Until the recent explosion of comic book films, few superheroes could compete with the international popularity and established fanbase of DC Comics’ Superman. After all, the character — created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938 — was among the first superheroes to establish the archetype that has given birth to modern mythology as well as the pre-eminent role such characters play within the comic book community. Yet, despite the many films that have attempted to capture the character’s appeal, many fans believe that none of them truly do the character justice (pun intended).
At the time of its release, Richard Donner’s 1978 release Superman: The Movie was a landmark cinematic achievement. As the film’s tagline promised, its visual effects truly made audiences believe that a man could fly, and the casting of Oscar winners Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando elevated a story that many might have otherwise dismissed as frivolous nonsense intended solely for children. Moreover, Christopher Reeve’s charismatic dual performance as Clark Kent/Superman still stands as the benchmark for the all others who have taken on the character.
Yet, despite its status as the grandfather of the modern superhero film, Superman: The Movie has not aged as well as purists would have you believe. The world-building involved in Krypton’s history and character relationships work great, but the visual effects certainly don’t stand the test of time. In addition, the tonal shift between the more emotionally grounded scenes featuring Reeve and co-star Margot Kidder and the slapstick-heavy moments with Hackman’s Lex Luthor and his bumbling idiot henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) are incredibly jarring.
Perhaps this juxtaposition underscores the film’s identity crisis between Donner’s hope to craft an enduring piece of mythology and the studio’s desire to please young viewers. Whatever the case may be, the scales were tipped far more egregiously when Donner left the franchise, as the series got more ludicrous and less successful. Even Bryan Singer’s attempt to recapture what worked about Donner’s original film with his 2006 sequel/reboot Superman Returns failed to connect with audiences, as it opted to harken back to a sensibility that was inherent of its own time rather than adapting Superman’s mythos for modern audiences.
If there’s one thing that can be said about Zack Snyder’s divisive 2013 release Man of Steel, it’s that the film certainly went to great lengths to update the traditional Superman story. Snyder’s version made notable changes to the life lessons Henry Cavill’s Clark learns from Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and completely forgoes Clark’s efforts to conceal his secret identity from Lois Lane (Amy Adams). However, the neck-snapping climax of Man of Steel was undoubtedly the moment that encapsulated fans’ issues with this new vision of their beloved hero.
Whereas Donner’s take on the iconic DC character was burdened with a bit too much lightness to truly craft a timeless tale, Snyder’s version is plagued by a pervading sense of darkness that feels unbecoming of the hope and optimism Superman is supposed to represent. Instead, many critics and fans have derided Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for the very fact that the two eponymous heroes are too similar in tone to create a stark contrast between their philosophies.
Regardless of where fans may fall on Superman’s current big-screen status, it’s clear that there is room for improvement. Here’s hoping that Snyder is able to evolve Cavill’s Kal-El from this more brooding early stage of his superhero career into a more balanced portrayal a bit more in line with the character’s pervading attitude in the comics. With the director’s Justice League set to arrive in theaters in 2017, we’ll know soon enough.
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