From the Set of Man of Steel

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?

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.”

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.”

CS: Which is?

Say nothing.

CS: So do you at least have the line, “Kneel before Zod”?

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.