Rebooting Superman With ’Man of Steel’
Superman has been a hero to whom kids have looked up since he appeared in the pages of comic books in 1938. He’s been on television and in movies, both live action and animated. This week brings yet another reboot of the superhero in Man of Steel, from producer Christopher Nolan and director Zack Snyder.
In "Man of Steel," Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his newborn son to earth, where our planet’s sun and atmosphere give him the ability to fly and the powers of super strength, hearing, sight and heat vision. Only in this version, growing up different only makes Clark Kent (his human identity) feel different. In his early 30s, he has spent a decade wandering the country, probably the world, trying to find himself before he fully discovers the legacy Jor-El left for him.
At a press conference for the film, a reporter pointed out that Jor-El tells his son (via pre-recorded image) that legacy is to give humans hope, which echoed Harvey Milk’s mantra of "You’ve got to have hope." Does Henry Cavill, the chiseled British actor who plays Kal-El, feel that mantra is addressed only to societal outsiders like Kal-El and Milk?
"I don’t think it (the advice) necessarily speaks to the outsider alone," Cavill said. "He speaks to everyone, or that ideal speaks to everyone. 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 the hope that everything will be okay. And if there is tragedy, a disaster happening, the 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."
An existential crisis
With the sort of existential crisis this Superman is dealing with, Cavill breaks new ground in the Superman legends. Even the TV series "Smallville," which depicted a teenage Clark Kent dealing with superpowers as he went through the usual adolescent traumas, wasn’t this conflicted. But reading up on classic Superman wasn’t helpful for Cavill.
"As far as the conflict that he went through, or the journey, it wasn’t about classic Superman material," he said. "When you see Clark traveling through the world trying to work out what and who and why he is, I didn’t go to source material for (help with) that. I applied my own life to it. As actors, it’s quite a lonely existence unless you have someone traveling with you the entire time. You spend a lot of time by yourself, and you meet new people. You make temporary family. You love them, and then you never see them again, potentially apart from the odd press conference. And you just apply that to the character. What he experiences is (meeting) new groups of people constantly and prove to them that he’s a nice guy, then disappearing and having to introduce himself to other people as he tries to do the right stuff. It’s just that process, which can be lonely, which I applied as opposed to any classic Superman material."
Straight to the comic books
That also saved Cavill the trouble of being compared to other Superman actors. The most famous would be Christopher Reeve, who played Superman in four films. George Reeves was a famous television Superman, but we could add Dean Cain, Tom Welling and Brandon Routh to the list.
"I did not take anything from the other actors who have played it before." Cavill said. "I did not want to have someone else’s personality influence my interpretation of the character. So I just went straight to comic books. Yes, I have watched the older movies, but I did not apply those performances to mine."
In this version, Clark Kent doesn’t meet Lois Lane at the Daily Planet where they are colleagues at the news desk. Instead Lane is on assignment in the Artic where a mysterious ship is lodged in ice. Coincidently, Kent is working at the site. When he sneaks onto the glacier to explore the ship, Lane follows him, only to be nearly killed by an alien robot. She saved by a mysterious, bearded man with superpowers, but has no idea who he is. It’s not until midway through the film that this Superman gets his form-fitting suit and his new identity, which Lane gets to name.
Amy Adams, who plays Lane, brought her two-year old daughter, Aviana Olea Le Gallo, to the set. Though too young to understand just who Superman is, the toddler liked Cavill quite a bit.
"She really liked Henry in the suit, I have to say," Adams said. "She did try to give him a little cheeky grab which was very funny. She wanted to touch the suit, and she just happened to be at rear end height. She reached out and gave it a little touch. She’s going to kill me when she’s older."
This is an updated Lane as well. Unlike in previous versions, she doesn’t need constant rescuing by Superman, but is integral to his mission. Interestingly, this isn’t Adams first time at the rodeo. The Oscar-nominated actress had previously auditioned for "Superman Returns" and a second Superman project that never got made, so perhaps her concept of Lois evolved over the years as well.
