2016-06-30
Singer (left) on set with Brandon Routh as Clark Kent
After directing the first two "X-Men" films, Bryan Singer surprised many fans when he decided against working on the third installment and instead took control of the latest attempt to return Superman to the big screen.
The project had languished in development--with multiple scripts, stars, and directors attached--for a decade. Singer succeeded in realizing his vision with "Superman Returns." In it, the Man of Steel comes back to Earth after a five-year absence, to find Lois Lane engaged and the mother of a 5-year-old son, and Lex Luthor again plotting massive destruction. Singer spoke with Beliefnet about Superman's power--and its limit--his spirituality, and how this movie compares with "X-Men."

Why a new Superman movie at this moment?

I've been a fan of Superman since I was a kid, from the George Reeves television series to the the first Christopher Reeve film that Richard Donner made in 1978. It's what inspired me to make the first two "X-Men" films. And so, from a "me" standpoint, I was available, and Warner Brothers was willing to take the first 10 years of development that they had put into other incarnations and push them aside and allow me to make the film I wanted to make. And so, when that opportunity was there, I just jumped at it because I'm such a fan.

How has our culture in America--or our reality--changed in the two decades since the last "Superman" movie came out, and how did that influence the way that you made decisions in creating this movie? I wanted to make him a more global superhero. I think he's always, in his heart, an American superhero. He was raised on a farm in Kansas. That's his background, besides his Kryptonian background. But in today's world, I felt he should be more of a global superhero. I wanted to really re-state the notion that he can be everywhere on the earth. He's Earth's greatest protector. He's not just America's greatest protector.


I think, during the height of Superman's popularity in the '40s, he was very much an inspirational mechanism for the troops overseas, but he never actually solved the problems in World War II. He left that to the real heroes, to the soldiers. He led more by example. And I wanted him to do that in the same way, but on a global level.

And did September 11th and our new understanding of the threat of terrorism influence you or have a role here?

I thought about it. You know, how can you not? In fact, there was a moment I put in an earlier draft of the script, which I was never going to shoot because it would have dated the film. I want the film to exist in a kind of timeless era, in a a timeless way. But, there was a moment that I at one point entertained where, after he was flying around solving problems by night, at dawn he'd be standing at Ground Zero, just standing there acknowledging something that happened while he was gone, something he couldn't--he wasn't there--to prevent. And yet, I didn't shoot the scene because I felt Ground Zero won't always look like it does today or tomorrow. It'll have buildings there, so, it would date the film.

But that spirit, that idea, was in my mind when I thought about the notion of a hero like Superman being gone--like having someone and then they're not there, and then what has happened in their absence? So, that idea had crossed my mind.

But I certainly didn't want Superman going across the globe solving terrorist problems, very much in the same way that in the Second World War, you didn't want to have him running around defeating Hitler. Because he leads by example. He does the right [thing], he doesn't solve your problems. He helps you solve your problems by just being supportive, helping every once in awhile.

It makes him sound like a buddy or a psychologist a little bit.

Well, no, because he's proactive. Quite the opposite, actually. He actually comes, and he can't police--it's not right for him. But, the greatest thing about him is that he has the power to do anything physically on earth. He just chooses not to do it.

Why not, do you think?

Why Superman Restrains His Power
Because I think it's his heritage. I think he's learned restraint. My own opinion of the myth is--and this is my own point of view, so I have to stress that--somewhere in the history of Krypton, there was a lot of conflict. And then the people of Krypton solved this conflict by containing their violence and by creating a culture of honest and sincerity, and without murder. And that's what we saw in the 1978 film with the Phantom Zone [where prisoners were held]. You didn't have a death penalty. You put your criminals into the Phantom Zone. And yet, that world was destroyed, and he's kind of a remnant of that purity.

His father, Jor-El, says, when he talks of Earth, "They are great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. It is for this reason, above all, their capacity for good, I send them you, my only son." And so, he can do all these incredible things. He's a superhero, and he likes it. He likes the fact that he can rescue falling airplanes, and he can show off. He's got the pride. He can score any touchdown in high school. He can do anything. And now, he has to learn restraint so that he can have that semblance of human existence, so he can live, and then that's Clark Kent. If it wasn't for Clark Kent, he'd just fly around all the time. He'd be limitless. But he allows himself to be Clark Kent. And that way, he can have this semblance of humanity. He can have a relationship. He can have these different things. And that's what makes him interesting.


The only way he leads by example socially is he's honest. He never lies. But, other than that, no. He's probably the worst person to go to with your psychological problems.

There's a lot of discussion about whether Superman's a Christ figure or Jewish--a Moses or golem figure. And I'm curious what you think about these different theories.

Superman as Judeo-Christian Allegory
You'd have to take the different stories [and consider them separately]. The origin story has always been very Moses-like in the sense that the parents took the child and sent him downriver to fulfill a destiny. In our movie--I use the term, and perhaps it's me just not wanting to be too religious about it but, at the same time, not deny the obvious--I call it a Judeo-Christian allegory. There are aspects of our story--return, sacrifice, resurrection--that when you grow up in a Judeo-Christian culture they work their way into everything, from your thoughts to your art.

And so, those things are present in the film. But I try not to [get into] "Is he Jewish? Is he Christian?" You know, Jesus Christ was a Jew until his crucifixion, of a kind. I mean, am I right or wrong? So, there's certainly a Judeo-Christian allegory in the Superman story, both in his origin and in my film.

Why do you think people are so fascinated by the question of superhero religion?

I think people are of different religions, and if they find characters inspiring or fascinating, they want to draw some kind of identity. Probably for the very same reason that it appealed to me that Superman was adopted and an only child and had blue eyes, because I have all those three qualities.

