The Warner Bros. corporate jet was ready three weeks ago to fly from the Burbank airport to Hawaii, then on to Australia. The passenger list was headed by the director who calls himself McG, tapped to turn a long-delayed "Superman" movie into a multiplex reality.
To save $30 million from the film's already steep budget, the studio wanted "Superman" shot in Australia. A summer 2006 "Superman" premiere seemed possible. But like so many attempts to revive the Man of Steel, the jet never got off the ground.
For reasons that are still in dispute, McG refused to get on the plane, the trip was canceled, and Warner Bros. was soon in search of yet another "Superman" director. After 10 years, four directors and nearly a dozen screenwriters, the studio Sunday said it was going back to square one with yet another director and a pair of new writers.
Hollywood has been cranking out comic-book stories at a staggering clip, and the gigantic profits generated by runaway hits such as the "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" films have motivated nearly every studio to sift through its comic-book collection and jump-start its own superhero stories. Sony Corp.'s Columbia Pictures is fast at work on another "Spider-Man" sequel, News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox is filming "The Fantastic Four," and Warner itself will release "Catwoman" on Friday.
Yet as easy as it might first appear to turn illustrated panels into a movie, adapting a beloved comic book can be a painstaking process, sometimes no less difficult than the most ambitious Academy Award-worthy endeavor. During the decade that Warner, a Time Warner Inc. unit, has spent trying to adapt "Superman," there have been so many storytelling and budgetary dead ends that the studio has sunk at least $20 million (perhaps as much as $40 million) into the project, without a foot of film to show for it.
"When you go down the road with movies that are this expensive, you have to believe in the people, in the process and in the direction you are taking," said Jeff Robinov, president of production for Warner Bros. Pictures. "And honestly, we have not been comfortable."
One reason "Superman" has been hard to get aloft is because the character doesn't have the kind of edgy appeal of a Batman or the "X-Men" crew. He's an old-fashioned do-gooder, sort of a nerdish superhero. Because several movies have already told his story, there's also a lot of cinematic baggage that must be reworked. At one point along the way, one of the producers didn't want Superman to fly or wear his familiar costume.
The studio has yet to settle on an actor to play Clark Kent and his faster-than-a-locomotive alter ego, although those considered include Nicolas Cage, Josh Hartnett, Ashton Kutcher and a raft of unknowns.
Warner's struggles on "Superman" are particularly noteworthy, not only because the studio has excelled at making self-perpetuating franchise films such as "Harry Potter" and "The Matrix" but also because very few movies go through these kinds of machinations and still get made.
The studio bought the film rights to "Superman" from producer Alexander Salkind in 1993 and a year later hired Jonathan Lemkin ("The Devil's Advocate") to write a script, which he called "Superman Reborn." In Lemkin's imagining, Superman dies on Page 15, while his "life force" is transferred to Lois Lane, who becomes pregnant with a child who must age exponentially to save mankind.
Greg Poirier ("Rosewood") was then brought on to rewrite Lemkin's draft. "I still like my script. I think they should just dust it off and shoot it," Poirier said. "But the thing has been through so many permutations, it's hard to keep up."
By the late 1990s, Poirier's script had been rewritten by Kevin Smith ("Clerks"). "It was such an eye-opener," Smith said. "I learned so much about how studio movies get made or, in this case, how they don't get made." Smith said producer Jon Peters told him not only that Superman couldn't fly or wear his old costume but that he had to battle a giant spider. Peters declined to comment.
Tim Burton was hired to direct, but after the studio's expensive flops "Sphere" and "The Postman," Warner canceled his $140-million version, even though it meant paying the director and his star, Cage, millions to settle their contracts.
For several years, the studio toyed with making a "Batman vs. Superman" movie. But the studio's top executives were divided over that dark film's commercial prospects, and it was eventually shelved.
The studio subsequently hired "Charlie's Angels" director McG (whose real name is Joseph Nichol) to direct a pure "Superman" story, with J.J. Abrams (TV's "Alias") writing the script. But once again the project was thrown into uncertainty when McG left to make the sequel "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle." Warner ultimately hired Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour") to replace him. Filming was set to commence in spring 2003, but after a budget dispute (one price tag surpassed $200 million) and a casting disagreement, Ratner left the movie.