Reinventions, reimaginations and reboots are the order of the day in modern Hollywood, especially when it comes to franchise building. For the most part, big-screen iterations of our major pop cultural icons have run their course in one way or another, passing out of fashion and thus requiring an overhaul to appeal to a new generation of movie fans with different expectations and a different way of processing media. Sometimes there is a logical progression with these characters (e.g. James Bond); others prove a little more resistant to change. And then there is Superman, who, despite the clever efforts of some great comic book writers over the last seventy-five years, has steadfastly remained Superman. How much can you reconfigure Superman and still have him be the good-hearted Superman people know and love?
This was the challenge taken up by David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder as they pressed forward on MAN OF STEEL, the first completely new big-screen take on the character introduced to the public in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The film is a bold departure from the old-fashioned mythologizing of Richard Donner's 1978 blockbuster; it emphasizes the science-fiction elements of Superman's origin in order to explore the notion of Kal-El as not just an outsider, but as a literal alien. While you've never seen Superman portrayed quite like this, what's important is that, by the end of the film, he is as much Superman as any other iteration of the character has been.
When I chatted with Goyer a couple of months ago for the premiere of his Starz series DA VINCI'S DEMONS, there was the promise that we'd have a nice, lengthy conversation about MAN OF STEEL once the film was released. Now that it is ours to examine and deconstruct, this promise has been honored, and I am pleased to present our wide-ranging conversation in two parts. The first part is without spoilers; everything discussed in the below interview has been officially disseminated by Warner Bros. I have therefore not included a spoiler warning anywhere in the piece. And yet I know people have different ideas about what constitutes a "spoiler", so if you're one of those people who feels like the trailers and commercials give too much away, perhaps you should avoid this until you see the movie. Everyone else should feel free to dig in.
In this interview, Goyer talks about how he found his way into the Superman universe, the nature of his collaboration with Nolan and Snyder, and the challenges of working in the shadow of Donner's film.
Mr. Beaks: I'm really impressed with how you've managed to give us a Superman who is both familiar and completely unlike any version of the character we've seen before. In many ways, I think Superman is the hardest superhero to get right.
David S. Goyer: It's, no pun intended, super hard, and not just because of the character and the boy scout potential. The only real public conception of Superman beyond the comic books is the Donner films - because the Singer film is basically Donner redux. I'm not saying that's good or bad, that's just what he intended to do. But it feels like Superman has been preserved in amber since 1978, so it was a really daunting task. It's been interesting to see people's reactions; they're generally very positive, but a couple of people... it seems to be the people who liked the Singer film don't like this one, and vice-versa. We knew it would be a complicated and daunting task, and we didn't realize how daunting until we were in it. All of the decisions going into updating the "S" or whether to use the underwear or whether to use the spit curl, every little thing became this subject of controversy - even more so than Batman. And yet we all felt that if Superman couldn't be sort of reinvented, then he might never be reinvented.
When we were doing BATMAN BEGINS, there was initially some resistance to what we were doing before the movie came out. But gradually, as some of the promotional materials came out, people became more and more acclimated to how this might be different from their expectations. I was going back and reading some of this, and people freaked out about the Tumbler. Now you compare the Tumbler to the Burton Batmobile, and no one wants to go back to the Burton Batmobile. I love the Burton film, but you realize there's just resistance to change, even if the change ultimately fits the times. And then there's the secondary question of whether or not we did it right.
Beaks: I think that your leeway with Batman was so much greater because the franchise had been run into the ground.
Goyer: That's true.
Beaks: Whereas Superman has been left up in the air. While the Singer film has its fans, no one really knew what to do with it. It was this uncertain thing of "Do we stay in the Donner-verse? Do we continue to use Brandon Routh?" He was good, I thought. The movie is not terrible, but what is it exactly, and how do you build off of it?
Goyer: That film came out in 2006. I took my nieces to see that film, and my nieces were like ten and twelve. They hadn't seen the Donner films, and they were totally confused. They were like, "Where's he been? What's he doing?" They didn't understand. It was interesting. And I remember sitting down with Chris and later with Zack, and saying, "You realize that a giant chunk of our audience wasn't born when the Donner film came out, and they might not have ever seen it. They might not have even seen SUPERMAN RETURNS!"
Beaks: I'm old enough to remember people having problems with SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. Otis was a hugely divisive character, and people didn't like the goofy tone of Luthor's exploits. Expectations are tough. Each fan has a fixed idea of what they want from a Superman or a Batman movie to the point where it's a no-win proposition in a way. So I think you have to speak to the greater mythos of the character, and get the essence right.
