There's no better metaphor for "Man of Steel" than the Faded Glory emblem on the side of the building behind Henry Cavill's Superman. Zack Snyder's existential reboot is all about returning the glory to DC's legendary superhero (who turned 75 this year), and making him stand tall again beside Batman in the 21st century. In fact, I asked Snyder about it during a visit to the Smallville set two years ago in Plano, Illinois, outside of Chicago, where you could glimpse the wreckage of General Zod's attack on Clark Kent's hometown.
"I like the fact that Superman's American -- I think that that's cool," Snyder reflected in a tavern off main street. "I know that in the past his Americanness has been a liability for him. But you can't have a Superman that is battling cultural morality. You need a Superman that has built-in values. I always remember everyone saying, 'You're not going to show him growing up in Kansas, are you?' I'm like: 'Why make Superman?' To understand him, you have to understand the why of him."
Earlier, our small group of online journos watched take after take of Superman getting pummeled in the middle of the street by Zod's accomplice, the goth-looking Faora (Antje Traue), and a mo-capped actor as a stand-in for a CG Kryptonian bot. Snyder was so loose that he hummed "I'll Tumble 4U" while conferring with production VFX supervisor John DesJardin ("Watchmen," "Sucker Punch").
"By the way, the first scene that Chris [Nolan] pitched me was a scene about his childhood," Snyder continued in the tavern. "It had nothing to do with smashing shit or anything like that. It was very much a childhood character moment that made me say, 'OK, that's different.' It's a different point of view of Superman that made me go, 'Yeah, that grown up version of that guy is interesting to me.' And Henry can project a naivete, which is nice, without seeming naive, which is a difficult quality. I don't feel like you can take advantage of him, but he'd still help you change your flat tire on the side of the road."
For screenwriter David Goyer, the key to making Superman cool and relevant again was by embracing the alien story so he could explore the holy trinity of Kal-El, Clark Kent, and Superman in biblical terms. Who is he and why was he sent to Earth? It's very much in keeping with the crisis of conscience origin stories that underlie so many action-adventures in the post-9/11 era.
Ironically, Goyer hit on the idea while struggling to crack the third act on "The Dark Knight Rises." Nolan recommended that he take a break so after picking up a few Superman comics, Goyer began wondering what compelled him to assume the identity and don the costume in the first place. "I realized that if the world became aware that Kal existed, it would be the first contact story, and in many ways, it would be the biggest thing that ever happened in human history," he explained.
"It would change the world forever, just the sheer fact that he existed on the planet and then subsequently, the knowledge of what he could do, it would force the religions of the world to respond. There would be fear. There would be awe. I realized, at least cinematically, they'd always just jumped over that. He then has to grapple with, in effect, does he want to be Kal or does he want to be Clark? This is sort of his cross to bear. It's the story of two fathers: Jor-El [Russell Crowe] and Jonathan [Kevin Costner]."
Like Snyder, the most important part for Goyer was identifying with Superman. He couldn't be all-powerful and at the same time he carries a tremendous burden as the world savior, which makes him a lonely figure. So there are echoes of the Old and New Testaments with Moses and Christ, as well as Gilgamesh, the demigod with superhuman strength. "It's not just coming up with the physical threat," Goyer suggested, "but he's presented with a couple of choices in this movie that are terrible choices that I think people can identify with."