When Superman Returns hit theaters in 2006, one of the main criticisms fans had about the film was the lack of action. What Bryan Singer’s movie had in melancholic emotions it lacked in the spectacle that audiences have come to expect from comic book movies. So as I and other members of the online press visited the set of Man of Steel way back in August 2011, that was the big question – was Zack Snyder going to deliver the Superman action that fans have been craving?
Walking into the middle of downtown Plano, Illinois where shooting was taking place, it didn’t take long for us to get our answer. As we walked down the street which doubled for Smallville, we saw the smoldering wreckage of an A-10 Warthog spread down the road. The street was filled with craters and the shops along the way such as “Kansas State Bank,” “Payne’s Toys & Comics,” and 7-11 were utterly destroyed. What caused the carnage? Past the smoke and flames we saw it – a Kryptonian battle on a scale we hadn’t seen since 1980’s Superman II.
In the middle of the street Henry Cavill as Superman is having his face smashed into the pavement by Antje Traue as Faora and a stuntman in a motion capture suit – possibly General Zod in CG armor? Possibly a Kryptonian robot? We were never told. As they grind his face into the asphalt, Superman lets loose an enraged yell and a blast of lasers from his eyes. (Well, the heat vision would be added later, but you get the idea.) Faora and the unknown assailant are blasted back and Superman jumps to his feet. As they prepare to face off again, all three combatants turn to the sky to see two Army helicopters fly overhead with machine guns blazing. As Superman and Faora flinch from the bullets, the unknown character grabs a U-Haul van and hurls it into the sky. One helicopter dodges it but the other is hit. As a soldier falls from the helicopter, Superman prepares to take to the sky to save the falling human, no longer concerned for his own safety.
And with those few moments alone, we realized this was a very different Superman film from Superman Returns. This was, truly, Superman unleashed.
Before witnessing the battle of Smallville, our set visit started at another familiar location – the Kent farm. But like downtown Smallville, the little farmhouse surrounded by cornfields was battle damaged. Sticking out of the front of the house was a Dodge Ram pickup truck obviously hurled there by some incredible force. As weathered and old as the farm appeared, producer (and director Zack Snyder’s wife) Deborah Snyder told us they built the farmhouse from scratch and added the cornfields as well. It was all created by production designer Alex McDowell. But behind the battle damaged farm was where the real interesting thing was.
We proceeded to the barn that housed another iconic piece of Superman lore – the Kryptonian ship that brought infant Kal-El to Earth. It was placed in the basement of the barn by Pa Kent. As our first look at Kryptonian designs, it was quickly apparent that this was unlike the crystal-themed designs of the previous Superman films. The 12 foot long spaceship was a dark bronze color and didn’t have a single straight line anywhere in the design. It was almost bio-mechanical in look. With a bulbous nose and engines on the back, the only familiar piece of it was the large “S” emblem on the front – the symbol of the “House of El” as Snyder called it. She told us, “You can tell it has a very organic feel. I think we’re used to ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Star Trek,’ these very angular, straight lines. Our designs are very organic. They almost feel like they’re living and breathing in some way. This front of this pod actually comes off and that’s where the bassinette, where Kal is, would be inside the front of the ship. Then, if you look behind you, you can see lots of articles that Jonathan (Kent) has been tracking. Is there life out there? Is there anyone else like him? He’s trying to do his own research.”
Looking behind the ship, we saw the clipping that she referred to. There were articles on UFO’s, pyramids, and the Arctic. There were National Geographic magazines, Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” Scientific American, and more. You can tell Kevin Costner as Pa Kent has been busy trying to figure out his son’s origin.
Leaving the Kent Farm, we drove into Plano, Illinois and watched the filming. The cover name for the production was “Autumn Frost” and everything from the local news media to Superman fans had been doing their best to get a glimpse of the production. Deborah Snyder and producer Charles Roven continued to give us the tour of the set. As we watched Faora beating up the Man of Steel, Snyder told us about Faora’s costume and that of the mysterious CG character. In fact, we noticed that there were at least three of the mysterious CG Kryptonian characters. “The guys are in the motion capture suit, because they have a lot of armor on them. And armor’s kinda hard to fight in and it’s a hard surface, so it’s easy for us to replicate. Faora though, you’ll see, she has a lot of the skin suit.” Snyder continued, “We wanted to take the elements of Superman’s skin suit and then have you see it in different iterations, in different places. It’s almost more like a space suit. But because the women are more curvy, the women have less armor, we felt like we needed to shoot her practically. She can fight very easily in her armor, in her suit. It would’ve been really harder for us to replicate, especially because you’re seeing so much of the skin suit.” As we pressed them to name the mysterious CG character, Roven stayed mum. “I think this particular character we’re not going to name for you because we want it to be a surprise. However, I think he’s being played by a stunt person, I think we can say.”
