From Vision to Film: Superman Returns

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Welcome to the second edition of FlixChatter’s From-Vision-t0-Film series. Have you ever seen a film and then wonder what would happen if they were done differently? Well, in Hollywood, about 70% of films that they produced had different visions initially.

This post is courtesy of special guest blogger Ted Saydalavong, a movie trivia aficionado who shares my affinity for superhero movies. If you haven’t read Ted’s first post on Batman Begins, you can check it out here. Now, here’s an in-depth look of how Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns finally took flight:

Way back the mid-90s Warner Bros. wanted to reboot their Superman franchise, so they decide to hire Kevin Smith (hot off his first film Clerks) to write a script for the new version of The Man of Steel. Smith, a self-proclaim super comic book super geek, was hired to write a screenplay based on The Death of Superman comic book series where Superman was killed and came back. The screenplay was titled Superman Lives. After he finished script, he showed it to the studio executives and they loved it. But the producer of the film, Jon Peters, hasn’t read it yet. Around this time, Peters was still a powerful producer, he made a lot of money for Warner Bros. He was the producer of Tim Burton’s Batman, so he has the final say if the new Superman film is a go or not.

So Smith met with Peters and Peters said he loved the script, but he wanted to add a sidekick for the villain Brainiac and that the story must include a giant robot spider for no good reason what so ever. (The giant robot spider did appear in a film that Peters produced, the awful Wild Wild West.) So anyways, Smith said he’ll re-write the script to include a sidekick and giant spider robot. Now this is where things got complicated, Peters brought on Tim Burton to the project. Burton like Smith’s script but decided he wanted to change a few things. He told Peters that there won’t be a sidekick or a giant robot spider, since Burton is a big shot, Peters didn’t object. By now Kevin Smith was practically kicked to the curb and he was out of the project. He begged the studio to let him meet with Burton so he can explain how he had envisioned the new Superman, but Burton just refused to meet with him and he already brought in his own writers. If you want to listen Kevin Smith talk about his involvement with this project, see it below, it’s quite funny:

So now with Burton on board, everyone is happy since he already made two very successful Batman films. The script has been approved by the studio, Burton’s next task was to cast the new Man of Steel and his choice was quite surprising. Burton’s one and only choice for the new Superman was Nicholas Cage. Remember, this was a time when Cage was on top of the world – he recently won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and his three big action films The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off made quite a bit of cash at the box office. He confirmed that he was going to be the new Superman on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno while promoting Face/Off. He even told Jay that he won’t be wearing a cape in the new version of Superman.

A Japanese Tim Burton fan site actually leaked a test photo of the actor in the red and blue suit

Also, if you do some hard searching online, you might find a poster of Superman Reborn, Warner had scheduled the film to be release on June of 1998 to celebrate the studio’s 75th anniversary. I remember seeing the poster in movie theaters in the summer of 1997; the poster has a big red S and the word Reborn Next Summer on it. The rest of cast would have included Cameron Diaz as Lois Lane, Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor (rumor has it that Burton asked Jack Nicholson to play Lex but Jack didn’t want to play another big name villain since he already played the Joker) and Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen.

With casting in place, Burton and company was about to start principal photography, but the studio executives had some concerns about the budget. They had green-lit the project for $100 mil, however, in the script the first big action sequence in the film will cost at least $30 mil to shoot. So they asked Burton and his writers to re-write the script and tone down some of the big action set pieces to save some money. By then the film couldn’t make the June of 98 release date because they had to re-write the script, so the studio pushed the date back to summer of 1999. The new script was handed in to the studio, and they still thought the budget would get out of control. Again they asked Burton to restructure the script, so now the release date got pushed again to Christmas of 1999. Well, in the fall of 1998, Warner Bros. then announced that they’ve decided to shut down the production of the new Superman film because of budget concerns. Burton had already left the project a few months prior so he can start working on Sleepy Hollow. In an interview back in 2006 around the time Superman Returns came out, Burton said he’d already made a new Superman film but he never got to shoot it. I think he spent like close to two years trying to get his version of Superman off the ground but couldn’t.

Supes possible helmers: Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, Wolfgang Petersen, Michael Bay, McG and Brett Ratner
Director Bryan Singer on the set of Superman Returns with Brandon Routh
Director Bryan Singer on the set of Superman Returns with Brandon Routh

In early 2000s, Warner decided to get the project back on the ground because comic book-based films have been making money left and right, Spiderman and X-Men films were raking in a lot of cash for other movie studios. The list of directors who came on board to try and tackle the project were Michael Bay, McG, Wolfgan Petersen and Brett Ratner. They even brought in J.J. Abrams to re-write to script, he basically threw out Kevin Smith and Tim Burton’s script and wrote his own version. In fact, the studio liked it so much that wanted to shoot his version with Brett Ratner as the director. Abrams’ version was basically another re-telling the origin of Superman. Ratner even hired Anothony Hopkins to play Supe’s father.

The reason why Abrams version never happened was that Ratner and the studio couldn’t agree on who should play the new man of steel. Rumor has it that Ratner wanted Josh Harnett while the studio wanted Brenda Fraser. Of course Ratner eventually left the project and then he got the gig to direct X-Men 3. This is when Singer pitched his version and the rest is history.

P.S. An interesting swap indeed, given that Bryan Singer’s the one who brought us X-Men, thereby launching the whole superhero franchise in Hollywood that continues until today.

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Well, what are your thoughts on the Superman Returns story?