Superman is iconic. The character has been around for over 70 years and has developed a devoted fan base ever since. All superheroes are compared to him, and he is the model others are judged. I would say the two other superheroes that are as iconic are Batman and Spiderman. Superman paved the door for superhero comics, movie, tv, radio, podcasts, and so forth.
Superman isn’t just a guy who flies around in blue tights and a red cape beating up bank robbers, he’s a symbol. He’s come to represent the best in all of us. He’s eternally honest, trustworthy, just, incorruptible, has unwavering faith in humanity, and will always put his life on the line for us no matter the odds. Batman shares most of the same traits, except he has an unwavering belief that all people can be corrupted and need to be watched. Batman is the heroic shadow of Superman.
Because Superman believes in us, he’ll never let us down. His unwavering belief makes others want to be better. Only the most evil, arrogant and callous of villains would stand up to the Man of Steel.
Taking what I’ve written into consideration, I’m thinking about Superman the Movie (1978) and Man of Steel (2013.) Superman the Movie was directed by Richard Donner. This movie is the gold standard other superhero movies are compared to. Donner caught the spirit of the comics in film by representing Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent. He showed us the dying and cold world of Krypton with Marlon Brando as Jor El the father of Kal El (Superman.) The movie hit all the right notes and tones of the character. The movie is the right length, has great visuals, and the characters interact in a fun way.
However, there are elements of the old movie that are pretty dated and make the movie seem silly because of 1970’s references. (For example, The movie has a pimped out man saying to Superman, “dig those crazy threads!”) While the references make the movie seem dated, the story is still pretty good. That said, I don’t think they weaken the film.
Let’s compare it to Man of Steel. Man of Steel was directed by Zack Snyder. In my view, Man of Steel was a very solid science fiction movie. It portrayed Kal El as an orphaned alien on Earth. Kal goes through the world trying to find himself and his role in life. The special effects were great. (Snyder loves his effects.) The soundtrack is solid. There’s plenty of action, and if you’ve ever wanted to see Metropolis get decimated, this is definitely a movie you’ll love. If I had never known anything about Superman, his history, the iconic aspects of his character, and what he stood for, I would say the movie was overall good with a predictable action hero ending.
However, this is Superman. He is iconic, and there’s this thing I harp on with writing. Superman is a character. Richard Donner is a director who knows how to create characters within a story that sells. Snyder really loves action over anything else. He loves special effects. I think this shows in Man of Steel. There’s a lot of action and science fiction goodness, there’s very little character in Kal El.
Sadly, I feel this is what’s going to be the trend in movies for some time to come; put blockbuster special effects in movies and skimp on stories and characters. You see this trend in all kinds of big budget movies like: The Hobbit series, the Transformers, Star Trek into Darkness, and in Man of Steel.
I’d wager the producers think, “If it sucks, we’ll just reboot the franchise in 3-5 years and rake in piles of money.” It almost makes you wish the Joker would round them up in a seedy warehouse and burn the money in front of them. The rotten thing is the producers are right. They didn’t wait for the Spiderman franchise to get old before foisting Marc Webb’s Amazing Spiderman on us.
Now that CGI is king in the box office, it seems that directors can do anything they want visually on the silver screen. As such, they’re so beholden to spectacle they’ve lost sight of what makes movies (and stories) work. Stories are about us. Characters are who we identify with in a narrative. We want to watch or read stories about characters who are up to something big and grand.
I love science fiction and movies. I love stories with great characters. Superman is not an easy character to write. The key to really getting him is to find his heart. The Richard Donner film did that. The tv series Smallville got him right. Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns (2006) missed the mark. He gave us a wishy washy Superman who never felt like he belonged in his own movie.
Superman’s main vulnerability is through those he loves. This is the key to writing him and any other god like character. If they ever make a Wonder Woman movie, hopefully they’ll get that through there heads.
We seem to live in a time where people and things we value are treated as disposable. The trend in making special effects turkeys reflects this corporate cash cow mentality. This shows up in Man of Steel.
Lastly, there seems to have been controversy over what Superman ultimately does to General Zod in the end. The cliche ending really shows that Snyder and those creating Superman want to divorce him from his past and create him to be more like Batman. In this sense, they really don’t get the character.
Perhaps the new Man of Steel is a proper reflection of our times. The Superman of the past represented truth, justice, and the American Way. (American way, I interpret as being a land of opportunity for all.) It’s not really a surprise that Today’s Superman is lost, disjointed and wandering in Man of Steel. We as Americans seem to have lost the notion of who we can be. We need Superman as a symbol that we can make it and create a great world together. United we stand, divided we fall. Superman’s faith in us calls us to be better. The Man of Steel has no such faith or vision.
I’d give Superman the Movie (1978) 5 out of 5 red capes, while I’d give Snyder’s 3 out of 5. I won’t give Singer’s Superman Returns a rating because I’d like to pretend it was never made. If I had to, I’d give it 2.5 out of 5. It wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great, it was sort of okay.
(Snyder’s Man of Steel was way better than Sucker Punch, and it showed that he can direct and handle a big budget movie. Just put some heart and character into your stories, Zack. Sheesh.)