Superman, Grounded

11 minute read
Lev Grossman

About a year and a half ago I spent a chilly, rainy winter afternoon on an oil rig in the middle of a parking lot in Vancouver. There wasn’t any actual oil there: the rig had been built from scratch for a scene in Man of Steel (in theaters June 14), the new Superman movie directed by Zack Snyder, who also made 300 and Watchmen (and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, a very watchable movie for kids). The scene Snyder was filming called for the oil rig to be on fire, so it had been fitted with hundreds of little propane torches that could be lit on cue, safely, all over the walls and ceiling. That made it pleasantly warm and steamy inside, though some of the crew wore masks to cope with the propane fumes.

Although Superman is–of course–the quintessential American superhero, the actor playing him was English: Henry Cavill grew up on Jersey, the old Jersey, which is an island in the English Channel, and when he’s not being super he speaks with a very proper English boarding-school accent. But he’s tall and charming and appropriately supernaturally handsome–his arms look like they were laser-sculpted out of tree trunks. He was trying not to blink or flinch or squint at the sun, in order to convey an aura of unearthly invulnerability.

At this point in the movie, Superman is in something of a lost, wandering period, so Cavill sported a full beard, which was going curly in the wet weather. (Conan O’Brien devoted a YouTube video to Cavill’s superbeard and the question of what razor could possibly shave it.) Every 15 minutes or so Snyder would say “Action,” the flames would flare up and Cavill would march down a burning corridor with a look of grim determination. A heavy girder would smash down across his path. Cavill would set himself to lift it out of the way … and Snyder would call “Cut.” Superman, or his computer-generated equivalent, would take it from there. (Though actually he wouldn’t. The shot isn’t in the finished film.)

Snyder watched the action through a monitor a few yards away. Like Cavill, he wasn’t an obvious choice for the film. Watchmen essentially dismantles the great Western myth of the Superhero–it’s about exposing superheroes as tights-wearing neurotics and alcoholics and sociopaths–whereas Superman is the most ingenuous, unironic, unreconstructed, un-self-aware franchise of them all. But here Snyder was, in a parking lot in Vancouver in the rain, earnestly trying to breathe life back into the big blue Boy Scout. “All the movies I’ve made, I’ve made with a slight bit of irony,” Snyder said. “Not even a slight bit. A fair amount. But the ironic part of this movie is that it’s not ironic. You know what I mean? No tongue in cheek, no winking at the camera, no apologies. It’s Superman. He deserves that.”

Superman in an Iron Man Age

Snyder isn’t the first director to resurrect Superman. In 2006, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns performed respectably at the box office, though it didn’t bring in enough to demand a sequel. (It earned $200 million domestically, making it the sixth-highest-grossing film of the year.) What with that and Smallville, which finished a decade-long run just two years ago, we’re not exactly suffering from a dearth of Supermen. So why come back to him now?

Especially since Superman is something of a tough sell at this point in American cultural history. We like our heroes cool and complicated, and Superman isn’t. He’s not funny and jaded and cynical like Iron Man, or brooding and tortured like Batman. He’s a physically invulnerable, morally incorruptible alien who shoots heat rays out of his eyes. In Man of Steel, his father–played with the gravity of a planetoid by Russell Crowe–hopes that Superman will “give the people an ideal to strive toward.” But who the hell wants that? Superman is like the star student who ruins the curve for everybody else.

Snyder, of course, sees it differently: “I just felt like–no disrespect to any other movies–I just felt like there was more to say with that character than was being said.” So he set out to make a Superman so realistic, visceral and true to the original that it would shock us into re-embracing him, make him seem fresh and new. With Man of Steel, Snyder is effectively attempting to erase all previous Superman adaptations from our collective memory.

But first he had to find his Superman. There’s a fairly small pool of humans who are genetically suited to play the part, so it’s not that surprising that Cavill had been up for it once before, for the project that eventually became Superman Returns. Snyder says he looked at “a couple hundred guys,” but Cavill–who at that point was best known for a leading role in the Showtime series The Tudors–was the one he was serious about.

“We actually put him in the original Christopher Reeve costume,” Snyder says, “which is horrible in real life. It’s like spandex, and blue and red and yellow. It’s horrible.” As Cavill remembers it, he was woefully unprepared. “It was petrifying, mortifying and embarrassing all at the same time,” he says. “I was coming off a movie where I had to be out of shape, and then I had gone through Christmas, so I was extra out of shape. I just had to throw on this Lycra-like outfit, and that never looks good when it’s basically a sort of sausage casing.” But Snyder saw something more than sausage. “When he came out in it,” Snyder says, “out of the dressing room, and stood there in front of us, it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t goofy. All of us just looked at him, and we were like, You look like Superman.”

