about Superman is that he wants to do the right thing. He’s not a conflicted hero, which is its own genre and can be a wonderful thing. There’s something about Superman that’s great in terms of his attitude of stepping into the breach, come what may.” The difference between Superman and Batman, he observed, is that the former is an alien, while the latter is human. “[Superman] demands fantasy elements that Batman doesn’t. I think that’s much more exciting, and I feel that the result should be sort of like crossing Batman with Star Wars. Superman versus humans is not an interesting match. That’s like me versus a slug — who cares?” Thus, he added, “In any good Superman movie, the fate of the whole planet should be at stake… You’ve got to have villains whose powers and abilities demand that Superman — and only Superman — can be the one who stops them. Their powers have to tax Superman to the limit. That’s the only way to make the movie exciting and a dramatic challenge.”
Taking the comic books The Death of Superman, World Without a Superman and Superman Reborn as a “stepping-off point,” Lemkin opened his script with a defeated Superman in his death throes, and went on to tell the story not of his rebirth but of the birth of his successor, who is born after Superman ‘impregnates’ Lois Lane with his ‘spirit’. Maturing faster than a speeding bullet, the new superhero saves the universe before he is out of short tights. “[Superman] literally dies as he professes his love to [Lois],” Lemkin revealed, “and his life force jumps between them. Superman dies and Lois later finds out that she’s pregnant — immaculately. She gives birth to a child who grows twenty-one years in three weeks, and is, essentially, the resurrected Superman.” Resisting the lightweight format of Lois & Clark, and taking a cue from the first two Batman blockbusters, Lemkin’s story was littered with nightmarish images which director Tim Burton — who was not yet involved — would probably have loved. The studio, however, felt that some story elements trod the same path as those of Batman Forever, “and some of the underlying themes were close,” as Lemkin put it. “That concerned them, and they decided to go a whole new way.”
Gregory Poirier, who had scripted the worthy drama Rosewood for producer Peters, was next up to bat, delivering his script in late December 1995. Poirier chose not to lighten the script, adding Kal-El’s existential woes about being an outsider alienated on Earth, but wrote in a popular comic book villain, the mad alien machine creature, Brainiac, who creates Doomsday — a monster with Kryptonite for blood — specifically to defeat Superman. Doomsday succeeds in killing Superman, but the last son of Krypton is resurrected by an alien named Cadmus, another of Brainiac’s victims. The reborn Superman is without his superpowers, however, requiring him to don a robotic suit until his powers — in the script, a mental disciple known as ‘Phin-yar’ — return. By the script’s end, almost certainly at Peters’ request, Superman has exchanged his trademark blue-and-red caped costume for a sleek new bat-style black ensemble, which risked having die-hard Superman fans getting their tights in a twist.
Poirier’s script reportedly received a warm welcome from Warner executives, but their opinion changed in late 1996, following a meeting with comic book fan-turned-indie movie icon Kevin Smith, whose then-unproduced script for his third film, Chasing Amy, dealt with two comic book creators. Smith met with the studio to discuss potential rewrite work on several projects, including a sequel to Beetlejuice, and was asked to assess Poirier’s script from the point of view of a comic book fan. “I said I thought it was terrible,” Smith later told Entertainment Weekly. “Poirier didn’t get the Superman mythos.” Fearing, probably with some justification, that Smith — who co-owns a New Jersey comic book store — spoke for millions of Superman fans, Warner president of production Lorenzo di Bonaventura encouraged him to start over, albeit with certain caveats.
“There’s certain rules you gotta follow if you’re gonna accept the big studio dime,” Smith told Elston Gunn for the website Aint it Cool, adding that his script “wouldn’t necessarily be the version of Superman I would’ve done if they were just like, ‘Just write a Superman movie.’ There were a lot of parameters I had to work with, you know: the death of Superman was a major parameter they wanted me to use in that storyline; Brainiac as the villain was something they were intent on. When I had to work closer with Jon Peters on the project, he had all sorts of weird parameters. Like, ‘I don’t wanna see him in the suit and I don’t want to see him fly and I want him to fight a giant spider in the third act,’” Smith revealed. “Shit where I’m like, ‘What?! A giant spider? Are you crazy?!’” Nevertheless, Smith accepted the terms, realising that he was not being hired for his vision, but to execute a pre-ordained idea of what a new Superman film should be like: “‘Here are all of the ingredients; do this.’ So I couldn’t go in there and be, like, ‘No, I wanna do this thing. I want to do my version,’ because you’re accepting the job of translating all their ideas into one flick.”
Although ready to proceed with the script, Smith was asked initially to write a ‘treatment’, or ‘outline’ first — a common practice whereby studios obtain ideas for free — before Warner would commit to a full screenplay. Smith delivered an eighty-page outline, which included a substantial amount of dialogue and, Smith later learned, was about seventy-six pages longer than Warner had expected. In Smith’s story, the energy-sucking extraterrestrial Brainiac is in space with his faithful robot El-Ron (an unsubtle reference to Scientology founder and sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard) when he is contacted by Lex Luthor, who summons them to Earth to rid the world of the superhero formerly known as Kal-El. Discovering that Superman’s superpowers are derived from the sun, Luthor and Brainiac block the sun’s rays, thus diminishing his powers and allowing Doomsday to defeat the suddenly vulnerable Man of Steel. Littering the script with playful or ironic references to the superhero’s past, and assuming that his lover Lois Lane has already figured out that Superman’s secret identity is her Daily Planet colleague Clark Kent, Smith further displays his fan knowledge by incorporating fellow DC Comics characters Deadshot and Batman in cameo roles (the latter giving a moving eulogy at his fallen friend’s funeral), as well as such Superman staples as Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen and his venerable boss Perry White. Although details of Superman’s new look are sketchy — Smith admitted “Superman, um, ’90s style” is as far as he got — the script accounted for audiences not believing a man can fly by depicting Superman in flight as a red-and-blue blur accompanied by a sonic boom, thus neatly avoiding the sometimes wobbly blue-screen effects of the previous Superman film series.
