Bryan Singer got hooked on Superman as a kid not by reading comic books, but by watching the campy black-and-white TV show with a pudgy George Reeves as the Man of Steel.
Singer, 40, says he wasn't so much attracted to the not-so-special effects as he was to the show's earnestness and the main character's honesty and integrity. As director of the highly anticipated Superman Returns, which opens Tuesday, Singer tried to bring those traits—and more—to his new film about his all-time favorite superhero.
Singer was so hungry to helm this project that he abandoned the successful X-Men franchise after directing that trilogy's first two films. He was on board to direct the third film, The Last Stand, but bolted when this super opportunity arose. In Superman Returns, the protagonist, who has disappeared without a trace for years, returns to Metropolis to find that the city has moved on without him—including Lois Lane, the love of his life, who now has a fiancé and a child. And Lex Luthor is still around, stirring up big trouble.
Though he calls himself a "secular Jew," Singer is keenly aware and appreciative of the Superman-as-Christ-figure mythology that has grown with the character through the decades. And though he didn't necessarily intend to make a "messianic movie," he hasn't shied away from such imagery either, especially in his choice to "resurrect" Marlon Brando's character—Jor-El, father to Kal-El/Superman—from the 1978 classic, starring Christopher Reeve in the title role.
Most tellingly, Singer chose to retain one key line of dialogue from that '78 film, the line where Jor-El tells his son, "Even though you've been raised as a human being, you're not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all—their capacity for good—I have sent them you, my only son."
Christianity Today Movies recently chatted with Singer via phone about his new movie, the messianic imagery, whether he's going to do a sequel—and the pudgy (but honest) George Reeves.
Why did you want to do this movie?
Bryan Singer: Cause I'm a huge Superman fan.
Bigger than an X-Men fan?
Singer: Yes. In fact, before I got involved with X-Men, I didn't even know what X-Men was. But I've been a fan of Superman since I was a kid.
A fan of the comic books, or the George Reeves TV show, or what?
Singer: The George Reeves TV show and reruns. I never actually read comics as a kid. I was more a fan of the TV show and its reruns.
So you became a fan of Superman watching pudgy George Reeves in a black-and-white TV show?
Singer: Yeah, well, when you're a kid, you kind of allow for … I mean, if you go back and watch some of the TV shows you grew up with, you probably find that some of the effects and scenes and sets don't quite hold up. But somehow your mind makes that leap when you're a kid and lets you kind of believe—as long as he does a few things that are convincing. I really enjoy the way George Reeves used to jump out of windows and land. He made it seem so effortless, and he played the character with such honesty, I kind of bought into it.
How old were you in '78 when the Christopher Reeve film came out?
How did if affect you?
Singer: I was very captivated. I was very emotionally affected by the duality of his character, by the awkwardness of Clark Kent. He reminded me very much of myself in high school—he couldn't get noticed. But as Superman, he was so captivating and charismatic with Lois Lane. I was very affected by how torturous it must have been for Clark to watch his own relationship—to watch Lois Lane fall deeper and deeper in love with his alter ego, and he has to watch it every day from a desk next to her in the office.
And I love the fact that he never lied. That's got something to do with the way he was brought up in the Midwest, and with his Kryptonian heritage and the sincerity of his father, Jor-El. And I'm adopted, like him. He's an only child, and I'm an only child. All of these things resonated with me.
The guys who created Superman were Jewish, so I don't think they intended him to be a Christ figure, but he seems to have kind of become that over the years?
Singer: I don't think Jesus … Well, I can't get into religious things, but um…
Well, you are talking to Christianity Today?
Singer: Well, yeah, that's true, so I guess it's going to come up! (Laughs) I think that it [Superman as Christ figure] is kind of a natural evolution, because he began as kind of a Moses figure, of the child sent by the parents down the river to fulfill a destiny.
Kind of as a liberator in response to Hitler and the Nazis?
Singer: Yes. The Second World War presented an interesting dilemma for the Superman creators, because he was a very much an inspirational figure for the troops—and yet even though he was so powerful, he did not simply go clean up the Nazi menace and solve all the problems in Europe. He helped out, but he primarily led by example. He stirred others; he inspired. He left the actual heroism to the real heroes, to the soldiers in the field and abroad, and in that way, he became this very inspiring figure.
