Superman: Icon in American Pop Culture

Since making his comic book debut in 1938, “Superman” has remained an indelible figure in world culture and a universal symbol of humankinds ideal. Superman was the first to come from another planet and embody a lot of things that we, as human beings, dream about being able to do, primary among them being the ability to fly. But theres also his super-strength, his ability to see through anything, and his sense of goodness. That lack of ambiguity is very appealing, and it has stayed the course throughout the 70 years of Supermans history.

The character went on to be featured in a newspaper strip which ran for more than three decades and today continues to entertain millions of fans each month in DC Comics comic books distributed worldwide through 25 languages in over 40 countries. On the big screen, the Man of Steel first appeared in 1941 in 17 groundbreaking animated shorts produced by the famous Fleischer Studios, along with two live action serials. Since then, the character has starred in five feature films, numerous successful series for television and 35 titles on video and DVD. The first feature film was 1951s “Superman and the Mole-Men,” starring George Reeves, which kicked off the subsequent television series.

Global Super Hero

Theres not a country you can go to where they dont know Superman, says director Bryan Singer, who first gained attention with the noir thriller The Usual Suspects before going on to direct the blockbusters X-Men and X2. You could probably take the S shield into the jungle and youll have fifty-fifty recognition. In that way hes a global Super Hero.

The combination of his virtue, his indestructibility and his ability to fly is what makes him so appealing to me and so many other people, Singer says. To do the right thing, to be able to take on anything that comes at you and to be able to soar up into the sky. We all have imagined at some point in our lives what it would be like to be him.

First Encounter

The first contemporary feature film, Richard Donners Superman: The Movie, starring the late actor Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel and film legend Marlon Brando as his father, Jor-El, was released in 1978. Singer first saw the film with his mother at a rural New Jersey theater on opening weekend. I loved it, he remembers. It brought the character to such amazing life and yet it had a very nostalgic quality but at the same time was very contemporary. It mixed eras effortlessly.

Superman legacy in changing times

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 Singer. I think the Superman legacy is less about change than it is about evolution. Sure, he has battled different villains and there have been countless permutations of his costume over the years. Certainly in this movie hes dealing with an incredible amount of change after being gone for five years. Yet one thing remains constant: His inherent trait to use his special abilities to lead by example and to do good for the world.

Superman has served generations as both a reminder of the potential for greatness within humankind, and a powerful savior everyone could believe in. In Donners Superman: The Movie, Brandos Jor-El posthumously tells his son whom he has sent to live amongst humans on Earth that human beings are capable of greatness; they only lack the light to show the way.

Singers Superman Returns is the spiritual descendent of Superman: The Movie and Superman I, utilizing elements of Marlon Brandos performance as Jor-El. The choice to do a kind of sequel to Donners film has given flexibility and confidence to move things forward. The filmmakers felt that everyone, whether they realize it or not, knows the origin story, everyone knows who Superman is to different degrees. Hence, they decided to simply continue that story.

Personal film

Singer has always felt an emotional affinity for the character and had a precise vision of where he wanted to take the Super Hero in this film. Superman and I share the fact that we were both adopted, he says. I was an only child and he was an only child. For those very basic reasons, I have always felt a real connection to him and that is why he is my favorite Super Hero. That is why it was so important for me to tell my Superman story my way.

Upon first hearing Singer’s story, producer Jon Peters says he got “goose bumps,” immediately feeling he was right on the money with his contemporary, emotional, action-packed love story that hits all the bases they wanted in a Superman movie.

Wearing identities

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.

According to Singer, Kal-El, whom the Kents named Clark, is very much a product of his upbringing. 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.

Casting Brandon Routh

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 yet from the beginning he was intent on casting an unknown actor. 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.

