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'Superman Retruns' Offers A Traditional, Invulnerable Man Of Steel. But On Screen And Off, It's A Different Place For His Kind Of Heroics.

January 15, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Sydney, Australia

IN a secret corner of a warehouse here, the biggest star of one of the biggest movies of 2006 was hidden away all of last summer. Outside eyes were not welcome and sunlight was blocked out to avoid its aging effects. But on one rainy day in June, the star's keeper allowed a rare visit. "Not a lot of people get to see this," she said with a conspiratorial whisper as her key clicked open the lock.

Inside were 60 versions of a famous costume, all blue tights and red capes, but hardly identical. Some of the crimson capes were fashioned of silk twill (for just the right flutter during supersonic flying) while others came with boots of vinyl (better than leather during those seagoing adventures). More than a few featured a specially milled French wool that simply dazzles beneath a Metropolis sunset.

"This one here is a beauty cape," said Louise Mingenbach, the costume designer for "Superman Returns," "and with backlighting it's gorgeous ... the aura a hero deserves, don't you think?"

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 19, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Comic book convention -- An article in Sunday Calendar about the coming movie "Superman Returns" said the San Diego Comic-Con was held in August. It was in July.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 22, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Comic book convention -- An article last Sunday about the coming movie "Superman Returns" said that the San Diego Comic-Con was held in August. It was in July.

If the medium is the message, certainly fashion can be the film and costume can be character. That's never more true than with Superman. He's been the hero of comic books, radio, film, Broadway and television, and (with the notable exception of the TV hit "Smallville") the most powerful constant has been that signature costume. "Superman Returns" features notable actors (Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth and Parker Posey, with newcomer Brandon Routh in the title role), but undeniably, its star power is vested in the most famous uniform south of Santa's closet. Yes, after nearly two decades, Superman is back. Can't you hear it already? Look ... up in the sky....

The June release of "Superman Returns" will end a long, ugly and often ridiculous quest to relaunch the first and greatest superhero as a silver-screen venture. And a lot has happened since last we left our hero; the 1987 "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" was a poor final flight for the late Christopher Reeve, and in the years since a different sort of hero has filled the void. Costumed characters such as Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Incredibles not only made big box office, they also flipped the definitions of the genre. In temperament, Superman is essentially a big, blue Boy Scout -- but the heroes now in favor come wrapped in dangerous black leather, fight authority or wrestle with internal angst. Sometimes they even lose. All that keeps them down to earth, unlike the traditional and invulnerable Man of Steel.

The new edgy generation also comes in PG-13 films, but now Superman, like a Midwest candidate lauding family values, is expected to arrive at theaters as proudly PG. That rating gives it the rare "movie for all ages" status, but it also risks the dreaded eye-roll from teenagers, the constituency that clearly rules the summer movies.

So as strange as it is, the question that greets this ambitious $200-million revival of the 68-year-old champion of truth, justice and the American way is not "What took so long?" The question is: "Will this still fly?"


THE return of Superman has been building for 11 years -- or more precisely, it's been collapsing during that span. At one point, Nicolas Cage was set to wear the cape and Johnny Depp was tapped as Lex Luthor. Directors came and went -- Tim Burton, Wolfgang Petersen, McG and Brett Ratner among them. Scripts churned too, with wildly different plots (Superman dies, Superman turns evil, Superman fights Batman) and varying degrees of separation from the familiar mythology (Superman's home planet never really blew up, Superman wears a different costume, Superman can't fly).

All of it was a stab at securing the most powerful profit engine known to Hollywood: a magnetic, multiple-movie franchise that spans summer seasons. Warner Bros. could not let Superman languish. The problem was in the details of his return. Everybody wanted the old war horse to ride in new fashion.

"I don't want to sound critical, but some of the changes were, in a way, quite dangerous," said Guy Hendrix Dyas, production designer for "Superman Returns." "To ignore or explode the folklore may feel rewarding or bold for the person doing it, but you really risk treading on what's been done before. Bryan didn't want to do that."

Bryan is Bryan Singer, the man who finally ended up with the director's job for Superman's 21st century revival. His presence has been cheered by comic book fans, and with good reason. Singer directed the two "X-Men" movies that -- along with Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" films -- are credited with ushering in the modern maturity of superhero movies. Unlike Raimi, Singer was never a comics fan. But he passionately loved the 1978 "Superman" with Reeve. And his version is a valentine to that Richard Donner film.

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