Although Smith’s outline impressed Peters, the producer felt it needed more action: preferably an ‘action beat’ every ten pages. In his one-man show An Evening with Kevin Smith, the writer-director recalls that one of Peters’ suggestions was that, in the scene in which Brainiac goes to the Fortress of Solitude looking for Superman, Brainiac might have a fight with Superman’s guards. “Why would Superman need guards?” was Smith’s bemused reply. “Plus it’s called the Fortress of Solitude for a specific reason.” Peters also suggested that Brainiac have a scene in which he fight a polar bear — but only one, because, according to Smith, he “didn’t want to piss off the PETA people.”
The studio was reportedly delighted with Smith’s upbeat take on the material, a script entitled Superman Lives. They were less impressed with his loose-lipped comments in the press. “I was quoted as saying, ‘The Warner Bros executives are the most anxious group of motherfuckers I’ve ever met in my life.’” Smith told the UK’s Premiere magazine. “That was based on the fact they called constantly while I was doing Superman — three, four times a day. It was almost a joke.” But Smith said that he wasn’t referring to Warner executives, “I was talking about the executives at Jon Peters’ company, and I was kind of misquoted, but an exec is an exec. I don’t think it was a real personal attack,” he added. “They are a group of anxious motherfuckers.” Smith endured what he called “a degree of silent treatment for about a week, where everybody tried to figure out how insulted they were,” before being asked to write a second draft, which he delivered on 27 March 1997, and which Smith claimed Warner liked even more than the first.
Nevertheless, according to one source close to the production, a succession of directors were turning down the film at this stage, for a variety of reasons. One of them was maverick Texan Robert Rodriguez, director of From Dusk Till Dawn. “I really, really liked Kevin Smith’s script,” Rodriguez told Cinescape, “but I had just moved back to Texas. The day after I wrapped From Dusk Till Dawn, they premièred Desperado. My book came out that next week. Then two weeks later, my first child was born. Then Christmas. Then From Dusk Till Dawn opened, like, two weeks later. I mean, it was great, [but] of course, I totally crashed and burned after that.” Although Rodriguez knew that the Superman movie could give him a bona fide blockbuster, he ultimately chose to take a break, before filming The Faculty. “I knew it would be a big movie and have big [McDonald’s] Happy Meals and stuff,” he said of Superman Lives, “but I also knew it would be like that no matter who made it.”
One short-listed director who did accept Warner Bros’ offer, much to the studio’s surprise, was Tim Burton, who had made the studio and Peters super-rich by kicking off the Batman franchise, but had recently made one of Warner’s costliest flops. “At the time,” Kevin Smith later told the screenwriting magazine Fade In, “I think his signing on had [a lot] to do with Mars Attacks! going right into the crapper and him needing a sure-fire hit.” The script also met with a favourable response from actor Nicolas Cage, who was fast cementing his status as an A-list star, thanks to The Rock, Con Air and an Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas. Cage, a long-time comic book fan who had previously been linked with a screen adaptation of Marvel’s Iron Man character, explained his decision to step into the cape by pointing out that, although he had made films in many genres, “the one genre that I haven’t really done is the biggest of them all, which is the comic book genre. The bottom line is that I don’t want to do only what is [typically] regarded as the ‘important’ movies,” he added. “I believe that a movie like Leaving Las Vegas has an important value, and I believe that a movie based on Superman has an important value as well… because it’s going to affect children around the world. With Tim Burton,” the actor continued, “hopefully we’re going to bring a lot to it and totally reconceive the character. The death of Superman and his resurrection will be a part of the story, but I have other points that I want to address that haven’t really been examined before. Superman is an American myth. Like the English have Shakespeare, America has Batman, Superman and Mickey Mouse.” Many Superman fans reacted negatively to this unusual casting choice, however, causing Burton to comment, “That’s what they said about Michael Keaton and Batman.” Besides, as Kevin Smith later told Premiere, “I think Nic is such a great actor that you would forget that he doesn’t look like the classic Superman. I think his performance would have been tremendous.”
With Cage on board, another recent Oscar winner, Kevin Spacey, was reportedly being lined up for the role of Lex Luthor, while comic actors Jim Carrey and Chris Rock were rumoured to be under consideration for the roles of Brainiac and Jimmy Olsen respectively. Jack Nicholson, who had played the Joker in Burton’s Batman, was also mentioned in connection with the Brainiac role, while brunettes Sandra Bullock and Courteney Cox were among those on the studio’s shortlist to play Lois Lane. Needless to say, all this might have been wishful thinking, either on the part of Superman fans or the studio itself. Yet surprising rumour turned to even more surprising fact when Burton and Cage both signed lucrative ‘pay or play’ deals — meaning that they got paid whether the film was made or not — worth $5 million for the director and a staggering $20 million for the star. Offices on the Warner lot were set up and Superman Lives officially entered pre-production in the summer of 1997, with a proposed release date of June 1998, the 60th anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics.
Now it transpired that Burton did not, after all, like Smith’s script. “The studio was happy with what I was doing,” Smith told Empire magazine, “[but] then Tim Burton got involved, and when he signed his pay or play deal he turned around and said he wanted to do his version of Superman. So who is Warner Bros going to back — the guy who made Clerks, or the guy who made them half a billion dollars on Batman?” Besides, Smith told Premiere, “What are they gonna do — piss Tim off cause they wanna hold onto my script? I didn’t make the studio a billion dollars over the course of my career. Tim did. So that was that.” Nevertheless, Smith was smarting, admitting to Entertainment Weekly that he was “under the impression that Burton would at least have the courtesy to sit down with me. He didn’t.”
