Zach Snyder and the Dark Knight team lay out their bold vision for the year's most anticipated superhero picture: Man Of Steel
No.lan.ise — v. To apply a moody realism to a comic-book or superhero property, particularly based around a single character, when adapting it into a film: -ed, -irrg — alt. To apply a mood for dancing.
RELEASED: June 14
DIRECTOR: Zack Snyder
STARRING: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Kostner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue
STORY: Oh, you know: alien baby crash-lands on Earth after his planet blows up; grows up into solar-powered mega-being; becomes journalist; fights baddies; wins. Probably.
SO WHAT’S DIFFERENT? In case you hadn’t already noticed, the creative brains behind the Dark Knight trilogy (writer David S. Goyer, producers Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas and Charles Roven) have brought about this moodier iteration.
FUN FACT: The month of Man Of Steel’s release also marks the 75th anniversary of the character’s first comic-book appearance.
How does Superman fly? Not gliding into the air as if plucked aloft by invisible wires, fist thrust heavenward, cutting a path through the sky-blue firmament — we know that bit. How, by the laws of physics, does he stay up there? He has no wings, no visible means of support. Sure, the gravity might have been much heavier on old, defunct Krypton, but that only accounts for his ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, not hurtling through the atmosphere at the speed of sound. Even in the exotic, ever-elaborate world of the comic-book adaptation, flying takes a superheroic suspension of disbelief. Such questions are at the heart of the issue that has been perplexing Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan of late. How do you go Dark Knight on the brightest light of them all?
“We’re approaching Superman as if it weren't a comic-book movie, as if it were real,” says Goyer, swiftly assessing his current calling as writer of Man Of Steel, following his work on the Dark Knight trilogy “That's sort of what we did with Batman, which now seems revolutionary. Before, a lot of superhero films had been approached as superhero films, you know: Adam West’s Batman or Dick Tracy.”
Multi-million-dollar ice-cream sundaes made of primary colours and clingy spandex. As is now Hollywood gospel, Goyer and the Nolan brothers (Jonah Nolan is not officially on Man Of Steel) coolly cleansed Batman of his camp to industry-changing, billion-dollar effect. Parent studio Warner Bros, custodian of the cornucopia of DC Comics characters, was keen to find out whether there was a realistic reboot in the other jewel in the DC crown — Kai-El, aka Clark Kent, aka Superman, aka The Man Of Steel. Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman Returns had erred too much on the soft-hued tribute to the classic Richard Donner movies.
An origin story to an origin story: maybe three-and-half years ago, Goyer and Nolan went down with a bout of writer’s block on The Dark Knight Rises, so they decided to take a week's break. Goyer distracted himself by reading old Superman comics, and found himself jotting ideas down. Just a paragraph or two on how he might refashion The Man Of Tomorrow for a modern world.
“Ultimately that approach became the film,” he says. When they reconvened, and Nolan asked if he’d made any progress with the Dark Knight, Goyer had to come clean.
“I said, ‘No, but I came up with a take for Superman!’” Right then and there Nolan called Jeff Robinov, President of Warner Bros. Pictures Group. “David just pitched me a new take on Super-man,” Nolan announced into his Batphone. “You should hear it.” A week later it was happening, to the tune of $225 million (estimated).
Goyer laughs, “You know, I adore the Donner films. Absolutely adore them. It just struck me that there was an idealist quality to them that may or may not work with today’s audience.” The genre has moved on, the game has changed. A laurel you can lay on Goyer and Nolan's work with Batman Begins, although the writer humbly offers up the X-Men films as further examples of the growing sophistication of the comic-book universe.
“It just struck me that if Superman really existed in the world, first of all this story would be a story about first contact,” he says “He’s an alien. You can easily imagine a scenario in which we'd be doing a film like E.T., as opposed to him running around in tights. If the world found out he existed, it would be the biggest thing that ever happened in human history.”
Suddenly the classic Superman ingredients, those comic-book staples we took for granted, became questions in need of answers. Why does he take the name Superman? Why does he wear a costume? What is the Fortress Of Solitude? How would the world react to his very presence? All the latent Christ and Moses metaphors bedded deep in the mythology took on added emphasis If you apply realism to Superman, as is the Nolan way, he becomes a more profound concept. “Superman exists,” enthuses director Zack Snyder. “That is kind of a big deal.”
Snyder had never really taken Superman seriously. He’d had tentative discussions with Warner during the much-ballyhooed bake-off that had preceded Superman Returns, but couldn't see how to make him modern. “We kind of moved on,” he shrugs, the “we” being him and his wife and producer, Deborah Snyder. Then two years ago came a bolt from the blue — a lunch invite from Christopher Nolan. A double date of Hollywood power couples: Christopher and Emma (Thomas), Zack and Deborah. “Just one thing,” Nolan added. “Do you mind if we talk about Supeman?”
