Surely they're not going to kill Superman. Inside a soundstage in Sydney, Australia, Brandon Routh, as the Man of Steel, crawls across a black, wet wasteland, pursued by the evil Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) and Luthor's three henchmen. One of the thugs grabs Superman by his hair and shoves his face into a dark puddle, holding the hero's head underwater as he struggles for air. Luthor strides up behind Superman, stabs him in the back with some sort of Kryptonite shiv and whispers a sentence so horrifying (and, for now, top secret) into his ear that Superman cries out in agony. He staggers to his feet, stumbles and topples backward over a cliff. Luthor walks to the edge, looks down into the abyss and sneers, "So long, Superman." Playing this scene just once would be rough. Routh will be beaten and tormented for hours. "He's very heroic normally," says director Bryan Singer, sipping an iced vanilla latte. "You just happened to catch him on a bad day."
By the time "Superman Returns" lands in theaters next summer, it will have taken Warner Bros. 11 torturous years to get the movie off the ground. At one point in the mid-1990s, Tim Burton was going to direct Nicolas Cage as the man in tights. The next big plan was "Superman vs. Batman," directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Then, a few years ago J. J. Abrams, creator of the shows "Alias" and "Lost," chipped in a "Superman" script that whipped up a frenzy around the lot. It was teeming with huge action sequences, but altered the Superman myth. (In Abrams's version, the planet Krypton survived.) Director McG was dying to direct it, but couldn't because he had committed to make "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle." Brett Ratner signed on, but tussled with the studio over the budget--at one point it was estimated at more than $200 million--and left after six months. McG then stepped back in to direct, but location became a problem. By shooting in Australia, the studio could shave about $30 million off the budget. McG refused to fly, so the studio showed him the door.
Meanwhile, Bryan Singer was coming off his second "X-Men" movie for Twentieth Century Fox, and gearing up for a third. Years earlier he had passed on the Abrams script because he had his own idea for a "Superman" movie, if he ever got the chance to direct one. Now, with the job open again, he decided to take the leap, even though it would mean burning a bridge with Fox. At a dinner at studio chief Alan Horn's house last summer, Singer pitched his vision for "Superman": the Man of Steel has vanished for five years, then returns to Earth to find that the world is a different place and that his love Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a 4-year-old son and a fiance (James Marsden). It's unclear which man is the boy's father, and Lois doesn't exactly give Superman a hero's welcome. She writes a story in the Daily Planet that includes the line "The world doesn't need a savior. And neither do I."
Until, that is, Lex Luthor takes another stab at world domination. "On an external level, the movie's about how an idealistic superhero functions in the modern world," Singer says, sitting in his trailer on the Sydney lot. "But it ultimately becomes a story about what happens when an old boyfriend comes back into your life, and about Superman trying to find a place in Lois Lane's world. I'm attempting to make a very emotional film. This is certainly the most romantic, and the funniest, movie I've made, and toward the end it gets a bit intense."
The atmosphere on set is surprisingly light. Spacey, with his head shaved for the role of Luthor, has turned his blue golf cart into the "Lexmobile." "This is Lex's Superbuster," Spacey says, giving a tour of the tiny vehicle. There are Kryptonite decals, like flames, on the sides. "We drove around the lot in it one day with a bullhorn, yelling 'Superman must die!'" On set, Singer and Spacey--who haven't worked together since Singer's film "The Usual Suspects" earned Spacey his first Oscar--joke around constantly. When Singer demonstrates how Spacey should arch his back when hit by debris, the actor observes his technique, then says, "I sense a little Brian Boitano in there."
As for Brandon Routh (rhymes with mouth), he does not get to play around much. The sunny, earnest 26-year-old, who hails from Iowa, has never made a film before; Singer found him on an old screen test done for McG. The role of Superman is, of course, dauntingly physical. Being strapped into flying harnesses takes more patience and endurance than you'd think--as does having your head shoved into a puddle repeatedly. Routh doesn't complain about any of this. You hear about how hard he's working only from other people. "Poor Brandon," says Parker Posey, who plays Luthor's girlfriend Kitty Koslowski. "He's got everyone touching him all the time. He's lying on his stomach and he's got five people coming up and pulling his underwear down, sticking their hands up the butt of his suit. I can't imagine what it's like." Well, what is it like? "I'm pretty OK with myself and with my space," Routh says, sitting in a "hot tent" between takes to keep warm. "I don't have special issues with people getting too close to my bubble."
Good thing, because his bubble's about to become public property. Once the skin-tight Superman suit was designed--mapped by computer to match Routh's physique--the actor couldn't gain or lose a pound until shooting was over. There was lots of early Internet buzz about the suit's being too dark, or the "S" 's being too small, but the biggest issue for the studio, according to costume designer Louise Mingenbach, was about Superman's trunks. Or, more specifically, what's in them. "There was more discussion about Superman's 'package' than anything else on the suit," she says, laughing. "Was it too big? Was it not big enough? Was it too pointy? Too round? It was somebody's job for about a month just working on codpiece shapes. It was crazy." And the final verdict? "Not big," she says, and laughs again. "Ten-year-olds will be seeing this movie."
So, no doubt, will a lot of other people when the movie opens on June 30. Still, after all the angst-ridden, conflicted heroes of recent years--Batman, Spider-Man, all of the X-Men--is Superman just too sincere, too simple, too good for modern audiences? Singer doesn't think so. "He's the ultimate immigrant," he says. "He represents what America is. We don't always get it right, but truth, justice--those are Superman's ideals." A little box office never hurts, either.