Instead, Burton called in screenwriter number four, Wesley Strick, to re-imagine the film in the director’s own trademark style. “As soon as Tim was hired by Warner Bros he brought me in, owing to a prior, pleasant collaboration,” Strick recalls, referring to his production rewrite on Burton’s Batman Returns. Strick was given the Kevin Smith draft, which he read “with eager anticipation and a rising sense of bafflement. First, everywhere Superman went, he was accompanied/shadowed by someone/something called The Eradicator, who seemed to have more lines and more things to do than Superman,” he says. “The villain, Brainiac, had a comic sidekick called El-Ron, who similarly took up as much script space as Brainiac and wasn’t all that funny. Brainiac’s evil plot was to launch a disk into space that would blot out the sun, necessitating the use of his own energy production — a plot device I’d seen not long before on The Simpsons [with] Mr Burns doing the Brainiac role. Lastly, the script was crammed with so much techno-jargon, there were whole pages that were — to me — nearly impenetrable. I had no idea how Tim reacted,” he adds, “but at our first meeting he made it clear that he wanted to jettison the Smith draft.” Although Peters and the studio were uncomfortable with this, ultimately a compromise was reached: Strick could start over with a page one rewrite, so long as the ‘death of Superman’ theme remained.
As Strick recalls, “After going down to the comic book store and purchasing World Without a Superman, a collection that comprised the ‘death’ and its traumatic and ultimately triumphant aftermath, I started, belatedly, to make sense of some of Kevin Smith’s constructs — particularly the bothersome and boring Eradicator. Still determined that our Superman not play like a buddy movie, but seeing the need for the felled Superman to return to life through the ministrations of some sympathetic, off-planet intelligence, I created an entity I called ‘K’, a sort of sprite who would flit around as a digital light-effect, representing the spirit and heritage of Krypton. Tim liked the concept, but was concerned that ‘K’ might be a bit too ‘Tinkerbell’… and, ultimately, the clock ran out before we were able to solve this.” Nevertheless, the screenwriter adds, “We did take pains to characterise Clark/Superman as an alien, painfully conscious of his profoundly ‘outsider’ status and not always in control of his powers — think ‘extraterrestrial Scissorhands.’ Plus, after ‘K’ revives Superman in the Fortress of Solitude, [Superman] returns in a peculiar Kal-El persona — freaking out Lois, Metropolis and himself before reverting to the more familiar and comfortable Clark/Superman schism. Tim and I both relished the fact that our hero wasn’t merely split down the middle like most Burton heroes, but was for a time a tri-furcated personality. And we doubled the theme by having Brainiac invade the body of Lex Luthor at story’s midpoint, creating an amusing schizo/scary mega-villain we dubbed Lexiac.” Strick’s storyline also revealed that Brainiac was created by Superman’s father Jor-El, making him the great scientist’s ‘first born,’ whose primacy and birthright was supplanted by Kal-El, thus explaining Brainiac’s quest for vengeance when, years later, he encounters Kal-El/Superman on Earth. “Tim and I would meet at least once a week at his apartment,” Strick adds. “We’d talk, [and] he’d make wonderful sketches of our characters on napkins. As things progressed, he moved over to an office on the Warner lot, surrounded by concept art that was growing increasingly bizarre, detailed and inspiring.”
Heading up Burton’s design team was production designer Rick Heinrichs, who had produced the director’s early shorts, Frankenweenie and Vincent, and worked in some capacity on almost every one of Burton’s films since. “Tim first spoke to me about the project in the spring of 1997, right after I finished The Big Lebowski,” Heinrichs recalls. “I was excited by his take on the Man of Steel, which felt appropriate to the character and yet within the oeuvre of Tim’s other work.” Other members of the team included John Dexter (Mars Attacks!), Jacques Ray (The Fifth Element), Harold Beckler (Minority Report), Jack Johnson (The Shadow), James Carson (Ed Wood, Mars Attacks!), Bill Boes (Alien Resurrection, Monkeybone) and Sylvain Despretz (The Fifth Element, Alien Resurrection). “The phase we were working on was very preliminary,” says Despretz. “We got the Kevin Smith script, but we were told not to read it, because they knew he wasn’t going to stay on the movie. So we used Kevin Smith’s script as a guide to the sets we might be doing, and we waited and waited for the new script to come in, but it never did.”
Nevertheless, like Heinrichs, Despretz feels that Burton was the perfect choice to handle a Superman movie. “His take on it was quite interesting,” he says. “To Tim, it wasn’t a simple heroic story, and I think the casting of Nicolas Cage was quite good because he wasn’t a square-jawed hero. He wanted to show a very vulnerable side of Superman, similar to the way Jesus was portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, so what you saw was a reluctant messiah. It was the story of a man struggling with the burden of extraordinary powers.” Cage evidently relished this approach, telling Premiere that the film’s vision of the Man of Steel would be as “a freak, but a beautiful freak in that he really cares about people. I wouldn’t be afraid to talk about his loneliness and his feeling like an alien, never fitting in and so always compulsively needing to do heroic acts so people would like him and he would feel loved.”
One of Sylvain Despretz’s most dramatic conceptual illustrations depicts the lantern-jawed Kryptonian in a stylish black moulded bodysuit — sans underpants, red or otherwise — with a stylised silver ‘S’ in relief on his chest. That look was designed by Jim Carson, and was just one of many different costume concepts which were put forward. “The types of designs that we were being asked to create had little or nothing to do with DC Comics’ approach over the years,” Despretz told SFX in 2000. “They were looking at the comic books and saying, ‘We can’t have him wear that — it looks ridiculous.’” Instead, Despretz recalls, “They were trying to create something with a nice body mould, similar to the style of the Batman suits, but that had that ‘S’ thing. Something sleeker, more in tune with the Y2K look.” Would Burton’s radical new approach have pleased the fans? “I think, by and large, yes,” says Heinrichs. “The only point in creating a new version of something is to bring a fresh eye to it, to attempt to re-grasp the essential interpretation of one of our society’s iconic cultural myths. Real Superman fans know how much of the original comic was about a conflicted hero facing some rather daunting choices brought on by urgent crises. Oh, and he happens to possess extraordinary physical powers that he wields with ease, but not much understanding.”
