Superman (2006): Kevin Spacey’s Villain

He is the ultimate capitalist. Hes got wide-ranging, hugely complicated evil plans. But at the end of the dat, it’s really basic. He just wants his cut.
Kevin Spacey on Lex Luthor, the villain

In times of rapid change, whether cultural, industrial or technological, Superman has steadfastly stood for truth, justice and all that is good. The world in 1941 was much different than the world of 1978, which is much different than the world today, says director Bryan Singer.

Indeed, American societythe whole world–has changed so drastically in the last thirty years, since Richard Donners first Superman picture. But have the new films characters changed to reflect the zeitgeist The answer is yes and no. Yes in regards to the hero, and no in regards to the villains, which are cardboard and stereotypical even by standards of comic strip movies.

After watching the new movie in a sneak preview, I felt that though Singer delivers the basic goods and has succeeded in reenergizing the popular film franchise that came to a halt with Superman IV, he and his writers have not managed to construct interesting villains. Its one of the major flaws of Superman Returns.

You may recall that the best things about the Batman film franchise were its villains, particularly in the first two films that were directed by Tim Burton. Who can forget Jack Nicholsons Joker in the first Batman slashing great art works. In Batman Returns, there were three idiosyncratic villains, who were far more intriguing than the hero: Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), a greedy businessman, the Penguin (Danny DeVitto), a pathetic creature that never got over the fact that his parents had abandoned him, and the Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer at her kinkiest and sexiest)..

Villains usually add color, but in Superman Retunrs, Kevin Spaceys villain is so one-dimensional, so over-the-top that it doesnt generate any feeling but outright contempt and eagerness to destroy him. Ditto for his companion
Kitty, who has nothing to do but cling to her dog, and as good an actress as Parker Posey is, all shes given are a couple of semi-campy one-liners and reaction shots to Spaceys evil-doing.

Let me elaborate about the construction and casting of both characters, hero and villain.

The Hero

Kal-El, whom the Kents named Clark, is very much a product of his upbringing. Since mysteriously disappearing from Earth five years before, Superman has traveled to the far reaches of space in search of his past and traces of his family, or others like himself. But, finding a radioactive ruin where Krypton once stood, the man who was born Kal-El returns home, crash-landing back at the Kent farm in Kansas.

People always ask, which is the costume and which is the disguise says the director. But in reality both are identities he wears. Theres a bit of showmanship in being Superman, in the way you present yourself. And theres definitely a character in Clark, a charade hes putting on to make himself awkward and invisible. But the true Clark Kent is the man who was raised on the farm by Martha and Jonathan Kent. I never wanted to lose that. Even at points when he is awkward Clark, the foundation of Superman is how the character was raised on the farm.

Singer needed an actor who could embody all the qualities of Kal-El, Clark Kent and Superman, who could handle the rigorous physical and emotional demands of the role, and who would be a worthy successor to the late Christopher Reeve. And his decision to cast an unknown actor is sound and pays off.

However daunting that task may have been to fill the boots of Christopher Reeve, the actor to play Superman couldnt have the baggage of being a movie star, says Singer. I needed someone who represented and looked like the collective memory we all have of Superman.

Richard Donner, who initially cast Reeve, faced the same challenge in 1978. Whoever plays Superman, says Donner, needs to bring to life the son of Jor-El. Hes got to bring reality and purity to this character. Hes got to then evolve into a Super Hero. If in any way he is tainted with past references, it would be a major mistake. Bryan faced the same conundrum. The moment you associate the actor with another role, you lose the character. To make a man fly and believe it, it had to be an unknown then, and I think today its even more true.

The problem with the character as it is written and played by Brandon Routh is that there is not much difference between his identities in looks as well as conduct. Rouths youth and boyishness are a plus, but he is not nearly as funny as Christopher Reeve was, and we miss the humor.

The Villains

Unlike the casting of Superman, finding a man to play his diabolically brilliant nemesis took no time at all. Singer directed Kevin Spacey to his first Oscar (for Best Supporting Actor) for his performance as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects. We wrote the character with Kevin in mind, says Singer. Ever since The Usual Suspects, we had been looking for something to do together and he is extremely perfect for the role. He has just the right blend of humor and cynicism and, of course, he is simply a brilliant actor.

The most challenging aspect of casting Spacey was finding a break in his intensive schedule on the London stage. With all of his work at the Old Vic in London, we were forced into a very confined amount of time for him to be in Australia, says Singer. I think we had just six weeks with him and we shot everything we needed to and got him back to London in time for his next project there.

It was a fantastic shoot and a lot of fun, says Spacey. Bryan and I had a wonderful experience making this movie and an extraordinary experience making The Usual Suspects. It was so enlightening to see how much he has advanced as a filmmaker in the last ten years.

The two-time Oscar winner (his second award, for Best Actor, was for his performance as Lester Burnham in American Beauty) describes his Lex as much darker, bitter and out for revenge but still with a comic flair. He is the ultimate capitalist. Hes got wide-ranging, hugely complicated evil plans. But at the end of the day, its really basic. He just wants his cut.

Lex has spent the last five years in prison, but is released when Superman misses his parole hearing. For his emergence from prison he has arranged a means to a lifestyle in the form of heiress Gertrude Vanderworth (played by Noel Neill, the woman who originated the role of Lois Lane in the first two screen serials in the 1940s and reprised the role in the 1950s television series with George Reeves, replacing Phillis Coates. Gertrude, after whom he names his state-of-the-art yacht, will soon make Lex a very rich widower.

Lex has gone through so many changes and feels that he has been so betrayed that he is now out for revenge, Spacey describes. He has been away for a while and Superman has been away for a while, and Lex has a remarkable plan for when they come back together that, of course, involves real estate. As a character, Lex Luthor has always been about property.

In addition to all the familiar characters, Superman Returns introduces two new personae to the Super Heros universe: Lex Luthors sidekick Kitty Kowalski, played by Parker Posey; and Richard White, Perry Whites nephew and Loiss fiance, played by actor James Marsden.

Kitty Kowalski, while not a bad guy herself, has certainly fallen in with a few and gets more than she bargained for when she becomes a key player in the plot to destroy Superman. Kitty loves the lifestyle that Lex can offer her, says Posey, the star of such indie films as Personal Velocity, Best in Show and The House of Yes. She also loves the humor and even the deviousness of Lex, Posey continues. But the whole experience definitely becomes more serious and grave than Kitty ever imagined, and she ends up clinging for her life to this little inherited dog.

Parker brings incredible dimensions to Kitty, who is spiritually related to the first and second films Miss Tessmacher, says Singer. And like Tessmacher, Parkers Kitty is both fun and cheeky and a great foil for Lex, but Kitty also has somewhat of a conscience, which Lex definitely doesnt have.