As we continued watching filming, we ran into writer David Goyer. We noted that a number of Easter Eggs could be seen among the Smallville storefronts. He told us this was planned by him and production designer Alex McDowell. “We frequently email back and forth with set dressing on just any little thing. Like, instead of making it generic, like, an elementary school, that’s Weisinger Elementary School (after Superman editor Mort Weisinger). We named certain things after sort of artists or writers or things like that. Or characters.”
As Superman continued to get his face pounded into the pavement, we asked Deborah Snyder what were the lessons she learned from the previous Superman films. “You know, I think the biggest lesson for us, we took our kids to see the premiere, right? They were 10, 11 at the time. They didn’t understand it because that movie assumed that everyone – and I think especially for kids, you know, unless you’re a diehard fan, it’s been so long that there was a film that they were very confused. I feel like we made sure that when we were doing this, that we are totally reeducating you. I think you’ll enjoy it because it has the history of Superman, if you know that, but you don’t have to know that. If you’re a young kid, you can experience it for the first time and you don’t have to have any knowledge going into it.” David Goyer added, “I know that all diehard comic book fan chatter is like, ‘Oh, everybody knows all of this stuff.’ But the Donner films, which we all love, have been, by the time this movie comes out, 36, 37 years. It’s something like 85 percent of the audience doesn’t know that. The vast majority of our audience wasn’t even alive. Everyone assumes that. Frankly, putting aside everything else in ‘Superman Returns,’ that was the single biggest problem with it is that that movie assumed that everybody knew the story and could just pick it up, and they didn’t. The vast majority of the audience, the non-geeks, were alienated.”
Goyer was asked why they went with General Zod as the villain rather than one that hadn’t been filmed before, like, say, Brainiac? “The way (Christopher) Nolan and I have always approached the Batman movies as well is you never say, ‘Hey, which villain would be cool for this movie?’ You start with the story first. What kind of story? What kind of theme do you want to tell? So we worked that out. Then, usually the villain becomes obvious in terms of who’s going to be the appropriate antagonist for that. When you guys see the movie, the only villain we could’ve used was Zod and the Kryptonians. I mean, when you see what the whole story is, nothing else would have even made sense, just like in the same way that nothing else would’ve made sense other than Bane in the other one. I mean, you let the story dictate who the right antagonist is rather than the other way around.”
While David Goyer is the go-to guy for DC movies, he had to have his scripts approved by an unusual entity this time – the Department of Defense. “Every little time we changed something military or every little time we changed something – we have DOD assistance on this movie and there’s been an enormous amount of coordination between me and the people at the Pentagon and the various branches of the military in terms of getting military accuracy right. So they were out here, some of them are still here, but like, earlier this week, I was spending a lot of time coordinating with them. And they put me in touch with A-10, which are called Warthog, Pilots and Little Bird Pilots and C-17 Pilots and all of these things play in the movie. I’ve been coordinating with all of them to make sure that all the radio transmission stuff – just every little detail is exactly right. So there’s been a lot of stuff. There’s been stuff coordinating with DC. There’s just been a lot of details.”
But how dark is it going to be? Will it have the dark, adult tone of the Batman movies or will it be accessible to kids? David Goyer was quick to address that question. “Everyone is like, ‘Oh, because Chris and I and Chuck (Roven) worked on ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘Dark Knight,’ blah, blah, blah, those are all really dark, ergo, Superman’s going to be really dark,’ which isn’t true. Our approach to those Batman movies was just to make them more real, to make them not comic book movies, to make them sit in the real world. ‘Superman: Man of Steel’ is the same thing. He sits in the real world. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s dark. It’s just that it’s a more realistic, non-comic-booky approach. It’s not ‘Dick Tracy.’ He exists in the real world.”
