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?