It’s a romance that Superman’s been carrying on almost as long as he’s been courting Lois Lane, with just as many highs and lows. The first and greatest superhero of them all just can’t stop flirting with show business.
Over the course of his 75-year history since his debut in DC Comic’s flagship title Action Comics in 1938 which prompted the launch of an entire genre of entertainment, the Last Son of Krypton has often soared supreme over Hollywood – and occasionally crashed to Earth – pioneering the translation of superheroic adventure to film, television, radio, animated cartoons and movie serials.
Director Zack Snyder’s film “Man of Steel” opens Friday, seeking to once again establish Superman as the very pinnacle of cinematic superheroes – even at a time when the mulitplex screens are more crowded with seemingly more contemporary-feeling comic book crusaders that often appear edgier, more vulnerable and appealingly flawed than the inherently invulnerable and altruistic alter ego of Clark Kent. This time around, Superman’s most spectacular accomplishment might be to reclaim both relatability and relevance.
Respecting Tradition – And Creating New Ones
As the director of graphic novel-to-film adaptations of such post-modern properties as “300” and, especially, “Watchmen,” which specifically deconstructs the tropes and traditions established by Superman and other comic book forerunners, Snyder cops to having complicated feelings about the grandest superhero on the block.
“There's a love/hate relationship I had with him,” says Snyder, who loved Superman comics while growing up. “And then when I got involved with 'Watchmen,' the intellectual pinnacle of intellectual comic book work. In the back of your mind you know what implications it has for someone like Superman. You know that you're basically taking a shot, in a weird way, at Superman and all the things that he stands for. Now you know how to destroy a super hero, so how do you build one up again? It's a chance to reclaim that mythology in a way.”
“Maybe it's part of your formative years where you've loved him, and then he betrayed you because he represented a sort of loss of innocence and all that stuff that happens to you when you get older,” Synder adds. “You no longer believe – It's like Santa Claus, or whatever – and then you go to 'Watchmen' or you go to 'Dark Knight Returns,' the Frank Miller graphic novel, and then you come back around and go, ‘No, it's okay. There's a why of that, of Superman as he's intended to be.’”
But Snyder posits that the new film – which focuses heavily on Superman’s divided loyalties to his lost homeworld and his upbringing in the American heartland, and a push/pull toward keeping a low profile and using his abilities for good – repositions the character as a very relevant beacon of hope befitting the contemporary climate after a stressful period in history.
“There's tentative optimism in the world, this kind of feeling that things could be getting better,” he says. “Superman represents that optimism. Everything's on the edge, but he's willing to do what it takes. He's going to dig deep. There's been a big emphasis on first responders and what they're willing to sacrifice and this kind of volunteer aesthetic, where people give anonymously for nothing other than to enjoy helping others. And Superman really is the poster child for that in a lot of ways, because no one cares more and gives more.”
Deborah Snyder, the director’s wife and producing partner, says the couple “were both nervous about going forward with this project for two different reasons: His was because he did love the character and loved the comics, and he was worried about ‘Can I do him justice?’ – the responsibility of what that means. And I was daunted because I didn't understand how we were going to make him relatable. Because to me, he felt too good. I don't think being good goes out of style – I don't mean that. I mean, who can be that good? He was such a squeaky clean Boy Scout.”
But after hearing the take concocted by “Man of Steel” screenwriter David S. Goyer, which he pitched to executive producer Christopher Nolan during a respite from story-building on “The Dark Knight Rises,” Deborah Snyder says she saw the character through brand new eyes. “They really tapped into way that we could relate to him and understand his struggles, because we were seeing struggles to depths that we never really saw before, at least in movies,” she says. “And that, all of a sudden, clicks with me: the alienation and the bullying and the figuring out your place in the world. Those were interesting things that I could grab onto, and I felt people would care about him more as a character because they could latch onto that.”
“What maybe the broader audience doesn't realize but which we do as comic book fans is that Superman is a character that has constantly evolved over time,” suggests Goyer, a former comic book scribe. “As much as it's important to honor the canon, I think it was equally important to challenge the canon at every turn. We would have discussions with guys at DC about what we could and couldn't do, and sometimes we had healthy debates about it. If we had just done an homage to what had come before, I think we would have been doing the character a disservice.”
DC Comics co-publisher Dan DiDio says that as much as the comic storylines provide a template for adaptations in other media, elements originating in those adaptations are frequently incorporated into the comics. “We like to create our own voice, our own tone, our own direction for the stories, but if something interesting happens in any of the other media, we're always willing to take a look at it and see how it could work back into the books,” he says, pointing out that Jimmy Olson first appeared in a 1940 episode of the “Adventures of Superman” radio show, which also debuted the Kryptonite concept in 1943. “Even things as recent as Chloe Sullivan from 'Smallville' have found ways into the comic.”
