Never mind flying or lifting cars. The toughest challenge for the new hero of Superman Returns was filling Christopher Reeve’s tall red boots.
Newcomer Brandon Routh was well aware of what he faced.
“While I was reading the script, I was picturing Chris because he was my Superman,” Routh said.
“He still is my Superman.”
For millions of fans, Reeve is their Superman, too, the quintessential Man of Steel. He brought strength and charm to his superhero and an endearing, amusing clumsiness to his Clark Kent. Reeve’s tragic riding accident and brave public return as a spokesman for spinal cord injury research cemented public opinion of him as a true superman.
Routh was introduced to Reeve’s Superman while watching Superman: The Movie on TV. “(I was) wearing the Superman costume, pajamas with a little cape that my mom still has,” he said. “I was so excited to see the movie at age 5 or 6 that I gave myself a migraine.”
Sounds more like a future Clark Kent than Superman, but by the time he met with director Bryan Singer in 2004, Routh (rhymes with south) was a 24-year-old, 6-foot-3-inch athletic young actor with a marked resemblance, in face and voice, to his idol Reeve.
Singer, director of The Usual Suspects and the first two X-Men movies, recognized some of the same qualities in Routh that made Reeve an ideal Superman when he was a 26-year-old unknown.
“He possessed the physical (look),” Singer agreed. “It’s uncanny. (But) it’s not what motivated me to cast him.
“There are aspects of his personality, of his upbringing, of his life and his demeanor that I knew, in talking to him, that I could draw from, that I could mine. Supermanisms, Clarkisms, that I knew that I needed for this character. I started to see them over a two-hour (coffee shop) conversation with him. In my head, I said, `I have my Superman.’ ”
Moviegoers who grew up on Reeve may always consider him their Superman, but they can go to Superman Returns, which is in theaters now, with assurance. The legacy is in good hands. Routh is a constantly appealing and surprisingly confident presence.
In person Routh is boyish, without the Clark Kent clumsiness, but with just a hint of small-town Midwestern shyness. A little less bulky than when he made the movie — a five-month weight-training and rope-yoga program added 22 pounds of muscle to an athletic build — he’s still tall and handsome, with dark, thick hair and brown, not Superman blue, eyes. Eerily, he also sounds like Reeve.
He’s confident enough to joke and look you in the eye. But he looks slightly uneasy when asked questions about becoming famous: He’s not quite ready to assume that he will become a star. Or maybe he’s just smart enough not to show it yet.
Traditional moviemaking wisdom says get a big-name star as insurance on high-risk movies. Warner Bros. ponied up $200 million for Superman Returns, plus half as much in advertising. More surprising was the studio’s decision to go with an unknown actor. But Reeve’s success helped back Singer’s case for a new guy.
“I’ve always viewed Superman as larger than the actor,” Singer said. “If a known actor was to play Superman, it would be `Such and Such as Superman’. He has to feel as though he stepped out of our collective subconscious or memory. A large part of that memory is the (Superman) cartoon, the George Reeves (Adventures of Superman TV) series, the Christopher Reeve portrayals, (the TV series) Smallville, and just an overall image of Superman that everyone has in their heads.”
Routh had been on the set in Australia a long time before he really felt right in the role. That came the first day he wore the costume on camera.
He laughed. “It’s all about what’s inside, how you feel about yourself when you put that (costume) on, because it’s very imposing if worn with confidence.”
Who could blame Routh for being nervous? At 25 when shooting started, he had never done a major film or lead role. He held the fate of a big-budget movie in his cape. Not to mention countless jobs for actors and crew in two projected sequels.
“People ask about the pressure of playing this character. I decided early on I would just not listen to it and believe there wasn’t any. Because there was no way that I could continue if I was to be worried or had too much apprehension. So I took strength in the character of Superman and lived in that as much as I could in my own personal life.”
At the start of Superman Returns, the Man of Steel has been away from Earth for five long years, seeking information about his destroyed homeworld, Krypton, since the events of Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980). (Like many fans, this movie ignores Superman III and IV.)
He finds 21st-century Earth with the usual troubles, including a newly paroled Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey). He also discovers his true love, Lois Lane, has changed. Lois (Kate Bosworth) is now engaged to a handsome, warmhearted man, and has a son. She has just won a Pulitzer Prize for her editorial Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.
Routh faced playing not just a steel-jawed superhero, but also an emotionally vulnerable man buffeted by life, out to re-prove himself to a dubious world and, perhaps, to Lois.
“You don’t realize how tough this role is, because there’s so much subtlety involved,” Bosworth said. “If you play it too obvious, it would be ridiculous. (Brandon) played it with such a quiet strength as Superman and a sweet, clumsy Clark Kent. I saw a lot more emotion in him, and we got to see the human side of Superman. He was so unbelievably professional. He blew me away on many levels, but certainly on a professional level.”
Another super challenge was the physical strain, especially the endless hours flying in scenes shot over and over. Hanging in a harness is notoriously uncomfortable.
Routh, however, said the toughest parts physically were the long, difficult water-rescue scenes that resulted from Lex Luthor’s latest evil scheme.
“It was the end of the shoot, so I was getting pretty tired by that time,” he said. “You have to do a crash test course on scuba diving and learn to breathe through a regulator, which is cool, but that, mixed in with everything else I had to do, was pretty insane. Water is a challenging thing to work with, plus you’re in tights and a cape, and boots that fill with water.”
But he was up to the challenge. As the red cape passes once again, Routh and Singer become the new co-caretakers of the 70-year history of an American icon.
“There’s been a great legacy before me,” Routh said. “Many, many fantastic actors, artists, writers have come before me and created this character, and I’m very honored to be a part of it.”
Reeve died in October 2004, before shooting began on Superman Returns.
“I never talked to Christopher,” Routh said, “but I did receive a very nice note from (his late wife) Dana Reeve halfway through filming that gave her blessing to the project and to me.”
Superman Returns is very much Brandon Routh’s film, but with the first notes of John Williams’ familiar theme music, he’ll share the superhero’s spirit with Christopher Reeve.
By Louis B. Parks