[SPOILER ALERT: In case you've been living in a cave, this article contains some spoilers for Superman Returns and Man of Steel. Tread with caution.]
For three quarters of a century Superman has captured the imagination of kids and adults of all ages, genders, creeds and ethnicities around the world. Is he an ideology of what mankind can be if it puts its mind to it? Is he a symbol of religious iconography? Or is he merely a pop cultural icon from the creative minds of two young kids from Ohio?
It doesn't matter how you, personally, view the last son of Krypton. It can't be denied that he has had an unrivaled impact on the world since his debut in June of 1938.
As one of the first superheroes to transcend the printed page into the realm of animation and live action, the man of steel has had an epic journey on screen. Whether it was in the form of serialized cartoons from Max Fleisher Studios, on the silver screen with Kirk Alyn or helping to usher in the era of television with George Reeves on The Adventures of Superman...the character has been there in one form or another for decades.
In the 1978, following years of the iconic character's popularity starting to dwindle, Warner Bros. and Ilya Salkind (along with his son Alexander and director Richard Donner) brought us Superman: The Movie and not only revitalized the character but introduced the world to the incredibly charismatic Christopher Reeve and helped usher in the era of quality superhero films (though the road would remain rocky for some time).
Of course, even that series would have its downfall. Following the poor showing and critical (and fan) reception of 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the man of steel would make his grand exit from theaters for almost twenty years.
That's not to say that Superman was down and out. Over the course of those two decades Superman had many notable stories in the comic books (including the classic The Death of Superman ands his marriage to Lois Lane) as well as many incarnations on television – some more popular than others.
In 1984, before the release of the ill-fated Superman IV, the Salkinds tried to reinvigorate interest in the franchise with a spin-off film for Supergirl – starring Helen Slater. It made less than half its budget back at the US box office and never progressed further than the one film. After the box office failure of Superman IV (which was produced by Canon Films), the Salkinds reacquired the rights to the character and produced The Adventures of Superboy for television. The series starred John Newton (pictured above) as the Boy of Steel for the first season and was replaced by Gerard Christopher for the remainder of the show.
The Superboy series came to an abrupt end in 1993 when Warner Bros. decided they wanted to launch a fresh take on the character with the fan favorite series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman – starring Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain in the title roles, respectively. The show took a campier, TV friendly approach to the material and put more emphasis on the character of Clark Kent than that of Superman (though that's not to say the Man of Steel was absent from the series because he definitely was not). The show was a huge success amongst fans and critics alike and ran for four season – though a fifth season was planned but the plug was pulled in the proverbial eleventh hour.
In 1996, following the massive success of Batman: The Animated Series, the creative team developed a sibling series for Superman on the young Kids WB network. Using the voice talent of Tim Daly in the titular role, the cartoon series became one of the more iconic interpretations of the character for audiences and helped pave the way for the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited spin-off series.
Finally, in 2001, just before the Man of Steel's return to the silver screen, The WB network developed a new take on the boyhood years of Clark Kent with the incredibly popular series Smallville. The hit show – starring Tom Welling – was a massive ratings success and ran for an astonishing ten years before bowing out with Welling's rise from Clark Kent to Superman in the series finale.
The Troubled Film Attempts
While our primary colored hero enjoyed much success on the small screen, his journey back to the big screen was riddled with false starts and straight up failures. Here is just a quick rundown of some of the highlights from that now legendary journey.
Superman Lives (1998) Probably the most well known of the "almost was" Superman films (thanks largely to a new documentary that just came out from filmmaker Jon Schnepp) was to be directed by Tim Burton from a script originally written by Kevin Smith and was to notoriously star Nicholas Cage. Thanks to the documentary we now have a look at what that almost was, below.
The film now famously featured lots of controversial elements as an electric suit, a battle with a giant spider and...polar bears...
After millions of dollars spent on pre-production and costume designs the film just never came to be and Tim Burton left to direct Sleepy Hollow.