Goyer: That's what we did. As Zack has said, "No detail was too small." Every aspect was talked about and debated, whether or not we should modify it. No matter how successful the film is, I know there will be detractors who will be dissatisfied because we didn't use the John Williams score, or because we didn't have the underwear. But that way lies madness. There's a huge chunk of the audience that doesn't care whether we use the underwear. And Zack said, "If you decide you're going to do something new, and you're going to act as if the prior Superman films didn't exist" - which is what we did with Batman - "You can't then just cherry pick certain aspects of the previous iteration because then it becomes confusing." Some people say we could've used the John Williams score. That would've sent a completely mixed message.
Beaks: What is the process like at Warner Bros when you're making a Superman movie? When you come in and say, "I have this new take on the character," how protective are they? How difficult is it to set in motion an actual Superman film, to actually get it before cameras?
Goyer: It's a much different proposition if you've got Christopher Nolan as your godfather. Chris is in a unique position at Warner Bros. I believe he's the most successful filmmaker they've ever had. He'd already had huge success reinventing Batman. I'd heard tangentially that different people were still percolating about trying to make a Superman film post-Bryan Singer. Just like everyone else, I'd heard that he was going to possibly develop a sequel. And I had heard rumors that various things were being talked about or possibly in the works. But when Chris heard my take, the process went pretty quickly. There was relatively little interference. I think they had an enormous amount of confidence in Chris and, to a lesser extent, me because we were the team that had done it initially on BATMAN BEGINS. So I could certainly see how, from their perspective, talking to their shareholders, "Hey, no one's going to throw fruit at them. Let these guys take a crack at it." On the face of it, it seems to make sense. And then they liked the script that I wrote.
Beaks: How long did it take from treatment to script?
Goyer: I spent about six months on it, which is more than I normally do.
Beaks: Intensively on this script? Nothing else?
Goyer: Yeah, and it was a really difficult script for me to write. I remember when I sat down to actually start writing page one. I'd written maybe twenty pages of notes and outlines and things like that, but I just got severe writer's anxiety. I was like, "Oh, my god, I can't take the pressure!" The first scene I wrote was the scene in which Jor-El and Lara give up baby Kal. And I said, "Alright, I'm going to write it initially as if they're not on Krypton. I'm going to write it generically as two parents that have to give away their son. The kid could be saved from the concentration camps... whatever." I just wrote it like that. And from the emotion of "What would it be like to give birth to your son, and then half an hour later have to put him in a pod and hope that he won't get killed?" I wrote that scene, and it felt emotionally right to me. And from that point onward, anytime I was writing something that was heavy science-fiction or involved crazy superpowers, I would write the scene as if Krypton didn't exist first, and then I would go back in and add the science-fiction stuff. That was the way that I found that I could make it make sense and relatable, I guess.
Beaks: Given that the Donner film starts on Krypton, were you concerned with starting your script there as well?
Goyer: No, only because I knew that we were going to be on Krypton much more than the Donner film. I think in the first draft we were on Krypton for thirty-five pages, and I knew that our intention was to depict a truly alien world and culture. I had even written an appendix that described Kryptonian religion and Kryptonian history, and some of that stuff got embedded into the production design and costumes and things like that. Then once the production designer and costume designer came on board, we would workshop this backstory as well for the culture. So I was less worried about that because I knew we would be depicting much more of an alien world. I also knew that our depiction of the world was so far removed from the kind of crystal structure. I thought once people saw our Krypton, that wouldn't be relevant. What did you think?
Beaks: It wasn't the design of Krypton so much as the handheld aesthetic that surprised me. I felt thrust into the middle of that world.
Goyer: Zack gets all the credit in the world for that. When I first met with Zack... he met with Chris first. He read the script, then he met with Chris, and then Chris called me and said, "I think we're going to go with Zack." Then Zack came in and met with me, and Zack said, "I think I'm going to shoot most of the film handheld, and only one camera at a time." And I got really excited because... look, I like 300 a lot and I like WATCHMEN, but Zack had developed this style that was mostly set-based, a lot of greenscreen and a lot of high-speed photography. And he said, "I want to shoot it much more vérité, even the stuff on Krypton." That's when I knew Zack was the right guy. I had never met Zack before, but I said, "Wow! That just immediately reframes it." At one point, I had written some scenes that involved dilating time and showing Superman grabbing bullets out of the air like The Flash, and Zack said, "He could do that, but I'm not going to shoot it that way. I sort of want to do it from the perspective of a human." You've seen the fight scenes, and I just thought that was a really smart decision on Zack's part.
