In this era of franchises and reboots, it’s rare that an actor associated with an iconic character gets another shot in a role years after it’s been recast. The industry moves on after an underperforming blockbuster, whether the film in question was good or not, and actors must move on to the next thing, hopefully grateful to have had the chance to inhabit a dream role in the first place.
Which is why Brandon Routh playing Superman again, 13 years after his sole big screen outing as the character in Superman Returns, feels like such a big deal.
Despite doing respectable business at the box office in 2006, Superman Returns failed to inspire enough confidence in Warner Bros. to continue the franchise. The prospects of a sequel spent years in limbo before the studio decided to reboot with a new creative team and a new lead with 2013’s Man of Steel (who have since found themselves on the wrong end of a reboot). Whatever Superman Returns‘ problems, Routh’s portrayal of its title character wasn’t one of them, and it’s easy to imagine how a more conventional summer blockbuster could have launched a series of sequels featuring his sincere and stoic take on the Last Son of Krypton. Instead, Routh eventually found his way back to the DC Universe (and a red-and-blue costume) on television, in the role of Ray Palmer, the superheroic Atom, on Legends of Tomorrow.
But as Crisis on Infinite Earths has been showing TV fans, the multiverse is full of possibilities. After last year’s Elseworlds crossover brought back 1990s TV Flash John Wesley Shipp in his original costume, fans began to wonder what other DC screen heroes of years gone by might make appearances. And at 2019’s San Diego Comic-Con, the news broke that Routh would wear the cape once more. And while this Superman costume is based on the Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come story, it’s clear that this is the very same version of the character that Routh played over a decade ago in Superman Returns.
I spoke with Routh by phone the day after “Crisis on Infinite Earths Part Two,” his first appearance as Superman in 13 years, aired. He talked about why he said yes to playing Superman again, how he prepared for the role, and what the character means to him.
Den of Geek: Crisis on Infinite Earths was announced a year ago and you were announced to be coming back in the role back in July. When were you first approached? When was the idea of playing Superman again first floated to you?
Brandon Routh: Early April, I think. [Arrowverse executive producer] Marc Guggenheim reached out to me to kind of float the idea and take my temperature about the possibility of that.
And how did they pitch it to you? Was the basic form of this already in place?
Well, he said that they were doing the Crisis storyline and that they were going to have the Legends and Ray Palmer be a big part of it. But also since they were involving multiple earths and universes, that there was a potential if I was interested for me to show up in a different suit as well. That’s the way he kind of pitched it. And so I said, “Look, I’m really honored that you would ask and it sounds like a really great thing, but I just want to take a moment to sit with it to make sure that it’s the right decision for me to revisit the character.” I obviously said yes later.
What were the reservations that you had going into it?
I wanted to make sure that it was the same character, the same version of Superman or at least similar enough. As we know now with different films and comic book storylines that have come out in all these years, there are different ways to approach the character. I wanted to make sure that ideally it was the same character from Superman Returns. And if not, that it was still that same idea of who Superman is, at his core. That was important to me. Because I wasn’t necessarily interested in playing a different version.
Well, Crisis did a really good job of drawing that through line from Superman Returns and even the Christopher Reeve movies. Do you feel like the elements of the Kingdom Come story that they introduced for this were a natural fit with where this character was 13 years after Superman Returns?
I mean, yeah it would have been nice for him to ride off into the sunset and be happy. But that’s not how life is for any of us, really. Even when we think we’re at the top of the mountain, there are challenges that come our way and that’s kind of the story of life. No matter who we are, there are ups and downs along the way. So to live a true human experience I guess, it’s fitting for Kal-El to have that experience. It certainly makes for a great story and a great character journey for him and I think the way that the two were kind of blended together in this works really well and makes that version of the character fitting to come in and help out during the Crisis. I think he’s been through a wealth of experience that he can lend help in a different way, maybe.
You’re obviously a more seasoned actor now than you were in 2006 and this is a more seasoned Superman. How did you approach the role mentally this time around?
I think that, as I’ve grown as a person and gained more maturity both as a human and as an actor, having had a son, I have a greater appreciation for everything and a deeper compassion, deeper sense of humanity than even I had then. I always felt very comfortable playing Clark Kent back when I was 24, 25. I worked at it and I felt comfortable playing Superman, but not as much. I just felt too young. But I did my best. I feel like now I’ve ripened. I’ve matured into the role. And so much more of it comes without having to try. The sense of calm and the sense of presence that I always wanted to give Superman, I feel like I don’t have to work at, it’s just much easier for me to step into naturally. So it was easier and less work to be in that position.
You say it’s less work mentally, but you clearly put the work in physically for this role. You look like you’re in the best shape of your life. You obviously stayed in shape through the years, but you look like you really put some time in for this. How was your regimen different preparing for Crisis on Infinite Earths than it usually is preparing for a season of Legends of Tomorrow?
Well, thanks. It’s kind of a similar thing with the acting aspect of it and the physical, emotional preparation that went into the role the first time [for Superman Returns]. That stayed there and then got leveled up, and it’s the same with the physicality of it. I had done all that work. My body had that muscle memory. I wasn’t in peak shape when I found out that this was a possibility. I stayed in shape enough throughout the years that when tasked with getting back into the suit, I took it to heart the next eight weeks, I think, that I had to get to business.