They did lunch. They talked about Superman. Nolan and Goyer’s Superman revolution: shorn of the goody two-shoes, the beaming Boy Scout, and loaded with cause and effect. Snyder was impressed. Next thing they knew, a black car was parked in their driveway, waiting for them to finish the script before returning it to Nolan's internet-proof vault. Deborah Snyder had still had her qualms. “I don‘t know, Zack, this could be career suicide,” she confided to her husband before the lunch. She still couldn't see how to make him relevant. “After we read the script,” she effuses, “we both looked at each other knowing they had really figured out a way to pull this off.”
What surprised Snyder most was that it really didn’t stray from the accepted canon. Here was Krypton, Smallville, Clark’s Kansas boyhood and the Fortress Of Solitude; here too was Lois Lane, Perry White, and, as chief villain, that inimitable Kryptonian bad apple, General Zod. “Just the tone separated it from the Superman I had known before,” says Snyder. For all the action, and Goyer calculates there is more action in Man Of Steel than any of the Dark Knight films, here was an exploration of what it might be like to possess superpowers.
“He is looking for his place in the world,” explains Deborah Snyder. “He is a little lost when we find him, trying to figure it out. That makes him very real. You can relate to the humanity in him.” Her husband terms it the “why of him”.
“I am never a fan of using the adjective ‘darker’.” Henry Cavill’s English accent has a public-school precision to it, but then, he did attend Stowe School, a grand-old educational edifice residing in Buckingham, England, about a million light-years from Smallville. Like Christian Bale before him, Cavill is a Brit playing an American stalwart, although Snyder likes to remind people Superman is only adopted American — he likes the suggestion of “otherness” in his star.
“It is not a dark movie by any means,” Cavill continues carefully, a stickler for the politic. “Past representations of the character have been quite light... This is a more realistic view on the character, while still maintaining the very unrealistic, or potentially unrealistic, features of an alien with superpowers.”
They had him put in Christopher Reeve’s old suit. Spandex tights, pants on the outside, Paddington’s boots, the daft get-up of Donner’s comical comic: it embodied everything they were up against. “Trust me, that thing is unforgiving,” notes Snyder, Cavill had to stand and prop his knuckles on his hips, walk about and swirl the scarlet cape. No-one laughed. Snyder wanted to see him on film, the room filled with crew, schoolboy gangs of grips and sparks. And still no-one laughed. Holy shit, thought Snyder, he is Superman.
Any quest to invest real-life into the Superman aesthetic surely starts here: the human who will fill his boots. But who would have thought Kal-El, last son of Krypton, would actually be one of four strapping brothers from the Bailiwick Of Jersey? Cavill had once contemplated Egyptology, but cut such a dash in school plays with his square-jawed, yes, Superman-straight good looks, he couldn’t resist the gravitational pull of acting. He’s recently turned heads in TV‘s The Tudors, and nudged his way into leading roles with 2011's brush with godliness, Immortals, but for along while he appeared condemned to be the nearly boy. He was up for Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter 4 when Robert Pattinson was cast; he was up for James Bond when Daniel Craig was crowned 007. He has previous in Metropolis, too. Cavill had wowed Warner and McG when the mono-monickered director was down to helm a reboot of Superman (reputedly called Superman: Flyby), only for the director to scarper and replacement Bryan Singer elect for Reeve-alike Brandon Routh.
“I had my foot in the door with the studio,” admits Cavill modestly, but he still had to work his way through two auditions. To keep the industry off the scent, for the first round of reads with potential leads Snyder had written some “generic heroic dialogue”, disguising Superman as a fireman. They probably guessed. It didn’t matter. As soon as Cavill took on his second audition — one scene as Clark, one as Superman — the decision made itself, and it wasn’t just the jet-black locks and a chin borrowed from a comic book cover.
“There is an innate sort of kindness about him,” says Snyder. “Without him seeming holy, he is able to be kind in a way that feels natural. That is such a rare quality in the world today.”
Cavill went on a strict diet of “source material”. This meant comic books alone. No previous TV or movie versions allowed as he barely strayed from the gym for six months. “I didn’t want someone else’s representation to confuse me,” he says. It was a baseline philosophy for star and filmmakers — proceed as if there hadn’t been any previous adaptations: Superman Begins.
However, finding your perfect interchangeable mix of Kal-El, Clark and Superman, landing him in a real world and presenting him with a caseload of human hang-ups, a full psych evaluation, only cracks the surface of this particular legend. Batman becomes the Dark Knight with comparative ease: he is a human being, a troubled vigilante elevated by a billionaire’s resources and confronted with flamboyant loons. It takes more than concrete emotions for Superman to become the Man Of Steel. Goyer and Nolan had to bring their steely conviction to superhuman strength, a big, red cape and an alien foe in natty space armour.
“It is obviously a much longer process with a character like Superman,” concedes Goyer. “It is much easier to do a realistic take on Batman. You know nothing can hurt Superman, presumably other than Kryptonite.” (What are we to make of that delicate “presumably”? Another poison? A new vulnerability?)
“The challenge was simply: can we figure out a way to make those elements work, quote unquote, in the real world?” Some of it, he readily admits, took a while.
