The Man of Steel had gotten rusty. While his DC Comics counterpart Batman was conquering the world via the Dark Knight trilogy, and the rivals over at Marvel Comics were raking in the cash with “The Avengers” and all its spinoff films, Superman had been put into mothballs.
His last cinematic outing, 2006’s costly “Superman Returns,” was director Bryan Singer’s affectionate tribute to the 1978 Richard Donner original starring Christopher Reeve. But the movie, which grossed $390 million, felt too familiar and reverent to justify its budget of $270 million. Although Superman comics continued to sell well, and the TV series “Smallville” ran for 10 seasons depicting the adventures of a teenage Clark Kent, Hollywood had temporarily forgotten about the invulnerable do-gooder.
But with the “Batman” finale rapidly approaching, and comic-book movies showing no sign of slowing down, executives at Warner Bros. knew they needed to figure out a way to revive their most iconic – and potentially lucrative – hero.
The question was: How do you make a 75-year-old character cool and hip to modern audiences?
“It was really a case of the good Superman movies having run their course,” says Zack Snyder (“Watchmen,” “300”), who directed “Man of Steel,” which opens Friday. “They had used up all the character’s battery life, and we needed to juice him up. I have great respect for all those films, and they endure in pop culture for a reason. But when we started thinking about this one, we couldn’t think of it as any movie that had ever been made before. We couldn’t cherry-pick the stuff we liked, such as that famous John Williams score. We had to make everything new. We haven’t seen a Superman origin story since 1978. My kids have no idea where he comes from.”
The screenwriter tasked with reviving Superman was David S. Goyer, writer of the “Dark Knight” trilogy for filmmaker Christopher Nolan, who produced “Man of Steel.”
The job was one Goyer originally didn’t want.
“During the junket for ‘Batman Begins,’ someone asked me if I would ever take a crack at Superman and I said no, because I didn’t have an affinity for the character,” Goyer says. “I loved the Donner films as a kid, but I didn’t read the comics growing up. I gravitated more toward Batman. And I liked Singer’s film, but I felt it was an homage to the Donner films and the depiction of the characters felt a little anachronistic.
“There was this sense that the public’s perception of Superman hadn’t really changed very much,” Goyer says. “Even though he has been reinvented several times in the comics, he never really evolved beyond those first movies. Trying to reimagine Superman for film is a much steeper hill to climb than Batman. And consequently, the script was a lot more difficult to write.”
Unlike Batman’s brooding sense of vigilante-style justice or Spider-Man’s adolescent angst, Superman – an alien sent to Earth by his father just before their home planet Krypton blew up – was a fantastical creation, bordering more on sci-fi and less on relatable human emotions. The light from our sun gives him extraordinary abilities: flying; invulnerability; immeasurable strength and speed. The guy can even shoot laser beams from his eyes – practically a Swiss Army knife of superhero powers.
“It’s hard to identify with a god,” Goyer says. “It’s also hard to feel empathy for a character who is invulnerable. (Chris Nolan) and I decided from the beginning that in this first film, we were not going to rely on the crutch of kryptonite, which is the only thing that can hurt him. That was the bar we set for ourselves. Can we get the audience to sympathize with this character without relying on kryptonite?”
A critical part of making Superman relatable was casting. The actor who would portray Kal-El, son of Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe), needed to be a relatively fresh face with little baggage from other films, but charismatic and sympathetic enough to make the audience care about the woes of a being who can do practically anything.
The U.K.-born Henry Cavill, who had acted in a few movies (“Immortals,” “Whatever Works”) but was best known for his recurring role on the cable-TV drama “The Tudors,” landed the part.
“I made a point not to think of any of the other movies when it came to my performance,” Cavill says. “I wanted to feel like were telling this story for the first time. And I could relate to the loneliness and estrangement of the character. That was something quite personal to me. When I was at boarding school, I didn’t have many buddies, and when I’ve traveled, I’ve often been in strange cities by myself. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting down just watching people behave the way they behave. That’s what I think Kal-El does – he’s watching the world and trying to make sense of it. That gives him a sense of an outsider.”
Although Snyder is known primarily for visually stunning movies – and “Man of Steel” has more building-flattening action than the rest of the Superman movies combined – he says that wasn’t the aspect of the project that lured him in.
“I’m a huge comic-book fan, but I had already made a comic-book movie (“Watchmen”),” he says. “I wanted the opportunity to make a superhero movie in a way that people could appreciate the way I appreciated the comics as a kid. For me, it was about figuring out the character. If I were Superman, how would I feel? He’s like a god up on a hill. I wanted to really get inside him and figure out what makes him tick.”
But tinkering with such a renowned figure is not without peril. Choose a creative path the audience rejects and the entire movie collapses.
“You can’t ask for a more commercial character than Superman,” says Larry Tye, author of “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero.” “Everyone knows who he is. And yet everyone also has expectations we’re going in with, and it’s really tough to meet all of those. It’s a huge challenge when you’re dealing with a character who is this much of an icon. You mess with him too much and you’re going to anger people who have known him for a lifetime. One of the assets – and one of the liabilities – of Superman is that he hasn’t changed that much in 75 years. You need to be able to bring your kids and your grandparents to the movie, and everyone recognizes him the way they know him.”
“Man of Steel,” which also co-stars Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Kal-El’s adoptive parents, strikes all the requisite notes while adding some fresh wrinkles. And the movie has a super-charged villain in Michael Shannon as the maniacal General Zod, who shares all of Superman’s powers but not his sense of duty and honor.
Still, despite all its 3-D visuals and cutting-edge special effects, there’s something refreshingly old-fashioned about “Man of Steel”.
“Superman has been relevant to a lot of generations, but the core of the character is still there,” Goyer says. “He’s a savior figure, a stepping stone between humans and the gods, so he’s like Hercules in that regard. He also comes from a long line of stories where a stranger shows us our own humanity.”