15 Mind-Blowing Practical Effects In Superhero Movies

iron man 3 suit

Everyone knows that superheroes are larger than life. The trouble with making movies about them is finding ways to make their powers seem realistic on the silver screen. However, the movie industry has proven time and time again that the heroes who fans love on the page can make great movies. Then again, it's never a simple task to bend reality to fiction.

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Sometimes it's easy to forget some of the most important people who bring superheroes to life: the crews of people behind practical effects. They could be puppeteers, makeup artists, stunt doubles, engineers behind complicated rigging to simulate flying, or countless others. Today, they'll receive long-overdue thanks from the fans for making the rest of us believe in movie magic.

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killer croc from suicide squad
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killer croc from suicide squad

To the surprise of virtually everyone, "Suicide Squad" managed to walk away with a statue at the 2017 Oscars. The award for "Best Makeup and Hairstyling" went to Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini, and Christopher Nelson. It's not hard to see why when hearing about what some of the stars went through in the makeup chair.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje brought Batman villain Killer Croc to life in front of the camera, but it was Nelson's special effects makeup team gave who him his iconic look. Not a bit of CGI was used. Instead, Akinnuoye-Agbaje sat in a chair for five hours per day to get a head and shoulder prosthetic glued on. The rest of the visible skin was painted to resemble Killer Croc's scales.

Even the effect of characters who kept more traditionally-looking skin like El Diablo and Harley Quinn required dozens of hours of work per day. El Diablo's tattooes were hand-painted. Since Harley Quinn shows the majority of her skin throughout shooting, Margot Robbie had to be powdered in white makeup every day, as well as changing her makeup to reflect the grunge of each unique environment.



CGI was all over "Captain America: Civil War," from the airport where the infamous battle was waged between Avengers to the details on Black Panther's suit. However, that didn't stop directors Joe and Anthony Russo from using stunt-work and smashing up a few cars.

The stunts were coordinated by James Young, stunt double and stunt choreographer. Young worked with the Russo brothers before on "Captain America: Winter Soldier," and then was brought onto this later project. The physical stunts seen in the movie include a stunt double for Crossbones exiting the window of a building in the fictional city of Lagos. You can also see Captain America vault onto the top of a car with the help of rigging in order to kick an enemy combatant.

Other practical effects in the film include crashing a giant truck into a bridge and rolling a very expensive car through a tunnel where Black Panther would later be chasing Bucky Barnes. However, many of the other feats made by the film's intrepid heroes were relegated to the world of CGI. Probably safer that way.

13 IRON MAN 3 (2013)

iron man 3 suit

By now audiences are very familiar with the sight of Tony Stark swaggering onto their TV in his CGI Iron Man suit. What they might not know is how these suits are built for actors to wear on set.  For this, fans can thank Shane Patrick Mahan and Lindsay MacGowan for building the veritable multitude of suits used in  "Iron Man 3."

The suits worn by Don Cheadle and Robert Downey Jr. only cover them from the waist up, so every time the movie-going audience sees them in a full-body shot, it's a blend of CGI and a physical suit. Each of these pieces can be swapped out for any shot the director needs, so a suit that's pristine in the beginning of the movie is swapped out for whatever dinged-up version the director needs later.

One secret that Mahan and MacGowan have not divulged is how the lights in the suits are powered, since the light is not the result of a computer.

12 X-MEN (2000)

Mystique X-Men Movie

"X-Men" has been known for featuring characters with unusual anatomies, and Mystique is no exception. The mutant has entirely blue skin and and bright orange hair in her natural form, but can change shape at will. In the film version, she is almost always shown in her own blue skin. If not for amazing makeup artists and Rebecca Romijn, this decision for the movie would have fallen flat on its face.

Although the character appears nude, special makeup designer Gordon Smith used blue-skin silicone prosthetics with a scaly texture that could be applied directly to the skin. The prosthetics are almost translucent, looking and feeling completely lifelike. The areas that were not covered at this point are then painted, powdered and made up by a team of four different artists over the course of 12 hours a day before shooting. Romijn also wore yellow contacts to give her character an otherworldly feel, but reportedly it was very difficult to see through them.


Quicksilver Wall Running

Quiksilver isn't a character introduced in the original X-Men film series, so nobody quite knew what to expect when Evan Peters was tapped to play the quick-running mutant. After "X-Men: Days of Future Past" was released, nobody could forget him either. The breakout scene of Quiksilver running while Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle" may go down as the most memorable in film history.

