It’s axiomatic when discussing Superman to know that the only one who can give Superman a fair fight is himself, or a close approximation of himself. That’s why the comics, TV and film have consistently given us Evil Superman, Clone Superman, Bizarro Superman and, of course, Other Kryptonian Supermen.
The latter, of course, is what drove the Richard Donner-directed first two Superman films in 1978 and 1980, with the climactic arrival of General Zod and his superpowered villains fresh out of the Phantom Zone, all of whom have the same powers as Superman once here on Earth. Now, along comes Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, who has taken the action of those Donner Supermans (Superman: The Movie and Superman II), smashed them into a single movie’s length, and filtered them through a dark prism.
It’s a fair fight then. Superman-vs.-Zod vs. Superman-vs.-Zod. By Krypton, let these games begin!
I’m the kind of guy who buys four remakes of my favorite song on iTunes because I like to see how the familiar can be made new again. I’m always up for a reboot.
Man of Steel will make you completely forget the 2006 reboot, Superman Returns, starring Brandon Routh. Put that earlier film in the same basket with the first Hulk that was ignored in order to make The Incredible Hulk just five years later. The reboots keep coming faster and faster these days; you have to just roll with the studio’s creative flow.
In this 2013 telling, it really is Superman from a parallel universe. Kal-el was the first naturally born Kryptonian in centuries (popped out by Lara with Jor-el’s help in the film). The “S” on his chest isn’t even a letter but a symbol for hope; the costume wasn’t stitched together by Ma Kent from his baby blankets but is a gift from his Kryptonian family; Lois tracks Clark down in Smallville, long before he ever gets to Metropolis… You get the idea: The pieces have been rearranged. But at least Michael Shannon still gets to sport the same badass goatee as Zod that was pioneered by Terence Stamp more than a generation ago.
This new film is also, in tone, a much, much darker piece than what has come before. The Christopher Reeve Clark Kent/Superman was the lighter and brighter version, mimicked by Routh’s Bryan Singer-directed homage. This Clark Kent/Superman is Henry Cavill, and he’s not only more manly looking, but his quest to find himself is more mythic. There is nothing light or bright about it. It’s filmed to be cold and washed out. There are zero winks at the camera.
Snyder’s directorial eye is in evidence everywhere in the film, but so is something else: His experience shooting Watchmen and 300 have taught him a thing or two about fights and superheroes. When his new Superman decides to fly, he flies — fast, and when he throws a punch, the guy on the other end feels it. People may argue that there is too much fighting or too much noise, but these do look scary and dangerous.
We’ve done a lot of thinking about Superman here at Movie Smackdown. There have been a lot of screen versions to compare: Kirk Alyn, George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, John Haymes Newton, Gerard Christopher, Dean Cain, Tom Welling, Brandon Routh and now Henry Cavill.
The new Kryptonian in town flies with a certain intensity of purpose, while the man who really kicked it off in film often made it look like a Sunday drive.
The Defending Champion(s)
Superman: The Movie was promoted in 1978 with the line, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Given that movies now make us believe a man can do that and much more, thanks to the explosive emergence of computer-generated special effects, the line seems a little quaint. Those were more innocent times, if you don’t count disco.
The sequel to that first film ended up being Superman II, and was released cinematically under the directorial stewardship of Richard Lester, who replaced original helmer Richard Donner during production at the request of producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Superman II was always a bone of contention for fans of the franchise, mainly because of the way Donner was ousted and Lester given credit for the final cut (when Donner had shot most of the film). In 2006, Warner allowed Donner to return to the editing bay and re-cut the film the way he would have done it. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, as it became known, removed almost all the Lester footage in favor of alternative shots from Donner’s filming, and is a little tougher and less fluffy than the Lesterized film.
Plot-wise, Superman must take on three Kryptonian villains who arrive on Earth after escaping their Phantom Zone prison (as told in Superman: The Movie), at the same time as his secret identity is uncovered by dedicated reporter Lois Lane. Zod, Ursa and Non land on Earth, find they have the same superpowers as Superman himself, and set about claiming the planet as their own. Superman, meanwhile, has his powers removed by an ancient Kryptonian vessel in order to live an “ordinary” life with his new-found love, Lois. When powered-down Superman suddenly finds out about Zod and his cohorts destroying everything they come into contact with, he must find a way to restore said powers and then rush off to save the world. A gargantuan, epic battle in the streets of Metropolis takes place, with Superman duking it out for the future of mankind.
