David S Goyer is one of the integral parts of the big screen DC universe. He worked alongside Christopher Nolan on writing the Dark Knight trilogy. And now, he’s penned the screenplay for the cinematic Superman reboot, Man Of Steel. Here, he spared us and our chums at HeyUGuys some time to talk about it.
There are mild spoilers within, if you’re looking to see Man Of Steel cold. We’ve marked where they are. We’ve separated the bigger spoilers, and put them right at the bottom, clearly marked…
Without further ado…
You’ve chosen General Zod as the foe Superman faces in the movie. Was it the case here that you wanted the threat in Man Of Steel to be alien in origin?
Yes. That’s why it always going to be Zod. It’s a science fiction movie, and we wanted a threat to be of a nature that’s significant enough to be world threatening, but was also a threat not just about space ships. Zod represents a link back to Jor-El. Zod knew Jor-El, was friends with Jor-El.
Obviously most of the audience know that he won’t side with Zod, but in our mind, there was an opportunity that he would. Where he’d say okay, let’s do it. Maybe if Jonathan [Kent] hadn’t been a good or adept father, he would have made a different choice.
Zod’s more morally duplicitous in this, and that’s not an obvious choice. You had Jor-El and Zod side by side here, and you put in enough so that you could always see where Zod was coming from.
To me, that was interesting. I refer to Zod not as a villain, but as antagonist. His goals happen to be conflict with Kal’s. But if you look at it from Zod’s perspective, is he doing anything wrong? Look at what happened with the European settlers in America or Australia. They displaced and ultimately kind of committed genocide on the indigenous populations. And those who were against other human beings.
If we were an alien race, and we went to another planet where the option was our race dies out, or we supplant this indigenous, arguably inferior race, I think we would probably say sorry guys, we’re going to take over.
From Zod’s perspective, he’s a hero. He’s genuinely surprised that Kal doesn’t want to go along with the plan. He doesn’t think he’s a villain.
The thing that Chris [Nolan] and I tried to do with the Batman films, particularly with Ra’s Al Ghul, I think it’s interesting when you have a villain who isn’t just being a villain for villain’s sake. A lot of the things that Zod says seem reasonable from his point of view. A lot of the things that Ra’s Al Ghul says seem reasonable too. It’s just that he’s taken it to this extreme.
You play a lot with the chronology of the story. When you originally had your eureka moment, and you worked out the movie that you wanted to write, was the chronology always such. Or was the earlier draft far straighter?
No. The chronology was always in that order.
Batman Begins was written in a non-linear fashion. It’s the way that Chris and I like to work. I’ve done it in some of the television shows that I’ve done, so Flash Forward and other things.
It can be very liberating, especially with icons like Batman and Superman where elements of the story are very well known. I think it can be very liberating to jump around. You can tell pieces of the origin story in an elliptical way, and you can create juxtapositions between the past and the preset. Because I think that’s how human beings experience things. We’re constantly aware of our past, and our past is informing decisions in the present.
[Those mild spoilers are in the next question]
As you say, it’s an origin story. Appreciating that it’s a reboot here, was it always going to start at the start again?
Yes. The origin story is familiar to you guys, but I have nieces who are 12 and 14, and I went to see Superman Returns with them. They had not seen the Donner films, and they were confused. The Singer movie, taking nothing away as it was a homage, and a direct continuity from the Donner films, it presumed that everybody in the audience had seen those films.
Zack and Deborah [Snyder] talked about that their kids had not see the Donner films either, and were also confused. It was not lost that the first Donner movie came out around 35 years ago. The vast majority of our audience was not born when those films came out, and a huge chunk will not have seen them. I have two sons. My six year old has seen this movie, but not the Donner one. So this will be his Superman.
So I think we would have been making a mistake if we assumed that everyone knew the story. One of the things we were attempting to do was reframe the story and change certain elements. Obviously we added the fact that Krypton is now more like Brave New World. That they’re genetically engineered, a decadent society. That’s something very new to the canon.
We obviously added the fact that Lois figures out who he is. There are things that are different. The fact that the Kryptonians have been here before. It’s always struck me as to how Jor-El knew Earth existed.
The transformation of Lois Lane as a character, certainly on screen, was a bold, welcome move. She’s arguably the most contemporary character in the movie, but she’s also a lot more than we’re used to seeing from Lois.
Well, I think with Lois she’s typically been put across as a damsel in distress. And we’re told on comic books, and in television, that she’s a hard driving investigative reporter. And you’re thinking well, if she is, she’s kind of an idiot if she can’t figure out that this guy is Superman! So that was one of the elements of the canon that we questioned.
It was interesting: DC Comics was okay with it initially, and Warner Bros took a step back. I questioned the, and Chris questioned them, and they said it’s always been that way. And we said maybe it’s time to change.
Superman has evolved continually in the comic books over the course of 75 years. He couldn’t even fly for years in the original comic books. Kryptonite wasn’t added until the 60s. All sorts of things like this. If a character is going to remain vital, he does have to change with the times.
The world has changed too. When Superman was originally created, by Siegel and Shuster, they were two Jewish immigrants that were desperately trying to assimilate into America. They were having a hard time because they were Jewish. They wanted to get in to mainstream publishing but they couldn’t.
That’s why they, and a lot of Jewish guys, went into comic books. They couldn’t get work in the ‘legitimate’ press. It was an immigrant story. And now we live in a world where social media exists, where wars are fought by proxy, by private military corporations and by drones.
There was a feeling to me that Superman had been preserved in amber by the Donner films. There was an interesting conversation that Chris and I had early on about depictions of Smallville. Superman came out in the late 70s, so if he was 33 in 1978, he would have landed in the 1940s. Which is Norman Rockwell world. In a strange way, even in the Singer movie, Smallville still had that anachronistic feeling.
