Hailed as one of the film industry's most exciting and provocative new talents after the huge success of The Usual Suspects (1995), director Bryan Singer has built his reputation on making films that are essentially lengthy, verbally dexterous flirtations with the darker side of human nature.
Born in 1966, Singer was brought up in southern New Jersey. Raised in a Jewish household, his early childhood was, in part, marked by his formation with a couple of non-Jewish friends of a so-called "Nazi Club." The existence of the club -- which, Singer has said, was formed more out of a fascination with WWII than as a slight to his own heritage -- was unsurprisingly put to a quick end by the director's mother. The incident catalyzed Singer's own awareness of his Jewish identity, something that would later inform his adaptation of Stephen King's Apt Pupil and cause one interviewer to label him (presumptuously, perhaps) as "young Hollywood's great Jewish hope."
Singer's upbringing was also marked by his interest in filmmaking, something he began pursuing as a teenager. Following his high school graduation, he was admitted to New York City's School of Visual Arts, but he transferred to USC to finish his studies. It was at USC that he met two of his future collaborators, composer and editor John Ottman and co-producer Kenneth Kokin. After graduation, Singer wrote and directed a short film called Lion's Den. Starring high-school friend Ethan Hawke and filmed for a cost of 16,000 dollars, it told the story of a group of high-school pals who reunite a few years after graduation and find that they are not as close as they once were. Lion's Den paved the way for Singer's next effort, Public Access. The director's first collaboration with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, the independent feature was an examination of the dangers wrought by mass media upon a small town community, and it won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Festival.
Two years later in 1995, Singer, in collaboration with McQuarrie, Ottman, and Kokin, had his true breakthrough with The Usual Suspects. A twisting, insanely intricate whodunit that was as remarkable for the strength of its ensemble cast (which featured Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Gabriel Byrne, and Pete Postlethwaite) as its almost obsessive complexity, the film was an unanticipated commercial and critical success, earning a slew of international awards which included Oscars for Spacey as Best Supporting Actor and McQuarrie for Best Original Screenplay.
Singer followed up The Usual Suspects in 1998 with Apt Pupil. The film was adapted from Stephen King's novella about a young boy (Brad Renfro) who enters into an unholy pact with a Nazi war criminal (Ian McKellen); it was marked by hype from the beginning (mainly owing to a mild controversy stemming from charges that some of the film's young male actors were coerced into performing a scene naked -- charges that were eventually dropped) but ultimately proved to be a relative disappointment.
The director resurfaced in 2000 with X-Men. A much-anticipated adaptation of the beloved Marvel comic, it was Singer's most high-profile project to date, featuring a cast that included Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Anna Paquin with a budget of 75 million dollars. Widely hailed by critics and audiences as one of the most successful comic-book superhero screen adaptations to come down the pipe in quite some time, one of X-Men's greatest strengths was the remarkable sense of dimension imbued in the film's characters. Of course, a healthy dose of hair-raising action didn't hurt either, and the film went on to become one of the summer's biggest hits -- with anticipation running high for a sequel.
Of course, having taken so much time to perfect the first film, Singer was understandably protective of the franchise and in no rush to crank out a by-the-numbers, quick cash-in sequel; a fact that resulted in skyrocketing expectations on the part of fans and much speculation as to where he would go with the series. By the time X2 hit theaters in early May of 2003, it had been three years since the first film floored audiences, and the sense of public anticipation was palpable. Fortunately, Singer had once again crafted a finely tuned adaptation that remained remarkably true to the characters while cranking up the stakes and action to a fever pitch. X2 was generally regarded as, at the very least, an equal to its predecessor, and many fans voiced the opinion that it actually did X-Men one better.
The trades anticipated Singer's involvement with the 20th Century Fox property X-Men: The Last Stand, and reported a projected release date of June 2006, but all did not go according to plan. Fox purportedly shut Singer out, and instead signed on Rush Hour helmer Brett Ratner, while Warner Bros. and Peters Entertainment tapped Singer (doubtless drawing on his superhero expertise) to head up 2006's highly-anticipated and plugged Superman Returns. Singer hearkened back to Usual Suspects pal Kevin Spacey to assume the position of the diabolical Lex Luthor, and enlisted Brandon Routh (a neophyte with no prior big screen appearances) to inherit the Man of Steel from the late Christopher Reeve.
The opus (arguably Singer's most high-profile release to date) opened in June 2006 and divided critics. The eloquent and perceptive Stephanie Zacharek of Slate proclaimed, "This sturdy, poetic fantasy proves that, of all comic-book heroes, the Man of Steel belongs to everyone," and Time's Richard Corliss remarked, "The best Hollywood movies always knew how to sneak a beguiling subtext into a crowd-pleasing story. Superman Returns is in that grand tradition. That's why it's beyond super. It's superb." Yet on the other side of the fence, Roger Ebert tagged it "a glum, lackluster movie in which even the big effects sequences seem dutiful instead of exhilarating" and Manhola Dargis of The New York Times chided cynically, "the Man of Steel has been resurrected in a leaden new film not only to fight for truth, justice, and the American way, but also to give Mel Gibson's Passion a run for his box-office money. Where once the superhero flew up, up and away, he now flies down, down, down, sent from above to save mankind from its sins and what looked like another bummer summer." Yet Warner remained supremely confident in the film's box-office appeal, to such a degree that they immediately began talks with Singer to helm a sequel, projected for release three years down the road. Sadly for the Caped Crusader, Superman Returns' largely lackluster reviews and poor performance at the box office gave the gung-ho studio second thoughts, and the planned sequel never materialized.
Singer's next film Valkyre, a thriller centering on a real-life plot to assassinate Hitler and starring Tom Cruise, didn't fare much better with critics or filmgoers, but with an executive producer credit on the wildly popular medical series House and a slew of other film and television projects, his career was still in full swing. Meanwhile, behind the camera, Singer began production on his next feature, 2013's Jack the Giant Killer -- an imaginative take on the beloved fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk.
Though he had worked as a writer and a producer on 2011's X-Men: First Class, Singer didn't return to the director's chair on the series until 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past, which became one of the best-reviewed and highest-grossing films of the series.