Not that Burton was technically in charge of the film at this stage, its direction being dictated, as always, by Peters and his Warner Bros bosses, who, in turn, were being guided by the toy companies and promotional partners who would make the production viable. “Jon Peters was in constant contact with toy companies, whose deals would help offset the picture’s huge expense,” says Wesley Strick. “He would occasionally call me to demand that Superman use a certain sort of jet-pack — when he’d temporarily lost his flying ability — or that Brainiac float above the Earth in a ‘skull ship’ which he’d reach via a shuttle that must have a particular design. Though this could be annoying,” Strick admits, “it wasn’t especially difficult to incorporate these items. And Jon, though occasionally confusing and intrusive, was no more so than many other producers I’ve encountered over my years in Hollywood.”
At least one member of the art department does not agree with Strick’s sentiments, however. “Peters was basically running the show like a star producer,” says Despretz. “He would come down yelling and saying, ‘This is the way I want it,’ and make the most ridiculous observations. He used to bring kids in, who would point at drawings on the wall and rate them, like they were evaluating the toy possibilities.” According to Despretz, the studio was apparently looking not so much for actual conceptual designs, but for drawings that could reassure the toy companies that their multi-million dollar investments would be wisely made. “This was how the movie was being designed. It was basically a toy show.”
On one occasion, Peters reportedly visited the art department working on designs for Brainiac’s skull ship. “He got really worked up about a National Geographic issue that had a holographic skull on the cover,” Despretz recalls, “and he flung out his arms and said, ‘This is it! This is what I want! I want a skull!’ And he just kind of yelled out, ‘I want every brother in the ghetto to go “Yeah!”’ We laughed about it for months.” Another time, the karate-mad producer allegedly asked production designer Rick Heinrichs if he would stand still while Peters wrestled him to the ground. “It was just sheer humiliating madness,” Despretz says. “I found out later that Tim Burton was in Hell. He mentioned several times that it was the worst time of his life, because he really had no desire to be in this predicament, but he’d just done Mars Attacks!, which didn’t work very well, and he needed a big film.”
While Strick continued to toil on the script, the art department continued to turn out drawing after drawing, based on the few elements they knew would be included in the new draft: Superman himself, the new ‘S’ logo, numerous versions of Brainiac’s skull ship, exteriors and interiors of the planet Krypton, the Kryptonians, the Fortress of Solitude, the city of Metropolis, and the film’s chief antagonist, Brainiac. “I still have a sketch from Tim Burton describing what he wanted,” Despretz says of the latter. “It was pretty crude, graphically. He looked like a cone, with a round ball on top with something that looked like an emaciated skull inside. Imagine you take Merlin’s hat, and you stick a fishbowl on top, with a skull in it — that was Brainiac.”
Meanwhile, Burton scouted city locations that could double for Metropolis, eventually deciding that Pittsburgh — famed for its steel production, and very film friendly — would be the ideal home for the Man of Steel. “[Burton’s] Metropolis was not ‘Gotham redux,’” Heinrichs says. “Its character was not derived from the same sort of reference used to create what that ‘urbanscape’ became.” Adds Strick, “What excited Tim was that, in contrast to the two Batman films which he associated with darkness and night, Superman was going to be a superhero adventure set primarily in daylight; in sunlight, even. He saw it as, ideally, a more ‘American’ and mainstream fable — this was the challenge. And Nic Cage, whom we sat with several times, seemed to share our concept.” With each successive draft, however, the budget spiralled alarmingly — according to several reports, to between $140 million and $190 million. “It’s not like building a house,” Warner president of production Lorenzo di Bonaventura explained to Entertainment Weekly. “You’re creating a world where a guy flies around, something new where it takes a lot of time between when you create a scene, and when [Industrial Light & Magic] puts a price tag on it.”
Then, in 1998, shortly after the cancellation of the by now ratings-starved Lois & Clark, the studio began to experience caped fear. Less than a year later, following the disastrous performance of such ambitious science fiction fare as Sphere and The Postman, Warner Bros co-chairman Terry Semel announced that, in the future, the studio would be eschewing expensive ‘event’ movies in favour of mid-priced films. With a proposed budget that was always going to be in excess of $100 million, Superman Lives had already become one of the first casualties. “We didn’t have a script we loved, and the budget was too high,” Semel’s partner, Bob Daly, explained. “When the budget started getting out of control, that’s when we decided to pull the plug.”
“Our script was strong and getting stronger when the plug was pulled,” laments Wesley Strick. “Evidently the execs had finally accommodated themselves to a Burton Superman — stages were reserved, scenery was built, locations were scouted — when Terry Semel read my draft and, so I’m told, reacted violently against it. At that point the team did an about-face and it fell to Tim, somewhat sheepishly and sweetly, to invite me to his apartment one last time, to tell me the news. The Warner Bros ‘team’ was never completely comfortable with our script,” he adds. “I wasn’t quite sure what their specific problems were but I think the level of nervousness and second-guessing over so valuable a franchise as Superman would have made it impossible for them to feel completely comfortable with any version.”
Nevertheless, with the failure of Batman & Robin, the fourth entry in the Batman franchise — which grossed less than half of the first Batman, released almost a decade earlier — the cancellation, or at least postponement, of another comic book blockbuster with a bloated budget seemed, with hindsight, to have been a wise move. By this time, however, the studio had already spent a reported $30 million developing the Superman movie, and ultimately engaged a fifth screenwriter, Dan Gilroy (Freejack), in an effort to bring the spiralling budget back down to Earth. “We know we’re getting close,” di Bonaventura told Entertainment Weekly at the time, “but we’re not there yet. The creative process is imprecise at best, but over the last two or three months we’ve accelerated in a good way. But we had hoped to accelerate that way six months ago.”
After the studio’s closure of the Superman Lives production offices, regular visitors to Warner Bros’ official website, supermanlives.com, were greeted with the following announcement: “Out of commitment to Superman’s worldwide legacy and countless fans, and to the potential of creating a Superman story that will push the narrative envelope, Warner Bros has decided to postpone the start of production on its Superman movie. Warner Bros feels that, at this time, the script does not yet do full justice to the potential of the film and of the character, one of the most popular superheroes in history. The project, which had been tentatively scheduled to begin principal photography later this summer, remains in active development,” and the studio stated that Nicolas Cage, director Tim Burton, producer Jon Peters and screenwriter Dan Gilroy all remain firmly committed to the project. “Warner Bros intends to aggressively continue developing the Superman project until it satisfies the highest standards of everyone involved.”
