Snyder ponders Superman’s ultimate dilemma

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Opening on the heels of that other summer blockbuster “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Man of Steel” is no smaller in scale but feels much more personal. That’s probably because director Zack Snyder (“300,” “Sucker Punch”) is a hands-on kind of filmmaker, who secretly feels that if he can’t stamp his personality on his movies, there’s no point.

“I always say that making movies is like being an architect,” Synder tells The Japan Times during a promotional visit to Tokyo. “The scale of the project, the sheer number of people that have to be involved, dealing with the abstract on a daily basis before we can even glimpse the completed product emerging — the conditions are very similar. And there’s a lot of compromise. It’s always (about) how much of your vision you’re willing to sacrifice to get the product made.”

Snyder started out making TV commercials, for such brands as Budweiser and Jeep, and he says this experience set the stage for not only his career as a movie director but also his approach to the process.

“For both directors and architects, it’s easy to get all tyrannical. It’s weird, but a lot of directors get dictatorial when they come on the set. I’m not, and I think it’s because I’ve made a lot of commercials. I’ve made some for Japan, too. Making a commercial is a whole different story from making a movie. You can believe in your vision, but in the end, you’re selling the product for the client.

“I’m glad I did the commercials … It allowed me to thicken my skin for dealing with difficulties in movie-making.”

For Snyder, “Man of Steel” was pretty much a dream project; his “vision” coincided splendidly with that of producer Christopher Nolan (director of Batman’s “Dark Knight” trilogy) to the extent that Nolan has signed Snyder up for the “Man of Steel” sequel, which pairs the Kryptonian superhero up with a new Batman played by Ben Affleck.

“Chris and I tend to like the same movies,” says Snyder. “For me, a good movie has a pokey feel, and its surface has sharp edges. It’s hard to hold in your hand, but fascinating to look at. The ‘Hollywood committee,’ on the other hand, is always trying to get rid of those edges, to make it softer, lighter, more palatable. Those movies are easier to sit through and accept but once the lights come on you’ve forgotten all about it. It winds up not moving you, and the experience doesn’t stay. The best movies are the ones that cut you a little. When I go to the movies, I hope to be moved. Otherwise, why bother?”

Indeed, “Man of Steel” won’t be for everyone, but at least you can’t accuse it of playing safe. Snyder’s Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is a tortured soul from day one — even as a child (played by Cooper Timberline at age 9 and Dylan Sprayberry at 13) he’s pondering his self-worth and questioning his identity. Snyder describes Clark’s story as a “U.S. immigrant’s story.”

“One of the original authors of the Superman comics, Joe Shuster, was an immigrant. I thought it was fascinating how Superman — an infant from a distant planet — was placed in Kansas, which is the most iconographically central location in the U.S. Clark Kent represents a dichotomy: He’s a complete foreigner, literally an alien, but trying to come into his own in Kansas. And he holds a mirror up for ourselves. In many ways, Clark Kent’s dilemma is the American dilemma. Wherever we’re from, we all have this very strong desire for acceptance. When he’s young, most of Clark Kent’s efforts are directed toward being like everyone else. So the fact that he’s not like everyone and never will be is very difficult for him to accept. And he’s adopted too, which could be hard for a kid. I have four adopted children, so I know how that is.”

Snyder is quick to point out the flaws of the American emphasis on individualism. “American society encourages us so much to be individuals and tells us how special we are. When I was a kid, the way my mother talked, I thought we were all fated to be movie stars. Ours is a culture of celebrity. Everyone is handed a dream, but no one tells you there’s got to be hard work somewhere underneath that dream. It’s a dangerous thing to think you’re so special and not have anything to back it up.”

Clark’s particular problem is that he’s so special he needs a mission of planetary proportions to justify his specialness.

“A very large part of Superman has stayed on Krypton, but he can’t leave his adopted country because if he does the whole world could be destroyed,” says Snyder. “If he steps in to save everyone, he’ll never be accepted as a normal guy. It’s not an easy choice. Because after all that sacrifice, what does humanity have to offer Clark? You have to admit, it’s not much. In one scene, a priest tells Clark to take a ‘leap of faith.’ And that’s pretty much it for Superman. By the way, his Kryptonian name of Kal-El means ‘God’ in Hebrew.” (It actually translates as “Voice of God.”)

In spite of the Judaeo-Christian themes at play in “Man of Steel” (or perhaps because of them), Snyder has gotten a lot of flack from U.S. critics about the movie’s incredibly high collateral damage. An analyst quoted by BuzzFeed.com pegs the body count in the fictional city of Metropolis at 129,000 innocent bystanders, as skyscrapers crumble to the ground causing an estimated $2 billion cleanup bill.

On this, Snyder remarks, “I wanted the movie to have a mythological feeling. In ancient mythology, mass deaths are used to symbolize disasters. In other countries like Greece and Japan, myths were recounted through the generations, partly to answer unanswerable questions about death and violence. In America, we don’t have that legacy of ancient mythology. Superman (who first appeared in ‘Action Comics’ in 1938) is probably the closest we get. It’s a way of recounting the myth.”

For a chance to win one of three “Man of Steel” T-shirts (size M), visit jtimes.jp/film. The deadline is Sept. 9.

  • Salil Goyal

    You were with Zack Snyder and you didn’t ask about Lex Luthor? :/