Months of searching yielded a tape of an undiscovered actor who had auditioned for a previous Superman film in development at Warner. Twenty-six-year-old Brandon Routh had been one of those kids in Superman pajamas flying around his childhood home in Norwalk, Iowa. Even on his audition tape, Singer saw in Routh qualities that extend beyond his uncanny physical resemblance to Superman. Just talking to him I got a sense of his mid-western upbringing and all the classic ideals that come from that sort of childhood, which are the same kinds of ideals that Superman embodies, Singer says. Then, of course, there is his physical presence. He looks like he walked off a page in the comic book. Pretty much at that point, he became my first and only choice because I felt confident he could handle all three roles Kal-El, Clark Kent and Superman.

Writing the villain for Spacey

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 Award (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.

Kate Bosworth

To portray the embodiment of a character almost as universally known as Superman himself, Singer needed a young actress that could bring to bear both Loiss trademark intelligence and wit and also the added layers of growth and hardening that has come with her years of waiting for Superman.

The answer came by way of Singers friend and collaborator Kevin Spacey. In 2004, Spacey directed and starred in a biographical film about 1950s singer Bobby Darin that co-starred Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee. I was lucky enough to see an early screening of Kevins Beyond the Sea and I was just blown away by Kates portrayal of Sandra Dee, Singer recalls. Kevin had told me she was terrific to work with so I had her come in and read with Brandon. It was pretty clear that they had a real immediate emotional connection and we all thought she would make a wonderful Lois Lane.

Parker Posey

“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.

State-of-art technology

Since the 1970s, when Richard Donner made Superman: The Movie, technology has advanced to levels that were merely daydreams of filmmakers in that era. With these great advances in camera and visual effects technologies, Bryan Singer believes that we all will believe again that a man truly can fly.

Singer and his team sought to first and foremost create the physics of the character and his universe. Brandon and I built up our own physical laws which became the directorial palette for the flying sequences, says Singer. For example, how much strain does it take to catch a plane in flight or when do you leap and when do you float What kind of hand motions does Superman use to navigate himself during flight Thanks to endless discussions between me, Brandon, all the stunt coordinators and flying teams and to technology itself, Brandon will fly like no other Superman ever could.

The state-of-the-art technology we used in making this film didnt even exist two years ago, Singer says. The progress made in the visual effects arena is just astounding. As opposed to a Super Hero like Spider-man, Supermans hair and face are exposed therefore his performance and personality are exposed even in flight.

Digital Genesis Camera

The filmmakers paid meticulous attention to detail to the physical shooting of Routh as well as the computer rendering, scanning and animation of the character in order to capture the reality of a man who can fly at will.

Perhaps the single most cutting edge piece of equipment used in making the film is the digital Genesis camera, a joint invention by Sony and Panavision. Superman Returns is the first feature length motion picture to be shot entirely with the Genesis camera system.

The idea of possibly being able to use the Genesis camera came about after I had cast Brandon in the role, recalls Singer. We did a screen test with the intended format of Super 35mm and, for the hell of it, we shot one on 70mm. When the film from both cameras was processed, we watched the 35mm first and then clicked projectors to the 70mm. The clarity, the depth, the sheer lack of grain of the 70mm was so exquisite that shown right next to the 35mm film it looked as if we had used bad stock or somethingthats how different the two formats looked.

So I started researching ways to shoot in 70mm, explains Singer, but I discovered very quickly that, for a million different reasons, it would be impractical and far too limiting in terms of camera mobility and film stock.

Around that time, Singers longtime cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel told him that Sony and Panavision had developed the new Genesis camera. At that time I think there was only one of them in L.A. so we shot one of Brandons early costume tests with it, Singer recalls. Then we started what had to be one of the most comprehensive comparison tests ever done. Using the Genesis, we shot tests outside in soft light, warm light, night, midday, evening, morning, interiors, costumes, hair and makeup, you name it. Then just Tom and I sat in a theatre looking at all the tests and from those comparisons, we made the decision together to attempt to shoot the entire film with the Genesis system.

It was only a matter of time before more cameras were built for use on Superman Returns. By the time we needed them in Australia, I believe we had one or two, says Singer. A couple of months into shooting, we had eight or ten at our disposal. Although both Singer and Sigel admit that the Genesis provided many technical challenges, they couldnt be happier with the end result.