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Old-fashioned value

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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?”

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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?”

OH, FOR A FRANCHISE PLAYER

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.”

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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.

The Fortress of Solitude, Superman’s Arctic headquarters, is carefully designed to remind audiences of the one that Donner shot. The Kent farm in Kansas has the same layout too. John Williams’ theme music from the original is used lovingly in the new one. Even Marlon Brando, who played Superman’s father, Jor-El, is heard in “Superman Returns” -- the late actor’s voice speaks words of wisdom to Routh, just as it did to Reeve. (There will be a dedication to Brando in the film’s credits.)

Singer, raised in New Jersey by adoptive parents, said Donner’s telling of how the last son of Krypton was raised on Earth always resonated with him. “He’s an American superhero, but he’s also the ultimate immigrant, isn’t he? And it’s interesting to go back to that story now, because things are different.”

Different in the real world, different in Hollywood and different in the film too. Today’s cynicism and expectations of darker hero tales are reflected in the plot of “Superman Returns.” A huge crystalline spaceship (again a nod to the original franchise) crashes near a Kansas farm -- but this time, instead of an infant, the passenger is a grown man. Superman has been gone from Earth for five years on a failed quest to learn more about his origins. And in his absence, his adopted world grew sour toward its hero. That’s exemplified by Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), now a single mom engaged to a new man (played by James Marsden, a veteran of both “X-Men” movies) and riding high in her journalism career after an award-winning Daily Planet series critical of the missing Superman.

“In a sense, the movie is about what happens when an old romance returns unexpectedly and also the anger we all have toward people that let us down or leave us behind,” Singer said. “This is about the obstacles that befall an idealistic man. It’s about an old-fashioned hero in a modern world that isn’t sure it wants him.”

Singer said all of this wincing. His neck and shoulders were tight -- “It happens when I don’t get enough rest.” Filming at Fox Studios Australia (which, thanks to Australian tax breaks, has become a hectic hub for production), Singer was clearly ragged from working on a film that, by its budget alone, is a high-stakes affair. But the early signs are positive. At the San Diego Comic-Con in August, thousands of die-hard fans -- the toughest crowd there is -- gave sneak-peek footage a rousing, extended ovation. And the cable channel FX this month inked an early-bird deal worth as much as $25 million to secure the television rights for the movie, which won’t air until 2009.

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The movie is big in a literal sense too: Singer’s emphasis on real-world sets meant building a 200-foot burning spaceship, the facade of a five-story Daily Planet, the glass-bottomed deck of a luxury yacht, the Fortress of Solitude and a Kansas homestead (complete with cornfield) re-created in a dusty Australian plain an hour’s flight from Sydney.

Asked about the breadth of the endeavor, Singer shrugged. “It has to be big, right? It’s Superman.”

REVENGE-SEEKING LUTHOR

THE most fascinating set may be the smallest. The bad guy in the film is Lex Luthor, and one of his lairs is a mansion with a spectacularly detailed model-train set. The train set comes complete with aircraft, a model of Metropolis and even a harbor that (if you look really closely) has figurines posed in a reenactment of the shootout from the dock scene in “The Usual Suspects,” Singer’s breakthrough heist film. In that film, Singer got a bravura performance from Spacey as criminal mastermind Keyser Soze; now the Oscar-winning Spacey is Lex Luthor.

“This is a darker Lex too, because he’s been in prison and he wants revenge,” Singer said as he prepared for a scene on the giant Arctic set. “He’s not playing around.”

Over his shoulder, Spacey studied script pages and adjusted his parka and goggles. With his shaved pate and jackboots, the actor seemed to channel both Daddy Warbucks and Gen. Rommel. As the scene began, Singer fidgeted with a microphone (which was decorated with a tiny red cape) and called out vague instructions for Spacey to “do it different.” Spacey smiled as the director mumbled and winced and said he’s enjoyed working with Singer again.

“This is really my first time in a film of this sort -- the big-budget, franchise, huge Hollywood thing -- and Bryan has shown an ability to do these and do them in an interesting way, a sophisticated way,” Spacey said.

