Over the years, many a debate has raged over the subject of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. The film was released in 2013 and, even seven years later, fans online get into heated discussions about the things that worked and the things that didn’t for the ambitious reboot of Superman on the big screen.
And I would know. I’m one of the fans that can literally always talk about Man of Steel.
As a devout Superman fanatic born in 1983, I can tell you that the character and all of its incarnations have been a constant part of my life for over 30 years. While I grew up watching the Christopher Reeve films, I was also a fan of the George Reeves TV show Adventures of Superman, the Ruby-Spears cartoon of the late 80s, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and all of the various comic book reinventions of the 1990s.
So when 2013 came around, I was all ears and eyes when it came to Man of Steel. Having been through the ringer in terms of waiting anxiously to see Superman soar at the cinema- watching several attempts at rebooting the franchise come together and then fall apart over the years (Tim Burton’s Superman Lives, Wolfgang Petersen’s Batman vs Superman, McG’s Superman: Flyby, and Brett Ratner’s untitled Superman reboot)- I was excited to see Kal-El take flight once more, with a whole new creative approach.
I’d seen how Superman Returns fizzled in 2006. Despite it containing several moments and elements I’ll treasure for all of my days, I’d made peace with the fact that Bryan Singer had botched it. For all of its attempts to sequelize 1978’s Superman: The Movie, it bore very little of its charm, and it didn’t make a compelling enough case for further adventures of that Superman.
So I was ready for something new; Something fresh. And while I hadn’t really loved a Snyder film since 2004’s Dawn of The Dead, I had faith in the script from David Goyer and Christopher Nolan.
When Nolan and Goyer successfully rebooted the Batman franchise in 2004 with Batman Begins, they did so by completely starting from scratch. They told a bold story that immediately communicated, “This isn’t anything like the Bat films that came before it.” And it wasn’t just in tone and execution, but even the plot went out of its way to be a totally different animal.
For example, the previous Bruce Wayne we’d met had lost his parents to a pre-Joker Jack Napier- not the traditional Joe Chill of the comics. Nolan and Goyer’s reboot brought in Chill, Carmine Falcone, and Ra’s Al Ghul. And there was no Joker at all. In every way, Batman Begins was a fresh start and- most importantly- a clean break from the previous films. So I knew this creative team had the chops and the ambition to push Superman into all new territory and make him relevant to contemporary audiences.
Any reservations I had about Snyder’s ability to do the Goyer/Nolan script justice went right out the window when I saw this, the third trailer for Man of Steel:
As I’ve noted on previous episodes of The Fanboy Podcast, I was so obsessed with this trailer that I would show it to anyone I happened to be spending time with in the weeks leading up to the film’s arrival. I really thought they nailed it; That this was going to be a new Superman for the ages.
What I ended up getting was a film I liked, but didn’t love. Which is okay. All kinds of films had disappointed me in the past. But this one was tough to take, and I was determined to figure out if it could grow on me. So I went to theaters and saw it two more times, for a grand total of three viewings in a span of about 10 days.
My qualms with the film, in a nutshell, were:
- I thought the plot was a bit convoluted, with Kal-El having the codex for all Kryptonian life implanted into his cells.
- I found that Clark showed way more heart and empathy for those around him in the first half of the film than he did in the latter half. (And make no mistake, my favorite power of Superman’s was never his ability to fly or lift heavy objects, but rather his caring for others.)
- The film’s third act left me cold. Just endless destruction, with a hero who seemed more determined to beat the crap out of the only other Kryptonian he’s ever met than trying to save lives and/or get Zod to see the error of his ways. (My initial “take” was that if Snyder had shortened all of the destruction by 15 minutes and used that time to flesh out the characters and heighten the drama, it’d be a damn near perfect Superman movie.)
But something strange happened when I started to voice these opinions online.
I started being told, “You just wanted the Christopher Reeve Superman.” This perplexed me, as it wasn’t even in my Top 10 observations about Man of Steel. And it certainly wasn’t something I’d mentioned in my above complaints.
And yet, it seemed, that no matter how many times I explained my thoughts on the film’s troubling third act, or how I felt we needed to either see Superman try to prevent all of the chaos or- at the very least- acknowledge the collateral damage as part of his education from “Day One on The Job,” I would also just get “Pfft! Such a nostalgia fanboy!” in return.
And it continues to this day.
Forbes just published an editorial titled, “The Future of Superman On Film Must Embrace Evolution of Nostalgia.” In this thoughtful piece, the author makes their case for the fact that the Man of Steel’s future on the big screen will hinge on audiences and critics being able to embrace something new instead of constantly comparing Henry Cavill’s Superman to Reeve’s.
And the author isn’t wrong, mind you. Nostalgia is a crutch, and the only way to reignite interest in the character is imbue him with new life and purpose, not by just “playing the hits.”
But this idea that “audiences and critics carried too many nostalgic expectations with them into Man of Steel” needs to have its neck snapped.
So let’s do it.
Here’s my coldest hot take on Man of Steel, followed by support for it:
“Critics and Fans Weren’t Too Nostalgic. Goyer and Nolan Were!”
After the 1,376th time I was accused of pining over Reeve when I should have been letting Cavill win me over, I started trying to get to the bottom of this baseless, oft-repeated defense of Man of Steel.
And it finally dawned on me last year.
The comparisons to Superman: The Movie that Man of Steel‘s defenders always point out have less to do with fans and critics wanting to relive the past and more to do with Goyer and Nolan crafting a movie that is one giant echo of the past.
In many key ways, Man of Steel is just another version of Reeve’s first two outings as Superman.
To articulate this, let’s look at a few of the creative decisions made in back in 1978 that did not have to be repeated in 2013- or ever again, really.
