“It’s Superman,” states Zack Snyder, simply. “If you get it right he’s kinda transcendent. The Superman shield is the second most recognizable symbol on planet Earth other the Christian cross.”
On the line to SFX at a defiantly early hour, Snyder’s in an upbeat, bullish mood. We’ve just asked him how fearless he feels relaunching the last son of Krypton in skies positively swarming with superheroic rivals. His answer is almost a warning shot, exploding loud and bright above Marvel’s territorial waters.
“If you get it right, that’s the question you’ll be asking everyone else. That should be the question you’re asking Iron Man and Thor. How is it that you feel you can be making a superhero movie in a world where Superman and Batman exist?
“They truly are purer archetypes,” the helmer continues, his easy manner concealing the zeal of a preacher from the Church of the Rocket Baby Messiah. “They’re literally Biblical. If you get the DC characters right, they can be important, they can be about us. It’s not just a romp. That’s the fun, for me, of working on this movie. We got that it was important. We weren’t apologising for Superman, which I feel has happened in the past. It’s Superman, for God’s sake. He’s a thing to be celebrated.”
Cinema’s latest celebration of Siegel and Shuster’s enduring icon is Man Of Steel. Retelling the essential orphan-flees-doomed-world myth, it’s a blockbuster steered to the screen by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, architects of the all-conquering Dark Knight trilogy. And, just like their riff on Gotham City, it aims to ground its caped, cloud-slicing hero in something approaching realism.
“That was the biggest part of our goal,” says producer Charles Raven, who also served on Nolan’s pragmatically minded Bat-saga. “And it informed everything we did, from the script to the way we cast the film to the way Zack shot it, the cinematic style that he used, the action, everything. Even though you’re taking something that is science fiction and fantastical you’re executing it in a way that grounds it. As Zack is fond of saying, even though it’s about a superhero, it’s still in many ways the most realistic film he’s ever done.”
“Of course there’ll be comparisons to The Dark Knight,” admits Snyder. “I love the movies that Chris made, but this is a very different movie — the sci-fi aspect, the way we shot it, the character... all those things combined. It’s a much more optimistic movie, in a weird way, just because it’s Superman. The thing that Chris brought to it in its early stages is that ability to take that mythology seriously. Don’t apologise for it. Fucking figure it out, make it work.”
Snyder has form when it comes to transposing comic books to the screen. His showreel includes a hyperreal take on Frank Miller’s testosterone anthem 300 and 2009’s reverential adaptation of Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen. “It was a definite draw that he understood some of the issues with a quote superhero unquote film,” says Roven but Snyder promises that Man Of Steel sees him work new filmmaking muscles.
Keeping It Real
“I feel like all the movies I’ve made have been born out of irony, in a weird way. Cinematic irony is the staple of the way that I make movies, sadly! The most ironic part of Superman is that it’s not ironic. It’s serious. And that really interested me. And that goes hand in hand with what I tried to do with it visually — make this a movie that felt real. I know that’s an odd thing to say when you’re talking about Superman, but I wanted to try and make him feel like he was among us, make you understand why he did certain things. I wanted the audience to go, ‘If I was Superman that’s what I would have done!’ That’s the thing you really haven't felt from Superman before — he’s always been foreign, and weird!”
If irony is now officially Kryptonite, is Superman’s brand of blue-eyed decency an even harder sell in the 21st century?
“The boy scout part of it is,” admits Snyder. “But I think his morality, his decency, is still universal, and kind of refreshing, in a weird way. But you’ve got to give him a little grey. That makes him interesting.”
Man Of Steel arrives seven years after Superman Returns, a stuttering franchise resurrection that felt like the world’s priciest love note to 1978’s Superman The Movie. “One of the things Bryan Singer did when he made Superman Returns was create a homage to that movie,” says Roven. “And I think in some ways that didn’t work in the way he imagined it.”
So how do you escape the long red and blue shadow of Richard Donner’s classic? Man Of Steel rewinds to Year Zero.
“In the same way that Superman is the grandaddy of all superhero characters, the Donner movie is the grandaddy of all superhero movies,” says Snyder. “It’s the first blockbuster. The Avengers, all those movies, are all the same thing. Not that that's bad — I think that’s awesome — but what we tried to do is say ‘Okay, we’re just pretending like that movie doesn’t exist’. I know that’s crazy to say, but you have to do that, just for sanity’s sake, otherwise you’d just be making that movie over and over, because it’s so iconographic, from the music to the casting to everything. And so we said ‘Okay, what if they had never made a Superman movie? how would we approach that?’ Hans [Zimmer, composer] had a huge challenge, just for the music alone, because it’s such a fucking score, you know? But Hans has killed it.”