Beaks: Another thing I wanted to get into about approaching Superman is that, while it can be viewed as an immigrant's tale, you've presented it primarily as a first contact story. This way, it becomes more of a science-fiction film.
Goyer: But Superman was always a science-fiction story. He comes from an alien world, he arrives here in a UFO. It doesn't mean that there aren't these other elements.
Beaks: Right, but the science-fiction-y details here, like the Codex, are really specific. These are things that were broad-brushed in the films. I guess the comics could get more specific...
Goyer: Although sometimes even in the comics... I'll give you an example. One of the things that was broad brushed in the films and even in the John Byrne comics... it always bothered me that Jor-El just knew about Earth. I remember in the John Byrne version, there's this panel where Jor-El is talking, and on a screen to Lara there is this picture of farmers in Kansas in overalls with pitchforks full of wheat. I just thought, "How does Jor-El know Earth exists? How does he know that his son can survive the atmosphere?" At the very least, it suggests that at some point prior to this Krypton had had unmanned satellites or space probes or things like that. For us, if you start down this path, if you're going to treat it in a more realistic way as a science-fiction film, then you just have to follow everything to its logical conclusion. My first thought was, "Wow, at the very least there must be unmanned space probes near Earth." Then my next question was, "But if there are unmanned space probes near Earth in recent memory, why can't the Kryptonians gets off Krypton before it is destroyed?" So I thought, "What if we set it back in the past? What if they used to be spacefaring, and they used to have space colonies?" If you look to Earth's history, our history is filled with examples of empires that set out and established colonies, and then those colonies faltered because they stopped being resupplied with food and money, whether it was because the homeland collapsed or there was a political reason. So I said, "Okay, if they used to be spacefaring, for a variety of reasons that colony program was scrapped, and all the outposts were left to wither and die, then I understand how they could've discovered Earth." That led me to the exciting idea of "What if one of these probes had landed on Earth 20,000 years ago, and that becomes the genesis of the Fortress of Solitude." And that leaves open a possibility: I'm sure not every single colony collapsed. Some of them might've been self-sustaining out there in the universe. So maybe one day we can find some other Kryptonians.
Beaks: At what point did you come up with the Codex?
Goyer: Again, one of the things that I wanted to do was depict Krypton as truly alien, and I liked the idea that Byrne had suggested, that Kryptonians were not gestated in the womb. I think he called them "birth matrices". I liked a lot of what Byrne did when he reinvented Superman in the '80s. I believe he was the first to suggest that Kryptonians might've been gestated outside of the womb, and I thought that was interesting. Then we started talking about Krypton being more like a BRAVE NEW WORLD society, where they were genetically bred and there was a caste system; you've got warriors that are seven or eight feet tall, and scientists that are bred for different things. There's much more of a sense of predestination on Krypton, and that led to the idea of what would the Phantom Zone villains want. We never bought the idea that they just want revenge on Jor-El's kin. It's a long way to go, especially if the world doesn't exist anymore.
We determined early that we didn't want to have kryptonite. It doesn't mean it doesn't exist in this universe, or that it might not happen in later films, but we didn't want to use it in the film because I always thought it was a real crutch - as did Denny O'Neil when he got rid of kryptonite in the late '60s and early '70s. So if you decide to go down that path, you have to ask, "What are his weaknesses?" Yes, there's Martha or Lois, his allegiances to other human beings, but what we wanted to do was put Kal in this situation where, no matter what he did, he had a terrible choice to make. So we came up with the idea that what the Phantom Zone villains have the opportunity to do is to revive the Kryptonian race, but the knock-on effect of that is that humans will die - not because they're tyrants or despots, but just because that's the way it is. We thought that was an interesting moral quandary to put Superman in. To my mind, it felt very original. I can't think of another comic that's done that. Maybe there is.
Beaks: It puts humans in the position of being like Native Americans.
Goyer: Not only that. If white settlers had come over here and the Native Americans who were here... well, obviously the white settlers just said, "Screw it. We're taking over." White settlers did the same in Australia with the aborigines. But if the choice were literally, "The two can't coexist," there would be no question. It wouldn't be a moral thing for the settlers; it would just be, "Hey, it's you or us." I thought that was an interesting quandary to put Kal in.
Beaks: Which is all the more interesting because, as we see in your flashback structure, Kal/Clark is so out of place. He's incredibly unhappy, and has limited connection to humans. Does he have an allegiance to them in general? Throughout the film, we're not sure how he feels about humans.