So Chris and I very early on started saying okay, if this movie is going to come out in 2013, that means that he was born in the 80s. He would have been in high school in the 90s, so we started talking about his switch of reference. Soundgarden. Nirvana. And that it wouldn’t be Norman Rockwell, it would have been a different world. He would have been skateboarding. And that was instructive early on, because it forced us to look at everything in a different prism. Clark’s switch of reference growing up would have been different.
He would have been first in line for Phantom Menace…
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. My son saw Phantom Menace before he saw the original Star Wars, and you have to think about these things.
It’s been interesting seeing the reviews coming in. There’s a big divide between the reviewers in their 40s and 50s and 60s and the reviewers that are in the Ain’t It Cool or Empire world. There’s a real generational divide in the response to the movie, which we were, to a certain extent, aware that that might happen.
Does that bother you?
No. We dealt with it with Batman Begins. There was some resistance to making some of the changes that we made. Originally, some people didn’t like the new version of the Batmobile. But now it’s accepted, and I suspect, knock on wood, that the same thing will happen with Superman. That it’ll take some people time to assimilate to this mail-9/11 Superman, and hopefully that’ll become the new starting point, and people will begin from there.
As with Batman, there’s going to be a huge expectation to follow this up, not just with Justice League and Man Of Steel, but the wider universe. Are you looking forward to taking that up, because there were Easter eggs everywhere?
I’m looking forward to it, but also terrified. I’ll give you two examples.
One, we were able to sidestep the Clark Kent with the glasses issue. But we’re not going to be able to sidestep that if we do another movie. The task is going to be trickier.
But it’s also interesting because in our minds, because again, from the time Zod broadcasts his message through to the last scene in the movie is maybe three weeks. So the world is just getting used to the fact that there is an alien amongst us, that Superman exists.
So if we were going to do another movie, that might be a year on. It’d be a very different world. Previous depictions of Lex Luthor on movie depict him as a bit bumbling. Even though Gene Hackman’s depiction was fun, we’ve indicated with Lexcorps that you can infer that Lex in this world is more a Bill Gates or Rupert Murdoch like character. He’s probably a multi, multi billionaire. He’s not a crook.
I think if a second movie follows, in some ways it’ll be easier because hopefully we’ll have got the audience to accept this new version of Superman. But in other ways it’ll be much harder, because we’re going to have to posit that he does exist now in this world, and his existence will have changed things.
With the Batman films, were they easier when you’d set up the world?
No, it was harder. It was harder with Batman because it’s harder to top yourself. You can tell the origin story, but then what?
Even within Gotham… if you think about it, Batman – apart from the one moment where he goes to Hong Kong – he exists in this little pocket. So you don’t have to deal with the broader geo-political issues of the world.
But Superman, because he can fly all over the world and could possibly turn up in Syria, or the Horn Of Africa, we are going to have to deal with these issues moving forward.
But even with Batman and The Dark Knight, it’s easier in some ways to tell an origin story than deal with the status quo of what then? Now Gotham police force are aware of him. Now he has to interact with Gordon. Now he has to risk people finding out his secret. Each movie becomes harder and harder. It’s also one of the reason why there are very few good third films, because also you run through a lot of your best ideas.
One last thing, then. Are you keen to direct a movie again?
I am. I’ve been directing mostly pilots of late. I’ve two young kids and I’ve been able to get my director’s itch scratched by directing pilots and writing big movies. The thought of being away from my family for as long as Zack was… maybe one day I’ll do another feature, when they’re a little older.
BELOW IS THE HEAVIER-SPOILER PART OF THE INTERVIEW, THAT WE’VE SEPARATED OUT. DON’T READ IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN MAN OF STEEL YET!
On with the more spoilery stuff, then…
You spent precious little time in the movie with Clark Kent. What was your thinking there?
The story that we wanted to tell was… look, I love the Donner films, but in those, Clark goes to the Fortress Of Solitude, and it just cuts. And he flies out of the Fortress in a Superman costume. And it occurred to me that it’s one thing if you have super powers to say I’m going to be a good Samaritan and help people. But it’s another entirely, and in fact a little presumptuous to just put on a costume and call yourself Superman, and say I’m going to appoint myself the saviour of mankind.
And so this story was why does he become Superman? And we decided early on that’s not a choice he makes, but a choice that’s imposed on him.
He didn’t have to assume the secret identity of Clark here, because from the time Zod broadcasts his message, through to the end of the movie, it’s three weeks, a month. The world is just assimilating to the fact that he even exists. We just pushed that problem down the line. Obviously it’s a note we deal with at the end of the movie, and if there were to be another movie, we will have to deal with that problem in the next one.
Almost Clark Kent Begins then?
Yes. Some people have called this movie Superman Begins, and I guess it is.
Looking at the angle you’ve taken with Man Of Steel, the movie’s effectively about Kal-El?
Yeah, it is. It’s funny. In the script too, if you were to read it, I flip back and forth in the scene descriptions between calling him Kal and referring to him as Clark. He’s only Clark when he’s in Smallville. Most of the time he’s Kal,and that’s very intentional.
The movie is about him deciding am I going to be human, or Kryptonian, to pick which lineage to follow. We wanted to give him this Sophie’s Choice of you can be human, or you can have your Kryptonian world back, but you can’t have both. If you have your Kryptonian world, humanity is going to suffer. He has to decide which world he wants to plant his feet in.
The whole raison d’etre of the movie is that choice. It’s nature versus nurture. And that’s why he puts on the glasses and becomes officially Clark Kent at the end of the movie.
David S Goyer, thank you very much.