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New film reinvents the 'Man of Steel'

by DAVE ITZKOFF New York Times News Service on June 04, 2013 11:00 AM

BURBANK, Calif. — In a dimly lighted editing suite here on the Warner Bros. lot, blinds drawn for maximum secrecy and walls decorated with signs and posters celebrating “Star Wars,” Indiana Jones and “Game of Thrones,” Zack Snyder was discussing his philosophy on the totemic character who arguably gave rise to every fantasy series of the last 75 years: Superman.

For too long, said Snyder, the director of “Man of Steel,” a new Superman movie that Warner Brothers will release on June 14, modern-day interpretations of this DC Comics superhero had been apologizing for the outdatedness of his origins; they sought to conceal him in contemporary trappings instead of embracing an essential mythology that, he said, was as bulletproof as the character himself.

“When they try to dress him up,” Snyder said here a few weeks ago, “put him in jeans and a T-shirt or a leather jacket with an S on it, I go: ‘What? Guys, it’s OK. It’s Superman. He’s the king daddy. You should all be bowing down to him.’”

What his film tries to do, he said, is “respect the S.”

At this point, Deborah Snyder, Snyder’s wife and producing partner, had to correct him on one fundamental detail they had updated for “Man of Steel.” “It’s not an S,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a symbol of hope.”

Hope is a quality that Snyder, a director of comic-book adaptations like “Watchmen” and “300,” and his colleagues have been clinging to as they finish work on “Man of Steel,” an entrant in the crowded summer-movie arms race more than two years and $175 million or more in the making.

Yes, “Man of Steel” is the latest effort to rejuvenate a decades-old pop-culture franchise and, in doing so, renew both the fortunes of Warner Bros. as it searches for new blockbusters and the career of Snyder after recent misfires. But it is being built on the back of a character who, for as often as writers and filmmakers have lately tried to reinvent him, has proved particularly unsusceptible to attempts to make him more relatable. Audiences seem to want him to be grounded, at the same time that they want to believe he can fly.

It is strange that Superman, the smiling, soaring Moses-Jesus hybrid who ushered in the era of superhero comics, should be struggling at the multiplexes in an age when every other studio movie seems to feature a man in a cape, a mask with pointy bat-ears or a high-tech suit of iron. The qualities that have made Superman timeless have not necessarily made him relevant to this particular time, with its roster of ironic and loudly violent protagonists, but it was this paradox that made Snyder eager to take him on in “Man of Steel.”

“He’s a really cool mythological contradiction,” said Snyder, who is still boyish and scruffy at 47. “He’s incredibly familiar Americana and alien, exotic, Bizarroland, but beautifully woven together.”

He added: “All of us, in a weird way, are that same kind of contradiction — no one’s that simple.”

His film stars Henry Cavill of “The Tudors” as Kal-El, a survivor of the destroyed planet Krypton who on earth becomes the costumed champion Superman but disguises himself as the all-too-human Clark Kent.

“Man of Steel” retains traditional elements, like Superman’s tension between his natural Kryptonian father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), and his adopted earth dad, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), and his attraction to the perpetually imperiled Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams).

The film also emphasizes the world of Krypton before its annihilation — a bleak, utilitarian planet with sophisticated if downright creepy technology — and the treachery of the Kryptonian villain Zod (Michael Shannon), who finds Kal-El on earth. The result is an unapologetic science-fiction spin on Superman, and while that may shatter audiences’ expectations for pure, unalloyed realism in “Man of Steel,” Snyder said this approach was built into the DNA of the character.

“If you follow him back logically and try to understand him,” he said, “you end up at a sci-fi solution.”

This was the same conclusion reached by Christopher Nolan, the director whose hit “Dark Knight” films have modernized Batman for the paranoid post-Sept. 11 era, and screenwriter David S. Goyer when they first conceived of “Man of Steel” while puzzling over the plot of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Though Goyer grew up admiring the Norman Rockwell-esque charm of the 1978 “Superman” movie directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve, he never felt much connection to its hero.

“I used to imagine that I was Batman,” Goyer said, “but not Superman.”

His thinking changed when he looked at Superman in his earliest incarnation, written and illustrated by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the late 1930s. Here was a character whose fundamental mythology was still in flux — even his signature power of flight was not yet established, and he instead leapt great distances — and whose most transformative quality had seemingly never been seized upon.

“If he really were an alien,” Goyer said, “when the world finds out that he exists, that in itself would be the biggest event in human history. That would change the world forever.”

While writing the script for “Man of Steel,” Goyer became a stepfather, a father and lost his own father, experiences that he said informed the who-am-I angst that his Superman struggles with.

“There’s a scene in the movie,” Goyer said, “where a younger Clark basically says to Jonathan Kent, ‘Why do I have to listen you? You’re not my dad.’ Which is exactly what my stepson said to me.”

Nolan, a producer of “Man of Steel,” said he thought of Snyder to direct the film because of his stylized takes on “300” and “Watchmen,” and his “innate aptitude for dealing with superheroes as real characters.”