Grew up with ’Superman’
"I grew up watching Superman and loving the characters, and I let it be known that I auditioned several times," Adams said. "This was my third try, so thank you, Zack for letting me play Lois. When I talked to Zack about this incarnation of Lois, what I loved was she was definitely still the intrepid reporter, but she was somebody who was going to be a part of the solution, not just part of the problem. And she was going to have more of a like an inner track on Clark and sort of be on the inside as opposed to being on the outside. I really like that, and I thought it was a very unique idea."
Hers is a Lois Lane for the 21st century - of course, she battles with her old school editor, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne); but she also is info-savvy enough to use blogging to her advantage by leaking a story about her mysterious rescuer that the Planet refuses to run.
"I really loved that it was very important that Zack focused on the characters and the truth. He grounded the characters in reality as much as possible in this amazing world that he created. He wanted all of the characters to have a really true heartbeat, and we spent a lot of time talking about that. That impressed me about Zack."
An interesting experience
In what was considered a casting coup at the time, Marlon Brando played Jor-El in Richard Donner’s 1978 "Superman: The Movie." In this version that role is played by Russell Crowe, who brings his own considerable personality to the film. In fact, Jor-El gets much more screen time than Brando did. Early on he explains why Krypton is collapsing and battles the rebellious General Zod (Michael Shannon), whose failed revolt against Krypton’s leaders condemns him to a space prison called The Phantom Zone. Even after being murdered by Zod, Jor-El re-appears frequently, not as a floating head like Brando, but as a hologram interacting with Clark and Zod, albeit via memories.
"I have a confession," Crowe said. "I might as well just get it out in the open right now. I’ve never seen any other Superman movie. I haven’t seen any of the ones with that fellow (Reeve) in them or the new young fellow (Routh). I didn’t see that one either. I didn’t have any references in terms of cinematic experience. The only Superman reference I have is the 1950s black and white TV show that was on TV after school when I was a kid. So I really don’t have anything to draw on. The simple thing for me is I read the script. I thought it was a complex and really cool story in and of itself. I thought problems that Jor-El faced in terms of his decisions as a father was a very interesting thing to do. So that’s why I got involved."
In reality, playing Superman’s father involved more real parenthood issues. Scenes involving newborn Kal-El/Clark exposed Crowe to the unpredictable bodily elements of infants. In short, he got pooped on.
"I had a very interesting experience being a father on this movie," Crowe shared. "I think Zack employed four babies as the recently born Kal-El, and unlike in my own experience as a father of two, I’ve managed to dodge all the piss and the poo, even though I’m pretty slick with a nappy. But on this movie, I got farted on first. That was okay. Pissed on, that was a little inconvenient, then the topper happened. Under those hot lights, it was after lunch, to be expected, and I got a handful of the essential Kryptonian material. So I learned a lot. I had new experiences as a parent on this movie that I hadn’t previously had. So thank you, Zack."
Michael Shannon plays Superman’s nemesis, Kryptonian General Zod (the role was played by Terrence Stamp in the first Donner film and its sequel). Shannon is developing quite a resume of villain characters, along with acclaimed work in films like "Take Shelter." Though he is actually surprised people find his characters evil.
"It couldn’t be anything further from who I actually am," Shannon said. "I’m kind of just a tall, lanky, goofy person, and then I do these other things. I don’t even necessarily ever think of it as evil. I keep wracking my brain. Like is my guy in ’8 Mile’ evil? Why are people saying, ’I’m evil.’ I don’t get it. People are like, ’Van Alden (the role he played on HBO’s ’Boardwalk Empire,’) he’s so evil.’ I’m like, ’look at all the other men on ’Boardwalk Empire.’ Let’s line them all up shoulder-to-shoulder. Now, you’re telling me that Van Alden is the most evil person on the television program?’ So I don’t really know."
Zod fights both Jor-El and Superman in the movie, and Shannon talked some fun smack about his co-stars. "It’s no secret, I don’t think, to anybody in this room that I’m much stronger than Henry is," Shannon joked. "So there were a lot of ice packs, I think, back at the hotel for Henry. Russell, though, really kicks my butt in this movie. I mean, he’s the Gladiator, what are you going to do?"
Man of Steel opens Friday.