When Man of Steel trailers began airing a few months ago, I asked a screenwriting chum if he was anticipating it. He was on the fence because, in his words, “Donner already did it perfectly in the seventies.” Surely then, that famous Superman movie directed by Richard Donner—more notably starring Christopher Reeve and featuring that soaring John Williams score—must have been based on a solid screenplay, if not a classic one. With that in mind, exploring the choices made in the old incarnation of the world’s most famous superhero in light of the latest incarnation—which has received a largely lukewarm reception—should make for an illuminating discussion.
Despite the bewildering difference in special effects, both Man of Steel and Superman begin similarly: on Krypton the powers-at-be banish General Zod; and Jor-El is ignored when warning of Krypton’s impending doom, thus sending his only son, Kal-El, to Earth.
Unlike Man of Steel which flashes forward to Clark as a drifting adult, Superman tells its story in a linear fashion. Kal-El crash lands in a field, is discovered by Martha and Jonathon Kent, grows up gaining super powers, find his truth in an icy cave and becomes Superman, joins The Daily Planet as a bumbling reporter, and then thwarts a plot to sink California into the Pacific Ocean by real estate tycoon Lex Luther. Superman and Lois Lane also fall for each other, and Superman flies around the Earth real fast, turning back time to save her life.
Man of Steel, of course, sets up Clark as a drifter who’s been struggling with his place in the world, who finds (with the help of the US military) a wrecked Kryptonian ship in ancient ice, learns his truth and becomes Superman, and saves the world from General Zod with a sufficient amount of destruction and codex gobbledygook, all the while flashing back to poignant moments in his childhood.
I’ll be forthright: neither of these films are classic screenplays. That said, both these films have their merits and their detriments—that is, the writers made some good choices, and some not-so-good choices.
Both films did well to address Clark’s powers as he grew into an adult—Man of Steel did it best, despite the questionable death of Jonathon Kent. Superman was more economical: as an outcast teen, Clark uses his powers to impress a bunch of jocks, and subsequently has a conversation with his father over when and how to use his powers. “Is a bird showing off when it flies?” Clark asks Jonathon, who tells him he came to Earth for a grand purpose and it most certainly wasn’t to show off to douchebag jocks.
Although he looks a bit like Danny Zuko at times, Henry Cavill is a solid Superman, but Christopher Reeve is Superman’s trump card—superb, you might say. And, given that I’m struggling to conjure more merits for Superman, it seems Christopher Reeve and his performance (really, his endearing performance as Clark Kent) that is its saving grace.
In Superman, when Clark enters the ice cave and meets Jor-El, he spends the next twelve years, apparently, on a cosmic voyage of the mind, learning of his origin, and about Earth and humans and how he is going to be a savior. When we return from the swirls of space to the ice cave, Clark is now an adult and he’s wearing that famous red and blue outfit.
This was a problem I had with Man of Steel: the suit just magically appeared. Now, I know Krypton possessed some pretty badass technology, but Clark’s inside a Krypton scouting vessel surrounded by ancient ice. He inserts his little Superman keycard and after talking with his father’s ghost for a while, a compartment opens with his famous suit. Well, lucky an unborn Jor-El had the foresight to load a superhero costume onto a scouting vessel thousands of years before the birth of his son… I can only presume that the suit was created in the ship from schematics in the Superman keycard—but the point remains, if I’m wondering how something’s supposed to fit together, something’s gone askew.
For example, in Man of Steel, General Zod and his goons needed to retrieve the codex information from Superman’s blood cells. Fair enough—slightly exhausting but fair enough. But I swear I saw Zod’s scientist guy poke Superman with a needle and extract blood when he was comatose on the ship? If that actually happened as I think it did, the rest of the movie was a moot point. Groan.
One stark point of difference between the two films is the presentation of Lois Lane. Despite asking the audience to believe a woman who spells poorly is a renowned journalist (I’m serious when I say Lois’ first line is her asking how to spell a word!), the presentation of Lois Lane was traditional in Superman, in that she falls for Superman while Clark is vainly trying to woo her, and Superman’s identity is never revealed. It was an interesting—and bold—choice then, in Man of Steel, to make Lois the only person who knows Clark’s identity. That’s going to be an intriguing dynamic to play out in ‘Man of Steel 2’.
The other stark difference between the two films is their choice of villain. Although General Zod shows up in Superman 2, I think he makes more sense as the villain in Superman’s origin story, as we saw in Man of Steel. Or maybe I’m just generally biased against Lex Luthor. I mean, Superman could rip Luthor limb from limb with no repercussion, yet this human is supposedly his archenemy, concocting plots to destroy Superman ad infinitum.
Superman did nothing to help this dilemma after Luthor makes two HUGE assumptions that I just didn’t buy: after reading in Lois’s article on Superman that Krypton exploded, Luthor deduces that a newly discovered meteorite must be kryptonite (a term he coins) simply because Krypton’s explosion would’ve created meteorites; he also concludes that kryptonite is necessarily harmful to Superman. So not only is Lex Luthor evil, apparently he’s omniscient!
Nevertheless, Lex Luthor is Superman’s archenemy, and hopefully when he shows up in ‘Man of Steel 2’ he’s far more menacing. As with The Joker not appearing until The Dark Knight, let’s hope the choice to hold off Superman’s archenemy until the sequel will make for a far more interesting (and formidable!) Lex Luthor.
If I’m griping, that wasn’t my intention. And if there’s a point to this discussion, it may just be that some choices only reveal themselves for what they are with hindsight.
Also, I may have been a tad harsh on Superman. I know it’s really beloved, but I can’t help but feel Christopher Reeve owns most of that. If you haven’t seen it, do check it out. You’ll be laughing, even if it is in spite of yourself. Such a moment comes when Superman grabs a burglar and flies him to the nearest police officer. Superman, after shaking the officer’s hand, says:
“Well, they say confession’s good for the soul. (Superman grabs a handful of stolen jewels from the burglar’s fanny-pack) I’d listen to this man. Take him away!”
Oh, and of course:
Lois: Why are you here? There must be a reason why you’re here?
Superman: Yes, I’m here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.
Roger Ramjet eat your heart out!