Remember Superman: The Movie (1978)? The scene where Daily Planet star reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is interviewing the man in tights? “And she says, ‘So you’re from Krypton?’” recalls Man Of Steel scripter David S. Goyer. “They run the story, saying he’s from another planet, and no one bats an eyelid!” He chuckles at the hard-to-swallow notion. “l always thought that was rather strange...”
A yardstick in spandex cinema, Richard Donner’s Superman pitched a classic tagline promise: ‘You’ll believe a man can ﬂy’. If Man Of Steel has a mission statement, it’s to make you believe a man who can fly can also have his feet on the ground. “We’ve tried to make a Superman movie where he does stuff and you go, ‘Yeah, if I was Superman, that’s what I’d do,’” explains director Zack Snyder. “Even though he’s an alien, he’s more relatable, more human.” Or as leading man/alien Henry Cavill puts it, “This is a Superman for a modern age. It’s not betraying anything that Superman is, but it is grounding everything in reality. It’s the story of this incredible being who can do incredible things, but whom we can associate with. Because he’s gone through troubling stuff and had to make tough choices...”
Troubling stuff? Tough choices? We want details. But of course, we can’t have too many of them yet, the filmmakers keeping their cards close to their S-emblazoned chests. This is, after all, a Christopher Nolan production. “It’s something Chris tried hard to do with the Batman films,” says Goyer, who had script and/or story credits across The Dark Knight trilogy. “I’m genuinely pleased with how much secrecy we’ve been able to maintain,” he smiles. “There’s so much of the movie that people don’t know, that hasn’t been touched upon. The trailer’s just the tiniest, tiniest tip of the iceberg.” Still, the first promo does drop a few hints as to what we can expect, tonally at least: a soul-stirring, soul-searching (“You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be,” counsels Kevin Costner, playing Superman’s adoptive Earth-dad) take on the biggest gun in comics.
Mythic, moody and a bit Malick-y, it brews an existential vibe you wouldn't typically associate with such an indomitable, can-do icon. “He’s lost his place in the world,” reveals producer (and Zack’s wife) Deborah Snyder. “He’s trying to find himself.” Although his circumstances are more fantastical than the norm — the whole superpowered, sent-from-the-stars thing – Cavill’s character wrestles with some universal questions: “‘What is my journey? What is my purpose? What am I supposed to do?’” Snyder relates. Facing these conundrums will bring us closer to Clark Kent, she reckons. “We can’t understand what it’s like to have all these superpowers unless you relate to the more human aspects of the character. And if you can relate to him more, you’re more engaged. He’s not a squeaky-clean boy scout.”
He’s not Batman either, as Goyer is keen to stress. “Relatable and realistic doesn’t necessarily mean dark.” he states. “I think it would be inappropriate for us to approach a Superman film as if we were doing The Dark Knight. The Batman films are a lot more nihilistic: Superman has always been a story about hope.” Reshaping the Man Of Tomorrow for today’s audiences thus required a delicate balancing act. “We wanted to give him a certain edginess, but at the same time we really wanted him to be warm,” explains Charles Roven (another TDK trilogy veteran). “It’s not an easy part to play, but Henry does an exemplary job hitting all those colours.”
Clothes make the man, goes the old saying — but in Cavill’s case, the man made the clothes. In the absence of a new (re)design (more on which later), the Brit-actor screen-tested in Christopher Reeves old cossie. Striking in its day, a bit fancy-dress now. Yet when Cavill emerged in the glaring get-up, “no one laughed,” remembers Deborah Snyder. “We knew, ‘That is the guy.’” Hubby agrees. “It was like, ‘Stand back — Superman's here,” says Zack Snyder. “If you can walk around in that thing, you’re in pretty good shape.”
Cavill brought conviction to his audition but not, he admits, a surplus of Super-knowledge. “Having gone to boarding school, I didn’t have a comic-book store nearby,” he says of his early days. “But as soon as I was cast in the movie, that’s when I got my full, real introduction to and having all the differences and nuances that our script adds.” For all the background research, Man Of Steel is no mish-mash. “This is our own thing. Stand-alone,” he avers. “It's about Superman. but were not copying from any one comic book in particular. And that’s a good thing, because it’s an origin story.”
The plot’s awash in bassline elements: the planet Krypton; biological dad Jor-El (Russell Crowe); growing up as Clark Kent in Smallville; the Daily Planet; Lois Lane (Amy Adams)... David S. Goyer worked up a list of “about 20 or 30 core characteristics” around which he built his script. The choice of villain came “pretty early on” he says, though his and Nolan’s approach — as with Batman — was to thrash out a narrative then see which baddie fit best. “We decided we wanted to tell a story about Superman being an outsider,” he says. “To an extent, it’s a film about first contact, and about him deciding whether or not to embrace his Kryptonian heritage; so Zod was despite looking like a Bee Gee in a space-age jumpsuit. That’s about to change with Michael Shannon. He’s set to terrorise, tyrannise and really get on Superman’s tits. But don’t call him a villain.
