David S. Goyer, the scribe behind Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” trilogy and the highly anticipated Superman reboot “The Man of Steel,” opening June 14, was sipping English breakfast tea while nursing a cold recent at the Four Seasons Hotel.
The 47-year-old writer was balding, slight in stature and bore a striking resemblance to the actor Stanley Tucci, as The New York Times has noted. But his case of the sniffles didn’t prevent him from speaking, in erudite fashion, about his upcoming Superman flick, which began when he hit a case of writer’s block while working on “The Dark Knight Rises” several years ago.
“I was procrastinating,” said Goyer, who promptly “wasted time” by perusing some Superman comics in his home office – where, by the way, hangs some original art from the “Golem” comic books of the 1970s (Goyer likens the Golem to “the Jewish hulk”). On a lark, Goyer began jotting down some ideas for a new Superman film, which he dished to Nolan the next time they got together. The director was so impressed that he picked up the telephone and called Warner Brothers’ Jeff Robinov, who in turn was so enamored with Goyer’s take on the DC Comics character that he approved the project the very next day.
Superman has been a cultural icon since his Jewish creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, first published his story in Action Comics #1 in 1938, just as the Jews of Europe could have used a superhero of their own. Since then the guy in the cape has been ensconced in the popular culture with myriad tellings and retellings of his story -- from the Christopher Reeves films of the 1970s and ‘80s to Bryan Singer's 2006 “Superman Returns.”
So what’s Goyer’s new spin on the Man of Steel? His emotional vulnerability, the writer said. Here are some further excerpts from our interview, where Goyer discussed his childhood obsession with comics, his work on the blockbuster “Dark Knight” trilogy and of course, “The Man of Steel.”
Q: When did you first get into comic books?
A: We used to take the Amtrak train from our home in Ann Arbor [Michigan] to visit my grandmother in Chicago, and when I was 5 or 6 my mother would buy us comic books in the train station and I’d read them on the way. The first one that really captivated me was “The Incredible Hulk #161.” I related to Bruce Banner who was small and picked on but then he could turn into the hulk!
Q: Were you aware that many of the superhero creators were Jewish?
A: Oh, yeah – I mean Stan Lee was Jewish and Jack Kirby, Joe Simon and Bob Kane and Siegel and Shuster, they were all Jewish, and between the six of them they created easily the top 10 comic book characters out there. As Jews, they were disenfranchised, put upon and oppressed, so the superheroes were a kind of wish fulfillment; also comics were a kind of gutter medium so it was a way to get work in perhaps a medium that was less established and even frowned upon, and wasn’t paid much attention to, but at the same time it offered them a lot of creative latitude.
Q: When you tackled Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, what did you aspire to do that was new and different from previous films?
A: The first thing was that we tried to write about the gadgetry as if it were real; we were rigorous about the storytelling and we would never introduce something and not at least explain how a gadget could exist in the real world -- how the Batmobile or Batman’s cape could work, for example. So everything had to be based on technology that either existed or was on the drawing board, to give it verisimilitude. The other thing is that we didn’t want Batman to appear in the suit for at least 45 minutes into the film, because we wanted to get people so invested in Bruce Wayne that they didn’t care whether or not he was in the suit. So one of the first things I said to Chris is that I was adamant that there be a massive action sequence, almost Indiana Jones-style, involving Bruce Wayne at the beginning of the film, and that is where he escapes from the League of Shadows.
Q: Your take was also more nihilistic than the Tim Burton “Batman” films of the late 1980s.
A: That was our personal take. One of the things that’s interesting for the audience to decide is whether or not Batman actually makes Gotham better – whether it’s a better place after he leaves or not.
Q: You’ve described the relationship between Batman and The Joker in “The Dark Night” as “The Killing Joke.”
A: “The Killing Joke” is a seminal graphic novel by Alan Moore and it was one of our reference points. But also it was the fact that the Joker isn’t in a strange way evil; he’s the Trickster [in mythology of various cultures]; he’s based on Loki, or the Coyote. He exists to shine a mirror back on society, and I’m not saying he doesn’t do horrible things, but the Joker does sometimes do things that are not beneficial to himself, and I’m not even sure that he would kill Batman if he actually got the opportunity.
Q: One of the things that is so creepy about your Joker, as played by Heath Ledger, is that he keeps changing his back-story.
A: That was intentional. I think a lazy convention of modern superhero films is that you start with the origin story of a character and we thought that we would go the opposite direction. We didn’t want people to identify with him; we didn’t want to humanize him, so we thought if he just keeps telling different stories, then you never know who the real guy is, and it just makes him that much more enigmatic.
Q: You’ve said that writing about Superman for “The Man of Steel” was trickier than creating The Dark Knight.
A: He is trickier. The problem is that he’s not human and he has very few physical vulnerabilities, so he’s inherently harder to relate to. So we worked hard to make him relatable, because if audiences can identify with Clark Kent as a person, even though he’s an alien, they’ll be emotionally invested in him. Hopefully they’ll invest in his sense of isolation, because he’s different, even though he’s seemingly invulnerable.
[According to Entertainment Weekly, “The Man of Steel’s” Superman is “more soulful and troubled;” a “hunted, fearful Superman – one who didn’t even identify himself with that grandiose moniker but just wanted to blend in on his new home planet.” Until the Kryptonian tyrant General Zod comes on the scene…]
Q: “The Man of Steel” is less idealistic, you’ve said, than the previous Richard Donner Superman films.
A: There’s nothing wrong with idealism, and our film is a hopeful film, but we live in a different world now. I think if you attempted to recreate the [Donner] films now they would seem anachronistic; the world has moved on, it’s 37 years later, and it’s a much more complicated place.
Q: Are you talking about the current war on terror?
A: Yes, and what was interesting for us in this exercise was, can we tell a story about Superman that will get you to care about him in today’s world?
Q: “The Man of Steel” is also very much a story about a man with two fathers.
A: He’s got his earth father and his Kryptonian father, who are both responsible for instructing his moral compass, and for me the key to the movie was that Superman is half from earth and half from Krypton, and he really needs to decide who he is and which father’s advice to heed, which was my emotional way into the character.
Q: Do you think that superhero stories are still lumped into a genre that doesn’t get much respect?
A: It definitely doesn’t. I do think it’s getting progressively better; in film terms it’s a relatively new genre, and I think eventually you will see a superhero film win best picture [at the Oscars]. But it just goes back to people feeling like you can’t take comic books seriously, that they’re just for kids. There was also a bias against Western movies when they started, and against musicals as well.
But what the superhero genre allows you to do is, they’re sort of like our modern Greek myths; they’re aspirational, like the "Just So" stories. And speaking for my own kids, it’s the easiest way to, in a very primitive way, start to instill morals. At my house we talk about, “Well, Superman wouldn’t do that; he wouldn’t push his little brother.” And it’s very instructional and certainly one of the ways that I got some of my earliest moral teachings. I remember talking about Spiderman and his [perspective] that with great power comes great responsibility, and that made a big impression on me.