From Vision to Film: Superman Returns


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.


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

34 thoughts on “From Vision to Film: Superman Returns

  1. Pingback: Hollywood News

  2. This is intersting stuff – I hadn’t realised that the latest Superman was 20 years in the making. I liked Singer’s version – of the many superhero films we’ve seen over the past 10 years it would rate as one of the better ones. But then again the field is pretty weak. However, I would love to see the Kevin Smith script brought to the screen – where would he find time for any action with all his long-winded arguments about pop culture?

    1. I like parts of Superman Returns, and I thought Brandon was pretty good as Supes (though he’s still no Chris Reeve, but who can ever top him??) I just didn’t like the story about the kid, it just got overly melodramatic by that point. I might be in the minority but I don’t care for Kevin Smith movies, so I’m actually glad he didn’t get the Superman gig. Tim Burton I can get by, so long as he’s got somebody else but Cage donning the red/blue suit!

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  4. Ted S.

    I’m just glad that the two biggest hacks in Hollywood, McG and Ratner never got to do the film. I enjoyed Singer’s take on the film but I would love to have seen Smith and Burton’s version. Hopefully Nolan and Goyer can finally bring us a Superman film that everyone can enjoy.

    1. He…he… tell us how you really feel about McG and Ratner, Ted 🙂 But I agree, they should never touch this franchise. It’s enough that they’ve got Terminator and X-Men respectively, which are both much lesser versions of the original! There’s rumor that Jon Nolan (Chris’ brother) might direct the next Supes, not sure how much credibility that story is though.

    1. Hello sis! Better zzzz than blech! 🙂 Neither one is the kind of reaction you want from watching my beloved superhero movie.

    1. He..he.. I wish I could find a different pic of him from Inception, it’s kinda like the first time I noticed Gerry Butler more than 5 years ago and it was scarce to find any decent photo of him!

  5. Darren

    Great article. Poor Supes. At least he didn’t end up wrestling a giant spider. Still, the character deserves better – hopefully Nolan’s reboot will give him the comeback he deserves and so sorely needs.

    1. I know! That is just ludicrous, glad to see the spider ends up in the abysmal WWW instead, it’s already horrid without it anyway. Isn’t it amazing that Nolan ends up revitalizing both of DC’s major comic characters? I hope he goes with an unknown for Supes, just like Richard Donner casting Christopher Reeve.

  6. I love that pic of Nic Cage Ruth, somehow that doesn’t feel either strange or surprising. Anyone else and it would but since National Treasure and Sorcerer’s Apprentice nothing phases me as far as Mr Cage is concerned.

    1. Yeah well, nothing fazes me about Cage anymore, his movie choices have been perplexing to say the least. That pic is just disturbing for a Supes fan like me… glad that project never got off the ground!

  7. Sean C

    I gotta say that looking at the project beginnings, the directors, the scripts and so on, Superman Returns was doomed from the start. The final film was terrible, and I believe Peters has been taken off any subsequent Superman projects.

    Superman never punches anybody, he’s emo, and he’s dull as dish water.

    SR was terrible, and it became obvious that Bryan Singer never read a single Superman comic, knows nothing about Superman, and should never have made the final film.
    He basically rehashed the original Superman film, minus the action scenes, minus the clever dialogue and good acting, and minus any sense of dread, threat, or interest.
    Its too dark, also, and the central cast are far too young. Lois Lane as a 23 year old reporter, with a 7 year old son. Superman is 26. It’s just all wrong.

    Everything that is wrong about comic book movies is in that final film.

  8. Shempie

    SR was terrible. The script was stupid, Routh was too much a sissy to play Superman. The giant kryptonite island and Superman is carrying it? What a cringe inducer the whole thing was… I realize it takes a lot to match what Christopher Reeves and Gene Hackman brought to the original, but for god’s sake it seems like they didn’t even try on this one. Another Hollywood money grab at the expense of a great character/franchise. Typical Hollywood.

  9. booberry

    That picture of nicolas cage was debunked as a photoshop job of his head over an action figure months and months ago.

  10. Beks

    Wow I didn’t realize it had been such a trial to get a new Superman movie off the ground.

    Burton or Smith’s versions would have been interesting I’m sure… but Nicholas Cage as Superman, I think that might be too weird. Thank goodness McG, Bay and Ratner fell to the wayside in the end… because whatever they would have done would have been completely brainless.

    Well anyway, despite the naysayers… and I may be just romantic and nostalgic but I really loved Singer’s Superman Returns. It was great… so there wasn’t an abundance of violence and verbal puns, so what? It’s still one of the better superhero movies out there I think.

    1. Yeah, it’s quite fascinating to hear Ted told the story to me in person that I had to ask him to put the history in writing. I don’t mind Superman Returns either, it was enjoyable in parts but as a whole I wasn’t impressed. I especially like the romantic scenes, such as this one: I think Brandon Routh was pretty decent considering the huge shoes to fill left by Christopher Reeve.

  11. Headrush

    Thank god Burton never got Superman. SR wasn’t very good but Burtons would have been worse. Ever movie he has done as the same feel to it and not one I think would be right for a Superman movie.

    1. I feel the same way, I mean Burton is a visionary but I’m not too fond of his style and I certainly don’t want him to ‘rework’ Superman into his own weird vision. But I’m certainly glad Kevin Smith didn’t get it, that would’ve been awful!

  12. Glenn

    You should check out Kevin Smith’s thoughts about how Returns turned out on one of his live Q&A DVDs.

    He dislikes it as much as everyone else.

    1. Sean C

      It’s on youtube. Emo Superman, I believe he calls it, and the massive plot holes are obvious to everyone.

      I mean, the ending of Superman 2 has him erase her mind with a kiss (Donner had shot his own ending, where Lois memory is never wiped, and she knows Clark is Superman). While they sleep together in Superman 2, it has long been established that Kryptonian DNA, and human DNA are not genetically compatible. Shows like Lois and Clark have even said that the chances of Clark and Lois having a child together are impossible. That is another problem with the film.

      Bryan Singer should have done some research before making the film, and would have found his ideas were all wrong. That is why his film is so weak.

  13. Sean C

    Umm…that pic of Nic Cage as Superman is not a real picture, someone has photoshopped his head onto a Superman action figure. You can even see the neck joint area where the head would turn. The costume , for example, and the proposed costume would have been black. Its a clever photoshop, but a photoshop.

    IF you look at this link here , you will see a suit with a similar design, and one which has a distinct similarity to the action figure. A little photshop painting would have sorted the rest out.

    1. Yup, that is correct. I’ll let Ted the blog writer answer in details but this is what he told me: “Oh yeah that photo of Cage was definitely a hoax. Tim Burton said his Superman won’t be wearing any cape since he wants to stay true to the comic book version. When Supe came back from the dead in the comic books, he wasn’t wearing a cape at the time”

      I only put that picture up as it was on the Tim Burton’s fan page and it goes to show how wrong Cage would be for the role!

    2. Ted S.

      Yeah that photo of Cage in Superman suit is fake. Cage even mentioned on The Tonight Show that he won’t be wearing a cape in the new Superman film and Burton himself said the same thing.

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