DiDio says the editorial approach to Superman and other time-tested characters at DC is very much in line with what the creative teams in film and television are trying to do. “Because we're selling continuing fiction, we need our characters to experience drama and different events that occur throughout the character's lives,” he says. “If you position them on a pedestal and look at them always as an icon, then they cease being characters and become symbols. And we need our characters to really be able to act and behave just the same way any other characters in fiction would, so we tried to avoid the icon aspect and really focus on who they are and constantly put the challenges in front of them to prove why they're worthy of being the heroes of our universe.”
Filling the Superman Suit
“I don't think it was about finding my way into an icon,” says Henry Cavill, the 30-year-old British actor who – after nearly nabbing the role of the similarly renowned James Bond a few years earlier – was assigned the formidable task of both embodying the idealized image the Last Son of Krypton and appropriately humanizing him. “Playing an icon, you don't try to be an icon, because that defeats the purpose.”
“The responsibility attached is enormous, and the realization that it actually really, really matters meant that I wanted to put the most amount of work into representing the character properly,” adds Cavill. “And that especially applied when I was working out in the gym. When you feel that you can't push any harder or you can't lift any more weight, you think, 'Well, hold on a second – I've got to look like Superman. There's a whole bunch of people out there who are relying on me to be that superhero.' And so it really helped to push those extra few reps and just become that character.”
Cavill’s instincts led him to avoid studying the leading men who’ve previously portrayed Superman, with Christopher Reeve’s performance from 1978’s “Superman” and its three sequels arguably the most indelible to date. “Yes, I have watched the older movies, but I did not apply those performances to mine,” he says. “The way I do it and the way I viewed it is that's their interpretation of the source material – the source material being the comic books – and I wanted to have my interpretation. Not out of a sense of ego, but a sense of the fact that it might be a disjointed performance if I have someone else's personality and their influence affecting the interpretation of the character. So I just went straight to comic books.”
“Henry's a good guy,” Zack Snyder says of how he came to see Cavill as Kal-El. “He comes from a military family, so that whole first responder thing – you don't have to explain that to him, right? First responders, they're like sheep dogs, and we're like sheep in that there are wolves out there. And sheep dog can't help itself – that's what it does, right? You don't have to explain that to Henry. He's like, 'Oh, yeah – of course.’ That aside, the guy just looks like fricking Superman!”
“We saw so many people all over the world, and he was at the top,” agrees Deborah Snyder. “We wanted to see what he was like on film, but we didn't have a costume. We were like, 'Okay, what are we going to dress him in?' We were still developing our costume, so we pulled out the Christopher Reeve costume. Zack wanted to shoot outside. I was like, 'Oh, great – we're going to get helicopters, paparazzi...' So we had to go far, far out into some canyon, really private. Henry got dressed in the costume, he came out, and no one laughed. The costume was made a long time ago, but it didn't seem dated. It just felt like he was Superman.”
The first Brit behind the red ‘S,’ Cavill claimed the gig, says Deborah Snyder, because “his accent is so good. It was funny because a lot of people were mad that he was British, and I was like, 'He's not really American. He's Kryptonian.' It didn't matter to us. It was just about the right person playing the role.”
Goyer recalls taking his sons, six and three, to set. “I timed it, of course, so that Henry was in the suit when they showed up – and they just looked at him with awe,” he says. “They didn't see Henry: they saw Superman and everything that that means.”
“He's an evergreen character,” says Jake Rossen, author of Superman Vs. Hollywood, of the Superman’s inevitable returns to the public eye through film and television over three quarters of a century. “I don't know that a month has gone by since his creation that he hasn't appeared in either a comic, an animated show, a television show, a movie or a radio show. Hollywood thrives on brand recognition. Comic characters thrive because they're constantly re‑inventing themselves in their home media of comic books. The characters are constantly being rebooted and re‑imagined, altered and refreshed, and I think Superman will always be a source of material. There's so much to do with him.”
“He speaks to everyone, and that ideal speaks to everyone,” says Cavill. “We all need hope, no matter what century we're in, whatever state of life we're in, whether we're going through tragedy or not. It's just hope that everything will be okay. And if it is tragedy, and there's a disaster happening, hope that we can overcome it. I don't think it's solely for those who are outsiders or those who are alone. It's for everyone.”