Do You Believe a Man Can Fly?

by Graham Edwards

Do You Believe a Man Can Fly?

Superman looks ridiculous.

I’m not talking about the whole underwear-on-the-outside thing. Nor that curly bit of hair that always hangs down over his brow. I’m talking about how he looks when he’s flying across a movie screen. I’m sorry but, however well it’s executed, the visual effect of Kal-El zooming through the skies is just fundamentally wrong.

Before all you Supie fans clench your Kryptonian fists and punch me through the nearest wall, I should probably qualify that statement. The shots I specifically take issue with are the classic “speeding bullet” ones. You know, the shots where our hero is racing along in a prone position with one or both hands thrust forward. The shots that make it look like the poor sap’s been shot out of a circus cannon.

The shots that work better are the ones where Superman is landing or taking off, and especially the ones where he’s just kind of hanging around. The very best shots in Man of Steel are those where he looks like an angel.

I have a theory about why this is.

When I was young, I often dreamed I could fly. But not once did I adopt the speeding bullet pose. Instead, I floated. I drifted. I was thistledown on the wind. I believe this rapturous fantasy of flight is not only commonplace, but deeply rooted in the human psyche. It may well derive from the kind of out-of-body experiences enjoyed by shamans in ancient societies. Now let’s factor in the angel idea. Many religious stories have images of people taking to the air, often in a state of rapture. Unaided human flight has nothing to do with blasting through the stratosphere. It’s a vision, a delirium.

In short, it’s a real trip.

That’s why I think Superman looks great when he’s all floaty, and mildly absurd when he’s doing his impression of a cruise missile. Unlike Iron Man, who just looks cool.

“Aha!” I hear you cry. “Why the double standards? What’s Tony Stark got that Supie doesn’t?”

First, he has a suit. There’s nothing magical about Iron Man’s ability to defy gravity. He’s not a god. He’s a pilot. We instinctively know this, so when he makes with the aerobatics, we instantly buy into what we’re seeing. Second, Tony holds his arms down by his sides. This makes him look like a skydiver. We know skydivers really exist, and again we buy the illusion.

Of course, what I’m touching on here is a much bigger issue, namely: “How do you go about making a visual effects shot look convincing if the underlying concept is essentially absurd?” Oh, and by ‘convincing’ I don’t mean artistically and technically beautiful (heaven knows Man of Steel is positively bulging with shots fitting that description, including the speeding bullet ones I’m lambasting) – I’m just talking about shots that look right. But I think I’ll save that argument for another day. Right now, it’s poor old Kal-El that I’m worried about.

As I see it, Superman has two choices. He can work on his “angel” routine and commit to swapping speed for floatiness. Granted he may not always get to the bad guys in time. Granted a few more innocent bystanders may get iced. But, when the Man of Steel does eventually arrive to save the day, at least he’ll look awesome.

Supie’s other option is to give Tony Stark a call. I’m sure they could work something out. After all, Stark has plenty of spare suits. Kal-El with afterburners? Now that’s what I call a superhero!

So how about it? Do you believe a man can fly?

6 thoughts on “Do You Believe a Man Can Fly?

  1. The only thing that bothers me in Superman’s flighta, are his streatched arms. It doesn’t feel natural at all. As you have mentioned, IronMan is a perfect example how I would imagine a human (or something/someone that looks like one) would fly, specially in a very high speed. I was actually hoping, that in Man of Steel, they would drop this legacy as they did with the other elements. As I greatly enjoyed the fact that they changed his suit as well as the story, specialy regarding Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane.

    • I think the outstretched arms look fine in a static comic book panel. As iconic poses go, it’s pretty great. The problems start when you try to put Supie in motion when he’s in that pose – as you say, it just doesn’t look natural.

  2. Call me a romantic, but I always loved Superman’s flying poses and, as a boy, I emulated them when I was running around the house with a tea towel around my neck. It takes a certain attitude to pull that off, and Chris Reeve had that in spades. So did George Reeves before him, although he appeared to be sucking in his gut. I thought Routh and Cavill were both good in the role, but I was less enamored with their films. Bryan Singer’s movie looked good, but I felt it was just too reverential, and lacked a sense of fun. Zack Snyder’s film contained some astonishing effects, but I found it to be unrelentingly grim and quite apocalyptically horrific.

    • Christopher Reeve had the romance, for sure. And when he struck that pose, yes, he WAS Superman. The pose works well enough in close shots. It’s when you move Supie at speed through the frame that the issues arise. I’d love to see a picture of you wearing that tea towel by the way, Joe 😉

  3. I kind of see where you’re coming from, the idea of a man flying is totally out of our experience so makes it difficult/impossible for us as audience members to relate. However, two moments from Reeve’s Superman movies that just work for me are:

    Superman – The Movie. Lois Lane’s helicopter has just crashed on top of the Daily Planet and is hanging precariously. Clark has spotted this and has transformed (I say this because of the ‘magical’ way it appears in the films) into Superman. He’s just exchanged a few words with a pimp (“Say Jim, that is a BAD out-fit!) and is taking off to the rescue. Now, he doesn’t just float upwards, but you see Reeve seemingly build up a little bit of energy that suggests that this flying lark isn’t quite that straightforward, and kind of pushes into flight. A bit like a plane taking off from a runway. That sold it for me and suggested that Reeve himself understood the absurdity of the central concept and is trying to make it relatable. Like any good actor should…..

    Superman II. General Zod and his crew have just invaded the Daily Planet looking for Lois Lane in an attempt to draw Superman out from wherever the hell he’s been (I won’t go into detail – at this point in the plot he’s AWOL). After a short period of Kryptonian induced carnage, mayhem, intimidation, arrogance….you get the picture, Superman arrives in the nick of time to save the day. There’s a model shot of him arriving in Metropolis (an admittedly unconvincing one), followed by a medium shot of Reeve or a stuntman, landing on a flagpole outside the office window where the action is taking place. This is just before Zod’s infamous “Come to me, son of Jor-El. Kneel before Zod!! command, but the way the landing is executed I still think is brilliant. You see our hero coming in horizontally, at speed, then slowing down fast to land in perfect position on the pole. But during all this you see him using his arms almost like plane control surfaces to guide himself into position and possibly help slow himself down. They could have chosen to simply lower him into position in the shot but a more difficult approach was taken that reads as ‘right’ to me and accentuates the urgency of the plot at that point. And again, to me, it seems as if someone was actively thinking about the whole ‘flying man’ issue in designing the shot.

    Just a couple of thoughts to throw into the pot. By the way, I loved ‘Man Of Steel’. Not perfect, but I think we’ve truly seen the way forward when depicting highly-powered, god-like superbeings on screen.

  4. Come on, if you want to see a superhero flying look no further than 1999s ‘Inspector Gadget’, totally real man!

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