The film’s laid-off crewmembers responded by organising an unofficial “wake” to commemorate the death of Superman Lives, their invitations cheekily featuring a sketch of Superman lying in a coffin — an image straight out of The Death of Superman comic book. While Warner considered its options, Peters chose to play out his giant spider fantasies with another production for Warner: Wild Wild West. Burton, meanwhile, left Metropolis for Sleepy Hollow, $5 million richer. “I ‘made’ the movie, only I didn’t film it,” Burton later told the website Mr Showbiz. “You’d have to ask Warner Bros why. It was going to be expensive, and they were a little sensitive that they had screwed up the Batman franchise. Corporate decisions are all fear-based decisions,” he added. “They were afraid.”
Nevertheless, Superman Lives, like its titular hero, refused to die. “We have a mandate to make event pictures,” Lorenzo di Bonaventura told Entertainment Weekly, “but do you need four a summer? No. Do you need two or three? Probably. So hopefully, we’ll make five [mid-priced films] as well as Superman.” Warner continued to develop the project, albeit with a much lower profile than previously. In July 1999, William Wisher — who had previously scripted the poorly-received screen adaptation of another well-loved comic book character, Judge Dredd — became the latest screenwriter to tackle the project, turning in a script which, Cage told the Hollywood Reporter, had a “darker, more Matrix feel to it,” with Oliver Stone reportedly expressing an interest in directing. In the same period, Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth), Simon West (Con Air), Ralph Zondag (Dinosaur) and Stephen Norrington (Blade) were all variously reported as contenders. “We are now meeting with many, many directors,” Peters commented to Cinescape Online. By June of the following year, however, Cage had officially quit the project, banked his $20 million, and taken his comic book aspirations elsewhere, eventually starring as Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider. (He did, however, name his son Kal-El in tribute to Superman.)
Then, in April 2001, Hollywood Reporter revealed that Oscar-nominated screenwriter Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco) had been commissioned to write a brand new draft, receiving a staggering $1.7 million for his trouble. “Attanasio will sift through the three or four Superman scripts previously written during its five-year development at the studio,” the report said, “but he will focus on his own, original take on material based on the death and rebirth of the Man of Steel.” By the time Attanasio handed in his draft, Warner’s fledgling cable TV network The WB was scoring impressive ratings with a small-screen ‘young Superman’ series, Smallville, whilst the Man of Steel appeared as part of a new ensemble of animated heroes in Justice League. Each built a fan base among a demographic too young to have seen the Christopher Reeve films in cinemas, and would therefore help to pave the way for the eventual Superman movie.
Early the following year, it was reported that Charlie’s Angels director McG, né Joseph McGinty Nichol, had become attached to Paul Attanasio’s script. At the same time, development of the big-screen Superman project took a new twist when Variety announced in February 2002 that rising TV star J. J. Abrams, creator of Alias and, later, Lost, would be the latest in a long line of screenwriters to put his own spin on the Superman legend, this time ignoring the Death of Superman storyline and starting from scratch. “Like many people, I grew up the biggest fan of Superman,” Abrams told E! Online. “I have a five-year-old son who is a fanatic, so it was a great thing for his eyes. As someone who has been so disappointed by a lot of big-budget movies in the last few years, especially, there were a couple I could’ve gotten involved with, but like an idiot, I didn’t. Then I saw the films and was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ So, I wanted to do something about it. I had a chance and I fought for the job.”
Simultaneously, Warner began to develop a crossover movie, Batman vs Superman, in which the titular heroes would begin as allies — albeit with radically different worldviews — but face each other in a climactic showdown concerning Bruce Wayne’s desire for vengeance on a supervillain who murders his new bride. Scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en, Sleepy Hollow) and subsequently polished by A Beautiful Mind screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, the story begins five years into Bruce Wayne’s life post-Batman, having put his costume back into the closet following the death of his sidekick, Robin. He has settled down, married a woman named Elizabeth, and is happier than ever. Over in Metropolis, however, Superman has not been so lucky in love, having been dumped by Lois Lane due to the myriad difficulties of being Clark Kent’s girlfriend. When The Joker, previously thought dead, kills Elizabeth with a poison dart, Bruce takes it hard. First, he blames Superman, because the Man of Steel saved The Joker from a fatal beating just before the murder; second, he resumes the mantle of Batman — not, this time, under any pretence of meting out justice, but for the sheer cathartic pleasure of beating up bad guys. Superman, who has been busy wooing his first love, Lana Lang, in Smallville, tries to talk Bruce out of his vengeful ways, an act which ultimately pits the heroes against each other. Eventually it transpires that Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor was behind The Joker’s return, hoping that Batman and Superman would kill each other. Instead, the two heroes unite to defeat first The Joker and, finally, Luthor, who bears ultimate responsibility for Elizabeth’s death.
Warner was sufficiently excited about the script to fast-track the film for a summer 2004 release, with The Perfect Storm director Wolfgang Petersen at the helm. “It is the clash of the titans,” he told Variety in July 2002. “They play off each other so perfectly. [Superman] is clear, bright, all that is noble and good, and Batman represents the dark, obsessive and vengeful side. They are two sides of the same coin and that is material for great drama.”
Then, on 26 July 2002, J. J. Abrams turned in the first draft of his stand-alone Superman script, designed to be the first of a trilogy. The script opens in dramatic fashion, with a newscaster announcing the destruction of several major cities — the result, he claims, of an epic battle between Superman and a fellow Kryptonian named Ty-Zor. Superman’s entrance is equally dramatic: “Two RED BOOTS hit the pavement… Oh yes. We can feel his presence. And the CAMERA STARTS TO MOVE — AROUND, to the FRONT of the boots — SLOWLY RISING, DRAMATICALLY REVEALING the body of a 29-year-old warrior. A warrior in brilliant red and blue — cape billowing — an icon on his muscular chest resembling an ‘S’ — and finally the face — eyes awash with rage and determination…” By page six, Ty-Zor has defeated Superman, at which point the script flashes back “twenty-nine Earth years” to tell the story of a devastating battle taking place on another planet: Krypton.