It's just because people, if they think something or somebody's cool, they want to find the parallels in the identity, so you'll have that debate. It'll only be more so because those allegories actually, with Superman, exist quite boldly, so it's going to only be magnified.

The Christ allegory seems particularly strong in the original movie, with the quote that you said before, "They wish to be a great people... I send you my only son."

That was one of the biggest motivational speeches, one of the biggest things that were said that struck me. That and when Marlon Brando's placing these crystals into a spaceship. This was in the original film. It was in the original film, and [the mother] says, "He'll be isolated, alone." And he places the crystal in and says, "He will not be alone. He will never be alone." I'm an adopted kid who grew up as an only child. So this seemed--these two things to me were very stirring.

You mention growing up as an adopted kid. How did growing up Jewish, influence your career, or this movie in particular, if it did?

I had a kind of mixed up upbringing. I was a Jewish kid, although I was not Bar Mitzvahed. We celebrated Jewish holidays. I went to a Christian youth club in my neighborhood. My Jewish friend Jeff--my best friend--and I went to a Christian youth club for the sports and things. And then, one of my best friends, Ravi, was a Hindu. I grew up in a completely Catholic neighborhood. I was, like, the only Jew on the block. So, there was a lot of religion going on, and yet I never considered myself particularly religious, but there were a lot of things going on religion-wise that interested me, or that I found interesting.

I was an only child and adopted, with Jewish parents. My biological mother was Jewish. My biological father was not. But this is the very little information I know about them. He was actually not even from the United States.

Who would you say your real-life superheroes?

Steven Spielberg has always been an idol of mine growing up, just the films he made and the passion. He could literally take me outside myself as a kid and make me feel inspired. When I first saw "E.T."--I had seen "Close Encounters," I was a big fan of "Jaws," and then I saw "E.T." when I was 16--I had already made a number of eight-millimeter films, but after that movie, and after I saw a profile of him on the TV show "20/20," I decided that night, actually, I would be a filmmaker, and I have not deviated from that for my life.

Back to the fictional world of superheroes, why do you think we're so fascinated and entranced by them?

Our Fascination With Superheroes
I think they are 20th-century mythologies. I think 500 years from now, people will look at the 20th century and these will become classic mythologies, like King Arthur.

These comic books, particularly the supreme ones--of which Superman is the most notable, because he's the first and the most powerful, and a number of other reasons--they give us two things. One is they represent our childhood fantasies of what we wish we could do--fly, be super strong, things like that--and they also represent kind of hope, a sense of a protector, that there can be somebody who will look out for us. And I think these are all childhood fantasies--or not childhood fantasies, but these are inherent needs that we have.We want to be strong. We want to be powerful and healthy, and we also want someone to look after us. I think superheroes fulfill that.

How does directing "Superman" compare with doing "X-Men," and were there spiritual or psychological themes that came up in both? I think in "X-Men" there were more psychological issues and socio-political issues of tolerance that were at the core of the "X-Men" films. In "Superman, it's more about the spiritual--the notions of spirituality and saviors, things like that, and also family. It's very much about fathers and sons and family. It takes a very nostalgic hero and brings him back into a very modern romantic dilemma. And so for me, it was a more personal film.

Even though it's a much larger movie, probably larger than both "X-Men" films combined. It was a massive undertaking. For me, it was the most personal movie in that aspect, in its dealings with spirituality and relationships.

Was it difficult for you to make in that way, to explore that personal side?

No. I'm not a closed-off person, but I'm very cautious to tap into my emotions when I'm making a film because, to me, I'm first and foremost a storyteller. So, some of myself finds its way into the movies, but I'm primarily focused on the story. But having made films for a number of years, little by little, I allow a little more intimacy, I would call it, to make its way into my movies. But it just comes from experience, feeling more and more comfortable.

Like the reason maybe Steven Spielberg--one of the earliest times he addressed Nazis was in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." It took him years of maturity to feel comfortable making a movie like "Schindler's List"; very different kinds of treatments of similar characters. And for me, it's just an evolution that comes with comfort and experience, my comfort and experience as a filmmaker. And yet, I don't want to lose, by any means, the Superman of it all. It has to tell a good story with a great villain, fun sequences, and action and conflict, and all that. So, it's a balance. But, it was a tiring movie, too. It was a long process, this particular one.

It seems like a lot of superhero movies in the last few years have explored the vulnerabilities and the humanity, the fragility, of them. Are we going to see much of that with Superman?

Absolutely. In the beginning, one of the biggest differences between the early Superman and this one is that in the beginning of the picture, he comes back to a world that's somewhat moved on without him, that's changed, and a relationship that's changed. The love of his life has moved on. There's this family, a fiancée, who's not a bad guy. There's a child. And so Superman, even though he's incredibly powerful and charismatic and all the things he was before, he's faced with this dilemma that--besides kryptonite--even the Man of Steel finds insurmountable. And so, in a sense, it deals with that human side.

But Superman in a way has always had that human side as Clark Kent, growing up on the farm as Clark Kent, and then in his adult life.

What do you think is behind that trend of wanting to see this more vulnerable side?

If I wanted to take some proprietorship, I like to think the "X-Men" films explored a group of outcast people who had these extraordinary powers, but everyone's against them. So they have to try to find their place in humanity. And that explored the vulnerability of people who have extraordinary powers. And so "Superman" is a natural evolution. He has this extraordinary power, but he cares for people.

It's nothing invented here. I that's always been the case with superheroes. If they don't have formidable weaknesses and formidable adversaries, they're not as exciting or heroic or interesting as characters, and I think it's as simple as that.