With Shazam!, the latest DCEU movie, imminently on the horizon, we’re revisiting the films that came before it from the shared cinematic universe…
How do you solve a problem like bringing Superman to the big screen? In this age of superheroes and comic book adaptations being practically everywhere, one might think that bringing the most famous superhero of them all to the big screen, the one that every superheroic character on the printed page and on-screen owes a debt to, should be a no-brainer. A slam dunk, if you will.
Yet, bringing Superman to our multiplexes has never been the easiest of tasks. Strangely enough, for a character who is so incredibly cinematic, Superman’s most comfortable home has always been on television. From George Reeves’ famous performance in the 50s to Dean Cain in the 90s, from the prequel series Smallville in the 2000s, right through to Supergirl and its adaptations of key storylines from the comics filtered through Kara Danvers, (not to mention Tyler Hoechlin’s lovely performance as Clark Kent himself in that series), Superman has always worked well on TV but proven incredibly difficult to bring to fruition in cinemas. And even when he makes it there, in modern times he has done so to divisive reactions.
After having spent years in development hell, from the Tim Burton-directed, Nicholas Cage starring Superman Lives that very nearly did get made, to several script contributions, the most famous of which came from a pre-Alias JJ Abrams, Superman finally made it back to the silver screen in 2006 with Superman Returns. The film underperformed at the box office, despite some pretty decent reviews and a superb central performance from Brandon Routh as Clark/Superman, as audiences were put off by the film’s more melancholy tone and emphasis on character over action.
Despite the box office, plans were afoot for a sequel that never came, and when Superman would eventually return to the silver screen in 2013 it would do so as a reboot, with a script from David Goyer, ‘godfathered’ in the scripting stage by Christopher Nolan, who would retain a producer’s credit, and eventually be directed by Zack Snyder.
Having famously filtered the Batman origin tale through a more realistic prism with the superb Batman Begins in 2005, a tone and attitude which continued through in its sequels The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, a similar attitude was taken as a means to bring Superman back to movie screens. How would the world realistically react if Superman arrived, and how would the earth be impacted is his enemies arrived with him?
Usually, in film or television, the arrival of Superman would be heralded positively, with everyone happy to meet him right away, but Goyer and Nolan’s take would deal head-on with the sense of panic and fear that would probably greet a super-powered alien from another world.
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The choice of director in Snyder was one that made sense in a way. Like Nolan, Snyder had fostered a good working relationship with Warner Bros. Studios. After making his debut with Dawn of the Dead, his subsequent films, 300, Watchmen (a co-production with Paramount Pictures), and Sucker Punch had all been made for Warners, but he was a very different filmmaker to Nolan. Where Nolan was very much of a school of filmmaking that lay somewhere in between David Lean, Steven Spielberg, and Stanley Kubrick, with a touch of Nicholas Roeg, Snyder was from a more in your face visual style that whilst never as bombastic as the likes of Michael Bay, was still very much one that could imagined coming from someone who had directed commercials and music videos before making films.
While Sucker Punch had been something of a disastrous folly for Snyder (although it does have its fans who argue for its merits, as well as for being a film with a subversive tone), he had shown he had a knack for adapting comic book material. 300 had been a Frank Miller adaptation and with Watchmen Snyder had managed to bring to the screen a piece of work that many other filmmakers had struggled with. The deconstructed tone that was the hallmark of Watchmen would be something that Snyder would bring to much of his work when it came to his handling of Superman and other famous DC characters.
Where Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie brought verisimilitude to the character, wanting the film to feel real to the extent that an audience would buy into it, Goyer’s screenplay and Snyder’s direction would go even further, bringing the character, Lois Lane, The Daily Planet, and Superman’s battle with General Zod and his army as they invade our planet, to a level that might have seemed unthinkable in 1978.
By 2013, it was clear that the Marvel Cinematic Universe was going to be the commercial pinnacle of cinematic superheroes; its shared narrative across its plethora of films was about to influence Sony when it came to producing its sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man, and it was also set to take hold of Warner Bros. Television’s own recently launched hit television series Arrow. While Nolan had decided to keep his Dark Knight trilogy a separate entity and not have any crossovers or hints of any characters outside of those from the Batman side of the DC universe, Warner Bros. would use Man of Steel as the means to launch their own version of what Marvel was doing.
The difference here was that while Marvel had hit upon a formula of high adventure and witty dialogue, some of which would end up being even more greatly influenced by the work of Joss Whedon in Avengers Assemble, Warner Bros and Snyder, who would subsequently become a big creative hand in trying to establish their cinematic universe, or DC Extended Universe as it would become popularly known albeit never officially, wanted to take their cue somewhat from what Nolan had done with his Batman movies, which had made incredible amounts of money for the studio, and make their shared universe one with a darker tone.
