In 2006, Producer/Director Bryan Singer what might well be regarded as the most successful flop in Hollywood history: “Superman Returns.” Filmed for nearly a year on location in Australia, the film debuted at number one at the box office, and would go on to make $390 million worldwide (on a $200 million budget), receive two Oscar nominations, and win five Saturn Awards.
Warner Bros, however, never looked upon the film as a success. When asked about the potential for a sequel to the film in 2008, Warner's President of Production, Jeff Robinov, told the Wall Street Journal “Superman Returns didn't quite work as a film in the way that we wanted it to. It didn't position the character the way he needed to be positioned. Had Superman worked in 2006, we would have had a movie for Christmas of this year or 2009.”
So prevalent was the perception that “Superman Returns” had somehow failed, that even Singer stopped defending the film eventually, saying in 2013 “It wasn't what it needed to be, I guess. (I should have opened with) the jet disaster sequence or something. I could have grabbed the audience a little more quickly. I don't know what would have helped. Probably nothing.”
“Superman Returns” was the first Superman film released since Christopher Reeves' death, and was poised to be the first really good Superman film since 1980's “Superman II.” No matter what the final product is like, it could be hard for any film to live up to expectations of that magnitude. And a lot of those expectations fell on the shoulders of a then-24 year-old unknown television actor from Norwalk, IA: Brandon Routh.
“I was pretty naive and new to the process,” Routh said about the filming of “Superman Returns.” “It was my first big budget film and for me the sky was the limit.”
Routh's previous work had been almost exclusively on the small screen. He picked up a four episode stint on MTV's “Undressed,” along with one-off spots on shows like “Gilmore Girls” and “Will and Grace,” along with an extended run as Seth Anderson on the soap opera “One Life to Live.” But “Superman Returns” was something else entirely. And everyone thought it would be the start of something big.
“I was there, working 10 months on the film, and I'm convinced that it's this fantastic masterpiece,” he said. “Because you don't see it, if you're down in the middle of it. I'm mostly eternally optimistic. So I was convinced it was going to be great.”
Warner Bros shelved the idea of any more Superman films for a while, but when you have the rights to the most iconic comic book character of all time, it is pretty hard to not use it. Rumors continued to swirl regarding a new film — either a reboot or a long-awaited Superman/Batman team up — but nothing seemed to materialize. Routh's Superman contract with Warner expired in late 2009, but the actor remained open to coming back and reprising the role.
“The character had become a very large part of me,” he explained. “I cared a lot about it. I'd invested a lot of time and energy into the evolution of the character. The evolution of Clark Kent and Superman.”
That is no lie. On top of the year of filming and post-production work, Routh had undergone a rigorous personal fitness regimen, putting over 20 lbs of additional muscle onto his nearly 6'3” frame. Ultimately, however, Warner decided to go in a different direction, tapping “Watchman” director Zack Snyder to take over the franchise, and handing the red cape over to British actor Henry Cavill.
“I was bummed that I didn't have an opportunity,” Routh said about not being contacted by Snyder about the role. “I understood the reasons why they wouldn't consider me. Whether I agree that they were right or not is another story.”
“That was my first introduction to the film industry,” he continued. “When the thing that you're involved in isn't a big hit, and you're the lead, by virtue of that, you don't get any of the credit.”
Hollywood, like much of life, is not often fair. So after the role that was supposed to be his big break, Routh found himself back on the outside looking in. It was not exactly starting from scratch, of course: at the end of the day, he still looks like Brandon Routh, which is more than most of us have going for us. “Superman Returns” had also given him a certain degree of name recognition. And yet, once the cape was hung up, the roles did not start rolling in.
He co-produced an indie film called “Fling,” picked up a small role in Kevin Smith's “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” and co-starred in a direct to DVD ensemble film called “Table for Three,” which AMC described as “unnecessary” and “strained and corny.”
Routh has always been far too grounded and self-aware to feel like he ever deserved anything from the industry, but the lack of offers for larger roles caught him off guard.
“It was (a surprise) in many ways,” he admitted. “But I skipped a lot of steps in getting the Superman role. So suddenly, I'm learning how to audition. There's a big step in acting for television and working in an audition room. Even though I thought I'd proven myself, I really hadn't. And there are always people that you have to prove yourself to. Not in a spiritual sense, but in a professional one. So in a real way, I had to go backwards to go forward.”
So, just like he had hit the gym for Superman, Routh now began to work on the mental and emotional aspects of his craft. He never wanted to be one of those actors who tried to rely on a tall frame and good looks to land the next job. So he worked on his chops. He honed his comedic timing. Routh woodsheded his abilities and came out a better actor.
“It was a big growth time for me personally,” he agreed. “It took me a long time to make that choice. Longer than I would have liked, looking back. The opportunity presented itself much sooner, but I was in a bit of denial about it. So that was growth from a personal perspective, that's when things started to turn around, because I was becoming a more full person and can bring more of that fullness to characters. I tend to be a positive person and not allow sadness in. Once I saw that there's a place for that sadness, that allowed me to bring more depth to characters.”
Not coincidentally, this was about the time that Routh began seeing better roles, starting with a 12 episode run as bad guy Daniel Shaw, in the short-lived but much beloved TV show “Chuck,” which gave him a chance to go against type, and play the villain for a change. It also was marked a return to television, and the chance to workout his comedic abilities, which is something he had always wanted to try more of.
