SINCE 1951, THERE have been several movies about DC Comics superhero Superman, including the 1978 hit film that turned Christopher Reeve into a superstar. The latest, Man of Steel, had a reported US$225 million budget, and was reimagined by director Zack Snyder ( Watchmen; 300) to fit his own vision of the superhero.
Snyder's version explores Superman's origins, his childhood and the conflicts he faces as an adult, against a backdrop of some amazing action. "I'm a fan of the mythology and I wanted to get a chance to see the Superman movie I'd always wanted to see. That really drove me to the attention to detail, and trying to get every little aspect correct," says the filmmaker, who worked off a screenplay written by David S. Goyer from a story Goyer conceived with co-producer Christopher Nolan.
In keeping with recent superhero movies, Man of Steel is big, loud and expensive. But at its core it is a story about a baby sent forth into the galaxy by parents who wanted to protect him, who is raised by ordinary folk, who discovers his superhuman strength as a confused child and who then strikes out to find his place in the world.
"He's the most important, the ultimate superhero," says Snyder of the celebrated character conceived in a dream by comic book artist Jerry Siegel and first revealed to the world 75 years ago this month brandishing a car above his head on the cover of Action Comics No 1. "He's the most pure idea, and I think he's just so iconographic. For me, there's no better superhero than Superman.
"I just wanted to make sure I gave the mythology the gravitas that it deserves," he says. "Everyone thinks that Superman is a character that is funny and light. That's an interpretation that existed in the movies, but that's not necessarily what existed in the comic book world. The true essence of the character is not this comedic thing; there is an opportunity for some light moments, but the actual mythology of Superman has the opportunity to tell us about ourselves."
The 47-year-old filmmaker grew up watching black-and-white reruns of the Adventures of Superman television series, and then started reading the comic books while at university. With Man of Steel, the father of eight children, ranging in age from seven months to 21 years, is hoping to reintroduce the superhero to a new generation of viewers.
Man of Steel's story begins on Superman's home planet of Krypton, so that kids who have never seen a Superman movie can understand the emotional thread of the story. "I wanted to do it so you could understand the emotional why of him, to understand why, when he makes the decisions he does as an adult, what informs those decisions," Snyder explains.
British actor Henry Cavill - whose previous biggest role was as a Greek god in Tarsem Singh's The Immortals (2011) - was Snyder's top choice to star in his film. It was second time lucky for the 30-year-old thespian, who had lobbied hard to play the role in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006) but lost out to Brandon Routh.
Seven years later, Cavill says, he was much more prepared, had more life and work experience, and came to the auditions feeling confident because it wouldn't matter if he lost out a second time. "I didn't fear not getting it as much, because I'd already not got the role once before," he says.
Snyder believes that Cavill - with his dark hair, soulful blue eyes and chiselled good looks - is a perfect fit for a number of reasons. "We got lucky with Henry, because in a weird way he's way overqualified to be Superman, and he'd taken some shots at it before. He was the right age, he's not an ugly human, and he has a lot of the qualities you'd hope for in Superman. And when he put the suit on I thought, 'That's enough, let's just hire the guy'," the director says.
Cavill was drawn to Man of Steel because of the range of feelings expressed in the script. "The whole thing was so beautifully crafted," he says. "It showed the soul of Superman, and not just his abilities. There is a heart note to this, and it's really the base note for the entire thing. I focused more on getting it right than on not getting it wrong."
While he was familiar with the Man of Steel growing up - and recalls having occasionally run around the house as a young boy in a cape, like young boys do - the fact that he isn't a "comic book devotee" allows him to bring a fresh take to the role. "I understood who he was through society," he says. "I enjoyed the Superman energy. I wanted to do the movie because I was very confident that it would be a great movie."
The reality of the experience has exceeded Cavill's expectations of what it would be like to play the world's most famous superhero. His most memorable experience was filming at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where the cast were surrounded by "prototype jets and lots of military talk, and there I was as Superman".
In advance of the six-month shoot, which also took place in Chicago and Vancouver, the actor underwent five months of intense physical preparation to get into superhero shape. He had to consume 5,000 calories a day to build muscle mass, and then undergo two hour-long daily bouts of intensive training and workouts.
Making a blockbuster brings mental stresses, too. "There's real economic pressure, but in truth, that's abstract," says Snyder. " What you worry about is whether you are going to make Superman a character you can go to the farthest reaches of the earth with, to some far-flung tribe, and [audiences] will say, 'Yes, we love him'. You want to be fiscally responsible, but being mythologically responsible is actually a lot more difficult."
Snyder also rose to the challenge of balancing the adrenaline-fuelled sections of the film with softer moments: Russell Crowe as Jor-El sending his baby, Kal-El (aka Superman) into the great unknown; and the superhero meeting - and connecting with - his love, Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams.
"You have to wear two hats a lot of the time," says Snyder. "You have to understand the super-technical aspects of filmmaking, and then talk to Amy Adams about the subtlety of her performance. So you need a lot of different skill sets. But it's a joy to be with these people every day because they are all trying to make the movie better."
Above all, the director wanted to ensure that there was humanity in his portrait of Superman - and he would go so far as to suggest that viewers should come away feeling that there is something of the superhero in each of us. In Snyder's words, "There's something he has to find. In a weird way that's the journey we're all on."