NEW YORK —Jimmy Olsen is gone. Perry White is black. Nobody ever mentions Kryptonite. But in “Man of Steel,” opening Friday, the biggest change to the Superman universe may be one of the smallest details: He is no longer wearing his famous red briefs.
“It was very tricky,” says screenwriter David S. Goyer, who developed the story for “Man of Steel” while poring over his copy of Action Comics No. 1, which introduced Superman in June 1938. “You have no idea how many conversations we had just on whether or not we should get rid of the underpants. Or how many iterations of designs went into the new ‘S’ shield. It’s not something that you approach in a cavalier manner.”
Get ready for a new version of the world’s oldest superhero. Celebrating his 75th birthday this month, the man from Krypton predates Batman, Spider-Man and Iron Man, but has been overtaken by them at the box office. The last time Superman dominated movie screens <0x2014> as a squeaky-clean Christopher Reeve in 1978’s “Superman” and 1980’s “Superman II” <0x2014> superheroes didn’t have dark sides. Middling reactions to the 2006 reboot, “Superman Returns,” proved that the beloved icon wasn’t easy to update. Can “Man of Steel” transform this old-fashioned icon <0x2014> once synonymous with truth, justice and the American way <0x2014> into a relevant figure for 2013?
It was clear from the start that “Man of Steel,” directed by Zack Snyder (“300”), intended to shake things up. In early 2011, Warner Bros. announced that the title role was going to Henry Cavill, a British actor known mostly for the BBC series “The Tudors.” The quintessential American superhero, played by a Brit? Tongues wagged briefly, but U.S. audiences already had accepted Britons Christian Bale as Batman and Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man.
What’s more, close watchers knew Cavill had already been up for the role in “Superman Returns.” Cavill obviously had the looks: dark hair, soulful eyes, a body begging to be wrapped in spandex. The general feeling seems to be that if Cavill can manage a convincing American accent, he’ll do.
Cavill says he worked with a voice coach to get rid of his softened R’s, but the real test of the actor was how he wore the costume. Snyder once said Cavill “exuded this kind of crazy-calm confidence” the first time he put it on. Cavill credits the clothes, not the man.
The newly textured, slightly metallic suit “had a physical energy to it,” Cavill says. “It was very special, and people would treat me differently. Even if they’d seen me moments before, they’d almost stand up straighter and look at me in a different way. It’s the energy that was put into it that somehow made it something else.”
Another sign that Superman was due for some changes was the involvement of Christopher Nolan, whose “Dark Knight” trilogy updated Batman for the post-9/11 era. Nolan and Goyer began working on the story in 2004, while collaborating on “Batman Begins.”
“I think our biggest challenge was: Can we take this fantastical character and make him relatable?” says Goyer. “Can we make his hopes, his dreams, his challenges less cartoonish and get you to invest emotionally in the character?” The all-powerful, godlike Superman has only one weakness <0x2014> Kryptonite <0x2014> which the writers refused to use. “We felt that was a cinematic crutch,” says Goyer.
What they devised is a Superman torn between his Krypton race and his adopted, human one. Superman’s Earth parents are played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, while Krypton is represented by General Zod (Michael Shannon, sporting a tyrannical Caesar haircut). Superman’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), also appears prominently in the film.
Superman’s inner conflict leads to a moment of violence that may not sit well with longtime fans. “He’s forced to do something in the film that he doesn’t want to do,” Goyer says, carefully avoiding spoilers. “I love that moment, and I think it will be shocking for people. We talked about it with DC Comics, and they agreed that it was something important to do.”
The Daily Planet also has changed since 1978. Editor Perry White is played by Laurence Fishburne, and reporters no longer smoke in the office as Margot Kidder did as Lois Lane. Amy Adams still plays Lois as a dogged reporter, but she and Superman meet and interact much differently.
“There’s not as much banter as in the previous films,” says Adams. “She’s not quite as dry as the Margot Kidder Lois Lane. But is anyone, really?”
Adams calls the new Lois-and-Clark team a “totally different imagining of the origin of their relationship. She’s after the truth, and I think the friendship she develops with Clark has a lot to do with that. She has a great respect for Clark in this one.”
Perhaps to prepare fans for a new Superman, “Man of Steel” has teamed up with more than 100 global advertising partners, according to Ad Age magazine. Warby Parker is introducing Clark Kent-style glasses, while Gillette has produced a video on how Superman shaves. An open question is whether next Halloween’s Superman costumes will do away with the red briefs.
“He’s the king daddy of all superheroes, and my hope is that audiences do accept him,” says Snyder. “I just want him back where he belongs. It’s his crown, it’s his throne room. He just has to get it back.”