In that same time frame, Edgar Wright approached Routh about playing “evil ex” Todd Ingram in his cult-classic comic adaptation of “Scott Pilgrim vs The World,” a role that Routh freely admits most likely came about because Wright saw him as Superman. The film gave Routh another change to play for comedy, and helped cement him as an ego-less actor who could perform well in an ensemble, and carry a laugh or two when needed.
Since “Scott Pilgrim,” Routh has taken on a few additional film roles, including the 2015 sci-fi film “400 Days,” as well as “Lost in the Pacific,” set for release later this year. But in 2014, Routh was given a second change to be a hero, as The CW came calling.
While superhero films had become a gigantic industry unto themselves in the years preceding “Superman Returns,” comics had never had much luck on the small screen. Then The CW tapped into some little bit of zeitgeist in 2012, with the show “Arrow,” about DC's Green Arrow. The show was in instant success, with its season one premiere being the network's highest rated single episode in five years.
In season three, with producers looking to expand the “Arrow” universe, other DC characters were brought in to give the world some depth. Enter Ray Palmer, alias The Atom. Created back in the comics “Silver Age” (1956-1970), Palmer's Atom is capable of shrinking himself down to the sub atomic level, while retaining his normal strength. As a character, Palmer is a witty, lighthearted sort, and producers figured he would serve as the perfect counterpoint to “Arrow”'s somewhat brooding main character. Whomever played the role would need the physique to be a convincing superhero, the ability to deliver comedic content, and the looks to fit in with The CW's rather particular aesthetic. Bonus points if that person also had a certain level of name recognition among the ComiCon set. Hello, Brandon Routh.
“That was a unique opportunity,” Routh said of getting the role. “I definitely wanted to capitalize on that, so I really looked into the comic version of Ray Palmer. I had that in mind, but a lot of (the on screen characterization) came with the writers. He came out in season three of Arrow, and the writers wanted him to be the humor and wit in the show, and that was very important to me, since I wanted more of an opportunity to play a comedic role.”
The character was received well, and Routh's portrayal garnered solid praise from critics and fans alike. Eventually, the popularity of “Arrow” led The CW to spin off a second series, “The Flash,” whose origin was foreshadowed in a season two “Arrow” episode. Then, after the success of “The Flash,” and the warm reception of characters like Atom, The CW decided to greenlight the production of a third series, titled “DC's Legends of Tomorrow” featuring, among others, Routh's Atom.
Legends of Tomorrow
“It's a show about a group of misfits,” Routh explained. “Some heroes, some would be villains, who are all tasked with saving all of time. We have to somehow work together to become somewhat of a team and save the day.”
Conceived as a time hopping adventure series spanning a number of different eras, “Legends of Tomorrow” features one of the larger ensemble casts on television today, with eight characters realistically sharing the spotlight. With so many important characters, and the genuine possibility of a weak link getting lost in the shuffle, it falls to each actor to produce the best possible version of the writers vision for each character. In the case of Ray Palmer, there is a heavy focus on the character's duality. Best described as a reluctant hero, Palmer is potentially the most relatable of the show's protagonists.
“I intend for people to be entertained by Ray,” Routh said of his portrayal. “I want them to be lifted, and at the same time to see the duality of life. As much as you want to save the day, at times there are true impasses that come up.”
Though this certainly is not Routh's first go-round as a superhero, it is his first time doing it for a series. He has his previous network experience to fall back on, but a sci-fi series like “Legends of Tomorrow” still provides unique challenges, including the budget constraints that TV series often work with, when compared to films. Also, there is the time frame, which is quite a bit different from the 10 months that “Superman Returns” was given.
“The biggest challenge is definitely the amount of time that you're given,” he concurred. “Big superhero films generally have a lot more time to do anything. Imagine doing one to two scenes a day, and in television you're shooting maybe five scenes a day. We have nine days to shoot an episode. So there's a lot of things that get compressed.”
The first episodes of “Legends,” which began airing this past January, have been solid, with reviews getting stronger as the series continues to find its footing. The CW has proven themselves pretty adept at turning DC characters into marketable shows, so there is no reason to assume that Routh will be putting on the Atom suit for quite a while. And as the show gains fans, the more Routh's past sci-fi work — regardless of its perceived success — will become a footnote to the present.
“That's been the big transition,” Routh said, talking about meeting fans at ComiCon and other fan events. “Even last year when I was on Arrow. I hear a lot about 'Scott Pilgrim,' people ask about 'Chuck,' or 'Zac and Miri.' And now there are a lot of questions about The Atom.”
It has been a long, twisting journey for Routh, but one that has ironically allowed him to find success in a space remarkably close to where his fame started in the first place. And while no longer wearing the big red “S” might have bothered him at one point, to talk to Brandon Routh is to talk to a person who is far too humble — and far, far too self-aware — to allow himself to dwell on such things. Now, all Routh is focused on is making “Legends of Tomorrow” the best series it can be. Because, as Routh himself sums up in five simple words, there is no point in dwelling on the past.
“Superman was 10 years ago,” he said.
And Brandon Routh is all about Tomorrow.
Originally appeared in Cityview February 24, 2016