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Immersed in Movies: 'Man of Steel' Set Visit: Making Superman Relevant Again (VIDEO)

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood May 30, 2013 at 1:00PM

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 (which turned 75 this year), and making him stand tall again beside Batman in the 21st century. In fact, I asked Snyder about faded glory 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.
Michael Shannon as General Zod in "Man of Steel"
Michael Shannon as General Zod in "Man of Steel"

Cavill echoed the idea of inserting emotional Kryptonite: "The people who aren't diehard Superman fans still need to associate with the character and that needs to have some realism in today's world, certainly in the sense of a science as opposed to [only] mythology attached to it as well."

One of the first tasks was figuring out the sci-fi alien culture of Krypton with production designer Alex McDowell (who collaborated with Snyder on "Watchmen"). They created a much more ritualistically formalized and socially stratified society than our own. They likened Krypton to feudal Japan with caste systems, guilds, gods, and temples alongside a utilitarian physics based on bio-mechanics. "So we decided that on Krypton, aside from the fact that it's got different gravity, it's got a different atmosphere than we do," Goyer continued. "It's a mega gravity planet, so gravity there is anywhere from four to 10 times the gravity on Earth."

They even hired a specialist to create a spoken Kryptonian language while the art department constructed the various glyphs that appear throughout, most noticeably the famous "S" on Superman's chest, which stands for hope. We additionally visited the Kent farm in nearby Naperville, where, hidden in the barn, stands Kal's spiral-shaped space ship also bearing the symbol from the house of El.

"All these things come into play and they also explain why Superman has the powers that he has," Goyer offered. "I mean, the costume has a utility and we're going to explain where the costume comes from and why and he doesn't just fly into the crystal thing and come out with a costume.We also decided that they had been civilized for 100,000 years. They'd also become a decadent society, and may have become space faring."

Despite all the CG destruction witnessed in the trailers, "Man of Steel" is the most realistic and practical movie that Snyder's ever made. It's part of the organic strategy that defines the look and tone, including the frequent use of hand-held camera work  For Goyer, it added an immediacy and there was no better example than the second day of shooting on the Kent farm. It was magic hour and cinematographer Amir Mokri ("Transformers: Dark of the Moon") captured a revelatory moment between father and son right out of "Days of Heaven" or "Superman" in its textural beauty. "I just turned to Zack and said, 'Can you believe we're doing this?'"

As for Michael Shannon's villainous Zod, who comes to retrieve Kal, Snyder suggested he's more grounded as well. "He's not maniacal or fucked up -- he's got a point of view that's not crazy. He's a force of nature. Whatever the stakes are, you have to figure that Shannon will raise them by just being Shannon. We didn't want to start with a Superman that didn't have an enemy that showed why he needs to be Superman. Zod is Kryptonian as well."

And that's the key: connecting the dots between Krypton and Earth so this man of steel can decide which set of moral rules he's going to abide by.

Check out the "Battle for Smallville" featurette below, and the Wall Street Journal's look at the "Superhuman Appeal of Superman" here.

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Man Of Steel, Zack Snyder, Superman

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.