In Abrams’ version, Krypton meets its demise at the giant metal hands of the ‘rousers’, gigantic three-legged mecha-like war machines, twelve stories high, unleashed by Jor-El’s vengeful brother, Kata-Zor, who vows to hunt down Jor-El’s infant son, whom the senate leader has sent into space. Evidently Kata-Zor has been driven mad by Jor-El’s ascension to the Kryptonian throne. Back on Earth, we watch as young Clark Kent grows into his powers and, at age fourteen, is given the classic red and blue suit which, his adoptive parents tell him, arrived with him when his spaceship crash-landed in their field. Aged twenty, Clark meets Lois Lane for the first time, but it is not until Clark gets a job at the Daily Planet nine years later that their romance begins to blossom. Lois, it transpires, has been trying to expose a covert CIA division devoted to UFO investigations. Its boss, “CIA Special Agent Dr Lex Luthor”, stuns Lois and Clark by admitting that his bureau has recently discovered a crashed spacecraft — one which Clark privately recognizes as being similar to the ship which brought him to Earth twenty-nine years ago. When Superman reveals himself by rescuing Air Force One while both the President and Lois Lane are on board, Luthor seizes his appearance as an excuse to incarcerate the “stranger”, despite his instant popularity with the public.
Clark’s heroism and sudden fame have a tragic side effect, however, the stress causing his adoptive father, Jonathan, to suffer a fatal coronary. Heartbroken, Clark renounces his hero status, until Martha convinces him to meet his destiny. And it is just as well, for no sooner has the newly-christened “Superman” granted his first interview (to Lois Lane, of course) than Ty-Zor’s ‘rouser’ lands in Washington’s National Mall, wreaking havoc on the surrounding monuments as it tries to kill the Man of Steel. Suddenly, to Luthor’s delight, the public’s perception of Superman shifts to that of an “illegal alien” who brought an extraterrestrial war to their doorstep. At the same time, Ty-Zor and three other evil Kryptonians — Baz-Al, Caan and Alta — reveal themselves, dressed in body armour and “ancient Kryptonian ninja-style vestments” and armed with deadly fire-spitting “blastaffs”. An epic battle ensues in which Superman is defeated and, with the aid of some Kryptonite stolen from the Smithsonian Institute’s asteroid collection, killed — bringing the script back to where it began some hundred pages earlier (and, interestingly, to the ‘Death of Superman’ story of the earlier drafts).
In the aftermath of the wave of destruction unleashed by the Kryptonians, Luthor is declared President of (what’s left of) the United States, while Jor-El, incarcerated by Kata-Zor back on Krypton, commits suicide in anguish over his son’s demise. But rumours of Superman’s death are exaggerated: after an encounter with Jor-El in a white space Abrams calls “INFINITY — TIMELESS”, Kal-El/Superman learns of a prophecy, “an ancient Kryptonian text, that speaks of that war. That speaks of a Prince. Whose fate was to be sent away, raised in another world. This young man would face a challenge. If prosperous, his destiny is to return to Krypton… and free his people from the ravages of evil.” Needless to say, Jor-El believes his son to be the ‘Prince’ spoken of in the prophecy. Suddenly, Superman feels much better. He bursts out of his coffin and goes back to work, saving Earth from Luthor, Ty-Zor and the other Kryptonians — with a little help from a swarm of fighter jets from two dozen nations. But just as Superman declares his love for Lois, Luthor reveals that he has one more surprise in store: he is from Krypton after all, and has superpowers which rival Kal-El’s own! Another monumental battle ensues, in which ‘Luthor’ is finally defeated, despite displaying considerable martial arts skills in the Matrix mould. Finally, Kal-El leaves for Krypton to discover what lies in store for him on his home world… and, presumably, in the second part of Abrams’ proposed trilogy.
Assessing the script for the website Aint It Cool, ‘Moriarty’ spoke for many Superman fans when he described Abrams’ script as “a disaster of nearly epic proportions.” Moriarty admits that Abrams nailed one or two action sequences, including what he calls the “moment of perfectly played heroism” as Superman rescues Air Force One, and a montage in which Superman flies to a mountain top in the Andes and listens to cries for help from all over the world. (Interestingly, these two sequences were the only ones from Abrams’ script to make it, in adapted form, into Bryan Singer’s film.) “The moments that are good are so good they make you woozy,” Moriarty wrote. “This is the Superman that lives right alongside Santa Claus and Bugs Bunny and Luke Skywalker in the inner lives of American children from the last few generations, the simple force of good wrapped in red and blue.” The remainder of the script, however, comes in for savage criticism. The scenes set on Krypton are described as “so powerfully uninteresting in the script that my eyes would glaze over at the mere sight of the word.” He also takes issue with many of the script’s departures from canonical Superman mythology. “Martha happens to find some metal thingies that she forgot to give Clark earlier,” he notes. “The metal thingies, if you put them together the right way, form the negative space from the ‘S’ symbol from the costume. Turns out, these were given to the Kents before Kal-El ever arrived. By Jor-El. During his visit to Earth, when he picked the Kents to be Kal-El’s new parents.”
Moriarty saves his severest criticism for the finale: “Someone, somewhere, for some completely mystifying reason has decided that it would be a good idea to make Lex Luthor a superpowered 50-year-old who knows better kung-fu than Superman… The end of the film sets up Clark to go home to [Krypton] to study with Yoda so he can be the king of Krypton or some such nonsense.” Moriarty concluded with a stirring call to action for web-based Super-fans, arguably a force greater than the combined might of Ty-Zor and his Kryptonian cohorts. “Maybe you want martial arts fights in mid-air. Maybe you want a super-powered Lex Luthor. Maybe you want a Krypton that didn’t explode and an ancient Prophecy and a second film that’s not set on Earth. Maybe all that sounds good to you, and you’re all going to tell me that I’m crazy, or that I’m overreacting, or that I’ve failed to grasp the conceptual brilliance of this thing. Somehow, though… I doubt that.”