Nonetheless, it had to be Zod. In the tantalising guise of Michael Shannon (“The gravitas he brings is incredible,” gushes Deborah Snyder — then, he is from Krypton), they not only needed a credible match for Superman, a valid opponent, they required the means to convey to the hero something of his Kryptonian roots.
“It's very much a story of a man with two fathers,” elaborates Goyer. Central to Kal-El/Clark’s journey to superhood is a dilemma over which paternal philosophy he will ultimately adopt. Will it be the Earthbound wisdom of surrogate pa Jonathan Kent: that is, the steadfast Americana of Kevin Costner? Or will it be the alien path, his more ambiguous Kryptonian legacy of biological pop Jor-El: as in the vociferous charisma of Russell Crowe? (However it turns out, the film is wonderfully cast.) Escaping as a baby, Moses-style, Superman knows nothing of his imploded homeworld. Somebody needed to present him the wherewithal on Krypton. “Zod was the logical choice,” says Snyder.
Intriguingly, the film’s biggest secret seems to surround good-old Clark Kent — formerly Superman’s befuddled, bespectacled alter-ego. Could it be here where the mythos is getting its biggest shake-up? Ask innocently about Clark and Lois, the famous love triangle with a superheroic third fiddle, and lips are hastily tightened. “That is hard to answer,” itches Snyder, unwilling to come clean. “That gives a bit of the DNA of the movie away. Suffice to say, whether it is Superman or Kal-El or Clark Kent, we wanted to make him cooler. You'll have to wait to see the why of it.”
“I’ll say that part of what this movie is, is about Clark being Superman.” Goyer is willing, at least, to admit their Clark is not as goofy as Christopher Reeve’s. When it came to Lois Lane, says Snyder, they cast Amy Adams because she is “supermodern”. Lois needed to be a match for Superman, a girl who intrigues him. “She is everything you would hope for from Lois Lane,” he concludes.
“I can’t talk about that too much,” circles Cavill, trapped between an NDA and good manners. “I don’t want to be giving away the idea of the film too early, but Amy is a great actress, very professional, a pleasure to work with…”
The question, then, isn’t really how does Superman fly, but how does it feel to fly? Not that Goyer is without his ideas of what keeps the superhero airborne. “We worked out things for our own purposes,” he teases, and they are briefly touched upon in the movie, “but that it is not that important. It’s interesting that he doesn't know how he flies He didn’t grow up on Krypton.” As Cavill says, “The tricky thing is there is a sense of awe and also a sense of being frightened.” The superheroic mingled with the human. Krypton mixed with Earth.
Man Of Steel might be cut from Dark Knight Kevlar, but he is still his own man. The two trailers thus far suggest a more enigmatic, lyrical, even wistful variation on Nolan’s unvarnished comic-hook noir than the midnight urbanity of the Bat. A flavour that befits Superman’s soulfulness — his superheart. Goyer mentions the influence of Terrence Malick rather than Frank Miller. It is a film brimming with themes. Ambiguities. Choices.
“I don’t know what my style is,” confesses Snyder, touching on the consternation that swept the internet when he was offered the movie, grumpy fans seeing him as a CG-obsessed technobrat rather than a Nolan-like auteur (complainants who forget the ingenuity Snyder applied to Watchmen — written, amusingly, as an antidote to the sanctimony of Superman). “In the commercial world I have done tons of handheld, shot-focussy studies where I am the photographer.” Malick’s fluid naturalism isn’t alien to him. In shooting Man Of Steel he’s gone for the subliminal, plenty of handheld, an emphasis on real locations (Chicago for Metropolis, Plano in Illinois for Smallville).
There are visual effects. Boy, are there visual effects. But in service of reality. If Cavill was ever on wires, it was only for body position (still uncomfortable). Snyder's philosophy was that Superman cannot do anything that is not visual effects. For his superpowers to appear natural, they had to be digitally created. No strings attached. “l am superhappy with the job the guys did,” he says.
“It is kind of ironic,” adds Deborah Snyder with a smile, “that this is the most realistic work we have ever done. And it is Superman!”
Perhaps the biggest irony of all (Man Of Irony!) is that this journey has been about being more true to the character, not less. “We are not trying to take the super out of Superman,” insists Snyder. You can feel he likes the line. “We didn't go into this thinking, ‘How can we make him less super, more man?’”
“What you have to remember with both Batman and Superman is that what makes those the most beloved superheroes after all this time is the essence of who those characters are," says Christopher Nolan, who, once the script was finalized, emphatically stayed out of the kitchen. “You can’t ever move too far away from that. A big part of their appeal is their extraordinary nature.”
There is a reason the film is called Man Of Steel and not Superman Anything. “It falls into that idea of trying to humanize the inhuman,” explains Goyer, who likes a double meaning. “He’s made out of steel, he’s not made out of flesh, metaphorically speaking. We are portraying him as a man, yet he’s not a man.” Watch him ﬂy.