“He's not a villain.” remarks Shannon. “He’s not a villain anymore than any other general fighting to protect his people. He doesn’t like to just hurt people and steal the diamonds; he’s focused on being successful at his job.” Which, if Shannon’s past roles are anything to go by — Revolutionary Road; Boardwalk Empire; Take Shelter; take your pick – he’ll pursue with bug-eyed intensity.
But still, the modern Zod will be a shaded beast, not someone going full panto. “I think the way Terence approached it — and this isn’t any criticism of his performance – something kind of detached about it,” Shannon muses. “Pure hatred, rage, whatever… I think this [characterisation] is more ambiguous.” As for the outfit, it’s goodbye to the disco-wear and hello to more battle-friendly armour — armour so hardy it had to be realized with motion-capture, “because the real thing would probably crush me”.
Which brings us to Man Of Steel’s most radical, most refreshing, most eyebrow-raising twist on the legend: the binning of the undies. As with all things Superman, Christopher Reeve brought a manly nobility to wearing his pants on the outside. But the red briefs simply don’t hold up in 2013. Mind you, it was a struggle to get them off, according to Zack Snyder. “When we started off I said, ‘We need to try and keep the underwear as best we can,’” he recalls. “We went through many, many iterations, and eventually I said, ‘All right, it’s got to go.’ I tried, I really tried...”
The process of fashioning Supes a fresh look took roughly half a year, a symbol of Snyder and co’s commitment to updating the mythos with ultra-care, (re)building a world that’s true but new. “We have absolute respect for what was then,” assures Cavill, “but now is now. Even Superman in the new comics doesn’t have the briefs – he has the red belt, but not the briefs. It’s time for a change.”
It’s also time to ask ‘Why?’ believes Zack Snyder, seeding a link between Man Of Steel and his earlier adap of a DC property. “When you think about it, Watchmen is an essay on the ‘Why?’ of superheroes,” he argues. “Why we worship them and why that is. I feel very versed in the ‘Why?’ of superheroes... Chris [Nolan] has said that’s why he was interested in me doing this movie.” Snyder promises a sense of sophistication previously unseen in a Superman movie.
Also in store: some very cool shit. No spoilers, but there are major smackdowns in store. “The action – wow,” gasps Goyer. “If you always wanted to see a movie where superpowered beings really go at it, you’ll get it in this one.” The visual effects are “pretty out there” agrees Zack Snyder, but pre-empts suggestions of CG overload by adding that there’s “tons of Henry” – ie practical elements – describing the spectacle as “super-organic”. Grounded remains the watchword. “It’s amazing what [Superman] is capable of, but he’s a slightly more down-to-Earth version of the character,” he explains. “I don’t think he can hold up a continent...”
A little dig, perhaps, at Superman Returns (2006) — Bryan Singer’s loving homage to Richard Donner’s vision which, despite critics’ blessings and $391m at the box office, was pegged a disappointment, enough to keep Kal-El off the big screen for seven years. “Superman has been broken for a little while,” reckons Zack Snyder, going on to draw a parallel with Nolan's rehabilitation of a post-Schumacher Batman. “[Chris] respected the character and what he could say in a modern world about ourselves. That’s kind of what we’ve tried to do with Superman. It’s important that we get him fixed and get him right.”
As Cavill points out, Man Of Steel’s pedigree is virtually bulletproof. “I mean, stellar cast,” he enthuses (other big names include Diane Lane and Laurence Fishburne, as Clark’s adoptive mum and Daily Planet editor respectively). “It’s a perfect storm of incredibly talented people.” He’s confident too that it’s a happy marriage of style and substance. “Sometimes you want to watch a whiz-bang movie. Other times you want something introspective, that really provokes something inside. This hits a wonderful medium between the two.”
As to what the film’s really about, it’s right there on the label. “He’s a man, but he’s a man of steel,” says Goyer. “It’s very much the theme of the movie, so it’s embedded in the title, which we settled on at the very beginning. He’s human, but he’s not human.” We’ll gain more insight into those extra-terrestrial roots than previous movies. No longer is planet Krypton what Michael Shannon describes as “an ethereal, floating crystal mirror thing” from Donner’s film.
“We try to flesh out Krypton and its different political factions, its fauna, its science,” says Goyer. All of which means more screen time for Rusell Crowe’s Jor-El than punters are perhaps expecting. “It’s not a cameo,” Goyer confirms. “I think people felt he’s playing the Marlon Brando role, which isn’t necessarily the case.”
Go Kryptonians, then. But what about the wider DC universe? Does that have a part to play? “I can’t really say,” is all Zack Snyder will say. If reports in the trade press are to be believed, the fate of Justice League movie is hinged on how high Man Of Steel flies at the box office. Whether or not Easter eggs have been set in place, hopeful of hatching a superteam franchise to rival The Avengers, the director is eager for Superman to return. “My hope is that we establish him and that he’s a viable, awesome character that everyone is interested in seeing continue,” he says. “He’s the biggest superhero in the world. Or should be. He’s Superman, for God’s sake!”