Superman Vs Batman (2002) Long before Henry Cavill was set to go up against Ben Affleck in the upcoming superhero mash-up, director Wolfgang Petersen had his own take on the "World's Finest" in development. As far as the Internet was concerned, Colin Farrell was all but confirmed as Batman with such actors as Vince Vaughn, Josh Hartnett and Jude Law in the running for Superman. However, plans shifted and Petersen left the project to direct Troy. Colin Farrell, of course, went on to be Bullseye in the critically despised Daredevil while Vince Vaughn went on to numerous comedies. Jude Law and Josh Hartnett each saw fit to fall off the face of the earth completely (kidding) and the rest is history.
Superman: Flyby (2005) Following the cancellation of Superman Vs Batman (and subsequently the success of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins), Warner Bros. went back to the well and hired J.J. Abrams to pen a script for a fresh reboot of the Superman mythology. Originally set to be directed by McG (then later Brett Ratner) the film was definitely one of the most controversial attempts to bring the Man of Steel back to the big screen – featuring such story elements as Krypton NOT exploding, new villain Ty-Zor and an allegedly gay Jimmy Olsen. Ratner had locked in his Red Dragon star, Anthony Hopkins, as Jor-El with such actors as Brandon Routh, Henry Cavill and Matt Bomer screen testing for Superman. The role was apparently set to go to a now grateful Matt Bomer before Ratner decided to leave the project.
The Film That Came To Be
Fans collectively breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced in 2004 that director Bryan Singer had been tapped by Warner Bros. to take over the fallen reins of the Superman film franchise. Having launched the era of "good" modern comic book movies with his 2000 box office hit, X-Men, and its even more popular sequel (X2: X-Men United), Singer was exactly what fans wanted at the time.
With Smallville currently tackling the airwaves and giving audiences a modern take on the origins of Superman, Singer envisioned a soft reboot for film that took it's cues from the original Christopher Reeve classics. Going as far as to reacquire the rights to John Williams' famous musical score and "resurrect" the late Marlon Brando using unused stock footage of his Jor-El, Singer and Warner Bros. gave us Superman Returns in 2006.
The 2006 blockbuster starred Brandon Routh (having previously screen-tested for Superman: Flyby) as the last son of Krypton, as well as supporting cast members: Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen, James Marsden as Richard White, Parker Posey as Kitty and Frank Langella as Perry White.
The film was a success in the sense that it made it's money back along with a small profit, but the mixed critical reviews and fan reception paired up with the overall lackluster performance warranted Warner Bros. to not continue with that franchise installment. Instead, they would launch another reboot in 2012 in the form of Zack Snyder's Man of Steel. But we'll get to that in a little bit.
What was Superman Returns?
Superman Returns was essentially Superman 2.5 from the Christopher Reeve movies. It loosely continued that franchise's storyline as if the less than successful Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace never happened. It used vague references to the original films to insinuate a connection while still posing as it's own film that could have launched a fresh new take on the material had it been given the chance.
The film offered elements reminiscent of the fan-favorite Reeve pictures while giving the material a modern update in the departments of special effects, costume design and general filmmaking. It can't be said, however, that the film featured some hits and misses. Some of the bigger criticisms from fans were an overall lack of action (with Returns playing more like a superhero drama) as well as the decision to have Superman be the father of Lois Lane's son (a particular story note has never been canon to the source material). Also, the decision to ultimately have it act as a pseudo sequel to the Christopher Reeve movies after nearly twenty years having passed was a decision that probably sounded better on paper. Even Bryan Singer, himself, had expressed as much when speaking to Empire Magazine following the release of Snyder's Man of Steel.
I don't know what would have helped. Probably nothing. If I could go again, I would do an origin. I would reboot it."*
Despite any mixed or straight up negative opinions that Superman Returns had to deal with, public opinion was pretty unanimous in praising Brandon Routh's portrayal of both Superman and Clark Kent. Personally, I think Routh is the second best actor to carry that mantle (just under Christopher Reeve – whom will always embody the character in my opinion) and played him with such depth and charisma. It's actually quite disappointing that we won't get to see where else he could have taken the role given more material to work with throughout the course of a franchise.
The flaws in Superman Returns are pretty well stated above but none of them really brought down the movie. If anything they made it unique and it simply became a matter of whether or not you were receptive of that level of uniqueness. There were actually a great many things that I felt the movie did exactly right and there were other things that were pleasant surprises that even the filmmakers may not have intended when they worked on it. It just goes to show how well people were doing their jobs and how much care and dedication went into the production.