Just as Tim Burton would do 11 years later, using creative license to make Batman his own, Richard Donner and his creative team made a few big choices for Superman.
One of them was to anchor their two-part story with the arrest of General Zod and his minions, which happened at the hands of Jor-El, leading the villainous General to vow revenge on the House of El.
This was a big deal because prior to 1978, Zod wasn’t even an A or B-list Superman villain. He was a C-list baddie, at best. There were many options Donner and co. could have chosen from for their first “big, super-powered baddie” of the Superman movie franchise, but they chose Zod. And while it’s certainly true that Lex Luthor was the primary antagonist in the first film, it’s important to note that the second film is meant to be the latter half of one long story- meaning Zod is the primary, over-arching villain of the first two Reeve/Donner Superman movies.
Therefore, Goyer and Nolan’s decision to completely recycle that story- as if it were absolutely intrinsic to Superman’s origin- was the first glaring example of a film begging to be compared to the 1978 movie.
If they had gone the Batman Begins route, and told a story that had no similarities to the origin referenced in Burton’s Batman, it wouldn’t have opened itself up to such comparisons.
And even the way it all plays out is so similar. Both Superman: The Movie and Man of Steel open on a very alien, mythological, Shakespearean Krypton. They both show Jor-El condemning Zod to the Phantom Zone, while warning the council in vein that Krypton was on the verge of destruction.
Both films then lead directly into very similar scenes of Jor-El and and Lara delivering poignant speeches to baby Kal-El, speaking of his destiny while preparing him for his voyage into the cosmos. In both, Jor-El aids a heartbroken Lara with soothing words of their baby’s anticipated greatness on earth.
In one, Zod vows to make Jor-El suffer one day. And if not him, then his heirs. Just as in Man of Steel when Zod warns Lara that “I will find him!” in reference to her heir, Kal-El.
In so many ways, Man of Steel‘s opening on Krypton is an echo of Superman: The Movie‘s. That could have been avoided if they’d selected a different villain, or chosen to tell the story out of sequence and made the happenings on the doomed planet a flashback later on in the movie. But since both films open the same way, while planting the seed for “Zod and his people are trapped in the Phantom Zone for Kal-El to have to deal with later on,” it right away reminds anyone who’s watching it of the 1978 movie.
And the similarities don’t end there.
Jonathan Kent isn’t Uncle Ben.
There have been many, many versions of the Superman mythos. And in some of them, Jonathan Kent dies. The death of Clark’s adoptive father, in those stories, is usually used as a way to teach him a hard lesson and push him to figure out how best to serve others with his amazing abilities.
But it’s not a mandatory story beat.
Unlike Spider-Man, where the death of Uncle Ben is as necessary as the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne is to the creation of Batman, not every version of Superman involves Jonathan dying. There are plenty of versions of the Superman mythology where Clark still visits Smallville to speak to his adoptive parents while struggling with his new life in Metropolis.
When Donner and co. decided to kill off Jonathan, it forever left a mark on people’s minds. After that film, it became much more of a staple than it had been in the past. But still, it was optional. In the Dean Cain/Terri Hatcher series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in the 1990s, for example, Clark still had both parents.
So when it came time to script Man of Steel, Goyer and Nolan didn’t have to include Jonathan dying as a central turning point for Clark. They could’ve gone any number of routes, or even killed off an entirely different character, if they wanted to give Clark that kind of tragedy from which to learn.
Instead, they went down the exact same path as the 1978 film. Jonathan, after years of encouraging Clark to keep his abilities a secret until he figures out his purpose on earth, dies. In one, it’s a sudden heart attack. In one, it’s to protect Clark’s secret. Neither one of the deaths had to happen in the script, but both creative teams decided Jonathan’s death was “the big turning point.”
“Now let’s have a fist fight amongst the skyscrapers of Metropolis,” said Both Movies.
Both Superman II and Man of Steel build to Superman fighting Zod in the middle of Metropolis after the General has been released from the Phantom Zone and wreaked some havoc on earth.
So Donner’s one big Superman story and Snyder’s Man of Steel both escalate to an aerial battle in Metropolis, to complete the echo. This invited all kinds of comparisons of how Reeve’s Superman handled Zod to how Cavill’s did.
Again, all of that was completely avoidable. A different villain, setting, or even context for the 3rd Act battle would’ve insured that no one compared Cavill and Reeve. It would’ve allowed this new Superman to stand on his own, in unexplored territory, the way Batman Begins gave the Dark Knight a whole new lease on life.
If Nolan had chosen to have “a pre-Joker Jack Napier” kill the Waynes in Batman Begins, leading to a showdown between a hero and a villain who “created each other” in the third act again…I doubt Begins would’ve been able to avoid comparisons.
But instead of bringing that new, fresh, different approach to his Superman reboot, Nolan presented a story that could be boiled down to “Here’s Superman 1 and 2 again, but with a science fiction conceit and a more realistic world!”
And that, my friends, is why certain fans and critics referenced Reeve and Donner when critiquing Man of Steel. Not because they were “stuck in the past,” but because they were given a movie that recycles huge, specific choices made in the past.
Meanwhile, there are still folks like me who don’t even reference those comparisons when breaking down the film, and who are tired of the film’s defenders telling us to “let go of the Reeve movies.”
If only those same people could go back in time and say that to the folks who made Man of Steel, then we’d all be talking about how it evolved Superman instead of retreading him.
Nolan has often referenced Superman: The Movie as a touchstone for him, but maybe if he had been less interested in putting his own twist on that story, and more interested in breaking new ground by mining the other 70+ years of Superman stories in existence at the time, Man of Steel would not have been so polarizing.