He may not be quite as popular as Batman anymore, but there is no comic book superhero is who is more iconic and influential than Superman. He is one of the most well-known fictional characters world-wide (along with Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and Dracula). Just as the introduction of the man of steel in 1938 began the super hero genre in comics, the debut of Superman: The Movie (1978) in theaters initiated the cinematic super hero genre. It spawned 4 sequels (counting Superman Returns) and a spin-off (Supergirl). Years later, after numerous Marvel films had pulled in big wads of box office cash, Warner Brothers joined forced with Legendary Pictures to re-film the story of the last son of Krypton. Man of Steel (2013) was a darker reinterpretation of Superman’s origin story than Superman: The Movie had been. So how do they compare? Which was better?
Superman: The movie was directed by Richard Donner and written by Mario Puzo, the man who wrote The Godfather. (Yes, the friggin’ Godfather!!) It was the first big-budget superhero film ever made. Donner and Puzo took something that was once seen as C-list entertainment back in the days of black-and-white movie serials, and turned it into the beginning of the dominant film genre of the 21st century so far.
Superman: The Movie started it all. This movie is the prototype; the blueprint for the entire superhero genre. Every super hero film that has come out since 1978 is an after-effect of this project. This movie is to super hero films what Snow White & the Seven Dwarves is to animation. It was one of the top-10 most successful films when it was released and is still the most influential superhero adaptation ever. It has an impressive 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a solid 86% on Metacritic. The NY Daily News described it as “Unadulterated fun.”
The plot of Superman: The story begins on planet Krypton. Unable to convince the ruling council of Krypton that their world will soon explode, brilliant scientist Jor-El takes the drastic measure of sending his infant son Kal-El to Earth on a rocket. The baby is launched just as the planet explodes. On Earth, Kal-El is taken in by moral, salt-of-the-Earth farm couple John and Martha Kent. Named Clark, he gains incredible super powers under Earth’s yellow sun. After his father’s death, he spends 12 years training in his newly created Fortress of Solitude. Clark moves to Metropolis, becomes a reporter at the Daily Planet, meets fellow reporter Lois Lane (his love interest), and reveals himself to the world. Lois names him “Superman”. Superman then battles Lex Luthor, the self-proclaimed “greatest criminal mind of our time”, who is plotting the greatest real estate scam of all time. Luthor has an insanely audacious plan to nuke the San Andreas fault, which will cause an earthquake wherein the West Coast will collapse into the ocean, increasing the value of Luthor’s worthless desert property one-hundredfold. Superman rescues everyone from the destruction (using time-travel to save Lois) and captures Lex Luthor.
The film is a wonderful mix of sci-fi, romance and comedy. Along with the action scenes, the romance between Superman and Lois is well-developed (despite the annoying “Can you read my mind” poem), while Lex Luthor and his dim-witted sidekick Otis add humor as well as villainy. About this film, the Washington Post wrote, “It’s the simple, earth-bound quality of the film that makes this comic-book fantasy soar.”. And Time Out wrote, “By keeping the spectacular possibilities open, through the opening scenes of the destruction of Krypton, and the subsequent growth to manhood of the planet’s only son on the plains of the Midwest, the film allows naiveté and knowingness to coexist.”
Now let’s look at Man of Steel. The anticipated remake of Superman’s origin was meant to be the first entry in DC’s planned expanded universe. Man of Steel (2013) was directed by Zack Snyder and written by David S. Goyer. Christopher Nolan—the creative mind behind the massively popular Dark Knight trilogy—was one of the producers. Despite Nolan’s input, it got very mixed reviews. While Screen Rant called it “the Superman movie for a new generation”, the Washington Post, on the other hand, called it “an exceptionally unpleasant viewing experience.” Rolling Stone Magazine summed up both sides of the argument, saying “Caught in the slipstream between action and angst, Man of Steel is a bumpy ride for sure, but there’s no way to stay blind to its wonders”. It has a mediocre 56% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 55% on Metacritic.
The Plot of Man of Steel: The planet Krypton is unstable from years of industrial mining. Jor-El, chief advisor to the supreme council, warns that Krypton will soon explode and recommends a full-scale evacuation. Before action can be taken, soldiers led by General Zod launch a coup and arrest the council. Jor-El steals genetic codes sought by Zod and infuses them into the DNA of his infant son, Kal-El. Jor-El sacrifices himself to buy time for his son to escape on a rocket. Zod orders the rocket shot out of the sky but forces loyal to the council have suppressed the rebellion. At a trial, Zod and the rebels are convicted of treason and imprisoned in the Phantom Zone just moments before Krypton explodes.