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In the scene, huge fans blow fake snow into the faces of Luthor and his henchmen as they creep up on the entrance to the Fortress of Solitude. Spacey barks out insults to his bumbling assistants with such gusto that Singer and the crew have to muffle their laughter while the cameras are rolling. The movie is split between the hero and villain, and it builds to a climactic showdown -- the only time Spacey is on camera with his caped rival (“If you’re Lex Luthor,” Spacey noted, “you don’t want to get near Superman because, well, you’re not going to win if it comes down to a fistfight, are you?”).

Singer said Spacey is vital to the film.

“The original movie was credible, and one big reason was casting people like Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford -- I felt coming in that we were measured by that yardstick. So we have Kevin and Eva Marie Saint, Parker Posey. This kind of movie requires you to have a strong center, strong actors who don’t get lost in it.”

Just as Harrison Ford brought vital humor to the first “Star Wars” franchise, Hackman was the winking presence in the “Superman” movies that helped grown-ups deal with the fact that they were watching a movie about a fellow wearing tights. Now Spacey must be both menacing and funny to keep “Superman Returns” interesting. They say a superhero movie lives and dies by the quality of its villain.

“I’ve heard that and, certainly, it’s fun to play the villain, but I disagree that it’s the most important aspect,” Spacey said. “This movie is about Superman, and I think it comes down to that costume and the person in it.”

SUPER FROM THE SOAPS

BRANDON ROUTH got physically ill the first time he saw a Superman movie. It was Iowa, he was just a kid, and his family took him to see one of the “Superman” sequels (he was too young to see the original at the cinema -- he was born in 1979) and he was so excited he threw up. He shakes his head at the memory. “Isn’t that sad?”

Routh, at certain moments, looks remarkably like Reeve, although the young man’s features are thicker than the late actor’s.

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“Watching some of the footage, there was a spot where I turned my head and I looked just like him,” Routh said, sounding amazed. He most resembles Reeve in the guise of Clark Kent. “It’s nice, actually. It makes me proud.”

Like Reeve and other actors who have played Superman, Routh, 26, comes into the project largely as an unknown. That was important to Singer, who was loath to take a well-known face and try to persuade an audience to accept him as the Man of Steel.

Routh, a soap opera veteran, called the physical process of donning the famed suit “humbling and sometimes painful,” because of the rigors involved, but he lauds the under-armor and fake musculature. “I recommend it for everyone. Who needs the gym, right?”

He describes as “torture” the entire process of making him fly.

“The hardest thing was the first day I actually flew on film, you know, riding the wires.” Routh shook his head and sipped on bottled water. “Nobody was quite sure how it would look. It had been tested with other people, but everyone has their own, uh, unique style of flying. And putting the costume on for the first time was, well, scary. But once it’s on, it’s really powerful. That was a relief. It wasn’t goofy.”

Goofy is always a deep concern when it comes to men in tights. So is typecasting. The first live-action Superman on screen was Kirk Alyn, but the first man to truly define the role was George Reeves, another Iowa native. The actor became famously bitter about the power the role exerted on his career. He often said he despised the costume he wore for “The Adventures of Superman,” and he sourly noted that many children would try to “test” his invulnerability by kicking or punching him.

Singer has become a student of Superman history. He knows the sad tales associated with something that, on paper, is so uplifting. He speaks with reverence about the character. But he also understands that the past must still fly in the present. “One of the things that pulled me to this was to do something that answers to a bigger legacy,” he said. “And this film is a much more funny and romantic movie than any I’ve made before...”

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Viewers of “Superman Returns” won’t know it when they walk into the theaters next summer, but for the scenes at the Daily Planet newsroom, Singer had Dyas and his people make up a phone list and job description for every single extra in the background -- dozens of people. “Bryan wanted all of them to have a character, whether they were a sportswriter or a comic strip artist or a news reporter.”

Singer, asked about the puzzling attention to phantom details, shrugged and said that this movie will live or die by its marriage of the heroic unreal to its real-world setting. Superman has been wearing the cape for a half-century, but it can still fit -- and the ideal can still make everyone look to the skies.

“Things have moved on, people have moved on,” Singer said. “Lois Lane has moved on. Superman is the same, but the world is changed. And that’s what makes the movie interesting.”

Contact Geoff Boucher at calendar.letters@

latimes.com.

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