Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it Michael Crawford’s Condorman viewed through a particularly thick pair of specs on a foggy day? Nope, none of the above. It is, of course, Kal-El, aka ‘Superman’, a.k.a. the ‘Man Of Steel’, a mythic figure who soars back onto the big screen this week after a seven-year absence. As you know, Henry Cavill is the man assuming the mantle of Earth protector and bus-lifter in this crunching reimagining of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s superhero. Here’s a quick primer before he flies into action...
He's A Drifter. Gone is the Clark Kent of subway commutes, snatched lunch breaks and mild professional befuddlement, replaced instead with an angsty young man struggling to carve a place for himself in an alien world. He wanders, doing odd jobs like that stint on a crab boat we've seen in the trailers, and only shrugs off his existential funk when his adopted world is threatened. In a sense, this all takes Superman back to the telekinetic tramp that Siegel and Shuster first conceived. But if Supes is only a log cabin and a guitar away from giving Bon Iver a run for his money, he swiftly comes of age when the battle for Earth begins. It's a coming of age for Henry Cavill too, with the Tudors (and, um, Immortals) star carrying a possible franchise on his gym-broad shoulders.
His Adversary Is Not Your Average Bad Guy. As Michael Shannon tells Empire, "He's not Villain Zod or Monster Zod, he's General Zod". Shannon draws interesting parallels between the Krypton warmonger and ex-US C-in-C David Petraeus, the instrument of American will in Afghanistan and Iraq. "[Zod] is the best warrior on Krypton," elaborates the actor. "It's his job to protect the Kryptonians, and he takes it seriously." The towering Kentuckian is quick to stress that Zod "is not a nice guy" but that there are reasons for his malice. As with Star Trek Into Darkness, there's deeper resonance in all this, a post-9/11 murk of the kind that's shrouded the superhero genre in recent years.
It's A Tough World For A Journalist. Pulitzer-winning print journo Lois Lane will help take the battle to the common enemy, Buzzfeed General Zod and his renegade faction of space-lagged megalomaniacs. Her diamond-earstudded Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) is a minor-league ballbuster by the furious standards of Jackie Cooper's iteration or his Spider-Man peer, J. Jonah Jameson. Instead, Fishburne has modelled the character on mild-mannered multi-Emmy winning CBS correspondent Ed Bradley, a man not known for being from the shouty-throwy school of journalism. Oh, and just to be clear, he will not be saying "Great Caesar's ghost!" at any point. Even on deadline.
It's Set In A Nolan-ified Universe. While Man Of Steel has Zack Snyder's singular stamp - big action sequences and iris-melting visuals are his stock-in-trade - and his actors cite a clear on-set vision, the input of Christopher Nolan has been stamped on the movie since its, erm, inception. As Inception's Cobb put it, his idea - of a grounded, relatable world with contemporary resonance (see: Generals, Zod and Petraeus) - was resilient and high contagious. Yes, it's become clichéd, but, like The Dark Knight, this is pitched at the darker end of the blockbuster Pantone scale. That darker vision was shared with Batman cohort and screenwriter David S. Goyer who helped crack the puzzle of modernising the hero. Said Nolan, "We were just idly chatting and David said, 'By the way, I think I know how you approach Superman,' and he told me his take on it. It was the first time I'd been able to conceive of how you address Superman in a modern context. It was very exciting."
Expect More Jor-El. Terence Stamp's fond recollections of the Superman II shoot include Marlon Brando gravelly intoning Jor-El's lines straight off a Fortress Of Solitude prompter and the great man indulging in some on-set flirtations with his lovely Brandettes. Sadly, the movie biz has changed since 1980 so Russell Crowe not only learned his lines, he also dons battle armour and gets stuck into the action in a way that would have had Brando scratching his head and asking to speak to his agent.
The Pants Are Staying In The Drawer. The cape remains and the "S is respected" - with a neat explanation involving symbolic glyphs for Kryptonian families - but as Zack Snyder explains, those Y-fronts had to go. "The underwear outside the pants are a leftover from Victorian-era strongmen," he points out of those traditional Super-dacks. "There's a little embroidery there that is a tip of the hat to the trunks," adds producer Charles Roven. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson's attempts to incorporate Supes' pants, a kitscher vestige of previous incarnations, was ultimately foiled by the need for a more muted, micro-mailed costume. N.B. Note how the first reveal, back in 2012, coyly kept the crotchy area veiled.
There Will Be Easter Eggs. Look out for a nod to a DC stable mate in the shape of a logo emblazoned on the side of an otherwise incidental piece of hardware. "Yes, there is a Wayne Enterprises logo on the satellite," reveals Snyder of the Easter egg. It's a neat hat tip to Christopher Nolan's involvement in the production and shows Wayne Electronics in fine fettle, despite all those fusion reactor problems in The Dark Knight Rises. Look out for other hat-tips along the way, including the name of certain casino in Metropolis (which references Tony Gallo, the man in the comic books who first brought the world Kryptonite) and treats for Smallville TV fans...
There's Real Science In This Sci-fi. Unlike a number of the year's science-fiction visions - films like Oblivion and After Earth which took painterly landscapes and crashed stuff into them - Man Of Steel has its nose in textbooks as well as intergalactic mayhem. David Goyer's script should bring joy and happiness to geeks and nerds alike: "If you follow Superman back logically", says Snyder, "and try to understand him, you end up at a sci-fi solution." Expect the genetic variables of Kryptonian life to be put under the microscope in a way that will hopefully even satisfy Brian Cox.
It's Superman's Anniversary. Supes is three quarters of a century old - the bus pass entitles him to lift as many as he likes, gratis - and those 75 years have seen myths and legends attach themselves to him like burrs on a sackcloth. The original Kal-El, a flash of bedtime inspiration from creator Jerry Siegel, drew on biblical hair-pony Samson and that leader of Ancient Greece's #teambringit, Hercules, with obvious Jesus parallels (saviour of humanity, dad with beard) thrown in. Zack Snyder and writer David Goyer have done little to dispel that link with their 33 year-old version, but Goyer has also been careful to cite the influence of Moses, Beowulf and Sumerian hero Gilgamesh on the character.
Lex Luthor Is Out There, Somewhere... A modern incarnation of Gene Hackman's cackling corporate supervillain may be unlikely to appear in Man Of Steel, but rest assured, the big man is out there. Keep your eyes peeled for a LexCorp truck, gas tanker and construction project during the movie. But are these just Easter eggs or a primer for Alan Sugar of supervillainy to return? Will the man, possibly the first capitalist to take the term "corporate raid" literally, be back in an expanded franchise to wreak sniggering mischief on Metropolis? We'd expect so.