Somebody finally tugged on Superman’s cape. The DC Comics hero, who turns 75 this year, has soared to such hallowed pop culture status since the 1938 publication of Action Comics #1 that he’s been in desperate need of being brought back down to Earth. He’s not only bulletproof, he’s faster than a speeding bullet. And if he’s ever too late to save the day — as 1981’s Superman II showed us — he can just spin the planet the other way and reverse time. You’ve always rooted for him, but you’ve never been able to relate to him. So how do you fix a character whose problem is perfection? That was the core question facing Man of Steel, a full-on reboot headed to theaters on June 14. In crafting the story, the writers, the producers, the director, and even the star had to think like a cadre of supervillains, plotting ways to get under Superman’s invincible skin in search of flaws and vulnerabilities. They put one key restriction on themselves. ”I’ll be honest with you, there’s no kryptonite in the movie,” says director Zack Snyder. Those glowing green space rocks — Superman’s only crippling weakness — are too predictable and too easy, he says. Anyway, it’s just a glorified allergy.
So they probed for more surprising, and more human, worries and uncertainties that might be pinging around inside Clark Kent’s bulletproof cranium. ”With someone who has that much power and responsibility, the answers are going to be more difficult,” says Henry Cavill, the 29-year-old dark-haired, blue-eyed Brit selected to don the red cape this time. ”Although he is not susceptible to the frailties of mankind, he is definitely susceptible to the emotional frailties.”
Or as Snyder puts it: ”It’s all emotional kryptonite.”
Introspection, loneliness, and doubt are risky ingredients for an action-packed summer tentpole, particularly one with a budget estimated at $175 million on the low end and $225 million on the high end. Optimus Prime never does such soul-searching. But as the project came together, Warner Bros. executives knew they couldn’t afford another misfire with the character, especially given the lukewarm legacy of 2006’s Superman Returns, the would-be reboot by X-Men director Bryan Singer that turned out to be more of a pseudo-sequel to the Christopher Reeve films of the ’70s and ’80s. It earned $391 million at the global box office, but many fans just shrugged. ”If you’re going to reinterpret something, you have to own it and make it feel fresh and different,” says Jeff Robinov, president of Warner Bros. Pictures Group (which, like Entertainment Weekly, is a division of Time Warner). ”We made a conscious decision [with Superman Returns] to embrace what had been done in the past, and it didn’t strike the chord we wanted it to.”
In the meantime, comic-book nemesis Marvel began knocking out hit after hit with the Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Avengers films. So the pressure was on Warner Bros. to rejuvenate its DC brands. Since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy had already rescued Batman from a terminal case of comic-book camp, he and his Gotham team — screenwriter David S. Goyer and producer Charles Roven among them — were ideal partners when it came to resurrecting Superman as a grittier, more damaged hero.
Man of Steel actually originated with Goyer while he was at an impasse on the script for The Dark Knight Rises, and he began talking to Nolan about that other big-city DC hero. They devised a hunted, fearful Superman — one who didn’t even identify himself with that grandiose moniker but just wanted to blend in on his new home planet. ”I said to Chris, ‘It’s one thing to grow up realizing that you’re different or you might have these superpowers, but it’s another thing entirely to step before the world and say, I’m going to put on a costume and say I’m Superman,”’ Goyer says. ”Like, why would he do that? So we’ve come up with a reason for why he did that, but he wrestles for a long time with whether or not he can — or should.”
In the filmmakers’ vision, Clark Kent’s heroic tendencies would rise to the surface only when the threat was great enough. It would have to be a global menace — one that might also trigger an internal conflict about whether he belongs on Earth even as he yearns to be among his own kind. ”You want to give the audience great spectacle. You want them to go to the movie, be eating their popcorn, and be like, ‘Wow!”’ says Roven. ”But if you just have the ‘wow,’ ultimately you get bludgeoned by that and you stop caring.” So if a hero is going to get clobbered by a locomotive in a street fight with some rival Kryptonians, the audience needs to be more invested in him than in the property damage.
Enter General Zod (Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon), a Kryptonian tyrant eager to establish himself as a planetary ruler. Terence Stamp portrayed the character as an icy warlord in Superman II, but Shannon sees him as more of a die-hard supremacist. ”He actually has some affection for anybody who’s a Kryptonian, including Superman,” Shannon says. ”He doesn’t really have any malignant feelings toward him; he just wants him to be patriotic.” That would mean joining forces with Zod instead of defending the weaklings of Earth. You know, those weaklings who nurtured and raised him — as well as the vast majority who still don’t know what he truly is.