Now all Snyder had to do was make a movie around him. “In my mind, we really had to act as if no films had been made,” he says. “It’s like we just found this comic book lying on the ground, under our bed, and we were like, This would be a cool movie.” Snyder took Superman out of the title: he wanted people to come into his movie without any of the baggage the S word brings with it.

Handheld Heroism

Man of steel retells the superman myth from the beginning. The first 20 minutes of the movie are given over to a lot of rather compressed exposition about Krypton, with the not unexpected outcome that baby Superman gets sent to earth, acquiring superpowers in the process, while his father’s nemesis, General Zod (Michael Shannon), rather unfairly survives Krypton’s destruction.

While the story is familiar, Man of Steel looks different from other superhero movies. It has some of the gritty physical authenticity one associates with documentaries. The whole movie is shot with a handheld camera–the point of view shifts and staggers when things explode or superhumans fly by. What’s more, the camera had film in it. “A lot of these big summer movies are shot on digital cameras and recorded digitally,” Snyder says, “so they have a clean, superslick look. I was really adamant that the movie have a filmic, cinematic feeling.” Snyder’s lens was mercilessly unfogged: even Amy Adams’ peerless complexion looks bumpy, and Diane Lane, as Mrs. Kent, has the sunbaked skin of one of Walker Evans’ Dust Bowl Okies.

When Snyder made 300, he did it almost entirely in an empty warehouse, filling in the settings with computers after the fact–he shot exactly one scene outside, and that was because it had horses in it. But Man of Steel was made in the real world as much as humanly possible. When Clark Kent gets a job on a fishing boat, en route to that burning oil rig, Snyder took a film crew out on a boat in 30-ft. (9 m) waves. (Cavill says he held out till the third day before throwing up.) For scenes that take place in space, Snyder carved massive spaceships out of Styrofoam. “I really appreciated how many sets they built–it could have just been a big green screen all the time,” says Shannon. “It feels very much like it could actually happen, what happens in this movie.” For Clark’s childhood home in Kansas, Snyder’s crew not only built a farmhouse but also planted about 170 acres (69 hectares) of corn around it.

Snyder also did a lot of hard thinking about the physics of superpowered people punching each other. What would a fight really look like if everybody in it could lift a truck and move at supersonic speed? The answer: not like tai chi. “I’m an action dork,” he says. “I wanted every punch, every impact, all of the kind of half-flight half-jump tangling and wrestling in the air to feel real.” The blows are rough and brutal and come almost too fast to follow, and every time one lands it’s like a mortar going off. “Because I’d done Immortals, I’d had a modicum of fight training,” Cavill says. “They wanted to drive that out of me. Superman has never actually fought, because he’d just destroy someone. So it’s more of a brawler-type technique.”

The film’s most startling shots are those in which Snyder reimagines the iconic image of Superman in flight. Snyder gives him a vapor trail, like a de-orbiting space shuttle, and makes the camera appear to have a hard time keeping Superman in focus. “Flight’s hard to photograph,” Snyder explains. “I really wanted to make you feel like getting those images was not easy, so the camera is constantly struggling to hold him in frame.” It’s as if he just happened to be standing there when Superman zipped by–parts of Man of Steel seem like YouTube footage of the meteors that fell to earth in Russia in February. “The ironic part of this movie,” Snyder says, “is that the most realistic movie I’ve ever made is a movie about Superman.”

Heart of Steel

Of course, realism is all well and good–and it really is quite good–but it’s all so much superpowered sound and fury unless the emotions feel real. “Zack really wanted there to be this level of deep emotion from all the characters,” says Adams, who plays Lois Lane. “He wanted it to live in a world of truth, even surrounded by all this fantasy–he wanted it to resonate as emotionally viable.” For Snyder, the core truth of Superman is that he’s an outsider. “He’s this adopted son, this immigrant story, this guy trying to find his place in the world,” Snyder says. “What’s his purpose, what is he supposed to do, how is he supposed to be?”

Whereas Reeve played Superman with the winning, bemused confidence that comes with the knowledge that one lifted a truck as a baby, Cavill gives Superman an air of injured curiosity: he’s smarting at being misunderstood but still hopeful that humanity will one day accept him. “Entering the acting world, it’s a very lonely life,” Cavill says. “You all get so close, and then you promise to e-mail and text each other, but you never do. So that idea of being a sort of lone traveler I can definitely associate with.”

It’s a very different story from, say, Iron Man’s (jaded rich guy learns to use his gifts for good) or Batman’s (traumatized orphan learns to use his vengeful rage for good). Superman is already good, thanks to his idealized upbringing in America’s rural heartland. His story is more about the rest of us learning to be good–learning how to accept the muscle-bound, spandex-clad alien in our midst, in spite of his weirdness and manifest genetic superiority. We’ll see if that’s a lesson humanity wants to learn, again. “I always say, Is it out of fashion to do the right thing?” Snyder asks. “Is it out of fashion to be good? You know? I don’t think so.”


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