The level of emotional drama was the driving force in what made Superman Returns as good as it was. It's true that the audience wanted more action (and yes, it could have benefitted from at least a few more scenes of face punching) but the drama really got you invested into the film, it's characters and where the story was heading.
In fact, I would say that the characters were really what did it for me. Where most superhero movies are action and special effects spectacles that just so happen to include characters and witty dialogue, Superman Returns was a very character focused drama that just so happened to include a superhero.
Was Kevin Spacey's take on Lex Luthor a little over the top compared to more recent takes on the character (such as Michael Rosenbaum's popular portrayal on Smallville or Clancy Brown's fan favorite version on Superman: The Animated Series)?
Yes. Yes it was.
But like Gene Hackman before him, Spacey still managed to bring a level of depth and sophistication to a very two dimensional version of the character. He was still obsessed with a land scheme like he was in Superman: The Movie but he was very passionate about that land scheme. You really wanted to see where he was going with it. And he definitely raised the stakes this time around.
The Supporting Cast Was Especially Top Notch
If there's one thing that absolutely cannot be denied it's that Superman Returns was incredibly well cast and everyone brought their A-Game. It's true that Kate Bosworth wasn't the best Lois Lane in franchise history (personally I think Teri Hatcher takes that top prize for her role in Lois & Clark) but she still did an amazing job with what she had to work with. The problem with Lois Lane in Returns was that her story was too heavily tied to her son, whom I already noted as being one of the weak links in this film's chain.
But it was really the rest of the cast that sold me on the success and sophistication of this film. Sam Huntington gave us, in my opinion, the very best Jimmy Olsen. Where the likes of Marc McClure (Superman: The Movie) and Justin Whalin (Lois & Clark) were of course fine in their interpretations, Huntington had a version of the young photographer that covered all of the bases from being kind of goofy and excitable as well as very mature and insightful when he needed to be. It was a performance that brought a lot of validation to a character who has been very hard to pin down and reinvented over the years.
The great Frank Langella was an amazing Perry White. Was he the best? Probably not. Again, I'd have to say that the late Lane Smith from Lois & Clark is my favorite if I had to pick one. In fact, I had a nice little conversation with Dean Cain about him at a convention one time. Frank Langella may have given us a slightly calmer and more soft-spoken version of the Daily Planet's editor-in-chief but he also gave us a version that really showed a level of compassion for his staff (especially Lois). And you can't help but love the scene where Superman catches the falling Daily Planet globe and Perry lets out the classic line "great Caesar's ghost."
It's the little details like that that showed a truly great degree of love and respect to the material.
The absolute best performance of the movie, though, came in one of the most unlikely of places. James Marsden (best known to audiences as Cyclops from the X-Men franchise as well as making a career playing "the other guy") really blew me away as Richard White. It was a character archetype that you really weren't supposed to like. Whenever you're dealing with a love triangle storyline it's important to root for the "hero" character (in this case Superman) and want to see "the other guy" get what's coming to him as he loses everything. However, Bryan Singer and James Marsden did a complete role reversal on us because I honestly found myself rooting for Marsden. He had a brief moment of jealousy but he overcame it and was the real hero in the end for Lois and Jason.
In the scene where they are trapped on Lex Luthor's yacht and Richard shows up to rescue them, Lois asks "How did you get here?" and Richard replies "I flew" (because he was a pilot). It was an unbelievable moment of great dialogue. I'm not ashamed to say I was metaphorically floored by how amazing that scene is. I clap my hands at both Singer and Marsden for giving us that character and that particular moment in the film.
Was Superman Returns the movie that audiences wanted?
Bryan Singer set out to make a movie that was very reminiscent of the Superman that we grew up with in the 80s but audiences (now big on elaborate special effects heavy scenes of action) wanted more than a character driven drama. And even though we were given the incredibly well delivered plane rescue sequence and the montage of city saving during the earthquake, it just wasn't enough.