Producer Jon Peters evidently didn’t share Moriarty’s feelings about Abrams’ script. “It was amazing,” he told the New York Times. “In a world of chaos, it’s about hope and light.” Around the same time, Sony’s Spider-Man was making its amazing assault on box office records, suggesting that, in the wake of 9/11, light and airy, not dark and gloomy, was the way to go with superhero flicks. At that point, Peters, Abrams and senior vice president for production Bob Brassel met in the offices of Warner’s executive vice president for worldwide motion pictures Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who said that he liked the script (“It had more epic ambition than earlier Superman scripts,” he said later), but that he would prefer to make Batman vs Superman first. Abrams reportedly compared this to releasing When Harry Divorced Sally before When Harry Met Sally, but both sides had their points. With two iconic heroes for the price of one, Batman vs Superman arguably stood the better chance in a marketplace soon to be crowded with comic book movies ranging from Hulk to Daredevil, and further sequels featuring Spider-Man and The X-Men. However, if Batman vs Superman’s darker tone did not connect with audiences post-9/11, it could effectively kill both franchises before either had a chance to be revived. By the same logic, if either — or both — of the standalone Batman or Superman films failed, the studio would still have the considerable curiosity value of the team-up movie to fall back on.
In early August, Warner president Alan Horn asked ten senior studio executives — representing international and domestic theatrical marketing, consumer products and home entertainment — to read both scripts and decide which of them stood the better chance in the post-Spider-Man marketplace. “I wanted some objectivity,” Horn explained. “Why not get an opinion or two?” At the meeting, Bonaventura argued in favour of Batman vs Superman. Others, however, felt that Abrams’ three-part Superman script had better long-term prospects for merchandising, DVD and other ancillary revenues — an argument which all but drowned out Bonaventura and the rising cacophony of internet scuttlebutt which Moriarty had recently provoked. Besides, Horn had the casting vote. “I said I wanted to do Superman,” he told The New York Times. “At the end of the day it’s my job to decide what movies we make.” Thus, in August, the studio officially switched off Batman vs Superman’s green light.
McG, who had since made Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, remained the studio’s favourite to direct Abrams’ script. However, Warner’s desire to save millions by relocating to Sydney, Australia, contributed to McG’s decision to let Superman fly without him. In a July 2004 statement, he said that, as a film-maker, he “felt it was inappropriate to try to capture the heart of America on another continent.” Later, the director admitted that, ironically, a fear of flying led him to quit the project. “I didn’t want to fly down there [to Sydney],” he told WENN. “I don’t really freak out that we’re gonna crash but I freak out [when] everything’s great and you’re at 40,000 feet and then you realize you’re in a steel tube and you can’t get out of there and there’s nothing but water everywhere you look down.”
Thus, on 25 September 2002, Warner confirmed that Brett Ratner, creator and director of the half-a-billion-dollar Rush Hour franchise, had replaced McG as director. “J. J. Abrams and Jon Peters were given the daunting task of re-imagining the Superman epic and J. J. met the challenge, delivering a terrific script with emotion, depth and scale that bring new dimension to this legendary character,” said Jeff Robinov, president of domestic production. “We couldn’t be more pleased to entrust the next chapter in the Superman mythology to Brett Ratner, a dynamic director whose skilful blend of action, comedy and drama has captured the imaginations of audiences worldwide.” Ratner immediately announced the casting of his Red Dragon star, Anthony Hopkins, as Superman’s father, Jor-El. He soon began to struggle with the studio’s proposed budget, which he felt was insufficient to realise the gargantuan scale of Abrams’ script. On 19 March 2003, Ratner issued a statement confirming rumours that he had jumped ship. “I have chosen to withdraw as director of Superman,” he stated. “The difficulty of casting the role of Superman has contributed to my decision. I appreciate the efforts of Warner Bros and the entire production team during this process.” Warner production president Jeff Robinov responded with his own statement: “We have tremendous regard for Brett’s creativity and passion for this project and we understand that this was a very tough choice for him.” Suddenly, Abrams’ take on Superman was off the table too. “It was a disappointment,” he recently told Empire magazine, “because I thought that where it was going was pretty cool and there were some themes in it that I really loved.”
It was at this point that Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men films and Superman’s eventual big-screen return, was considered for the first time. Like any long-term Superman fan, Singer had been watching the development of the film with interest. “It was a story of jealousy on my part,” he admits. Singer recalls broaching the subject with his friend Kevin Spacey, Oscar-winning star of Singer’s The Usual Suspects, at a Bob Dylan concert, back when rumours were rife that Spacey might play Lex Luthor in Burton’s Superman Lives. “I asked Kevin about it and he said, ‘No, it’s not confirmed.’ And I was about to make X-Men, and I was very jealous of the notion that my friend Kevin was going to go off and make a Superman film. I was like, ‘Oh, God! Another guy’s doing Superman!’” Singer was subsequently intrigued by the prospect of Batman vs Superman. “I started to talk about what would you do with that; who would be the villain. I guess Batman would be the villain, but he couldn’t really be a serious villain, so he’d have to be redeemable at some point. But I always had a notion for a Superman film: that Superman would be gone somewhere and then would return.”
Singer informally pitched his take on the story to original Superman director Richard Donner and his wife, X-Men producer Lauren Shuler Donner, in April 2003, during their publicity tour for X-Men 2. “We’d had some conversations during the making of the first X-Men,” Singer recalls, “but it was at this point that I told Richard Donner that if I could ever make a Superman movie I wouldn’t remake his film, but make a kind of sequel in a strange vague sense. I would put that film in history, and Superman would be gone for a period of time and then come back, and the world would have moved on without him. I didn’t talk about the family at that point. But Dick thought that was a wonderful idea, and just the notion of me doing it, and I got a sense from him that I had his blessing.”