“That was what a new approach to Superman required,” Nolan said. “He understands the power of iconic images, but he also understand the people behind them.”

That Snyder had essentially dismantled the conventions of comic-book narratives in “Watchmen,” adapted from the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons about superheroes in a despairingly real world, did not dissuade Nolan from offering him the assignment.

“It’s ironic but it’s a very productive irony,” Nolan said with a chuckle. “You’re dealing with a filmmaker who has deconstructed this mythology and now has to reconstruct it. That’s a fascinating challenge for him.”

Yet, when Snyder was approached for “Man of Steel,” it was something he and Deborah Snyder had to think about. “We were both, like, ‘I don’t know,’” he recalled. “Is Superman cool? Is that good? Do we want to do Superman?”

Like his “Man of Steel” collaborators, Snyder had difficulties sympathizing with the extraterrestrial and all-powerful character, a fact that was not helped by the many attempts at reinventing Superman in recent years.

In the last decade alone, he has been the focus of any number of comic book reboots, the television series “Smallville” and Bryan Singer’s 2006 film “Superman Returns,” a homage to Donner’s movies that never quite took off the way the “Dark Knight” movies did. Yet Superman remains a character no one wants to give up on, for reasons both nostalgic and economic, and because, as Snyder put it: “This iconography is tested. It’s in our psyches.”

What drew Snyder in as he first read the “Man of Steel” script (while Nolan and his wife and producing partner, Emma Thomas, waited in his driveway) was a vision of the character that felt both classical and contemporary. On the one hand, Snyder suggested that for Clark Kent to be fully fleshed out, not every moment in his maturation needed to be depicted.

“We assume that Clark is not a virgin — I do,” he said. “You don’t see that, but that’s the assumption.”

But as the ultimate version of a familiar story, that of a young man struggling to find his place in the world — “teenage angst on steroids,” Snyder called it — this Superman’s tale contained elements he and Deborah Snyder had never seen before.

Deborah Snyder said, “Finding a bearded Superman on a crab boat, it was like, wait a minute, that’s not the Superman that we’re used to.”

For Snyder, there was also the joy of casting prominent actors like Costner and Crowe, as well as Cavill, who had once been hired to play Superman in a canceled 2004 film whose fluctuating lineup of talent included McG as director and J.J. Abrams as screenwriter.

In a phone interview, Cavill was blasé about his previous dalliance with Superman. “That whole movie fell to pieces,” he said, “then another movie got made, not involving me.”

Having finally made “Man of Steel” almost a decade later, Cavill said he had learned to appreciate a hero who has spent his whole life hearing that he is special, while being told just as often that he must conceal the things that make him unique.

“Perfection without effort is, in itself, not perfection,” he said. “It’s just gifted. Just being right because you exist isn’t interesting. Doing the right thing, through hard work and the right decisions, is a better character.”

Snyder recognized that “Man of Steel” did not fit neatly into his oeuvre of stylized B-movies like his “Dawn of the Dead” remake and “300,” a retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, but he said he saw overarching connections.

“I feel like my movies have always been very subversive, even when people haven’t perceived how subversive they really are,” he said confidently. “For me, what’s subversive about Superman is that it’s not subversive.”

That resume also includes Snyder’s 2011 action movie “Sucker Punch,” about an unlikely squad of heroines, which was pilloried by critics and sold $89 million in tickets worldwide on a budget of $82 million. Discussing that film, Snyder seemed to vacillate between acceptance that “Sucker Punch” had been a failure and disappointment that its larger ideas, about the depictions of women in fantasy narratives, had not been more widely received.

“Talking to people, they’re like, ‘No, that’s not the movie that I saw,’ and I’m like, ‘But it’s all there!’” he said. “I thought I was being too obvious with everything.”

Perhaps the greater frustration for Snyder was the fact that “Sucker Punch” — filmed from an original script he wrote with Steve Shibuya, and not adapted from any comic book, video game or breakfast cereal — had been rejected at a time when moviegoers are clamoring for original ideas, while they continue to go in droves to see franchise films (including, potentially, “Man of Steel”).

“People complain but it’s supply and demand,” he said. “The movie business is the first business that changes course. If suddenly everyone’s like, ‘Oh, people want to see movies about rabbits,’ that’s all you’re going to get.”

Asked if he faced additional pressure to make “Man of Steel” work as the starting point for its own continuing series, Snyder said, “This movie needs to come out,” before any bigger questions could be addressed. “If you start thinking, like, I need to set up a giant franchise for the studio because they’re out of ‘Harry Potters,’ you can’t do that,” Snyder said, adding that it would lead to paralysis.

“You’d just stay in your house and curl up in a fetal position,” he said, “waiting for ’em to take you to the insane asylum.”

PHOTO:  In this image released on Tuesday, May 21, 2013, actor Dylan Sprayberry (“Teen Clark Kent” in film) seen at a Walmart in Plano, Ill., hands out the first purchased tickets to attend the exclusive Walmart Premiere Night "Man of Steel" screening scheduled for June 13, 2013, a day before the film opens nationwide. (Photo by BBPhoto/Invision for Warner Brothers/AP Images)

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