It’s late-August 2011 and a titanic struggle is underway on the main street of Smallville, Kansas.
It’s hard to identify all of the featured combatants.
Superman, of course, is easy enough to recognize, even if his garb is radically altered from when last he graced the big screen.
Who is Superman fighting?
That’s a bit more complicated. His primary adversary currently appears to be a man in a motion capture suit with an attachment that suggests that he’ll ultimately be far larger than what the naked eye can currently see.
In the moment, it looks like Superman is not getting the best of this exchange. He’s pinned back uncomfortably in a furrow in the concrete and he’s being pummeled something fierce. Antje Traue’s Kryptonian Fiora is also involved in the skirmish, but she’s less tantalizing than the unknown MoCap man.
“This particular character we’re not going to name for you, because we want it to be a surprise,” teases “Man of Steel” producer Chuck Roven.
That doesn’t stop the journalists on the film’s set from speculating, but I won’t share any of those guesses, just in case we got it right. Over the course of a day of production, we may or may not have posited every single villain in the DC Comics universe and offered those suggestions to various producers, technicians, extras and interested locals without even a nod of confirmation or a shake of disagreement. The Superman universe is all about the hero’s myriad powers, but on the set of “Man of Steel,” enhanced strength, X-Ray vision and flight all pale in comparison to a higher power, that of producer Christopher Nolan. Although he’s still in production on “The Dark Knight Rises” and isn’t literally on the “Man of Steel” set, his secret-loving presence is felt and evoked at every turn in the form of The Nolan Clause, a gag order that seems only to have become more potent thanks to the Earth’s sun and our gravity.
So Superman is brawling with multiple similarly mighty extra-terrestrial foes, but he also has to contend with some very human technology. A pair of helicopters hover over the street and one is opening fire, spraying the scene with bullets (or activating squibs, depending on your sense of wonder and your suspension of disbelief). Concrete dust flies! Holes pepper a U-Haul truck. Neither Superman nor his enemies are slightly impacted by the artillery. So much for the might of our armed forces, at least in this exchange.
On the bright side, at least both of the helicopters are supposed to be there. Producer Deborah Snyder admits that rogue news choppers produced early challenges and ruined several shots. At the moment, though, the town of Plano, Illinois is on lock-down, with prominent signs steering residents and passers-by away from and around the downtown area. The only thing the production can’t stop is the passage of the BNSF railway, which periodically halts shooting and can be heard in the background of several of the day’s audience interviews.
While Nolan may be The Man when it comes to on-set secrecy, there’s no question that “Watchmen” helmer, and Deborah Snyder’s husband, Zack Snyder is running the show.
“[T]here”s no second unit on the film,” Deborah Snyder explains. “There”s an aerial unit, and then we have an effects unit, but there”s no second unit because there”s not anything he wanted to give up.”
And it’s immediately evident that audiences who associate Zack Snyder with the carefully constructed, CG-augmented, highly stylized tableaus of “Sucker Punch” and “300” and “Watchmen” are going to be getting something different here. As the action in front of us unfolds, the camera is like an additional participant in the high-powered brawl, with the operator hovering just inches from Superman and his foes.
[T]he whole movie”s handheld,” Deborah Snyder says. “That”s something completely different. He just wanted to approach this film in a different way. I mean, so I think you are going to see something that”s new. I think you”re going to see something that”s more organic. Again, we”re shooting more on physical locations than we ever have before. It was very important to really put him in our real world, so that”s kind of-I think all those decisions led to how he”s operating the camera. It all kind of… when that”s your end goal, you make certain choices to get to that goal.”
We’re on the set of “Man of Steel” nearly two years before the movie is scheduled to open and, thus, many months before teasers, trailers or months of pre-release interviews, so the initial instinct is to assume that because of the people working on the movie and because of Snyder’s handheld and therefore presumably gritty approach, that this will attempt to do for Superman what the “Dark Knight” films did for Batman. Not-so-fast, insists screenwriter David S. Goyer, who will be the only credited screenwriter and has had a regular on-set presence on “Man of Steel.”
“Everyone is like, ‘Oh, because Chris and I and Chuck 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 in ‘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 extends to realistic, or at least physically viable, applications of Superman’s powers.
“[I]t was always just, if this kind of really happened in the real world, even in terms of how his powers work,” Goyer says. “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 each of the….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 fire power 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.”
One thing’s for sure: No matter how Zack Snyder and his team were able to rationalize Superman’s powers, those powers have done significant damage up and down what is Plano’s Central Avenue. In addition to the concrete groove caused by Superman’s current conflagration, there are long stretches of pavement uprooted. As you go down the street, there are destroyed buildings, smoking cars and bursts of flame still erupting. The smoking turbine and wheel of a plane hints at failed previous military intervention. There’s a gaping hole in the wall of the Kansas State Bank, an impressive feat given the apparent brick walls. The metal door of the bank vault is bent in on itself, part of the backdrop for the first released image of Henry Cavill’s Superman, which had been released just days earlier. A garbage truck has been upended.
Then again, the production has done some good as well. We’ll leave aside the infusion of money into Plano, as well as the kindness of allowing the local fire department to sell t-shirts with a familiar DC-trademarked logo. Superman-affiliated sales and merchandise are being touted at every small and large store on the long-ish drive from Chicago. Oh and there’s a new 7-11 and Sears on the main drag, though they won’t be there after the production leaves.
“We have products in here not because of product placement, but because he wanted to make it feel like it”s a real place,” says Deborah Snyder of the familiar fake storefronts. “You know? Because it was bugging me when it”s like, ‘Yeah, we want some mom and pop shops, but we want it to also feel real.’ That means having real brands and things like that.”
More chaos could be on the way. After all, this is only Day 24 of a whopping 121 days of scheduled production and things may get worse before Superman flies around the Earth repeatedly to undo the damage. [NOTE: It’s highly unlikely that this incarnation of Superman will to reproduce Christopher Reeve’s hoary time trick. Zack Snyder’s science advisors probably wouldn’t be able to find a real-world justification for that. Instead, the production will probably just clean Plano up before departing.] Just beyond the visible boundaries of the main street are production trucks overflowing with miscellaneous debris and shredded faux-asphalt just waiting to be distributed. A storefront named Leon’s Fix-It-Shop is having its door rigged to blow. If fans felt that Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” was light on action and heavy on shady real estate dealings and a probable super-kid, the action quotient already feels higher here. The producers promise this will be a return of high-energy Superman, while also giving the franchise the desired jolt of adrenaline.
“[L]isten, everyone would be outraged and Superman is beloved and has such a history. So, I think it”s a balance of being true to that, but also about modernizing it and making it relevant,” Deborah Snyder says. “Like, for instance, I say like, especially Clark, right? Clark, I feel like he hasn”t been so relatable, and I feel like if you can relate to him even just as a person of someone who”s struggling and trying to find himself or whatever, I feel like you get a lot more, you care about him a lot more, you know? He”s the kind of guy that you can watch a football game and drink a beer.”
She concluded, “I think that”s a big deal.”
That beer, though, will have to wait until after Superman fends off MoCap Man, the helicopters and more. Somehow, we have confidence.
For more “Man of Steel” details, also check out HitFix’s coverage of on-set interviews with Zack Snyder and Superman himself, Henry Cavill.
“Man of Steel” opens on June 14.