What we did get, however, was a profoundly developed (and extremely under appreciated) picture filled with iconic scenes and themes that do great justice to the character that audiences and fans know and love.
It was a movie that really had me gripped to the story that was unraveling. It may not have had all of the action that was to be expected but it had a series of events that really held you attention and made you care.
And like Superman: The Movie before it, Superman Returns was a film that made us look up.
It was also a fantastic setup to a sequel that sadly never came. Bryan Singer and company were under contract to bring us a follow up (ironically titled Superman: The Man of Steel) which would have acted as the true series reboot after having Returns piggyback off the Reeve movies for an established base. Singer's Man of Steel was set to feature all of the action that audiences craved as Routh's Superman went toe to toe with the alien Darkseid.
Unfortunately, the lackluster performance of Returns paired up with Singer's scheduling conflict shooting Valkyrie forced Warner Bros. to sweep the sequel under the rug and start fresh.
Which brings us to:
MAN OF STEEL
With the rising success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (having just released the record breaking mega hit The Avengers and moving into its Phase 2) DC and Warner Bros. decided they needed to take swift action if it wanted to compete. Christopher Nolan had just completed his Batman trilogy and that version of the character was no longer in play. So they decided to kickstart their own new cinematic universe, appropriately, with the very superhero that had started their comic book universe.
They got the creative team of Nolan and David Goyer (based on their obvious success with Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy) to concept a fresh take on Superman that they felt would please audiences in a way that Superman Returns just didn't seem to. So, with the help of Zack Snyder (director of Watchmen and 300) they released Man of Steel in 2013.
The film starred Henry Cavill as Superman (whom, like Brandon Routh, had screen tested for both Superman: Flyby and Superman Returns), Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Lawrence Fishburn as Perry White, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, Russell Crowe as Jor-El and Michael Shannon as the Kryptonian badguy General Zod.
On paper Man of Steel is everything that Superman Returns wasn't. It was an origin story, significantly darker and more cynical in nature, and much more intensive on the action and special effects. With movies like The Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger showing us what action and effects heavy movies can be, it seemed to really be what audiences wanted.
But how well did it really work?
Financially, it was a box office success, making almost $700 Million world-wide. Critically it was well reviewed. However, fans were (and to this day remain) very divided by it. Though taking a lot of visual cues from the comics (especially in the costume department for the Kryptonian outfits), Man of Steel took a lot of liberties with the source material. Specifically in the mostly unexplored background of Krypton, the darker nature of the film in general, and Superman's decision to [SPOILER ALERT] kill his nemesis in the final confrontation of the film (a scene which also massive devastation to the city of Metropolis).
Some saw this filmmaking decision as a bold attempt to show that Superman isn't this perfect, infallible being (especially in his early days). Others simply saw it as a proverbial slap in the face to the iconic character and his history (as well as to the legions of fans who have adored the hopeful character for three quarters of a century). Even to this day I, myself, remain divided on the decision and look forward to seeing how it ultimately plays out in the subsequent films that the franchise is promising us.
Controversy aside, there were some other things that Man of Steel has working against it in terms of general filmmaking. Specifically in the overcomplicated backstory. There isn't a huge amount of information on Krypton in the comics. A few mini series have attempted to shed some light on the matter but to the general public, details are kept to a minimum as the history of the planet was never a driving force for the character.
Giving more detail into Krypton's history, it's apparent genetic engineering and personality defining process of population control, as well as its past history with colonizing the universe, simply led to a lot of plot holes and frayed, severed threads. Whether it was simply poor editing or straight up bad writing, this lead to a multitude of unanswered questions. Such as:
1. If Krypton bred their people for a specific purpose in life, then how come Jor-El (a man bred to be a peaceful scientist) was able to strap on some battle armor and kick the ass of General Zod (whom was bred to be the planet's greatest soldier)?
2. Jor-El tells Kal-El that for thousands of years Krypton ventured across the galaxy and set up colonies before deciding to focus on their homeworld and institute the genetic engineering program. He notes that the ship Kal-El finds on Earth was one of the original scout ships and had crashed on Earth 19,000 years ago. So...if the ship significantly predates the genetic engineering program then why did it have a Genesis chamber on board?