Kal-Els’ rocket lands in the Kansas town of Smallville. Jonathan and Martha Kent find infant Kal El and name him Clark. As he grows up, Clark becomes an outcast as a result of developing superhuman abilities. He learns his true origins from Jonathan, who urges him to keep his powers hidden under any circumstances. Several years later, Jonathan dies in a tornado while refusing to let Clark save him. Filled with guilt, Clark wanders the globe, seeking a purpose.
Reporter Lois Lane, of the Daily Planet receives an assignment to investigate the discovery of a Kryptonian ship in the Arctic. Clark enters the ship and activates its central computer using a key left by Jor-El and communicates with an artificial intelligence modeled after his father. The AI explains that Clark was sent to Earth to guide its people, and presents him with a Kryptonian uniform bearing his family’s symbol. Lois triggers the ship’s security system. Clark saves her, revealing his powers. Lois attempts to get editor Perry White to publish an article on the incident, but he refuses since there’s no proof. She tracks down Clark, but agrees to keep his secret safe.
Zod and his rebels escape the Phantom Zone and travel to Earth after intercepting a transmission from the scout vessel. Deducing that Kal-El is nearby, they broadcast a global address demanding he surrender. Clark meets with the U.S. Army and agrees to comply, with Lois joining him as a hostage. Zod reveals that he possesses advanced terraforming equipment which he intends to use to transform Earth into a new Krypton. He needs the genetic codes in Clark’s genes so he can create a Kryptonian army who will exterminate humanity. Given the name “Superman”, Clark destroys the terraforming platform, while his human allies launch a suicide attack that kills Zod’s troops. Enraged, Zod vows to eradicate all humans by himself, and engages Superman in a brutal hand-to-hand fight that levels part of Metropolis. Realizing Zod will not quit, Superman snaps his neck, killing him. Superman persuades the Army to let him act independently, so long as he does not turn against them. To get himself access to dangerous situations without attracting attention, Clark Kent gets a job as a reporter for the Daily Planet.
The movie was profitable but didn’t make nearly as much as WB and Legendary hoped it would. Fans were split on it. About this film, Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times wrote “We’re plunged back into a mostly underwhelming film, with underdeveloped characters and supercharged fight scenes that drag on and offer nothing new in the way of special-effects creativity.”
So which is better? The answer (drumroll, please)….is Superman: The Movie. So take a moment to curse and call me an idiot and then read my reasons why. There are six main reasons…
Reason one: Christopher Reeve! There never has been a better interpretation of the character than Reeve’s version, and I strongly doubt there ever will be. About him, TV Guide wrote, “Christopher Reeve essays the title role and makes it his own, combining correctly chiseled features with a likable comic humanity.” He captures not only the charm, nobility and kindness of the character, he also inflicts a sense of joy into the role. This guy really seems to enjoy being Superman. With a smile and a wink, occasionally flying upside-down in a natural “Whoppie!”, he conveys the feel of a man who sees his powers and duty as protector of the Earth as a gift, not a curse. Reeve’s Superman has a dry, mild sense of humor which is not particularly funny but is clearly used to amuse himself, not anyone else. Reeves seems born for this role.
Henry Cavill, who plays Superman in Man of Steel, has the right look to portray the hero from Metropolis, and given the right material, he could be an excellent Superman. However, he seems unsure of what to do with the role. Perhaps he is getting bad advice from director Snyder. He spends the movie clenching his jaw and looking conflicted, but he doesn’t rise above the limitations of the scattershot material he is given to work with. The only thing he clearly communicates is that he isn’t happy. This version of the character seems to view his powers as a curse, not a gift.
Another difference between the two actors is the way they portray Clark Kent. Cavill doesn’t show us much difference between Clark and Superman. Other than the glasses and clothes, they seem like the same character. Chris Reeves, on the other hand, totally transformed into a different person when he shifted from Clark to Superman. His Superman is manly, confident and firm. He speaks with authority. Clark is a nervous nerd, with a meek, stammering voice. He slumps and gestures anxiously. This is best illustrated in the scene at Lois’ apartment when he is about to reveal his identity. Clark takes off his glasses, stands up straight and his entire demeanor changes. He gets ‘puffed up’ and a confident grin crosses his face. His voice is different when he says “I have something to tell you”. Right in front of our eyes, with no camera tricks or editing, he morphs into a different character. That’s excellent acting. Kudos to Reeves for that scene.
While Reeves is less realistic as Superman, he is more real. His down-home earnestness and love of “the American way” may seem like an outdated throw-back to the Eisenhower days of yore, but Reeves delivers the lines with such sincerity that you believe every word. After all, Clark Kent was a farm boy from the mid-western heartland who grew up in a Norman Rockwell-esque small town that embodied a fading view of Americana. It’s like Mayberry with a super hero in it. Cavill’s more tarnished interpretation may seem more realistic but is less real. He seems somehow empty, without a fully formed core, stuck somewhere in between the man and the hero, but neither fully encapsulating either.