Goyer: There have been lots of stories where you have an outsider, and it takes an outsider to teach humans how to be human. A STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND and things like that. In some ways, that's the story of Jesus. Gilgamesh is the same story in some ways. That was the goal. A lot of people were initially worried, I think, that because we were involved in the Batman trilogy that we would do this emo, dark, brooding Superman. I don't see MAN OF STEEL as dark and brooding. It is more serious, but I also think it's fundamentally a hopeful film, and we didn't betray the DNA of the character.
Beaks: The decision to show Kal being overwhelmed by his surroundings because of his heightened vision and hearing is something I don't think I've seen before in Superman.
Goyer: And forgive me because, if it has, I don't remember it either. I haven't read every single Superman comic book. There may be some instances where I did something similar to a comic, and it was just created independently.
Beaks: But that struck me as a bold and frightening choice. That's awfully intense for a Superman movie.
Goyer: Well, our process - and this is kind of Chris's process. He's a big proponent of this. You just have to track thing back to the roots or their logical conclusion. If he can potentially hear people from a mile away, he's going to hear a lot of unwanted things. He's going to hear, as a kid, people talking about him; he's going to hear too much and see too much. He's going to see through walls. He's going to see naked people when he shouldn't. He's going to see all sorts of things. Hell, he might see his parents naked. But I think that's interesting. And it strikes me that one of the things he would've had to have learned how to do is filter that information. He's getting too much, and I think initially it would've been too painful. Probably those abilities developed gradually, but also he had time to develop a normal way of dampening them down when he needed to - and the knock-on effect of that is once the Phantom Zone villains are exposed to our environment, they're developing new abilities, but they haven't had the time to develop defenses. We thought that was interesting, too: on one hand, they're equalized. I think Zod and Faora say that effectively he's become "soft" because he has been living amongst the humans. But living amongst the humans has also given him this ability to dampen his senses, and they don't have that ability.
Beaks: In figuring out your portrayal of Zod and Faora, was there a previous version of those characters from the comic books that you favored?
Goyer: I have to be honest: not really. The only version of Zod in the comic books that I've liked was the one that Geoff Johns did relatively recently. He did a story arc in ACTION COMICS that he co-plotted with Donner, and I liked that take on the Phantom Zone villains. But in the comic books, I never thought they did him justice very often. They have more recently. Also, [DC] knew a while back where we were going with the film, so they've sort of steered some stuff in that direction. Once we were shooting, or the film was greenlit... we did have a couple of meetings with Dan DiDio and Jim Lee and Geoff Johns. If given the opportunity to tack in relatively the same direction, they'd love to do that. They knew we were introducing a new costume, which led to, I believe, the new Jim Lee version, where they're introducing a new costume.
Beaks: MAN OF STEEL is kind of relentless in its pace and action. Was that a reaction to SUPERMAN RETURNS being criticized by some fans for being light on action?
Goyer: It wasn't in reaction to SUPERMAN RETURNS. When I came up with this take, it was very much the version I wanted to see as a person who's watched those films, who watched the Donner film, watched the Singer film, watched LOIS & CLARK back in the '90s, watched some SMALLVILLE and read a lot of the comic books. I would say that the finished film is seventy-five percent like the first draft that I had written. All the characters and everything are there. I really just wrote the movie I wanted to see, and one of the things I wanted to see was more action. I also wanted to see Clark Kent in action. And I wanted to see, once I knew I was using the Phantom Zone villains, a level of destruction that I'd never seen in a superhero film before, as would happen if you had people with those kinds of powers fighting. And then Zack loves action of course. But we didn't add action once Zack came on board; in fact, we even cut an action sequence out. As big as the movie is, there was one more action sequence, and we just didn't need it. It was too much. Initially, when the Phantom Zone villains arrive, they give an example of the kind of destruction they can mete out if their demands aren't met. That was a six or seven page sequence that was crazy, but we just felt it wasn't necessary.
Beaks: How about the balance of the two father figures?
Goyer: I think Kevin [Costner] had said that Jor-El gives Kal his DNA, but Jonathan gives Kal his moral compass. I'd determined fairly early on that it would be the tutelage of both men combined that turned Clark or Kal into Superman. And that I related to from becoming a stepfather and a father while I was writing this script. I was dealing with my stepson, and having conversations with him where he would be mad at me and say, "I don't have to listen to you. You're not my dad." That's where that one scene in the film comes from, almost verbatim. So I was dealing with these issues of nature vs. nurture, what it must be like for a kid to have two fathers, and what it's like for a stepfather who's helped raise a kid but also knows he's not his biological father. I thought it was interesting that Jonathan was the one who says to Clark, "You're going to have to make a decision, and it's going to have to be an intentional decision, when you decide to introduce yourself to the world, because there are going to be vast repercussions." I think intuitively, John felt his son wasn't ready to do that, he wasn't mature enough to introduce himself to the world. And what's interesting to me is that later on the film Jor-El - the artificial intelligence of Jor-El, the ghost of Jor-El or whatever you want to call it - is the one who says to him "Now you're ready." All of that was intentional. It takes two fathers to make a Superman, I guess. And mom gives a lot of input, too.