3. Why is Jor-El's Kryptonian thumb drive thing still compatible with a 19,000 year old ship? Did Kryptonian technology really reach it's limit 19,000 years ago?
4. And when Lois Lane is on Zod's ship and activates the Ghost Dad hologram of Jor-El (with said thumb drive thing) how does Jor-El know who she is? Did Kal-El sit there and have this long love lorn conversation with his Ghost Dad about the girl he just met that one time in the arctic?
5. Also, speaking of Lois, how did she track down who Clark was when every identity he had at each one of his jobs was fake? What paper trail was she following to come from "Joe" in the arctic to Clark Kent in Smallville? I mean, yeah, she's a great investigative reporter but come on!
Some people might call that knit picking but I call it lazy storytelling. A lot of that stuff got dismissed with throw away lines of dialogue that were easily ignored while other things (like the existence of the Genesis chamber) were simply left for you to accept without question.
Understandably, these are easy to overlook for the audience that just generally wanted to see a lot of action, explosions and superpowered beat downs. However, for the audience that wanted some well structured story to accompany said action it just didn't do justice.
Then we have the supporting cast of characters. My biggest praise to Superman Returns, as noted above, was how stellar the supporting cast was and how you genuinely cared for each one in some capacity. With Man of Steel it's like each additional character was simply thrown in there because you expected them to be a part of it.
I didn't particularly find Henry Cavill and Amy Adams to have a lot of on-screen chemistry and therefore I didn't really care about the rather forced relationship that they developed over the course of the film. One of the great things about the previous films (as well as the comics) is the nature of the Clark/Lois/Superman relationship and how it built over time. Man of Steel throws them together essentially right from the start and you're just supposed to accept it. Going back to the notion of rather lazy plot development, I simply found a lot of fault there.
As for the other characters (Perry White, Martha Kent, Steve Lombard, generic Army and Air Force guys, Dr. Hamilton and Jenny the Intern)...they were performed well enough by their respective actors (especially Lawrence Fishburn as Perry White) but you didn't care about a single one of them. The movie could have left every one of them out and only featured Superman, Lois and Zod and it would have played out almost the exact same way. There just wasn't any contribution by any of them to the story and no development to their character because the film was more preoccupied with filling as much screen time as it could with some form of action. Again...it was trying to be everything that Superman Returns wasn't.
The ONLY supporting character that I felt anything for at all was Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent. The best scenes that this movie had (if I were to put them in a Top 4 or 5) were the scenes that featured Costner. There was a genuine love that Costner portrayed for his adopted son that nobody even came close to rivaling. The scene where he shows young Clark the ship and tells him the truth, wherein a crying Clark says "Can't I just keep pretending I'm your son?" and Costner gives him a big hug and lip quiveringly replies "You are my son." seriously almost brought tears to my own eyes.
Even the tornado scene, which I actually don't like the overall meaning of, was very well done. One of the great tragedies of Superman's original story was that Jonathan Kent died of a heart attack and Clark, with all of his amazing powers and abilities, could do nothing about that. In Man of Steel, Jonathan gets sucked up in a tornado because he refused to let Clark expose himself by saving him. It's an equally powerful scene and well executed as far as the film is concerned, but the fact that it was still avoidable makes it less dramatically impactful.
So which movie is better?
Ultimately, like Jonathan Kent's words to Clark, that's something you'll have to figure out for yourself. Though I have come to accept Man of Steel for what it is and even to respect the direction that it's going into with the DCCU...I feel it underperformed significantly for what it could have been. And where Superman Returns had an amazing foundation and respect for the character's background, it could have benefitted from some of elements that Man of Steel incorporated.
If I had to pick a personal favorite I'd ultimately have to say Superman Returns. If it had been given the chance to continue I think Bryan Singer, Brandon Routh and company could have done amazing things with it. And if it had the opportunity to cross paths with Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale's Batman, as well as Joss Whedon's aborted Wonder Woman...THAT could have been a DCCU that I would have greatly wanted to see.
What about you? What did you like better between Superman Returns and Man of Steel? Sound off below and don't forget to follow me on Twitter (@ThisIsJamesT) for all things rant and ravey.