Just So Supermanish
This generation’s Kal-El is Tudors star Henry Cavill, who won the role against a legion of wannabe Supermen. “I don’t even know the total number, but a hundred, at least, in the first stages,” shares Snyder. “Then it got serious and we got it down to about 20 guys and then 10 and then five. We’d always had Henry on our list. He probably had a couple of guys to beat but then he came in and it was like oh my God, he’s so Superrnanish it’s crazy!
“There was a telling moment — we put him in the Christopher Reeve costume, because we didn’t have a suit yet, we just had the old spandex suit. He stepped out of the trailer and no one laughed. It’s the difference between being Superman and dressing up like Superman. If I’m dressed up like Superman it’s like a Halloween costume. If you’re Henry it’s your clothes. It’s awesome. Watch the movie and you’re like ‘Holy shit, that’s Superman.’ And it’s not weird or crazy, it’s just cool.”
The muted costume is the clearest statement of Man Of Steel’s mission. It’s as if Snyder has spun the dimmer switch on Superman, dialling down the primary-coloured pop of the original. Did he ever feel that he was meddling with a piece of Americana on a par with the Stars and Stripes or a Coca-Cola can?
“You’ve got to be amazingly careful with it,” he concedes. “No one should say ‘Who’s that character supposed to be?’, you know what I mean? [laughs]. If there’s a moment where somebody goes ‘Oh, he’s in his suit now?’ then you’ve fucked it up, you’re an idiot. And we tried hard to get the underwear to work, but you know what, it just died...”
Yes, Man Of Steel jettison’s Superman’s scarlet trunks, mercilessly depriving comedians of the laziest gag in their repertoire. “lt’s funny,” says Snyder. “When I was doing Watchmen I did all that research about the why of superhero costumes, and the underwear on the outside as a staple for superheroes comes from Victorian strongmen. It’s left over. They would wear that kind of flesh-coloured leotard and then they would put the underwear over it so that they’d give the illusion of being naked. It’s a carny thing — that’s where it comes from, the sideshow showmen. We’ve finally come out of the Victorian era and into the new world!”
“What was important for Zack was that the costume did not come out of nowhere,” says producer Deborah Snyder. “It had to have a reason. We go to Krypton and see this world where everything had its place. If they’re in space he wanted it to feel like a space suit, and he wanted it to feel like the underlayer that they would maybe put armour over. It’s also a caped society, so when you go to Krypton he wanted to see variations of this costume. Finally, when Clark finds the costume and puts it on, you’ve established where it comes from.”
A Special Place
Our trip to Krypton allows Snyder to stamp his vision on the finer details of the Superman story. Gone are the rocket-finned Flash Gordon stylings of the original comic strip and the glacial utopia of the Donner movie, replaced by a decayed, time-worn world on the brink of extinction.
“I really wanted my Krypton to be this kind of special place that’s immersive and totally different from Earth, but not unbelievable. And ancient. I really wanted to give this ancient feeling to Krypton. I love technology that’s rusty because it’s so old. It’s so advanced. but it’s so old. That was the kind of world that I tried to create. A dying world that’s ancient and torn apart.”
Man Of Steel aims to nail the broad sweep of the Superman mythos (“There’s a taste of almost every frickin’ storyline or are in there,” says Snyder, a particular fan of Grant Morrison’s take on the character — “So there’s a little bit of him”). We see Clark Kent journey from heartland to shining city, embracing his superpowered destiny as he encounters Lois Lane (a “feistier, stronger” Amy Adams, says Deborah Snyder) and trades sun-powered punches with Kryptonian crim General Zod (a “kind of terrifying” Michael Shannon). Were there parts of the four-colour mythology too far out for a mainstream audience? The bottled city of Kandor, for instance?
“That’s why we stuck to what I would say is the Old Testament in the canon,” says Zack Snyder, leaching for the preacher man metaphors again. “The strongest storylines or the strongest characters. Zod is what I would consider a hometown threat for him. He’s immediately fighting an emotional and physical war against this guy. You’re talking about your birth family coming to find you — and they turn out to be crazy hillbillies!”
So no chance of seeing Streaky the Supercat in the sequel, then? “Yeah, I don’t know about that,” chuckles Snyder. “Or what’s the monkey’s name? Bubbo? Booboo?” Beppo the Supermonkey? “Beppo, yeah, that’s it! Maybe the third film. When you run out of ideas, you’re like yeah, let’s go to the animals!”