Don't be fooled, though: most of that scene is not CGI, according to "X-Men" writer Simon Kinberg (who wrote the film's screenplay). Numerous high-speed cameras were set up in a rig surrounding Peters that followed him as he ran at regular speeds. By speeding up everything except for Peters, both frames combined together would make it appear as if he's moving 150 times faster than everything around him. The only CGI part of the scene were some of the rice particles in the air surrounding Evans, which nobody could control.

10 HELLBOY (2004)

hellboy skeleton

The film adaptation of Dark Horse Comics' "Hellboy" was full of amazing practical effects makeup, not the least of which was Ron Perlman as the titular character. Some of the most detailed work was devoted to one of the more short-lived characters, Ivan Klimatovich. The dead Communist who is revived by Hellboy for directions is not an actor working with CGI. Instead, Ivan was designed as an elaborate puppet from Spectral Motion, one of the leading makeup and creature effects studios working in the industry today.

The puppet can mimic articulated speech and specific expressions, as well as talking with the tongue moving. This gives the full effect for the most realistic version of a reanimated, but perpetually rotting corpse. In the final version of the film, Ivan didn't get as many scenes as fans might have liked, but it's good to know that great directors won't skimp on the details when it comes to bringing their cinematic visions to life.


The Rocketeer

In the day and age of nostalgic remake and superhero franchises dominating the  box office, it's no surprise that "The Rocketeer" was chosen as a prime candidate for a blockbuster reboot. That doesn't mean that the original doesn't hold its own, and in fact holds a cult classic status among many fans.

One of the ways the film managed to hold audiences captive was the way the movie leaned on practical effects rather than the less-polished CGI of the decade. Most of the stunts on the film that were used was wirework, and stuntmen and a stunt pilot were used for everything in the air. During the airshow sequence, a stuntman wearing the Rocketeer costume held onto the wing of the biplane, and then plummeted into the open air. The end result is a kind of magical awe that captures viewers' attention to this day.

It's no surprise that director Joe Johnston was tapped to take over the vintage feel of "Captain America: The First Avenger" 20 years later.


teenage mutant ninja turtles michelangelo

The new generation of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" fans may remember cartoon and CGI-movie versions, but older fans remember the puppetry of the 1990 film fondly. The original suits were built by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, with different suits built for action sequences and conversations. According to Michael Sisti (who played Michelangelo), facial motors and a computer was hidden in the shell, and cables attached the animatronics in the head to the back, making the entire suit weigh more than 70 pounds.

A puppeteer would stay just off-camera in order to move the faces and do the voices of each of the Turtles. These suits would be replaced with less-sophisticated versions in the third installment of the franchise, but most fans can agree there's a charm to Henson's creations. Despite being controlled by a puppeteer, the Turtles managed to express deep emotion required of main characters, and got most fans to relate and empathize with their struggles.

7 SPIDER-MAN (2002)

spider-man lunch tray scene

Tobey Maguire's first film adaptation of the Marvel favorite "Spider-Man" would be the first of at least six installments across three separate franchises. Fans may be spoiled for choice when it comes to superhero movies now, but it's hard not to look back and be grateful for the film that started it all. CGI was definitely used in the film, but not where casual viewers might expect.

In the beginning of the movie, Peter Parker is first discovering his powers in the epicentre of all teenage embarrassments: the high school cafeteria. His hands stick to everything and seems to be leaving goo everywhere. It's then that his crush, Mary-Jane Watson, walks by and trips. With his newfound agility, Peter manages to catch Mary-Jane and every piece of her thrown lunch is caught on her tray. Must be CGI, right?

Nope. The tray was covered in a sticky substance, but Maguire caught everything that was thrown up in the air in front of the camera. It took 156 takes, but it was 100% worth it.


amazing spider-man rope scene

A decade after the release of the original "Spider-Man" movie, Andrew Garfield inherited the Spidey suit. "The Amazing Spider-Man" changed a lot of the aesthetics from the original film, but most significantly it differed in the web-swinging sequences. Sam Raimi used CGI, but Marc Webb decided to use a combination of flesh-and-blood stuntmen and his lead actor.

Webb attached an almost-impossibly thin wire to either Garfield or his stunt double 60 feet in the air, and the wire was attached to a winch that in turn was attached to a rail. When the actor got to the bottom of their swing, the winch moved down the rail to give them a clear-cut arc. Thankfully, nobody was hurt during the production, but the parts in the movie where Peter is screaming? Probably the most realistic part of the entire movie.

Marc Webb must have learned from the disastrous "Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark" musical that was released only a year prior to the release of "The Amazing Spider-Man."

