Superman 1.26: Let It Go

Man, when Clark Kent says he’s going north, he does not mess around; dude goes north. He is currently just about as north as you can possibly get, clad in a jacket comfort-rated for Easter in Massachusetts, looking for the right place to toss a magic crystal and summon his own personal snow castle.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small, except for the ice palace, of course, which is fucking enormous. Here he stands, and here he stays.

So this is probably a good moment to mention Geoffrey Unsworth, O.B.E, cinematographer and secret Santa, who made this trip to the Arctic actually work. The North Pole sequence relies on a bunch of talented crew members constructing the sets, the models and the matte paintings, but without the right lighting, it would fall apart, and that was Unsworth’s job.

There’s something the matter with me, but this sequence always makes me think of the 1964 film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which is going for the same effect. It’s got fake snow and lots of little peaks and crags and different levels to walk on. But it looks like a middle school play, mostly because of the lighting.

Now, the one thing that this doesn’t look like is the outdoors. You would never try to show this to people, and tell them that it was filmed live on location in the Arctic. Every element is immaculately white, and there are lots of straight lines which wouldn’t occur in nature. The water doesn’t look like natural water, ditto the sky, and so on.

As a viewer, your response to these shots is not that you, strictly speaking, “believe” in what you’re seeing. Clark steps down onto a little platform of ice, which jiggles under his weight and you can see that it’s a free-floating piece that’s in the water. It looks obviously artificial, but it’s a clever effect, and your brain registers it as a pleasurable little surprise.

It’s the same response that you have at Disneyland, really, when you’re on Pirates of the Caribbean or Indiana Jones Adventure. You’re not suspending your disbelief, because obviously you still don’t believe it, but it’s so much fun to look at that you accept it, and admire the technique.

A lot of this movie is about making sure that Superman doesn’t look silly, no matter how silly the plot points actually are. Currently, secret teenage king of the sky Clark Kent is following some imaginary alien telepathic homing signal that’s been programmed by his dead father into a glowing green piece of fake crystal. It’s directed him to the North Pole, apparently on foot, where it will magically turn into Santa’s Workshop Community College wherever he drops it, and then special guest star Marlon Brando will tell him all about immortality and the human heart. This is a ridiculous thing to put in your blockbuster movie.

But god damn, that matte painting. Right? You just want to keep looking at it.

That is the whole point of superhero movies, to show us things that we’ve never seen before; that’s why all these people are working so hard to create this Disneyland dark ride. A jaded, sensation-hungry public demands visual surprise, and Superman: The Movie is delivering.

And then there’s the model work, also lit brilliantly and accompanied by trilling strings and deep ice-crunching sound effects, as magical crystalline lumber emerges from the sea and arranges itself into an ice barn.

Again, it doesn’t look “realistic”. It turns out there are things that are more important than realism, like being beautiful and clever and surprising.

These days, we’re accustomed to everything being done digitally, which allows the filmmakers to do things that are even more visually impressive. But here, at the birth of the superhero movie, we can see these craftsmen reaching, to push on the limits of what practical effects can do.

Something that I want to watch out for, as we travel through these movies, is how long it takes for somebody to do a visual sequence that looks better than Clark in the Arctic. I can’t think of any examples, right now. Maybe there isn’t one.

Tomorrow:
1.27: House of Wax.

Chapters

— Danny Horn

9 thoughts on “Superman 1.26: Let It Go

  1. The visuals of Superman’s fortress in this movie were so striking that DC essentially adopted the look for the comics. The design lasted for years, and they’ve tried to reboot it a few times, but they keep coming back to John Barry’s crystalline style.

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  2. Striking how much the stills you’ve chosen from SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS resemble those from SUPERMAN! Makes me wonder why I’ve never noticed it- SUPERMAN made a big impression on me when I was eight, and I’ve seen SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS a couple of dozen times over the years.

    I wonder if, before they went with that look, they had considered a realistic depiction of the high arctic. It was certainly an option- movies like THE THING (1951) and ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968) had done it with great success. Perhaps they thought that, after the stately procession through the Krypton sequence and the long session staring at the flat landscape of Kansas, they had to put some rugged terrain on the screen.

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  3. It’s interesting that the Ice Palace is Superman’s home; it’s in every way the opposite of what “home” means on earth. It’s all spikes and crystals and reflections and coldness–nowhere to sit, nowhere to relax, nowhere to feel comfortable. The place couldn’t be more unlike Kansas and his human parents and the cozy space they created for him. Hell, it’s NAME is the Fortress of Solitude! For someone who’s officially the friend of mankind, it’s the loneliest place on the planet.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I can’t think of many Superman interpretations where the fortress of solitude is considered his home. Clark Kent lives in an apartment in Metropolis. That’s his home. The fortress is the place he goes to for, well, solitude; a place he can learn about and commune with his heritage. Superman II and All Star Superman come to mind as some examples where they try to make it a bit more home-y.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. “He is currently just about as north as you can possibly get, clad in a jacket comfort-rated for Easter in Massachusetts…”

    The cold never bothered him anyway.

    The visuals hold up well after over 40 years. I hadn’t realized how much the lighting had to do with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The ‘stage-e-ness’ of the set was the only thing that detracted from the scene. That, and why (apart from style) Clark would need a jacket…
    And I remember thinking at the time that it was lucky that green crystal landed right side up or it might’ve been an Underground Fortress. Or Underwater.

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  6. I’ve always preferred practical effects to digital ones, largely for the reason you say towards the end – you can see the work that went into it. It’s impressive to know that people poured their hearts and soul into making physical objects look otherworldly.

    Digital effects can be impressive in their own way, but there’s *never* any sense of “Wow, how did they do that?” We know exactly how they did it, every time.

    Like

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