Wednesday, March 05, 2003

IN THE FUTURE, Everyone Will Play Superman for Fifteen Minutes: As script after script has been commissioned and trashed over the past several years -- as director after director (Tim Burton, Wolfgang Petersen, McG) has been brought on board and pushed overboard -- Warner Bros. is finally preparing to relaunch its Superman film franchise with Brett Ratner directing, and a screenplay by "Alias" creator J.J. Abrams. So far, so good. But the big open question is, as always: Who will don the cape?

For years, Nicholas Cage lobbied for the role. At various times, high-profile stars like Jude Law, David Boreanaz, Josh Hartnett, Ashton Kutcher, Brendan Fraser, Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Paul Walker ("Joy Ride," "The Fast and the Furious") and soap-opera actor Matthew Bomer ("The Guiding Light," "All My Children") have all had their names bandied about. Evan "Joe Millionaire" Marriott claims to have read for the part. Hartnett, reportedly the studio's first choice, passed on a 3-picture $30 million deal.

Now, the rumor mills are starting to settle on relative unknown 30-year-old Victor Webster, nominally recognizable from the syndicated science-fiction series "Mutant X." (Of which, the kindest User Comment on IMDb is: "If you're into guys, then this show might be worth watching for the occasional shot of star Victor Webster without a shirt.")

I've somehow managed to miss Mutant X, so I've never seen Webster in action -- and that's exactly as it should be. Superman must be played by a relative unknown, someone who won't burden us with the task of disgorging his resume from our collective subconscious.

I'm old enough to recall the casting rumors that hovered around the orginal 1978 Superman, as every A-list name from Peter Falk to Robert Redford was floated in both the fan and mainstream press. Imagine, if you can, the debacle of golden-boy Redford trading quips with Lex Luthor, or Falk's anguished scream as he pulls the lifeless body of Lois Lane out of her buried car...

Well, actually, I can imagine it. I can also imagine the audience's nervous, inappropriate laughter at all the wrong moments, and a big-budget picture doing less than break-even box office. Fortunately, history took a turn for the better, and we have one great, epic Superman film to show for it. (Plus one near-great sequel, and two more lame ones, but such is life.)

The first rule of casting is: First, do no harm. The Superman franchise's relaunch will probably be successful in any case. The question is, will it do Spider-Man box-office (upwards of $400 million), or Daredevil box-office (likely, a tad over $100 mil)? Superman is about many things -- chiefly truth, justice, the American way, and tons of spectacular special-effects. With a good script, Superman V will sell itself on its own merits. No one will be lining up on opening night because Josh Hartnett can open a picture -- and in the long run, his star-quality baggage would likely do more harm than good.

I can only assume that Victor Webster is a decent, hard-working journeyman-actor -- and without knowing another blessed thing about him, I'd say it's time to settle on Webster and move on to the supporting cast, where all such stunt-casting properly belongs.

And, by the way, here's one guy who agrees:

Christopher Reeve, the movies' original Man of Steel, backs up Webster. "Probably seven or eight months ago," says Reeve, talking on the set of ABC's "The Practice," where he is doing a guest role, "I got a call from ['Superman' producer] Jon Peters. He said he had been following the course of my recovery and had seen a documentary made by my son."

"He said he felt inspired by that and decided not to do 'Superman vs. Batman,' which was in the works with Wolfgang Petersen. He said, 'Why should we have two superheroes fighting each other when the world needs heroes?'"

"As I understand it, he dropped that idea and pitched the idea of retelling the essentials of the 'Superman' legend, with Anthony Hopkins playing Jor-El. He was talking about casting, and I said, 'If you want my two cents, you should definitely cast an unknown, as Dick Donner did 25 years ago, and find a Superman for the 21st Century.

"There has always been, since 1938, a Superman for each generation that reflects the times."


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