5 JUDGE DREDD (1995)

judge dredd

"Judge Dredd" makes the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Mega-City One look more campy than desolate, but that's no fault of the set. The cityscape was designed to resemble a walled city of medieval times. This was created with elaborate, realistic-looking miniatures used as backgrounds to be composited with green-screen photography and filmed with computerized cameras.

Another bit of practical effects is evident in the Lawmaster bikes and Hammerstein, an ABC Warrior combat robot. The bikes were built from the ground up, and were so powerful that only the stuntmen were allowed to drive them. Hammerstein was more of a glorified cameo than anything else, but since director Danny Cannon was also a fan, Hammerstein was built instead of being a guy with a suit. The robot was powered with hydraulics and controlled by five remote operators.

Not so many practical effects could be boasted in the 2012 remake, and the end result of the 1995 version is a little cheesy. Nevertheless, it's nice to have some genuine grit as a side.


howard the duck

"Howard the Duck" isn't the most fondly remembered Marvel property, and certainly not a favorite of George Lucas' work during that decade. Nevertheless, the movie was a pioneer of practical effects, and that's to be commended. "Howard the Duck" was the first movie to use digital wire removal or deletion. This technique was developed by Industrial Light and Magic, Lucas' motion picture visual effects company, and it was used to greater effect in the "Back to the Future" series. Wires were used to simulate flying actors and miniatures, with Howard the Duck always being portrayed by stuntmen in a duck suit.

This is the rare entry that probably would've been improved with a more cartoonish route, and the original comics were surrealist enough to merit a less-realistic take on the character. The end result is a movie that taught Marvel to make better use of its characters and to be a little more creative with its tone.

In a strange twist of events, the failure of "Howard the Duck" ended with Lucas selling a small computer graphics division which would eventually be developed into Pixar.

3 SUPERMAN (1978)

Christopher Reeves Superman

"Superman" is probably the most beloved of the early superhero movies, especially since it pioneered technology that allowed superheroes to fly which is still in use to this day. Director Richard Donner's main goal with this movie was to make audiences believe Superman could fly. In order to do so, the makers used a combination of physical effects, animation, wires, gimbals, blue screening, and catapulting.

For take-off and landing, wire-flying rigging were suspended from tower cranes on location, and attached to studio ceilings everywhere else. Reeves was sometimes suspended as high as 50 feet. While Superman is flying, the illusion of movement was created by combining front projection effects with zoom lenses. The camera would zoom in on Reeves while the front projected image would recede.

When Reeves needed to fly towards the camera, Zoran Perisic patented the Zoptic method, a zoom lens to be used on the camera and the projector. As the projection lens zooms in, it projects an image at the same time the camera lens zooms in. The projected image stays the same, but the subject in front of the projection screen looks like they've moved closer to the camera.


dark knight rises airplane scene

"The Dark Knight Rises" might be remembered as the somewhat lukewarm follow-up to the almost-perfect "The Dark Knight," but the opening is red-hot. During the sequence, the villain Bane hijacks a passenger plane. Bane proves how intimidating he can be by dropping the plane clear out of the sky. Bane's henchmen deploy, and the audience watches the plane get ripped apart before crashing on the ground.

That wasn't CGI. Christopher Nolan somehow managed to convince the people in charge of Scotland's airspace to drop an action C-130 airplane on the ground. Stunt coordinator Tom Struthers used stuntmen dangling from wires as they made their way to the C-130. The stunt was executed in just two of the allotted five-day-long shoot, and it's reported to be the sequence that Nolan is most proud of putting together in terms of "pure mechanics."

Given that Nolan has marked his entire career with practical effects in "Inception" and "Interstellar," that's high praise.


dark knight tunnel chase scene

"The Dark Knight" might not be the hero Gotham deserves, but it is the movie that Batman fans deserve. Nolan's second entry in his Batman franchise is going to top "Best Comic Book Movies" lists for a very long time. Part of what makes the film seem timeless, even a decade later, is Nolan's preference for using practical effects to get incredibly stunning visuals and bone-crunching crashes.

During the tunnel chase scene, Batman's Tumbler crashes into the Trucker. This was achieved by building a set of miniatures to make the scene, since the shot was impossible to capture in real life. Even more incredible was the part when Nolan and his effects team strapped an air piston to the bottom on an 18-wheeler to make a jaw-dropping flip. Oh, and this was shot on location on one of the busiest streets in Chicago.

These practical effects give what could have been a campy romp but seems more inspired by crime noir. Batman movies will never be the same.

Do you prefer practical effects or special effects scenes making use of CGI in your superhero movies? Tell us what you think in the comments!

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