The most crucial part of that is also just diet. Even if I wasn’t working out I was always dialed in with my nutrition. So adding the weightlifting to it just made it easier in some ways and also more enjoyable this time around. So things do get better sometimes when you get older. And easier.
Let’s talk about that suit, because it looks amazing. Is it more comfortable than the Superman Returns suit? What were the costume fittings like? How did you feel putting that cape on again?
I was very, very pleased and happy and excited about it. I loved the first suit I had, but I think I love this even more. It’s beautiful and simple at the same time. And regal. The technology and the ability to make the suits has increased and so it makes it more comfortable to wear. There’s some similarities. It’s not something you want to wear all day, necessarily, but it was certainly much more comfortable to be in and I had input this time about how things were fitting and felt more a part of the process, which was also exciting. There was a lot of very fine people who worked very hard in a very short, compressed amount of time to pull it off and I’m just so grateful to all of them.
What was it like when you first stepped out on set in it?
It was very exciting. It’s cool for me to be there, looking in the mirror with costume and wardrobe and all of that. Doing the testing and seeing what fits, but to be there, kind of in the presence of everyone, that makes it even more real. It adds another layer of reality to it.
And then you have to live up to it, right? I have to live up to the suit. It’s a funny thing being that character. There’s so much expectation, I think, for people. So I was given a responsibility to live and breathe [Superman] as much as possible, while still maintaining Brandon and not getting outside of myself and not necessarily being method but kind of exuding his energy whenever I’m in the suit. Because that’s an expectation that people have. It’s the truest, the realest thing to Superman that anybody gets to experience, and it’s cool for people. It’s also kind of cool for me. The one character you can kind of really step into and really feel like, you know, The Guy.
Let’s talk about those expectations and the Superman energy. Did you talk to [Arrowverse Superman] Tyler Hoechlin about this at all? Did you guys trade secrets about what it takes to maintain that illusion? Because you’re right, this is a weighty character as far as fans are concerned.
Yeah, a little bit. We both have a different approach and our Superman and Clarks are different enough that I think there was no need necessarily to compare notes. I definitely applauded him and talked to him about how great I thought he was doing in all the past episodes that he played the character. We talked about the flying stuff because I had experience…and because all of that has changed, getting in and out of the suit, how much to dress down between shots and get comfortable if you can. That kind of stuff.
I feel like you didn’t get the easiest time of it with your version of Superman and you definitely deserved more. This is such a triumphant return. But do you feel like this is your final word on the character or is this something that you would consider doing again?
I approached it as if it was the final time. It was important for me. That’s one of the things I had to get off the phone with Marc and consider and think about. Because if I continued to leave the door open and keep wanting more, then I was never going to be fulfilled, and that wasn’t a place where I wanted to leave things. So I approached this as, no matter how much screen time I had or whatever story this ends up being, I’m grateful to have this opportunity and I’m going to be okay with whatever this is.
That’s how I approached it. Just being grateful for the opportunity. Putting it all out there and being okay with hanging up the cape after that. And I’m grateful for that because that’s how I feel about it. I feel that the door that was open, the unresolved stuff after Superman Returns, is resolved and the door is closed, but… if the door opened again, I’m open to it. I’m good, I’m at peace with it, but I am still excited to play the character if another opportunity that is right presents itself.
I just want to go back to something you said earlier about how it was important to you for this to be the same version of the character that you played in Superman Returns. There’s always talk about whether Superman is still relevant. And this is a weird time that we live in. What do you think are the reasons that this character is still relevant or the core values you want fans to be able to take from him into the world right now?
Well, I’ve had a little time to think about this and talk about this subject. What I’ve come to have a better understanding of is that for me, I think first and foremost he’s a teacher. He’s a Christ figure, a savior, all of these things. But Christ, or any good prophet or philosopher or any of these people, are here just to teach us a better way to be, because they’re not here forever. He has all these superpowers and can save everyone, but if Superman continues to save everyone, then no one learns a lesson. No one has to become a better, more compassionate, more worldly human, and I think that is the opportunity that exists for this character, is to show us the way. Show us the light and help us to become better people, to evolve and to be better than our parents.
As Jor-El says in that speech [from 1978’s Superman: The Movie], “the son becomes the father, the father becomes the son” and all that. But the son becomes better hopefully. For me, that’s what I appreciate about Superman, is the ability to make us better, to show us the best that’s within us and who we can all be, if we just put our goal there and look towards it, we can be better people.
On a lighter note, what was it like sharing screen time with yourself as Ray Palmer?
It was cool. It was a very kind of weird and introspective process… Basically we see Clark in that one episode, it’s Clark, but he’s Superman in that scene. He’s not Clark Kent. He’s Superman in Clark’s clothing, opposite Ray. So there’s a difference. So I wanted to make sure physically there was a difference and I kind of worried that Ray and Clark were too similar.
But going back and playing Clark again, I see that there are similarities, but they’re not as closely related as I kind of remembered in my mind. Ray is really actually goofier than Clark, because I never played Clark goofy. I just played him excited. Excited about life. Ray is a little bit quirky and goofy and sometimes can be very goofy and quirky. So it was a nice exploration into finding the differences between the characters.
Crisis on Infinite Earths returns in January. We’ll have more from our interview with Brandon Routh, where he talks about playing Ray Palmer on Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, soon!
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