Screenwriter David S. Goyer and his bank account must be very pleased with the audience turnout for Man of Steel, but this Superman reboot wasn’t always an easy bet. Remember in 2006 the months leading up to Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns? The buzz and box-office expectations were all around hyperbolic. So much so even Entertainment Weekly predicted it would make over 300 million dollars domestically
Was that because audiences no longer had an interest in Superman or that they just couldn’t get behind Singer’s idealistic ode to the Donner films? Maybe both. Goyer, producer Christopher Nolan, and director Zack Snyder realized audiences needed a more modern take on the character, which they delivered on with large-scale action sequences, shades of science-fiction, and no bumbling Lex Luthor goons.
We spoke with screenwriter David Goyer after the film’s opening weekend about the project’s conception, grounding an alien who flies, and how we still haven’t seen a fully-formed Superman in our SPOILER-filled discussion:
The movie feels distant from previous Superman films and some of the comics, but I read how this all started by you picking up a few Superman comics while working on The Dark Knight Rises. Which comics were they and did they have an impact on the film?
What I went back and read was an archive edition of the very first Action Comics, which was the first thing I read. In some ways, it’s a bit odd, because that iteration of Superman doesn’t fly and he kills people left and right. I was surprised to see that. It got me thinking about Superman in a different way. I’ve been an on and off again Superman reader throughout the years, but I just got curious, as an exercise, to read the first year or so of his start, to see how much has changed.
At what point did it go from being an exercise to making Man of Steel?
I don’t know. I read them instead of working on The Dark Knight Rises one afternoon, which led me to start writing some “what ifs?” ideas. I had pages of notions which I told Chris Nolan about. I didn’t have any expectations that it would become anything. I knew they were developing Superman with various other people and talking to various other people about it. It just took on a life of its own.
Do you recall some of those initial ideas?
The first thing I wrote down…I went back and read the early John Byrne Man of Steel reboot and seeing a panel where Jor-EL was talking to Lara and there was a monitor with a picture of farmers in Kansas wearing overalls. I just thought, “How does he have images of farmers in Kansas?” It presupposes he has some kind of satellite in Earth’s orbit. I remember in the Donner film them talking about Earth as well. It occurred to me, “Wow, they really jumped over this massive plot point, the fact that Earth exists.” This led me to think Kryptonians had been aware of Earth for years and might’ve been to Earth before. I thought maybe they landed on earth 18 or 20,000 years ago, with the ship buried in the ice, which is the ship Clark finds. I even remember sketching Superman seeing paintings by Neanderthals in the ship. I thought, “What if you look at this legend through a different lens?”, and that was the thread I started pulling.
How about the character of Clark? Was there anything else left untouched in the previous films you wanted to explore?
I’ve said this before in other interviews, but I wanted to go back to the notion of exploring Superman’s science-fiction roots. I felt the fact that he was an alien was given short shrift in the films and, to a certain extent, the comic books. I remember saying to Chris this is really a first contact story. If you strip away the superpowers, it would still be the biggest story that happened in human history. I know it’s a cliché to say we wanted to attempt a more realistic take. We wanted to take this film more serious which, for some critics, they didn’t want to see; it seems like the fans did.
I’ve heard you say how you wrote the script not even thinking about the fact you’re dealing with an alien, but purely focused on the drama in human terms. Did you do the same for Batman?
Yeah. That was an exercise for us: if this were to happen on Earth, how would people react today? I think a lot of people would be fearful, not knowing if they can trust him. There’s been a long lineage of a stranger in a strange land, whether it’s E.T., Starman, or other movies about trying to connect with humanity; it struck me that’s what a Superman story really is. I thought if we could envision Man of Steel as a story of a man with two fathers who represent different lineages…it depends on which lineage he would choose. That’s a way to emotionalize the complex.
Coming off the Dark Knight trilogy, was there ever discussions over, “This is what worked for that trilogy and what audiences responded to, so let’s see if that can work for Superman”?
We didn’t say, “Okay, this is what works in The Dark Knight, so let’s apply the same method to Superman.” They’re different characters who have different roots. We just said, “Let’s try to apply a certain kind of logic, which will give it the veneer of realness.” We didn’t say we were going to do a grim and gritty Superman movie, although I disagree the movie is as dark and nihilistic as the Dark Knight trilogy. It is a serious take, which means once the threat arrived, you couldn’t have Superman cracking jokes while Zod is releasing the world engine and doing what he’s doing.
You’ve said how maybe some critics aren’t ready or don’t want to see a post-9/11 Superman movie. How do you see the film’s final act and the way people have responded to it?
It’s been interesting to see that reaction, because…I love The Avengers, but surely there’s a similar level of destruction in that movie. You know, I think when you try to depict something in a frightful or realistic manner, it draws attention to it. I think the fact we showed buildings falling in a more verite way, it felt more real to people. It’s crazy to think you have people with that kind of power running around that there’s not going to be collateral damage. I imagine whenever The Hulk fights someone, there’s a lot of damage. People say, “Why doesn’t Superman take the fight to another city?” I think people forget Zod stated that he was going to kill everyone on the planet and, basically, from the time Superman even learns he can fly to the end of the movie, maybe three days have passed. This is not a fully-formed Superman, but a story about how Clark decides to become Superman. Superman doesn’t have full ability of his powers yet, never fought anyone like Zod, and has never fought anyone. It seemed very obvious to Chris, Zack, and I that…I think people feel like Superman would be fully-formed, but this is about him assuming the mantle of Superman. He’s still very much a green Superman.
Do you think that the destruction of Metropolis will represent a learning curve for Superman in future films?
Of course. If we’re dealing with Superman and Clark six months or a year after this experience, there’s going to be a learning curve and he’s going to understand his place in the world more. The other thing is, he may not have chosen to come forward prior to Zod threatening the planet. This decision was thrust upon him, not one of his choosing. He did the best job he could, in terms of saving people and stopping Zod. Some people say, “Well, why wasn’t Zod arrested?” Actually, there was a line in the script we cut because it’s obvious, but it asked, “What prison would hold him?” [Laughs] There’s no prison on the planet that can hold him and Zod says, “Either you die or I die.”
Both the Batman films and Man of Steel have this dichotomy where, despite dealing with very comic book-y ideas, they’re approached in a very grounded, serious way. From a writing standpoint, is that a tough balance to handle?
It’s a very tough balance to strike. We knew going into this project we were taking some chances and that there would be a certain voice in audience that would reject what we were doing or any new interpretation. We felt there was a larger audience that the character wasn’t very relevant to anymore, so we had to reinvent the character, to a certain extent. You have to decide what level of reality you’re going to depict in a film, and you have to stay true to it. Could we have done a jokey, frosty version of Superman? Absolutely. Would it have resonated with audiences? I don’t know. We were interested in depicting a Superman that had gravitas, because we felt the character had been maligned. We knew the Superman movie we wanted to see and, based on the audience reaction, it’s largely the Superman movie they wanted to see as well.
Man of Steel is now in theaters.