Not such an easy choice. Especially for a guy who doesn’t think of himself as a hero just yet.
In addition to making him more soulful and troubled, Man of Steel updates Superman’s look. Gone are the lock of hair on his forehead, the bold primary colors, and the distinctive bright yellow belt and red briefs. ”The big controversy was [losing] the underwear on the outside of the suit,” admits Deborah Snyder, who often produces her husband’s films. ”It’s funny, we tried. Zack goes, ‘I really tried!’ And we did. It had to be totally recognizable, but it had to live.” The film also provides an explanation for that tight-fitting suit, which is a part of Kryptonian warrior culture. ”All their armor goes on top of the suits,” Deborah Snyder explains. But because Superman’s a refugee, his iconic outfit in our world doesn’t have the snap-on battle gear, which would make him a defenseless man on his own Kryptonian turf.
And what about that legendary flight from Krypton? Man of Steel keeps Superman’s classic origin story largely intact, while adding a few twists: Jor-El (with Russell Crowe taking on the Marlon Brando role) still saves his infant son, Kal-El, by launching him away from the imperiled planet Krypton on an interstellar journey toward Earth. But in this version of Krypton, children are not born — they’re engineered. ”People were bred to be warriors or scientists or what-have-you, and there’s a whole element in the movie about nature versus nurture,” Goyer says. Kal-El is unique among Kryptonian babies because he’s a natural conception, free from genetic manipulation to choose his own course in life — which also makes his existence highly illegal.
On Earth, the baby’s craft lands in the field of the Kents (played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), a kindly Kansas farm couple who quietly adopt the boy and teach him those all-American values that will shape the ways he will someday use his great powers. But they teach him another quality that’s not necessarily a virtue: fear.
”There’s a scene where Pa Kent basically says, ‘No matter what, even if I’m in danger, you can’t reveal yourself to the world because they’re not ready for you,”’ Zack Snyder says. ”He can’t fight back like a normal person. He’s sort of trapped by that in a weird way: ‘I have to take these humans and let them just treat me as they wish, and I have to learn to turn the other cheek and be this person my parents would want me to be.”’ That leads Clark to a nomadic life as a young man, since he occasionally loses his restraint and saves a person in need — or unleashes his power on a deserving thug.
Though few can relate to what it’s like to fly, fire off heat vision, or throw a truck-destroying punch, Cavill says most people can identify with feeling lost at some point in their lives. ”Imagine what it would be like to be someone like Clark Kent/Kal-El, and feel like a stranger amongst even those that you love, never developing full relationships with people for fear of them discovering how much of a freak you are,” the actor says. ”Even you don’t understand exactly what you are. It’s just a lonely existence.”
Which brings us to another key figure in the Superman mythology: Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who is as much a threat as a love interest in Man of Steel. The intrepid Daily Planet journalist — her boss, Perry White, is played by Laurence Fishburne — is chasing down reports of a wandering stranger who is capable of superhuman feats of strength. ”She’s very transient. She’s ready to pick up and go at a moment’s notice,” Adams says, noting that the trait is shared by Lois and Clark. ”That definitely could be part of what she sees in Superman — not really laying down roots, not developing trust.”
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that gradually Lois starts to see something more in him than a good front-page story. ”She ends up rescuing him, I always say,” Deborah Snyder says.
And Man of Steel may end up rescuing the DC movie universe. With a revamped Superman, Warner Bros. hopes to lay the groundwork for a planned Justice League film that would team up many DC characters and possibly launch several new franchises. ”It’s setting the tone for what the movies are going to be like going forward. In that, Man of Steel is definitely a first step,” says Robinov. Nolan’s Dark Knight series ”was deliberately and smartly positioned as a stand-alone. The world [the films] lived in was very isolated, without any knowledge of other superheroes.” Man of Steel isn’t as closed off. ”What Zack and Chris have done with this film is allow you to really introduce other characters into the same world.”
Will Man of Steel drop references to Justice League colleagues such as Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter, and perhaps extend into the realm of Nolan’s Batman trilogy? ”I would love to tell you yes or no, but I think it’s going to be more exciting for people to keep a beady eye out and find what they can find,” says Goyer. In other words, fans should bring along their X-ray vision.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Jenseon)