There are hundreds of comic book heroes in the so-called DC Universe. Even if you’ve never paged through one of their print incarnations, you know a number of them, just from the movies, shows, toy store shelves, and T-shirts where they consistently pop up: Wonder Woman. Green Lantern. The Flash. Green Arrow. Maybe even Robin’s super-clique, the Teen Titans.
Ultimately, though, there are two that it always comes back to, a pair of alpha-and-omega icons supporting on their broad shoulders this sprawling collection of superheroes: Superman and Batman. DC Comics and their media-conglomerate parent, Warner Bros., have long been acutely aware of the two characters’ corporate significance. So when director Christopher Nolan took Batman to new heights of commercial and critical success — with “The Dark Knight,” in particular — the question that inevitably followed was how to do the same for Superman. The query only grew more urgent with the rise of rival Marvel’s screen franchises, particularly “The Avengers,” a crossover concept originally patterned after Superman and Batman’s Justice League.
The answer, Warner hopes, is “Man of Steel,” a rebooted origin tale opening on Friday. Produced by Nolan, the movie is directed by Zack Snyder (“Watchmen”), and stars Henry Cavill (“Immortals” and Showtime’s “The Tudors”) as heir to George Reeves and Christopher Reeve’s man-in-tights legacy. (More like man-in-Body-Glove here, as the filmmakers have even ditched the red briefs from Superman’s costume as part of their question-everything makeover.) The splashy cast also includes Amy Adams as Lois Lane; Russell Crowe as Jor-El; Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent; and Michael Shannon (“Boardwalk Empire”) as featured villain General Zod, whose motivations fall into a grayer area than they did for Terence Stamp’s memorably despotic ’70s incarnation.
“Doing a Superman story wasn’t this secret ambition that Chris [Nolan] and I had been harboring,” says “Man of Steel” and Batman writer David S. Goyer, speaking by phone from a Los Angeles promotional event with Snyder and other principals. “We were taking this brief hiatus from working on ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ and I have a lot of comic books in my home office, and I just got distracted and started reading. I got this kernel of an idea, and suddenly we found ourselves organically coming up with this new concept for Superman. We didn’t even know if Warner Bros. was actively developing anything at the time.”
When Reeve and director Richard Donner made “Superman: The Movie,” back in 1978, “verisimilitude” was the creative mandate plastered in big, bold letters on a production office wall. Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder dare to go further, and heavier. Where “Superman II” flirted with biblical metaphor by having Stamp correct the president’s distraught “Oh, God” with a terse “Zod,” Snyder is more direct, at one point framing his hero with a stained-glass image of Christ over his shoulder. The new movie’s take is summed up pretty neatly by a line of dialogue delivered by Laurence Fishburne’s earring-sporting Daily Planet editor, Perry White. “Can you imagine how people on this planet would react,” he cautions scoop-hungry Lois, “if they knew there was someone like this out there?” The implication, clearly, is not well.
Forget about keeping an ear open for joyous cries of, “Look, up in the sky!” in “Man of Steel.” Here it’s more about feelings of unease and existential confusion — not only from humanity, but from Cavill’s Clark Kent. He spends the movie’s first act as an itinerant, anonymity-guarding samaritan in the mold of “The Fugitive” — or Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno’s “The Incredible Hulk,” to put it in superhero terms. Later, we come to a poster-teased image of Superman in handcuffs, a military escort at his side. In these scenes, as well as several designed to explicitly convey the foreignness of Krypton, “we were emphasizing the fact that Superman is an alien,” says Goyer. “That’s something we felt had never really been done before, cinematically.”
“We really wanted to base this in reality,” says the British-born Cavill, 30, brightly sounding as though a telephone interview is a treat as much as it is his Superman-ly duty. “And in reality, if someone had those powers, they would lead an incredibly lonely life. If they knew they were from a different planet, and how revealing themselves would turn the world on its head, they’d never be able to get close to anyone. That’s what we wanted to represent.” (Funny how it doesn’t seem quite so out there anymore that back in the ’90s Nicolas Cage talked about portraying Superman as “a beautiful freak” in an infamously scrapped Tim Burton project. More rehashing of that to come, possibly, in a Kickstarter-funded documentary on the subject.)
Goyer, who’s done some comics writing and also helped elevate Marvel’s Blade from print obscurity to screen legitimacy, knows whereof he speaks when he breaks down some fundamental differences between Superman and Batman. “Batman’s roots are in pulp detective fiction, and Superman was influenced by pulp science fiction, things like Flash Gordon,” he says. “Then there are the Christ and Moses elements.
“Batman’s an antihero, Superman’s a hero,” Goyer continues. “In terms of archetypes, they’re extremely different.” And we can add our own contrasts to the list. Superman is light, a being empowered by the sun. Batman is — as his alternate handle spells out — dark. Superman stands for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Batman is more about a Patriot Act worldview (as “The Dark Knight” provocatively showed us), and seeing justice served his way.
It’s not quite the ideological gulf found between the superhero deconstructions in Snyder’s “Watchmen” adaptation. (That film, says Snyder, was “an amazing help on this, because it was that old thing about how if you know the rules, you can break ’em. Just in reverse.”) Still, could it be that the filmmakers have taken a bolder risk than they realize — or would acknowledge, anyway — with how closely they’ve modeled “Man of Steel” on the Batman template?
Some of this is superficial — going with a title that’s not simply an on-the-nose choice, for instance, just as “The Dark Knight” did. Some similarities are strategic — making Zod the villain of the piece, say, and only teasing Lex Luthor’s archnemesis role, just as “Batman Begins” featured shadowy Ra’s al Ghul and saved the Joker for an encore.
Still other similarities — the biggies, really — are thematic and tonal. “Batman Begins” was a study in fear, with Bruce Wayne first learning to own his personal trauma, then to fight terror with terror. “Man of Steel” is meant to be about hope. Superman at one point even tells Lois that the S on his chest is the Kryptonian symbol for the word. But high-stakes fear is prominent here also. Jonathan Kent warns his son against using his abilities, ever, anticipating the same societal freak-out that Perry does. When Superman pictures his adoptive planet’s fate if Zod isn’t stopped, he sees a skull-covered landscape straight out of “The Terminator.”
It’s not all triumphant John Williams orchestral swells, certainly. (“Dark Knight” composer Hans Zimmer supplies the score.) And while Warner’s previous super-venture, the 2006 soft-continuity sequel, “Superman Returns,” made it clear that change was needed, one wonders how moviegoers will respond to this new, decidedly serious-minded vision. Can it be a fit as perfectly tailored as Cavill’s costume?
“We definitely were conscious all the time about how Superman [registers],” says Snyder. “But we wanted to make sure that our Superman suffers the same insecurities that we all do. That really dictated what level of angst we’d lend the movie.”
If anything, the director says, he sometimes found himself working to counter suggestions that Superman never seems to go quite dark enough. “People would ask me, ‘Do you think Superman is uncool because he’s so earnest?’,” Snyder says with a laugh. “I’d go, ‘Hey, let me know when doing the right thing goes out of style.’ It’s called good-versus-evil for a reason.”