There is no doubt that Man of Steel is a very, very dark film that tries to bring something new to the Superman formula. Goyer’s script takes storytelling elements that had been brought to the screen before in both Superman: The Movie and its sequel, Superman II, but instead combine them. The film functions as an origin tale for Henry Cavill’s interpretation of the Man of Steel, but launches him into battle with General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his invading army in the second half of the film, instead of holding it back for the sequel.
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There are visual nods throughout not only to the work of Richard Donner and Richard Lester, but some beautiful visual winks to the comic books themselves, with Snyder bringing images to the screen that recalls the work of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, as well as Mark Waid and Leinill Francis Lu’s Superman: Birthright. In fact, its approach as a more realistic origin tale, with a Superman travelling the world hoping to find himself in the first act of the movie, recalls Waid’s work on Birthright.
As for the casting of Superman himself, there was a feeling that the role had been waiting for Henry Cavill. He had auditioned for Superman Returns, but lost out to Routh, not to mention also auditioning for Batman Begins and Casino Royale, the latter of which he lost out on because there was a feeling that he was too young.
A continuation of the use of British actors playing iconic American superheroes, Cavill brings his own unique interpretation to the role and it does genuinely feel like the first big screen Superman that is its own thing rather than a tribute. The same goes for Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Originally considered for the role of Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins, it almost feels like destiny worked out in order to allow Adams to play a role that was worthy of her talents. Like Superman, this is a very modern Lois Lane, who for the most part doesn’t play a victim to be saved by the Man of Steel, and is a Pulitzer Prize Winning reporter who deals in a world of social media and bloggers.
This modern approach and the attempts at some of the realism here are in some regards very well handled; Lois knows that Superman is Clark Kent right away and the lovely final scene makes it clear that this will not be the Clark/Superman/Lois love triangle of old. However, there are other aspects that cause it to somewhat fall apart.
Upon its release Man of Steel proved incredibly divisive amongst film critics, Superman fans, and fans of comic book cinema in general, and nearly all of the arguments came down to its tone, its approach to the character, and its second half which does arguably feature some of the most spectacular action ever filmed for a superhero movie, but which is so over the top and bombastic that its eventual effect is that it ends up numbing you into submission.
Trying to get away from the tone of Donner’s and Lester’s films was admirable and showed a willingness for a clean slate and new creative direction for Superman. Even television series such as Lois and Clark and Smallville always tipped their hats to those movies (the latter even going as far as to cast Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Annette O’ Toole in key roles), but sometimes it feels as if while it’s trying to forget the past that Man of Steel also forgets this is still a Superman film.
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A darker, more realistic tone for Batman is one thing, and Nolan with those movies managed the feat of deconstructing the world of Batman and the character while still representing him in a way that never betrayed him; for many it felt as if Snyder had forgotten that this was the more optimistic side of the DC characters, the light over the hill so to speak.
While some critics and fans claim the film to be a masterpiece, others were put off by its washed out photographic look, disaster porn imagery that reminded many too much of 9/11 and, in its most controversial moment, Superman breaking Zod’s neck in order to defeat him.
Ironically, the latter is the one thing that Man of Steel gets truly right. The no-killing rule had been hardwired into Superman from his perception, but here the character is allowed to gain a reason for why he shouldn’t kill, and it’s one of the film’s most admirable traits when it comes to realism. It almost feels like something Nolan might have cooked up, but in fact it was actually Snyder and Goyer, with Nolan initially shocked at the suggestion.
Even the scenes with Jonathan Kent weren’t above criticism. Portrayed by Kevin Costner, a brilliant piece of casting if there ever was one, his suggestion to a thirteen year old Clark after he has saved his classmates from a disastrous bus crash that maybe, just maybe, he should have let them die in order to keep his secret, drew the ire of many, but once again it’s a subtle piece of realism that the film could have played with and used more of instead of trying to find it in the rubble of a high body count and who knows how many skyscrapers crashing to the ground.
While Man of Steel can be categorised as a love it or hate it, I for one have never truly loved it or truly hated it. There are things about it that it gets right: the portrayal of Krypton as a more organic planet complete with Matrix-like pods where Kryptonians are grown is incredible; Russell Crowe is a fantastic Jor-El; Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are a quintessential Jonathan and Martha Kent; Michael Shannon is a brilliantly intense Zod; the scene where Clark flies for the first time is brilliant and the one true moment in the film that feels like Superman, while the entirety of Hans Zimmer’s score is epic, with a superb modern central theme.
When the book is written about this era of comic book influenced pop culture, it will be interesting to see where opinion on Man of Steel will lie. It’s proved to be an incredibly divisive film, and still continues to be to this day, but the reaction to it would be nothing compared to what would happen next when everyone had the idea to bring Batman and Wonder Woman to the equation.