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It's a burden, it's a pain -- it's ''Superman.'' The budget is sky-high, the backers are bickering -- and the Man of Steel franchise has yet to cast its hero

CLARK CAN'T The ''Superman'' franchise won't fly without a worthy hero
Image credit: Superman Illustration by Christian Clayton
CLARK CAN'T The ''Superman'' franchise won't fly without a worthy hero
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It has been a long, long time since anyone in Metropolis looked up in the sky and saw anything other than a bird or a plane, but it's in Burbank -- where Warner Bros. has spent millions trying to get the Man of Steel airborne -- that the shouts of ''Where are you, Superman?'' can be heard loudest.

The chorus has been building since last summer, when Wolfgang Petersen's long-gestating ''Batman vs. Superman'' was tabled in favor of separate Batman and Superman flicks, and a Superman script from ''Alias'' creator J.J. Abrams was greenlit with McG (''Charlie's Angels'') attached to direct. That decision -- finally! -- capped almost a decade of effort by the studio (owned by EW parent company AOL Time Warner) that began when it bought back the ''Superman'' rights from producer Alexander Salkind in 1993.

But last September, McG dropped out to direct ''Charlie's Angels 2,'' Brett Ratner (''Red Dragon'') was tapped to take over, and the project hit yet another rough patch. While Ratner -- who is known for his strong relationships with actors -- quickly convinced Anthony Hopkins to play Super Daddy Jor-El, he could get no further. The director flirted with Jude Law and Ashton Kutcher before offering the title role to Josh Hartnett (whom Petersen had wanted to play Superman in his film). Hartnett tried on the tights -- and decided he didn't quite like the fit.

''The decision was a struggle. But I just never really wanted to play Superman,'' explains Hartnett. ''It's probably the biggest [-budgeted movie] ever'' -- and because it was planned as a trilogy -- ''it was three films [over] 10 years or something like that. It was a bigger commitment than I was willing to make.'' Says Matthew Lillard, who is currently shooting a romantic thriller for MGM in which he costars with Hartnett: ''[The 'Superman' producers] grinded on him for frickin' three weeks when we were shooting this. We're glad the whole saga is over.''

Hartnett's complaints are understandable -- the character is iconic, the demand for three pictures is limiting, and the effect on a career is too uncertain. ''This has been a very difficult movie to cast -- it's a big role and the actor has to be able to play to two distinct roles,'' Ratner told EW. ''It's a long commitment, but we've only offered it to one person so far. We are still in the process of evaluating the best candidate for the part, and we want to take the time to make sure that we get it right.''

So now the director is auditioning Paul Walker, Brendan Fraser, and soap actor Matthew Bomer, the latter of whom screen-tested on March 7. While sources close to the production speculate that Ratner will choose between the high-priced Fraser and the all-but-unknown Bomer within weeks, that decision may not be enough to calm the controversy. Reports are circulating that the director has clashed with notoriously temperamental producer Jon Peters over his difficulties casting the movie. (Peters declined to comment for this story.)

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