There’s no better metaphor for “Man of Steel” than the Faded Glory emblem on the side of the building behind Henry Cavill’s Superman. Zack Snyder’s existential reboot is all about returning the glory to DC’s legendary superhero (who turned 75 this year), and making him stand tall again beside Batman in the 21st century. In fact, I asked Snyder about it during a visit to the Smallville set two years ago in Plano, Illinois, outside of Chicago, where you could glimpse the wreckage of General Zod’s attack on Clark Kent’s hometown.
“I like the fact that Superman’s American — I think that that’s cool,” Snyder reflected in a tavern off main street. “I know that in the past his Americanness has been a liability for him. But you can’t have a Superman that is battling cultural morality. You need a Superman that has built-in values. I always remember everyone saying, ‘You’re not going to show him growing up in Kansas, are you?’ I’m like: ‘Why make Superman?’ To understand him, you have to understand the why of him.”
Earlier, our small group of online journos watched take after take of Superman getting pummeled in the middle of the street by Zod’s accomplice, the goth-looking Faora (Antje Traue), and a
mo-capped actor as a stand-in for a CG Kryptonian bot. Snyder was so loose that he hummed “I’ll Tumble 4U” while conferring with production VFX supervisor John DesJardin (“Watchmen,” “Sucker Punch”).
“By the way, the first scene that Chris [Nolan] pitched me was a scene about his childhood,” Snyder continued in the tavern. “It had nothing to do with smashing shit or anything like that. It was very much a childhood character moment that made me say, ‘OK, that’s different.’ It’s a different point of view of Superman that made me go, ‘Yeah, that grown up version of that guy is interesting to me.’ And Henry can project a naivete, which is nice, without seeming naive, which is a difficult quality. I don’t feel like you can take advantage of him, but he’d still help you change your flat tire on the side of the road.”
For screenwriter David Goyer, the key to making Superman cool and relevant again was by embracing the alien story so he could explore the holy trinity of Kal-El, Clark Kent, and Superman in biblical terms. Who is he and why was he sent to Earth? It’s very much in keeping with the crisis of conscience origin stories that underlie so many action-adventures in the post-9/11 era.
Ironically, Goyer hit on the idea while struggling to crack the third act on “The Dark Knight Rises.” Nolan recommended that he take a break so after picking up a few Superman comics, Goyer began wondering what compelled him to assume the identity and don the costume in the first place. “I realized that if the world became aware that Kal existed, it would be the first contact story, and in many ways, it would be the biggest thing that ever happened in human history,” he explained.
“It would change the world forever, just the sheer fact that he existed on the planet and then subsequently, the knowledge of what he could do, it would force the religions of the world to respond. There would be fear. There would be awe. I realized, at least cinematically, they’d always just jumped over that. He then has to grapple with, in effect, does he want to be Kal or does he want to be Clark? This is sort of his cross to bear. It’s the story of two fathers: Jor-El [Russell Crowe] and Jonathan [Kevin Costner].”
Like Snyder, the most important part for Goyer was identifying with Superman. He couldn’t be all-powerful and at the same time he carries a tremendous burden as the world savior, which makes him a lonely figure. So there are echoes of the Old and New Testaments with Moses and Christ, as well as Gilgamesh, the demigod with superhuman strength. “It’s not just coming up with the physical threat,” Goyer suggested, “but he’s presented with a couple of choices in this movie that are terrible choices that I think people can identify with.”
Cavill echoed the idea of inserting emotional Kryptonite: “The people who aren’t diehard Superman fans still need to associate with the character and that needs to have some realism in today’s world, certainly in the sense of a science as opposed to [only] mythology attached to it as well.”
One of the first tasks was figuring out the sci-fi alien culture of Krypton with production designer Alex McDowell (who collaborated with Snyder on “Watchmen”). They created a much more ritualistically formalized and socially stratified society than our own. They likened Krypton to feudal Japan with caste systems, guilds, gods, and temples alongside a utilitarian physics based on bio-mechanics. “So we decided that on Krypton, aside from the fact that it’s got different gravity, it’s got a different atmosphere than we do,” Goyer continued. “It’s a mega gravity planet, so gravity there is anywhere from four to 10 times the gravity on Earth.”
They even hired a specialist to create a spoken Kryptonian language while the art department constructed the various glyphs that appear throughout, most noticeably the famous “S” on Superman’s chest, which stands for hope. We additionally visited the Kent farm in nearby Naperville, where, hidden in the barn, stands Kal’s spiral-shaped space ship also bearing the symbol from the house of El.
“All these things come into play and they also explain why Superman has the powers that he has,” Goyer offered. “I mean, the costume has a utility and we’re going to explain where the costume comes from and why and he doesn’t just fly into the crystal thing and come out with a costume.We also decided that they had been civilized for 100,000 years. They’d also become a decadent society, and may have become space faring.”
Despite all the CG destruction witnessed in the trailers, “Man of Steel” is the most realistic and practical movie that Snyder’s ever made. It’s part of the organic strategy that defines the look and tone, including the frequent use of hand-held camera work For Goyer, it added an immediacy and there was no better example than the second day of shooting on the Kent farm. It was magic hour and cinematographer Amir Mokri (“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”) captured a revelatory moment between father and son right out of “Days of Heaven” or “Superman” in its textural beauty. “I just turned to Zack and said, ‘Can you believe we’re doing this?'”
As for Michael Shannon’s villainous Zod, who comes to retrieve Kal, Snyder suggested he’s more grounded as well. “He’s not maniacal or fucked up — he’s got a point of view that’s not crazy. He’s a force of nature. Whatever the stakes are, you have to figure that Shannon will raise them by just being Shannon. We didn’t want to start with a Superman that didn’t have an enemy that showed why he needs to be Superman. Zod is Kryptonian as well.”
And that’s the key: connecting the dots between Krypton and Earth so this man of steel can decide which set of moral rules he’s going to abide by.
Check out the “Battle for Smallville” featurette below, and the Wall Street Journal’s look at the “Superhuman Appeal of Superman” here.