Center for Strategic Communication

The Pentagon has picked next summer’s Man of Steel film to be the cinematic debut of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, shown here in a 2011 ceremony at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Photo: Flickr/DVIDS

Faster than a sluggish bureaucracy. More powerful than enemy radar. Able to scale tall buildings with a single engine. Up on the screen in the forthcoming Superman reboot, it’s — it’s — it’s the debut of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapons program in human history.

Long before the family of stealth jets known as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will ever fly a combat mission, the F-35 will appear in theaters for the first time next summer in Man of Steel, Zach Snyder’s anticipated re-imagining of the Superman franchise. It’s perhaps the best cinematic debut possible for an aircraft program that’s suffered numerous budgetary and engineering woes.

“It was a target of opportunity,” Phil Strub, the Pentagon’s Hollywood liaison, tells Danger Room. When the filmmakers visited California’s Edwards Air Force Base in January to get shots of military aircraft for a scene, they were excited to learn that the base hosted a complement of F-35s for flight testing. The base arranged for two of them to be towed into the shot.

“They liked the idea of having the most modern, the newest fighter aircraft in the background,” says Strub, who was on location with Man of Steel at Edwards. The F-35 had been digitally rendered in movies previously, including a scene in The Avengers when the Hulk tears it apart, but this was its first screen test for the actual plane. And it took only a few hours to film.

Offscreen, the F-35 is in about as much trouble as a superhero in the third act of an action movie. The advanced stealth fighter — intended to be the backbone of the Air Force, Navy and Marines’ future combat air fleets — is estimated to cost as much as $1.5 trillion over its half-century lifespan. It’s several years late and several hundred million dollars over budget. Its software is complicated, its engineering flaws are numerous, and the Pentagon no longer predicts when it will enter service. The Navy appears to be hedging its bets against the program ultimately collapsing under the weight of its costs — and inside the Pentagon, there’s concern over whether the F-35 remains, as Sen. Claire McCaskill once called it, “too big to fail.”

So it’s understandable that the Pentagon would consider a Superman movie to be the right cinematic vehicle for the F-35′s introduction to the culture. (Well, except for the web videos.) Although the way Strub tells it, the arrival of the F-35 in Man of Steel was little more than a happy accident for the Pentagon. There is no footage as of yet of the planes in flight, just shots of it on the ground at Edwards. And it appears not to have a role in helping vanquish Kryptonian villain General Zod, the film’s antagonist.

“I don’t think there are any plot points for the F-35,” Strub says. “I think it’s just background candy.” (That said, IMDB lists two actors as portraying F-35 pilots in the film.)

This is far from the first time the Pentagon turned to Hollywood to promote some of its big-ticket hardware. The first Iron Man movie featured a dogfight with the F-22 Raptor. Michael Bay got access to F-22s for his Transformers sequel, too. The Pentagon put a lot of fancy gear in The Avengers before withdrawing its support for that movie due to concerns about its fictional chain of military command. And beyond hyping its hardware, the Pentagon also turns to Hollywood to polish its public image, as with the forthcoming Zero Dark Thirty, a film about the bin Laden raid that received some technical assistance from the Defense Department.

It turned out that Man of Steel didn’t have much competition to be the first firm featuring the Joint Strike Fighter. “The F-35 came up in very, very preliminary conversation in a very preliminary meeting regarding Top Gun 2,” Strub says, but those discussions stopped after director Tony Scott’s suicide.

Strub won’t say if the plane actually interacts with Superman. But it gets the troubled aircraft program in the same sentence as the four-color symbol of truth, justice and the American way.

Update, 8:30 a.m.: Updated to make it clear that there have been CGI versions of the F-35 in films before, notably The Avengers. (I, uh, watched the DVD last night to be sure.) But as Strub says, Man of Steel will be the first film that shows the physical aircraft. Maybe it’s appropriate that a comic-book movie could spark a debate about whether the first on-screen appearance of the physical plane is effectively a retcon. Also, Strub says the Pentagon didn’t actually give much to Zero Dark Thirty beyond technical advice, despite much reporting on the matter, so I’ve changed that as well.