And that, obviously, translates into these kinds of allegories, Christ being a natural one, because Superman's a savior. And even more so in my film, because he's gone for a period of time, and then he returns. For me to say that those messianic images don't exist in the movie would be absurd.
The 1978 film seemed to push the messianic imagery, especially with the Jor-El quote about sending "my only son."
Singer: "They can be a great people Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way." It's very powerful and very meaningful, that monologue and the other moment in the film where Kal-El's mother says, "He will be isolated alone," and Jor-El takes the crystal and places it into the ship and says, "He will not be alone. He will never be alone." Those two scenes resonated the strongest with me in the making of this movie, which is why I ultimately used Marlon Brando's voice and image.
As a Jewish guy, have you embraced this Christology/mythology, or do you see it as more than that, or what?
Singer: I grew up as a relatively secular Jewish kid in a Catholic neighborhood. I went to a Christian youth club as a kid, 'cause I liked the sports.
Mr. Ecumenical, huh?
Singer: It was very peculiar! And I had a Hindi friend, so I had some measure of exposure to multiple faiths. I have an aunt who's a born-again Christian; I wonder what kind of impression the film will make on her. I think it'll be obvious to her.
But when you grow up in a Judeo-Christian culture, these things find their way into your subconscious and your storytelling. So some of the imagery is, I think, unintentional, and some of it is very thought-out and celebratory. If I try to say, "Oh, I didn't know about that imagery," I'd sound like a fool—or like I was just being insincere.
In an action adventure film, if you don't care about the people that the action adventure is happening to, then the action adventure doesn't work as well. It's not as thrilling and meaningful. So, by calling upon certain romantic feelings, by calling upon certain spiritual feelings, by calling upon those thoughts and ideas and manifesting them in this kind of movie, it allows the audience to have a multiple of experiences besides just fireworks. For me, that's a very important part of the movie.
Obviously this was a very personal and emotional project for you. Was it also a spiritual experience in any way?
Singer: Uh, I think I have a spirituality that I keep very much to myself. I don't talk about it much, because I'm a filmmaker, I'm not a preacher (laughter)! I think spirituality exists in the movie, but I have my own [spirituality]. I pray in my own way, I guess you'd say.
Time magazine just wrote that your movie is "an action adventure that's as thrilling for what it means as for what it shows." What does it mean?
Singer: It means that humanity is more complex than people realize. Even for heroes, even as black-and-white as it is to be Superman, as idealistic and noble as that is, there's still depth and complexity to it. When people say they wish they were Superman, they don't really wish they were Superman. They wish they could do the things that Superman can do. But Superman, with that responsibility and that awareness of suffering—he's not able to have the thing he wants most, and that's a semblance of normal life and Lois Lane.
And there's something about legacies. I grew up watching The Courtship of Eddie's Father. My parents divorced when I was about 13, and I lived with my father for a year. I'm still very close with both my parents—they're terrific people—but I got very close to my father. And there's something about Superman's relationship to his father, and the notion of fathers and sons, that resonates very strongly with me in this movie. But it's hard for me to say what it means, you know? It's a movie; it means many things. Superman means many things to many people! But these are the things that resonated with me, that I enjoy.
There are a bunch of X-Men fans, but everybody loves Superman, even if they've never read the comics. If you had screwed up the X-Men movies, certainly some people would be upset. But if you screw up Superman … Well, you must be feeling the weight?
Singer: Yeah, tremendously. And I've dealt with that in two ways. One, I've had experience with some pressure and responsibility and skepticism when I made the first two X-Men films. I live with that, and I learned to balance it, and to not become too traumatically affected by it. For Superman, whenever I would get into a state of panic about the impression the character was going to make—which would be a daily state—I would just fall back on my own fan-ship for the character and say, "Look, I love this character. I love the legacy of this character. I'm just going to fall back on the parts of the character, the design, the picture, the music, and the things I love about Superman."
I'm just going to have to rely upon those things, and hope that I'm in tune with as much of the rest of the world as possible! But you know, you can't please everybody all the time.
Are you signed up for more than one Superman movie?
Singer: No, I do my films one at a time. I don't do multi-picture deals. It's so much of a job; I've been working nonstop for two solid years, so for me, I need to step back from each experience and evaluate it. But I'm interested in a second film, and I'm talking to the studio about it. We'll see.
George Reeves and Christopher Reeve photos from Supermanhomepage.com. Superman Returns photos copyright Warner Bros.
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