Sunday, July 7, 2013

Superman Then and Now

Warning: this review contains spoilers for both Superman (1978) and Man of Steel (2013)

In what seems to be a never-ending obsession with superheroes and their infinite sequels and remakes, this summer brings us a new Superman version for our viewing pleasure. I’m sure this long-awaited remake will be enjoyed by millions with its extravagant display of special effects and attractive actors and actresses. But for the more discerning crowds and/or loyal fans of the Christopher Reeve version, is it worth their time? Does it offer anything new?

Let’s start at the beginning, which in this case is the prologue. In the 1978 film, perhaps the most popular version of this story, Superman/Kal-El’s father was portrayed by none other than the legendary Marlon Brando—a hard act to follow, but the 2013 version does not lag far behind with Russell Crowe in the role of Jor-El. As audiences have become more impatient with time (or so they tell us writers) the opening sequences are action-packed. Superman’s mother is in the midst of a hard delivery while planet Krypton faces a revolution and impending destruction. What a contrast with the static scenes of the 1978 version where the council discusses endlessly the insurrection plans of General Zod (and his two most loyal followers) and condemns them to the Phantom Zone. The Ruling Council is also skeptic of Jor-El’s announcement that their planet will explode in a matter of minutes. In both versions, baby Superman is deposited inside a space capsule on route to Earth, with the hopes that he will survive the blast. Of course, the technology and special effects of the 2013 version supersede the older version, but I personally found Kal-El’s 1978 star-shaped capsule more appealing.

Entering the next chapter in Superman’s life is where the major differences in both films come into play. In the earlier version, we follow the endearing toddler from the time he (dramatically) lands on Earth and meets his new parents, to his teenage angst and struggles. Once he discovers the Fortress of Solitude and talks to a hologram version of his real father, he understands his life’s purpose and lands a job at the Daily Planet to become clumsy reporter by day, superhero by night. This sequence is relatively painless and entertaining. Mostly, it gives us an opportunity to meet and love Clark Kent, even before his superhero days begin.

Man of Steel takes us from the destruction of Krypton to another action sequence where the adult/nomadic Clark Kent saves the crew of a fishing boat from an explosion. In jolting flashbacks, we learn throughout the film the events that took place during his childhood and teenage years, his relationship with his adoptive father and the bullying he was subjected to at school. In a similar fashion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman, a bearded, rough-looking Kent is trying to find himself in this world, and apparently doesn’t belong anywhere until he lands in the Arctic where an important discovery has been made—a Kriptonian space ship guarded by the U.S. Military. The courageous, potty-mouthed Lois Lane is on the front lines peeking at Kent and following him into the Fortress. Yes, Superman fans, the sacred place of Kal-El’s first meeting with his father and his understanding of his true self and meaning is being witnessed and nearly broadcasted by the media!

This marks the biggest difference in the retelling of this story. Lois knows from day one Superman’s identity. Incidentally, this was my biggest disappointment with the film. Sure, it was hard to believe that a pair of thick glasses, a different hairdo and a slight stutter were enough to fool Lois for so long, but the game was fun for the viewer. At least, this viewer. And honestly, wasn’t it harder to believe that Superman could go back in time and change the present? But we bought it nonetheless.

Man of Steel dispenses with Lex Luther and all the events of Superman I, and moves (somewhat) to the plot of Superman II, where Kal–El’s compatriots come after him and generate a grand-scale war that threatens the existence of all humanity. As though following the recipe of every action movie of the last decade, the stakes are high. Real high. World-wide high. And it only takes one to solve them and save human-kind through endless fight-sequences, explosions and building-crashing. The resolution is predictable. The first kiss with Lois Lane, expected. But even more cringe-inducing was the moment when a female captain of the U.S. Army calls Superman “hot” or the fact that Lois has transformed herself into Superwoman to fight the alien race hand in hand with Superman.

And she is everywhere.

No matter what corner of the city Superman lands in his large-scale fist fight with Zod, Lois will find him. Makes us question who the real hero of the film is.

Whereas the heroine seemed like a 21st century cardboard character, Zod was a refreshing departure from the typical, one-dimensional villain of most action films. Zod’s motivation is clear. He wants to save what’s left of his people in spite of the casualties and find a new world for them to inhabit. His goal (survival of his species) was higher than the selfish plots for power that Lex Luther often engineered.

So if you want a more dynamic, bigger scale, less cartoonish version of Superman, watch Man of Steel—it certainly fulfills the checklist of its genre. But if you’re a traditionalist and/or enjoy slower paced films with moments of humor and tenderness, then Superman is for you.

What do you think makes superhero films so popular? Do you think producers and audiences will ever grow tired of them?

Who would you rather be saved by?

My pick!


  1. "What do you think makes superhero films so popular?"

    Good question! From Gilgamesh to Superman we've always imagined heroes managing great forces to solve problems. It helps us rehearse progress in thought and understanding, find new ways of succeeding and realizing the world is not so baffling after all.

    1. Welcome to the blog, Geo! You make a very interesting point:

      "It helps us rehearse progress in thought and understanding, find new ways of succeeding and realizing the world is not so baffling after all."

      I hadn't thought of this before--a very optimistic view. I agree that in our impotence to defend ourselves and overcome monumental obstacles, we've always looked for someone (a God or gods, superheroes) to save us and bring us justice. It's fair to assume this genre emerged from this desire.

  2. I remember a few posts back you did an article on strong female protagonists, especially when it comes to movies. Why am I not surprised the writers and director turned Lois Lane into some bad ass, butt kicking sidekick to Superman!

    Personally I've never been much of a Superman fan. They keep trying to rework this hero, much like they've done time and again with the Hulk. In my honest opinion, I think all the movies rehashing the same characters and the same story lines they've had since inception have become tedious and boring. Considering the fact that Christopher Nolan created the dark, brooding Batman, I'm not surprised he created a dark, brooding Superman. It's easy to see a director's fingerprints all over his work when all his characters start looking the same. I haven't seen Man of Steel, and quite honestly, I don't know if I have the patience to sit through it!

    1. Sister, from the first scene I saw Lois I thought "Oh, no, not again." Lois had always been a strong/interesting character. In my opinion, there was no need for the heavy hand they used in this version. There is a scene at the beginning when we first meet her, where she cusses at a bunch of military men to prove she's as tough as they are. *eyes rolling*

      Nolan's style is pretty distinctive. When I watched "Man of Steel", I didn't know it was from the same director as "Batman Begins", but I immediately thought of that character. When I found out it was his film, it made total sense.

  3. I was going to see this film until the reviews began rolling in, and they were pretty uniformly negative. I listen to the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, and they TRASH it. Usually one of the four reviewers there will like something, but not this time. Well, except they all liked Henry Cavill. Everyone agreed he's easy on the eyes. I heard complaints, though, that the amount of destruction wrought in the quest to save the world made one wonder wonder if anything would be left to save. Whole cities are leveled.

    As for "why superheroes," one reviewer said Superman is basically "Space Jesus," which seemed apt and funny. I think Geo's analysis is spot on.

  4. "Well, except they all liked Henry Cavill. Everyone agreed he's easy on the eyes."

    And this is a very valid reason to watch the film :D !


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