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Up, Up and Away

Newcomer Brandon Routh and director Bryan Singer Take the "Superman" Franchise to New Heights

The rude blare of a car horn interrupts a conversation with Krypton's most famous export. Did someone just honk at Superman?!

"He did!" Superman confirms. "Hey, he just gave me the finger!" he adds, with wholesome incredulity, only to amend, "Oh my gosh! Two fingers!" (What does that even mean, swear-wise?) Meanwhile, the digit-waving motorist who has taken issue with the hero of our story can be heard in the background cursing a blue streak.

"Did we do something wrong, Sherry?" Brandon Routh, who plays Superman in the Bryan Singer-helmed "Superman Returns," asks his sister (who's doing the driving) in a gee-whiz Clark Kent soundalike delivery that comes naturally to the Iowa native.

"I certainly don't know. He wasn't very nice," Routh remarks evenly regarding the altercation. "He's having a bad day. But that's okay. He can have a bad day. He's not going to ruin my day any."

One might wish Superman had turned his heat vision on the obnoxious lout, or picked up his car and hurled it into the atmosphere. But that just wouldn't be true to the nature of the original purveyor of Truth, Justice and the American Way. And Routh appears to embody those ideals so closely it's as if... well, as if he were hand-picked from thousands of hopefuls, which of course is exactly how it works.

"The character has to look and feel and seem as though he stepped out of your collective consciousness of who Superman is, which for most people is a combination somewhere between the comic, the George Reeves character and the Christopher Reeve character," says director Bryan Singer, who segues from the "X-Men" franchise to bring the ultimate superhero back to the bigscreen. "Brandon for me embodied all those aspects in his talents, his personality and his physical presence."

The moment Routh learned he got the part "wasn't completely shocking," he says. "It was a long process for me, getting cast -- about a six or seven months. And for the last month of it, I had a very, very, very strong feeling that I was going to be cast. So it wasn't totally surprising. But it was a huge, huge sense of relief. And I called my mom and she screamed and cried. [My family and friends] were all very excited. It was just nice to finally not have to keep it secret anymore. Because I felt like I knew that it was going to happen, but I couldn't tell anyone."

Routh's family celebrated by wearing their pride on their sleeves -- literally. "My family has been collecting Superman stuff full-throttle -- tons of clothes. T-shirts, belt buckles, hats -- pretty much anything they can get their hands on. There's a huge influx of Superman apparel in Norwalk, Iowa."

Routh, who had the Superman cape, pajamas and even Underoos as a child, acknowledges that he drew from Christopher Reeve's characterizations in the Richard Donner-directed films of 25 years ago, but notes that the homage is "not even necessarily a conscious decision. What I mean by that is Chris did such a great job in his portrayal of both Clark and Superman, and his portrayal, I believe, is based -- whether he knew it or not -- on George Reeves, Kirk Alyn -- everybody else who played Superman before him. All the cartoons of Superman. The comics of Superman. It's a layered effect, so that each new incarnation of Superman is somehow based on the one before it. So that of course mine is Chris' and everybody else's, and I think that's what's great about the character, because it grows with whoever's creating it."

Everyone has their favorite version of Superman. Is there any way to please everybody? "That's the kind of thing I learned from juggling the 'X-Men' franchise," says Singer. "You have fans of the early 'X-Men' comic, you have fans of the evolution of X-Men of the '80s, the animated series of the '90s, and people who still read the comic in the new millennium. So you're constantly balancing back and forth. Basically, the character has a certain essence. There are certain things you don't [mess with]: He has a red cape and an S and a blue suit, and you work your way from there, item by item, deciding what's worth meddling with and what's not. But in the end, everything you're doing is to serve the story that you're telling at that given time. So I do my best to be aware of these various camps and their various opinions, but at the same time, I'm very much servicing the story that I'm telling."

That story is set shortly after the 1978 Richard Donner "Superman" (Singer's personal favorite). "Superman has left the planet Earth to do a bit of soul-searching, and he returns after five years to find the world's moved on a little bit. And Lois Lane has moved on a bit. She has a fiancé and a child, and he's now faced with the dilemma of rediscovering his place in a changed world.

"It's mostly a story about what happens when old boyfriends come back into your life," he oversimplifies with a laugh.

How could Lois (played by Kate Bosworth) ever love another? "I tried to think of what kind of obstacle is insurmountable besides kryptonite. And I created this dilemma, this family dilemma, which is about the only thing I could think of that truly has no solution for Superman. Because, you know, Superman is not in the habit of offing fiancés and stealing children."

While this is something of a "modern dilemma," as Singer terms it, the film will still have a classic feel. "The design of the picture is very much an homage to the '38 action comics. It's very deco. It almost feels like a period piece, but it does take place in current times. By combining design and architecture from the '30s and '40s, but telling the story in a modern setting, in my hope it's created a timelessness, and grounds the film in a traditional sense. So it's a traditional romantic picture, but using the most state-of-the-art technology."

In addition to troubles with his love life, Superman will have to deal with other pressing dilemmas, namely arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, played by Kevin Spacey. (Singer unintentionally winks to the reunion with his "Usual Suspects" star in a "Superman Returns" a lineup scene. "I [didn't do it consciously] -- it's just how I lined them up," Singer says. "Hopefully no one will get on my case too hard about it. But we had fun joking about it on the day.")

Where is Spacey on the Lex Luthor scale, from Gene Hackman's somewhat hammy take in the '70s and '80s films to Michael Rosenbaum's conflicted incarnation in "Smallville" to the stock supervillain megalomaniac of the comics? "He has the same sense of humor and whimsy as Hackman had, but there's a darker element that rears its head as the film moves into its third act," says Singer.

Routh got a glimpse of that dark element on a regular basis, thanks to Spacey's Method-acting technique. "The first day Kevin was on the set, he was wearing a hat and a trenchcoat, a little bit in disguise. He came up, and we just said a few words, and it was like it was already on, the Superman/Lex duel. I got the sense from him that he was always in Lex mode a little bit, and I was always a little bit in Superman mode."

As for their onscreen dynamic, Routh points out that "in the film, we don't meet up too much, because if Superman was near Lex all the time, you know, he'd take care of him. So you can't have too many confrontations."
Perhaps an even bigger threat to Superman than Lex is backlash from ultra-fans who have rigid ideas about the Man of Steel. Can "Superman Returns" bring all the camps together?

"Oh, I think so. I think the film we've made is a great Superman film. Sure, I understand people have their favorites. But I would trust that any real Superman fan would just be happy enough that there's a film being made that, in my opinion, is a pretty amazing thing that so many people have come together to make. I think people would just put that aside for a few hours and take the ride.

"Superman should cross every boundary. There should be no enemies in the world of Superman fans. It's ridiculous. It stands against everything that Superman stands for."

In other words, devotees unite, and stay tuned for another exciting episode of... "Superman"!

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