The second reason is the score. John Williams brilliant ‘Superman March’ still has the power to enrapture a listen with its power decades later. It was used for all the Superman films from the original to Superman Returns. Zack Snyder wanted to separate his version from previous ones so the iconic score was not used. Composer Hans Zimmer did the soundtrack for Man of Steel. His musical efforts here are not exceptionally memorable. There’s no comparison here…Williams’ score is far-and-away superior.
The third reason is the tone. Superman: The Movie is fun, escapist entertainment, capturing a sense of adventure and wonderment. Roger Ebert wrote in his 4-Star review of the film, “They knew the essential element of Superman was fun. Superheroes who came later to big budget movies would be burdened with angst. But Superman was above that sort of thing.” This version acknowledges its outlandish premise and unrealistic aspects by winking at the audience. Superman: The Movie does not run away from it’s silly aspects; it embraces them. As Ebert wrote, these aspects of Superman “are simply designed to be accepted, as children do when told a story. He is Superman, he fights for truth, justice and the American way, and that’s that.” Cavill, on the other hand, plays a more tormented soul. He is constantly grim-faced due to the burden of having the weight of the world on his shoulders. As the Boston Globe reviewer wrote about Man of Steel, “What’s missing from this Superman saga is a sense of lightness, of joy.”
Next, we come to the supporting cast. Margot Kidder does a terrific job as Lois. She effortlessly alternates between an over-eager, somewhat cold career woman and the love-struck girl who is in awe of Superman. She has a nice romantic chemistry with Reeves. Amy Adams is a very good actress and she has done many excellent roles but her version of Lois is underdeveloped and she has no chemistry with Cavill. Next, there’s the villains. While Michael Shannon is sufficiently evil as Zod, Gene Hackman is one of the greatest actors of all time. He adds humor, class and charm to the proceedings as Lex Luthor. Russell Crowe is fine as Jor-El but how do you compete with Marlon Brando?
Next, we come to the nature of what Superman is and what he should be to his world. Superman: The Movie is not only the most faithful retelling of Superman’s origin, it also seems to be the only version that understands the core of Superman. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman as a metaphor for the immigrant experience. The concept was “foreign boy makes good”, illustrating that, despite our differences, we can still live together and help each other. That was what we saw in Donner’s 1978 film. In the 2013 movie, we are hit over the head with the fact that Superman will never be able to cross the massive chasm that separates him from the rest of humanity. He is utterly alone.
Superman represents hope, optimism and heroism. He has the ability to rise above the pettiness of the human race and to be a better person than we are. He is the living example of what he should be. As Jor El (Brando) told him in the 1978 film, “They are a good people Kal-El. They wish to be. They lack only a light to show them the way. For this reason above all—their capacity for good—I have sent them you…my only son.” Cavill’s Superman gets worse advice from his father. His human father Jonathan seems darker, telling Clark that it’s better to let a busload of children drown rather than risking anyone finding out his identity.
The final reason Man of Steel is not as good is because Snyder made the mistake of having Superman kill in the first movie of the franchise. It would be fine to do that sometime down the road, after they’ve established exactly who this new Superman is and what he stands for. Once they’ve concretely indicated that he does not like to kill, it would have been an interesting story to see what happens when he is forced to break his unbreakable rule. However, Snyder and Goyer were too impatient and had Superman kill right out of the gate, before they showed us what his core beliefs were. We don’t know the Cavill Superman yet. After hearing his father’s advice about letting kids die and then seeing him kill his enemy, his debut film seems to portray him as a vigilante without clear boundaries. Snyder needed to define his Superman before he deconstructed his beliefs. The Reeve version of Superman found a clever way to defeat three Kryptonians without killing them. (And for the people who think that falling into a pit indicates that he killed them, there’s nothing to indicate that. Also, in the director’s cut, it clearly shows that they’re still alive.)
There’s a lot more to say about these films and maybe we’ll do a follow-up, but now it’s time to bring this to a close. The critics are right. Superman: The Movie deserves it’s 93% score and Man of Steel deserves it’s 55%. Hopefully, now that Geoff Johns is running the DC film division and the ‘Snyderverse’ is gone, the next Superman film will have the proper sense of fun and optimism. Superman deserves a good film.
So that’s it for this week’s look at a cinematic remake. We’ll be back next week to dissect another reboot. Until then, feel free to look up our previous articles Examining Hollywood Remakes.