Mike Dougherty, who, with Dan Harris, wrote the script for Singer’s X-Men 2 and Superman Returns, remembers discussing the idea with the director around the same time. “At the time, the Superman project was up in the air, and there was a big debate as to whether they would do Batman vs Superman or the J. J. Abrams script, and I think [the studio] was beating around the bush and talking to Bryan about it. He had a certain amount of interest because he’s always been a fan of the character and he knew the two concepts they were thinking about, and when we were doing the sound mix on X-Men 2, he pulled me aside in a soundproof room and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a Superman movie?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, okay, but how can you beat Donner’s film?’ And he said, ‘That’s the thing, we wouldn’t — we’d make a sequel.’”
Adds Harris, “He wanted to make something that worked off of Donner’s film, respected it, and put it into a kind of ‘fake history’, and make a movie that moved forward — a kind of return story: to send Superman away for a number of years and then bring him back, so we could deal with the rift that’s created when he has to return to a world that has changed or moved on without him. And we thought this was a great way in.” Abrams’ script, needless to say, was nothing like the story Singer had discussed with the Donners and Mike Dougherty. “My concern was that it retold the origin story,” Dougherty says, “and also rewrote some of the mythology. Not that it was badly written or anything — but that was the part I didn’t really respond to.” He admits: “To be totally honest, I actually love J. J. Abrams’ script. A lot. I felt that if they wanted to go with a Superman origin story, it would have been a great idea. It did change things a little bit too much,” he adds. “For instance, it had Krypton still intact, and his parents still alive. But those were things that, even as a fan, I could accept and move on. What he nailed beautifully was the relationship between Lois and Clark and Superman — you definitely felt the beginnings of a romance there. We didn’t walk in and tell Warner Bros, ‘Throw out that script, it’s horrible.’ It was, ‘With all due respect, we don’t want to do an origin story.’”
When Brett Ratner left Superman to, ironically enough, step into Bryan Singer’s shoes to direct the third X-Men film, Singer could consider the Superman project as a real possibility, rather than a ‘what if?’ scenario. “[When] Brett fell out,” Singer recalls, “Warner Bros said they were willing to wipe away ten years of development costs and fifty minutes of pre-visualization, art direction, drawings and designs and models and costume tests — an extraordinary amount of development work.” In their place would be yet another new approach: Superman Returns, Singer’s ‘pseudo-sequel’ to Donner’s Superman and Superman II. It was a testament to the level of trust the studio put in the director of the two X-Men movies. “It’s more than the financial loss,” Singer agrees, referring to the tens of millions of dollars in development money which had already accrued against the Superman project. “It’s the bravery it takes to say, ‘We were going in a direction for eleven years and by God it was all wrong, and we’re willing to go in this direction now.’ Whether they’re right or wrong, it takes courage to do that.” For his part, Ratner was relieved that the studio had decided to take yet another new approach. “If Bryan had made my script,” Ratner told Empire in 2007, “I would have felt like I’d failed. Everyone knows I’m not a quitter. Everyone was like, ‘If Brett Ratner can’t do it, it’s never gonna happen.’ Bryan found a way to do it within the budget.”
Released in the summer of 2006, Superman Returns was not, ultimately, the enormous hit Warner had always hoped for. Its $52 million opening was barely half that of the same summer’s X-Men: The Last Stand, although the final US gross, a shade over $200 million, fell only $34 million short of the X-Men threequel’s final US earnings. Given that Superman Returns was effectively the first film in a new franchise, it could be argued that a comparison with 2005’s Batman Begins ($205 million US, $371 million worldwide) is fairer. However, Singer’s Superman film was closer to what Peters had called “hope and light”, rather than dark and scary, like Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Spider-Man, released in 2002, had grossed over $400 million in the US, and $891 million worldwide — exactly half a billion dollars more than Superman Returns, which, with an estimated budget of $275 million including development costs, various ‘pay or play’ deals and other above-the-line expenditure, is unlikely to make its money back, even after home video, merchandising and other ancillaries are factored in. Nevertheless, the studio seemed pleased to finally get a new Superman off the ground, more than a decade after the project was announced.
Harris, for one, believes that, after all of the various false starts over the preceding years, the studio ultimately made the right decision. “I haven’t read all of the other drafts,” he says, “but I think that, because they were changing major parts of Superman lore or the lexicon, a little part of the studio that was unsure about that prevented the final push. These movies are really big and really hard to make,” he adds, “and I think everybody needs to be in it a hundred and fifty per cent or else they’re not gonna happen. If the studio or the film-makers are only feeling ninety per cent, it’s never gonna get over the hump. So as brilliant and interesting as it would be to see a Tim Burton movie with Nicolas Cage, it’s scary to a lot of people too, and that fear is maybe what let it not get made. And then we came along with a story that was pretty traditional, and yet contemporizes it, and yet doesn’t change anything about Superman, lets the icon be the icon but puts him in a place we’ve never seen before… maybe it was just the right story for everybody. As a fan and as a film-maker I’d love to see all those other versions, but I know that as a property and as an icon there can only be one that the studio moves forward on.”
“I think it helped that Bryan had two superhero films under his belt already, so they trusted the talent behind it,” Dougherty says of the decision to back Singer’s scratch-built story after a decade in development hell. “Also, and not to pat ourselves on the back too much, but I think our take, or our pitch, was so different than what had come before. [The studio] thought it was different and original, but in our minds it was how it had to be, the way it should be. I think most of the previous attempts were origin stories retracing his journey from Krypton,” he adds. “I think Kevin Smith’s was the only one that wasn’t about the origin. But they were all, from what I know, vastly different from what Donner had done. I don’t wanna say they were betrayals of Donner, but I think what’s really interesting about the Superman legend and the character is that each incarnation in its own way pays tribute to the one that came before it, and it does so with an amount of respect for the source material. And I felt that the previous attempts were so different that they almost forgot about their ties to the legacy and the history of the character, kind of like ‘We’re going to try so hard to be different, we’re going to go in this direction.’”
Singer suggests that the reason it took so long for Superman to take flight may be simple: that it’s easier not to make the film, than to back the wrong version. “Maybe,” he suggests, “it took twenty years to have the faith to put a significant budget behind a new Superman movie, because when you do it, you’ve done it. You can’t undo it.”
Reprinted from The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made by David Hughes