Is it too late for Superman? That’s the question that kept running through my mind, first as I watched the new franchise reboot Man of Steel, which opens in some locations Thursday, and then again when I interviewed its director, Zack Snyder, who also made 300 and 2004’s Dawn of the Dead update. There was an awful lot of reaching to justify Superman’s squarish existence in today’s jagged world, both in the film and in our discussion of it. (Spoiler alert: Plot points are discussed.)
The interview took place in the highest pod of the CN Tower – a nice “leap tall buildings in a single bound” idea, but one that didn’t quite work out: A shroud of grey clouds made it feel more like we were huddled in an ice cave than floating in the sky. Snyder, an amiable, handsome fellow with a toothpaste smile and four tattoos (they commemorate his wife, Deborah, and eight children), was determinedly energetic, though. Cued up on his phone was a dreamy, black and white shot of Henry Cavill, his Clark Kent/Kal-El, wearing Christopher Reeve’s suit from 1978’s Superman, which was directed by Richard Donner.
“Henry comes from a military family, so Superman’s heroism is not a stretch for him,” Snyder says. “It’s natural, it’s in his DNA.” (Though Cavill’s a Brit, his American accent is impeccable.) Then Snyder put him in Reeve’s suit, “and I was like, ‘That’s crazy.’ We were pretty much done at that point.” Cavill’s Man of Steel suit is cooler than Reeve’s – gone are the red panties – and the fabric is tougher, almost rubberized. Like everything else in this iteration, it’s also darker, a deep steel blue.
But how dark is too dark? “Let’s face it, Superman is on the edge of cheesy,” Snyder says. “My kids watched the Donner version and thought it was a joke, they didn’t care.” So Snyder, producer/writer Christopher Nolan and writer David Goyer made a strenuous effort to conjure a psychologically real Superman on a 21st-century Earth. As a child, he would feel himself a freak, all too aware of how different he is, possessed of dangerous powers that he can’t allow himself to use. When his existence is discovered, it would be proof of extraterrestrial life, which could create worldwide panic as easily as admiration. And as a superhero, he would need villains who were equally powerful, or there’s no drama.
“It used to be okay to have him saving a cat from a tree,” Snyder says. “Now it’s like, wait – if you take Superman all the way, shouldn’t he just collect all the world leaders and say, ‘I want peace, so if you wage war, I’ll find you and kill you’? That’s the dilemma we faced.”
The problem is, dealing with all that realism saps a lot of the fun from the story. The scenes of Clark as a child learning how to use his powers – u sually the most gleeful stuff in an origin story – are fairly dire here. “When something this otherworldly happens to a person, what are your coping mechanisms?” asked Diane Lane, who plays Martha, Clark’s mother on Earth, when I recently interviewed her in Los Angeles. “It was interesting to do some of the backstory with Zack and Kevin Costner,” who plays Jonathan, Clark’s Earth-father. “What do you do with a child whose temper tantrum you really fear? How does one parentally impart the moral choice of doing the right thing, despite it hurting? Clark’s an alien. He feels like one. He suffers from a hypersensitivity that we can’t understand or fathom. The ostracism is palpable.”
Okay, but does that sound fun? “It’s a slightly anti-bullying message,” Snyder says. “We tend to go after those who are different. But once you find out who those people really are, maybe there’s something there to offer.
“It’s also a big adoption story,” he continues. “Four of my children are adopted, two of them from China, so I really drew on my kids’ experiences of feeling different for a lot of Clark’s struggles. For me, it wouldn’t be the best thing in the world to be Superman. It’s not all awesome.”
Not exactly a blurb you’d want on the poster. As well, now that the plot’s consequences and threats have grown realistically large, a lot more death and destruction ensues than our hero typically wreaks. Yet another American city is reduced to rubble; yet another alien race is (temporarily) vanquished. It may be a modern, CGI-stuffed sci-fi movie, but some essential Supermannishness feels lost. Perhaps it’s inevitable – defending “the American way” is a lot harder in the era of drone strikes and terrorist mayhem. And since when did anyone ever turn to a comic-book hero for realism?
“The whole thing was about making Superman relatable, in the sense that everyone can understand his position of, ‘What am I here for? What is this about? What is the why of me?’” Snyder says. “Someone asked the other day, ‘Don’t you think Superman is out of date? Don’t you think he’s passé?’ I said, ‘Is doing the right thing passé? Is it uncool to want to help someone in trouble?’ I don’t think that’s true. We haven’t gone that far. We’re not that snarky. But that snarkiness is the thing we were confronting with this. The message for all of us is, ‘As you grow, you will find your place. You will become Superman.’ All of us have a chance at that.”