The first film I ever reviewed was Superman: The Movie for a local TV station where I was an intern. It was so great to even see a well done superhero film back then that the movie’s simple existence was enough to earn a rave. But it was also a wonderful film, full of great characters, emotion, a new kind of dramatic action and, of course, romance. I haven’t felt as much anticipation for a superhero movie since until Man of Steel.
On a technical level, Man of Steel wins in every way possible; it’s simply state-of-the-art. The effects, from heat-vision to flying, are more real and visceral in every way. The fights are more dangerous and impactful. They are also so much louder than anything that’s come before, but that is a small objection that I’ll forget as soon as my ears stop ringing. The earlier Donner Superman films were struggling in their day to make you believe he could actually fly. They succeeded, barely, but Man of Steel takes that and all the other effects to a whole new level.
Henry Cavill’s Superman is a character growing more sure of his powers, who finds the missing piece in his search for meaning in his alien nature. The Christopher Reeve version is a far gentler, less troubled soul, who seems very well adjusted to life on Earth. The Cavill Clark is a tortured cypher, while the Reeve Clark is obviously a disguise put on to throw people off Superman. Let’s say that again: Clark Kent is the real person in Man of Steel, but in Superman: The Movie and Superman II, it is quite obvious that Clark is a deliberate goofball.
Don’t get me started on why people who are of above average intelligence and have looked at both Clark Kent and Superman at close range still see them as separate individuals, just because one wears a pair of glasses. That’s all right here.
Man of Steel is a reimagining that is even more sweeping than J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot now underway. It’s not a gentle, nudging reinvention of the original, bringing it up to date and making it more relevant; it’s a virtual deconstruction of certain key elements, notably the relationship between Lois Lane and Superman. There is no more coy dance between the two: Does she know? Is he fooling her? Now she knows plain out and for certain that Clark Kent is Superman, or vice-versa. This is not a huge problem in this loud and fast representation of the Man of Steel, but it does probably weaken the future franchise. What now? Clark and Lois are like two students and co-workers who are screwing but trying to hide it from everyone else. Their little secret. Blah, for me.
I worked on a Superman reboot myself once, the ABC version, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Eventually Lois and Clark got together with their secret, too, but they didn’t start there. The producers on this new film have, I think, given up canon, which I can certainly live with and support, but they may not have gotten much for it, and they may have lost an entire new way to do the relationship that could have been peeled back over, say, a trilogy of films.
There are problems in Man of Steel that are unfortunate, but there’s no time to think of them before being swept off into the next big thing. In the Donner Superman films, there are even more, and two of them bother me greatly. In Superman: The Movie, Superman flies around the Earth so fast that he can “unkill” the dead Lois Lane by turning back the clock. Okay, then, even death is not a serious stake around this guy. Then in Superman II, Superman gives up his powers (how’s that work?), and it’s supposedly permanent. He can never get them back… until Zod shows up, and then he can.
Then there’s Zod himself. The Terence Stamp Zod is campy and creepy and ready to kill every living human being because he’s angry, while the Michael Shannon Zod has a personal beef with the El family, and he only wants to kill us all because he nobly (in his mind) wishes to repopulate his lost Krypton on Earth and he sees us as collateral damage. Stamp’s villainy is the British accent kind, while Shannon’s has an edgier current criminality around it.
Okay, just for fun, let’s compare the uses of Superman’s x-ray vision: In Man of Steel, it’s an intense physical challenge to control, and quite scary, seeing the bones and skull in a human, past the skin. In Superman: The Movie, remember how Lois asks Superman what color her panties are and he says “pink?” I’m just sayin’…
It did not occur to me going in to see Man of Steel that its impact would be anything other than all positive for me. I felt like this was the Superman I’d been waiting my whole life to see. Since seeing the film, I’ve had to take some time to absorb and think about it, and my judgment has changed a few times in the first 24 hours.
As for this Smackdown, what I thought would be a first round knock-out for Man of Steel has turned into a tenth round TKO in a fight between two completely different boxers with radically different styles, and the victory is awarded to the younger challenger with the new moves.
I actually think that the sequel to Man of Steel may turn out to be far superior to this one. The origin will be out of the way; the relationship with Lois will be what it is when both she and Clark are on the job together, with fewer flashbacks and more present-day character.
I like the tone that Zack Synder, David Goyer and Christopher Nolan are going for with Man of Steel. The film they’ve put it in, however, is carrying a little too much responsibility for the reboot. There’s too much new to unpack, especially the technical challenge to deliver some awesome fights beyond what we’ve seen before onscreen.
There will be a sequel, probably better than this new film, because it can be free to just be itself. Still, for now, Man of Steel is the new, best version of this classic, wonderful character.