Beaks: I like how involved Martha is in this film.
Goyer: That was another thing that had always bothered me, is this idea that no one would ever, especially if they were aliens, be able to figure out that Superman might've been from Smallville. I just thought it would be interesting to threaten Smallville itself and Martha. If you're attempting to apply pressure to someone like Superman, that would be the best way to pressure him.
Beaks: One thing that surprised me is that this Superman universe feels compatible with Nolan's Batman universe. I could see how Superman exists in that universe.
Goyer: From Chris's perspective, they are separate. He's said that various times. They're separate. The Batman films exist in their own universe. But I think it's a testament to how hard we tried to make Superman relatable that you feel that they could be in the same universe.
Beaks: I'm not looking for you to speak for Chris, but just in my mind, playing it forward twenty or thirty years down the line, I was like, "I could see where we get to THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS from here."
Goyer: Well, look... I can only speak to things Chris and Zack have already said. Chris has already said that his Batman films are their own complete universe, and that Batman is the only superhero within that universe. But Zack has said that a version of Batman/Bruce Wayne could exist within the MAN OF STEEL universe. He put "Wayne Enterprises" on the side of a satellite Zod trashes in the movie, in the same way you see a LexCorp tower in the background. That's Zack's way of saying that he would be open to a shared universe.
Beaks: How much have you thought of what you would do with Luthor?
Goyer: It would be disingenuous to say that we haven't talked about it. We sometimes sit around the set for hours at a time while we're waiting for a shot to be set up. Zack and I are big aficionados of those comic books, but it's nothing more than musing. I know Warner Bros would love to do more with the universe, but the film's ten days from opening, and I think everyone just wants to make sure we don't get too cocky.
Beaks: Did the studio apply any pressure about using Luthor in this film?
Goyer: They really didn't. The one thing we benefitted from on this film was that Chris had always wanted to approach the Batman films one at a time. He had always encouraged, whether it was me or Jonah, or, later on, Zack and me, to act as if there won't be another film, to put all of your best ideas in there. Occasionally, we would come up with a notion and say, "You know, down the road we could possibly do A, B or C." And Chris would say, "Look, if you can find a way to do it in this movie, do it, because you don't know if there's going to be another movie. Don't save anything." The inverse of that is sometimes you have to take a certain stand, and maybe you write yourself into a corner. There were a couple of instances on BATMAN BEGINS where we didn't know for sure that there was going to be a DARK KNIGHT, and Chris didn't want to engage in the idea of planning ahead. He really wanted to focus on the one film. So we really didn't start talking about THE DARK KNIGHT until two or three months after BATMAN BEGINS had opened. The same thing happened after THE DARK KNIGHT RISES [after THE DARK KNIGHT], except it was even longer; it might've been four months after. And there were a couple of times when I felt, "Oh, I wish we hadn't said that!" But it's hard to argue with Chris's approach. By the same token, those movies have an integrity to them. I think for Chris, and I'm just basing this on little things he's said here and there, I think he feels that the Batman films and hopefully MAN OF STEEL have a timelessness and a broad appeal beyond the core comic book crowd. Obviously, THE AVENGERS was not just the core comic book crowd. You can do easter eggs that might appeal to a certain segment of that audience, but if you try to make a film that's too much for that audience, I think you lose the broad audience.
Beaks: And you cheapen it.
Goyer: You get into the territory of sequel bait. There's a fanboy aspect of my personality that enjoys those kinds of things, but I also, as a moviegover, sometimes have a negative reaction to things that are obviously sequel bait, where I feel I'm being played too much.
This is the end of Part One. The last part of our discussion covers everything right up to the last scene in the film, so you definitely shouldn't read it until you've seen the film. We also talked about Season Two of DA VINCI'S DEMONS, the status of the 100 BULLETS show Goyer is trying to bring to television, and the possibility of Krypto appearing in MAN OF STEEL 2. It's damn good stuff.
So is MAN OF STEEL. Get out and see it this weekend.