Some things never age well, this I know. Movie remakes exist for a reason; to sell an age-old idea to a new audience in hopes they pick it up and share it with their children and descendants. Some remakes work well: The Fly and The Thing in the 80s worked like a charm by elevating beyond its predecessor’s intention.
Other ideas make you wonder that if they’re done just because of a quick cash-in. And perhaps some ideas aren’t meant to be adapted too many times with the same storyline and origin story told in different in media res-like ways. Like Superman.
As much as I want to like Man of Steel, it’s hard to defend it because of what follows. Batman v Superman is a dreary and terrible mish-mash of comic book ideas in movie form, while Justice League faltered until its redeeming third act where it’s re-enacting a Justice League cartoon adventure. All those films failed to live up to the original template that is the 1978 Richard Donner-directed Superman film, and also the second one before he got kicked out of the project.
The films are, to put it bluntly, a pair of classics that go together like peanut butter and marshmallow cream. The cinematic flutternutter combo of awesomeness if you will.
The Man Behind The God Mask
No movie can cement itself into greatness unless its lead is perfect. And Christopher Reeves pretty much was Superman.
The actor behind Superman was, in a word, picturesque. His charisma, his dual lives in the films, his stature, and his mannerisms; all of them amount to a dignified and compassionate soul. If you want movie escapism in the late 70s and early 80s, he’s pretty much the guy that personified it, especially in a time where all that Nixon and Vietnam stuff happening.
Sure, that didn’t affect me; I wasn’t even born in the late 70s. But just watching him strut his stuff, catch Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) from falling to her death, and being the all-around foil against Lex Luthor and Zod, and then realizing America’s history coinciding with this film’s release; I now understand.
It also helped that the supporting cast, the main villains, and the love interest were all laid out perfectly and were the benchmark for all future epic superhero films to surpass. Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Ma Kent, Pa Kent, space dad/hologram Jor El; they help forge our hero to get accustomed to being human in their own ways and remind him that he needs to guide humanity as a saviour while also be grounded.
I mentioned the bad guys earlier; Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is surpassed only by Clancy Brown’s VO in the animated series, but you can’t deny how diabolical and comical he can come across. In the first film, you get to see the method behind the madness. General Zod basically steals the scenes of the second film thanks to Terence Phillips’ pretty over-the-top acting.
Not many leading ladies can be as quick-witted and as snappy as the city-bred Lois Lane, the perfect foil to the meekish Clark Kent and the benevolent demigod Superman. From her entrance in the Daily Planet to even the climactic controversial bit -where you can believe a man can rewind time by spinning the earth backwards- she oozes charm and puts up a convincingly tough act in surpassing the male majority of her workplace.
She’s the girl everyone wants to get; the sassy damsel who takes no s*** from anyone. Other Lois Lanes did succeed over what she established, but being the first leading lady in a superhero film that we gave a damn about? That’s quite an honour to the late actress.
The best part? I don’t see actors when Christopher Reeves and Margot Kidder played their parts. I saw Superman and Lois Lane on Technicolour. The flying scene, the interview, to the last few scenes; they lived out and created scenes meant to be stored for film history.
And oh man the flying scene where the both of them are in the air. While the sequels just rinse and repeat the moments ad nauseum, the build-up and execution of one of Superman’s iconic scenes is pure bliss and a lovely respite for the two leads to develop their romance further. Even the most hardcore fans and jaded comic book reader will feel a little tingley and warm inside when they see this scene played out in its entirety.
Superman and Superman II were earnest in their delivery and presentation, but it didn’t mean much unless the John Williams theme and score came into play. It’s so iconic with its established leit motif and progression that it was faithfully reinterpreted by Shirley Walker in the animated Superman shows in 1996. Hans Zimmer tries to deviate a bit from the material to make it a bit more edgey for Man of Steel, but you can’t deny the optimism and feel-good melody contained in the original theme.
You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly
At the end of the day, it’s never about the superhero’s look; it’s about what he does. What defines him is his actions. And the film that understands those actions and frames them as monolithic.
Speaking of which, the Marvel films wouldn’t be where they were, even all the way to the R-rated Blade, if it weren’t for Superman and Superman II. We wouldn’t even be getting a Batman film in 1989 from Tim Burton that starred a then-unassuming Michael Keaton if it weren’t for the success of Richard Donner’s masterpieces.
The DNA for a superhero film -the epic score, the big-budget production, a solid lead who looked and played the part, and the comic strip panel vibe that only directors can envision- is all laid out by the Man of Steel’s movie debut that mattered.
A shame that the 3rd and 4th Superman films, the Superman Returns sequel, and the Henry Cavill-led Superman films don’t live up or even exceed the first two. Though to be fair, Man of Steel did come close among all the other Superman films in existence.
There Is Hope, In A Form Of An “S”
Remember when I said that Superman’s story on film doesn’t translate well as time goes by? Well, that was a half-truth. In the DC Animated universe and the DC Animated Film canon, they work very well.
I’d go as far as to say that last year’s Death of Superman hammered home what made Superman work; his determination and the fact he doesn’t give up. When his Justice League pals are down for the count, he comes in and saves the day at the cost of his own life. That’s just who he is: he puts himself at risk for others for truth and justice.
Long story short: the Richard Donner/Richard Lester Superman duology are landmark superhero films that every director and producer keep to heart if they want to make a superhero film of their own. The backbone of your Marvel and DC extended cinematic universe nonsense, if you will. Even if you feel that the magic is lost in the recent live-action Superman-involved movies, the animated fares will calm you down.
The true Man of Steel, at least in live-action form, will still live in our hearts to convince our inner child. To aspire us to at least be like this ideal shaped in a man wearing blue tights with an “S” on his chest.