That real world approached carried over into every aspect of the film, including how Superman’s powers worked. Goyer said, “If this kind of really happened in the real world, even in terms of how his powers work, I mean, Zack and his team did a really interesting sort of scale of power, and they did a sort of how much fire power a 40 caliber bullet, a 50 – you know, these kinds of things, like a shell grenade would work on a human versus a Kryptonian. Like, you’ll get the physics on all of that, so that like, an M-4 would knock a human back this far. An M-4 would knock a Kryptonian back this far. You know, the firepower from the A-10 Warthogs would knock a human back this far. It will knock a Kryptonian back this far. So, we sort of get all the physics on it, or Zack’s team did all the physics, so that it’s that attempt. So there are rules and science rules within this movie and this universe that things have to apply to, so it’s not just like, magically do whatever. The Kryptonians can jump yea high in our gravity kind of thing. They can punch this hard, lift this much, that sort of thing.” This also carries over into how long Superman can fly in space. “I mean, we’re not going to give away too much of the movie, but yes. I mean, it’s not just a free for all. There are rules.”
CS: So with a reality-based approach, how do you deal with the fact that he puts on glasses and nobody recognizes him?
Goyer: You gotta see the movie.
CS: Okay. (Laughs) Is there a role for humor, and what is that role?
Goyer: Yeah, there’s a role for humor. I think that it’s not the Richard Lester version. But there are definitely funny things in the movie.
CS: Are there characters who specifically bring the comedy, sort of comic relief characters? Or, does everyone get some?
Goyer: Is there a Richard Pryor? (Laughs)
CS: A Laurence Fishburne could certainly add humor.
Goyer: Different characters have moments of humor in the movie, even Henry has moments of humor in the movie, but I don’t think there’s a comic relief character.
CS: Of course, the most important question, will Lois be singing in the film?
Roven: I’ll let you answer that. (Laughter) I think you guys know me. I wouldn’t say anything.
CS: Since you’re going for realism in the same way that “Batman Begins” and “Dark Knight,” is this a world where they could potentially interact? I’m not asking about plans, but is that something that you think would be possible in this case?
Goyer: I swear to god, I don’t know.
CS: So no mention of Gotham at any point, or that you know of in the movie, even like, a Gotham newspaper?
Goyer: I don’t think so.
Roven: Really, we just really focused on this character.
Snyder: On this world.
Roven: This character and this world.
Snyder: It’s like, enough work to do. Are you kidding me? (Laughs)
CS: I mean, I guess what I’m saying is there seems to be like at “The Daily Planet” maybe room for a news story on like, some monitor from Gotham, “Vigilante Crime Fighter, blah, blah, blah.” You know, just like a little Easter egg for fans.
Snyder: I think that there will be some Easter eggs, but we had an enormous task ahead of ourselves creating our world in the way that we wanted to.
Roven: That’s really all that we’re focusing on.
Publicist: You can ask, whether we answer or not is another thing.
CS: Exactly, no, of course.
Roven: We can always invoke the Nolan Clause.
CS: Which is?
Goyer: Say nothing.
CS: So do you at least have the line, “Kneel before Zod”?
Goyer: I can neither confirm… (Laughter) I have a pretty good sense of what – we talked a lot about what we wanted to talk about and what we don’t want to talk about.
As we continued to watch filming, we got a sneak peek at a pre-visualization of the entire action sequence in the movie. In it, we see US military soldiers and snipers shooting at the unnamed CG character in the film. Superman, overpowered by the Kryptonians, tries to flee by flying down the street. But as he jets off, his foot is caught by the Kryptonian and he is slammed into the pavement like a rag doll. Faora and the CG character stand on either side of him ready to strike. Superman then grabs Faora, slams her into the pavement, then slams her into the other attacking Kryptonian. Superman then flies down the street dragging the stunned Faora behind him. Yes, he uses Faora as a club to beat his other opponent. As the brutal action shows, “Man of Steel” is truly unlike any Superman movie we’ve seen before.
Now here we are in 2013 with a couple of trailers already released. Surprisingly, the trailers have been very restrained and echo the melancholy tone of Superman Returns. But if the action we saw on that day back in 2011 is any indication, Zack Snyder and company are saving their best for last.
Go to the NEXT PAGE for the on-set interview with Superman himself, Henry Cavill.