Superman's Famous Symbol Was A 'Huge Design Problem' For Man Of Steel

"Man of Steel" may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is arguably the ultimate blueprint for a modern iteration of Superman. Zack Snyder retold Kal-El's origin story on the big screen, borrowing the bleaker tone of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy while remaining faithful to the source material. Henry Cavill portrayed a young Superman still acclimating to an environment that was hostile to him in nearly every direction. A beacon of hope clouded by the morally gray beliefs of his parents, Superman was a complex character in a complicated world. Finding that balance between adhering to the iconography of the character and grounding him began with designing the symbol in the center of Superman's chest.

The Superman suit in "Man of Steel" is special for a variety of reasons. From the comic-accurate color scheme to the embedded Kryptonian lettering, the film featured a textured costume that felt lived-in and honored previous iterations. The slightly muted colors were fitting for the tone, but the suit still shined bright when it mattered most. Above all, the symbol of hope at the center of his chest remained as important as ever, if not more so, this time around. The filmmakers behind "Man of Steel" got creative in explaining why the titular alien wears a suit with a letter that looks like a big ol' "S" for us humans.

'A huge design problem'

During a behind-the-scenes featurette for "Man of Steel," the filmmakers explained that the "S" in the Superman suit presented a design conundrum. Alex McDowell, the production designer for the film, explained: "The fact that the 'S' in a shield exists on the chest of a superhero from another planet is a huge design problem." Despite the inherent problem, McDowell and co. seized the opportunity to make it a part of Kal-El's ancestry — a representation of the House of El. 

Costume designer Michael Wilkinson explained the symbol's connection to Krypton:

"You see it on Jor-El, and we see it on Lara as well. When you look at the council costumes, they all have their glyphs, their shield. We looked a lot at medieval heraldry, and symbols of dynasties and guilds and things, so we created our own version of that."

"Man of Steel" could have simply explained that Superman's suit was an original creation by himself or his parents, but as Zack Snyder put it, "you have to go and find the 'why' of it." The fantastical elements of the film are well-realized, especially in the opening sequence on the Kryptonian planet. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) always knew his son was meant for greater things, and the symbol of hope on his family crest bridged that belief.

It means hope

"Man of Steel" was not afraid of leaning toward the sci-fi fantasy parts of the canon, but it did so by creating meaning to it all. An overt explanation behind the symbol may seem unnecessary at first glance, however, it reinforced the themes behind the film. Superman's adoptive parents were never exactly supportive of their child having the weight of the world on his shoulders, even if it was inevitable. However, his Kryptonian lineage long-dictated his place among the stars, a beacon of hope for another world facing an existential crisis. The scene where Superman tells Lois Lane (Amy Adams) that the "S" means hope cemented the idea as a part of his very DNA.

Despite everyone questioning his existence, Superman remained determined to save the world that actively rejected him. The brutal ending often gets the focus because of Superman's deadly actions, but the hopeful nature of the character is aptly balanced with a grounded reality traced back to his very origins. As Zack Snyder put it, "It's that fine line of reinventing him but still seeing him in there." The future of Superman may be going in a different direction, but at least "Man of Steel" proved the character was ripe for a faithful reinvention.