Getting new Superman off the ground

'Batman' team of Nolan, Thomas, Goyer turns to another hero with a cape

March 21, 2010|By Geoff Boucher | Tribune Newspapers

LOS ANGELES — The topic at the Batcave recently was the future of that other superhero - you, know, the one from Metropolis. "It's very exciting, we have a fantastic story," Christopher Nolan said while sipping tea in the sleek editing suite that fills the converted garage next to his Hollywood home. "And we feel we can do it right. We know the milieu, if you will; we know the genre and how to get it done right."

Nolan was standing with his wife, producer Emma Thomas, his partner in all his films - including "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," the grim franchise that pulled in more than $1.3 billion at theaters worldwide - and he was explaining their plan to take on a challenge that has frustrated Hollywood for two decades: getting another Superman film franchise off the ground.

Nolan, speaking about the Superman project for the first time, is pleased with the excitement it's stirred but, like the magicians portrayed in his 2006 film "The Prestige," sees no value in revealing all his tricks before the curtain goes up.

There was a spasm of fan excitement when word leaked last month that Nolan, now viewed as the Hitchcock of superhero cinema after his two Batman films, would be the "godfather" for a reboot of the Man of Steel with a movie based on a story by Nolan and frequent collaborator David S. Goyer.

The Internet flurry that followed included reports that, according to Thomas, might be better described as fan fiction. The dispatches revealing that the film will be called "Man of Steel" and feature Lex Luthor and Brainiac? Or the one about its being a period piece with something like a low-fi version of the hero?

"I don't know where this stuff comes from," Thomas said with a chuckle, although, like any good poker player, it's hard to say where the bluff starts and ends.

This much is certain: The couple are completely focused on the movie-of-the-moment, "Inception," which opens July 19 and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a dream thief of sorts in what might be Hollywood's first metaphysical heist film. The movie is the most complicated undertaking of Nolan's career - it was shot in six countries and tells a tale that flips between reality and three levels of dream-time - and, all things considered, he'd rather Superman stay in his Fortress of Solitude and off the front page for a while longer since that project is a matter for 2012 or 2013 at best.

But, of course, Superman, first superhero of them all, is an American pop culture icon on par with Mickey Mouse and Elvis. But after the close of the Christopher Reeve era with "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" in 1987, the property became one of the most frustrating in Hollywood. A dozen different projects were started through the years with names attached such as Nicolas Cage, Kevin Smith, J.J. Abrams, McG and Brett Ratner, and plans were trotted out to kill Superman, strip him of his powers or pit him in battle against Batman.

Finally, director Bryan Singer, who had earned credibility with comic book fans with his two "X-Men" films for Fox, delivered with "Superman Returns" in 2006 starring Brandon Routh. But the finished product was viewed as oddly lifeless by many critics. The $200 million film finished its theatrical run with a respectable $391 million worldwide, but it wasn't heroic enough to earn a sequel.

Nolan said that he admired Singer's film, especially the way it connected to director Richard Donner's version of Superman and the first two movies starring Reeve. Nolan added, though, that this new movie will stand on its own.

"A lot of people have approached Superman in a lot of different ways. I only know the way that has worked for us, that's what I know how to do," Nolan said, emphasizing the idea that Batman exists in a world where he is the only superhero and a similar approach to the Man of Steel would assure the integrity needed for the film.

Still, it was a frustrating moment in the Batman franchise that led to this new Superman revival. Nolan and Goyer were at a story impasse on the third Batman film when, as a distraction, Goyer gave the filmmaker a daydream version of how he would tackle a story about the last son of Krypton.

"He basically told me, 'I have this thought about how you would approach Superman,' " Nolan recalled. "I ... loved it and thought: That is a way of approaching the story I've never seen before that makes it incredibly exciting. I wanted to get Emma and I involved in shepherding the project right away and getting it to the studio."

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