'Man of Steel' seeks to restore Superman as king of the big-screen superheroes

By Andrew A. Smith

Scripps Howard News Service


Can Man of Steel save Superman?


It’s odd to think that a strange visitor from another planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, would need any saving. And in comic-book sales, the Man of Tomorrow is holding his own: The Superman franchise is probably DC Comics’ third-most-popular, after Batman and Justice League.


But from a movie standpoint, Man of Steel director Zack Snyder himself told Hollywood Outbreak two years ago that the character was “broken” and “needs to be fixed.” “[Superman is] is the biggest superhero on the planet. He’s the father of every superhero,” he continued. “Thor has a movie? Really? … And there’s no Superman movie? This is, like, the world’s out of balance.”


Superman has had great success on the big screen, but Snyder has a point: It’s all in the past.



Superman, the first superhero, burst out of the gates in Action Comics #1 in 1938, and single-handedly turned a fad giveaway vehicle into the comic-book industry. Hordes of imitators followed in various capes and cowls, immmediately dubbed “superheroes” instead of “mystery men,” in honor of the Last Son of Krypton.


But none could lay a glove on the invulnerable Man of Steel. The Superman title, which launched in 1940, remained the best-selling solo superhero book well into the 1970s. Heck, in the 1960s, the seven books starring Superman, Superboy and their friends were lodged in the Top 10 nearly every year – and that includes Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.


That’s right: Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen outsold Batman and X-Men for much of the '60s.


Superman also leaped into every other media with a single bound. He starred in his own newspaper comic strip from 1940 to 1966. The Adventures of Superman radio show, which gave us Jimmy Olsen and green kryptonite, ran from 1940 to 1951. Seventeen theatrical cartoons from the Fleischer Studios appeared in movie houses in 1941 and 1943, paving the way for zillions of cartoons on broadcast TV beginning in the 1960s. Two movie serials, starring Kirk Alyn, debuted in 1947 and 1950. It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s … Superman! hit Broadway in 1966.


And I haven’t mentioned the toys and collectibles. From the games, dolls and lunchboxes of Superman’s early years to the videogames, action figures, statues, T-shirts and costumes of today, you can always find something at the store with a big, red S on it.


But where the Metropolis Marvel has really been a Super-gorilla is on the screen, big and small.


The Big Blue Boy Scout is a character that has virtually conquered television, with four live-action shows: Adventures of Superman (1952-58), Superboy (1988-92), Lois & Clark (1993-97) and Smallville (2001-2011). Smallville is continuing as a comic book, currently on “Season 11” at DC Comics.


And it may be hard for today’s fans to conceive this, but at one time the only superhero movie ever made was the 1966 Batman, based on the TV show and played for laughs. That had to change to get us to where we are now, where a second-tier Marvel character like Iron Man has become an international sensation.


Naturally, it was The Big Red S who changed it. Aside from his two movie serials, Superman came to movie screens in 1951 with Superman vs. The Mole Men, essentially the pilot for a TV show, released theatrically to gauge public interest. It was a hit, and George Reeves became the Man of Tomorrow for several generations in The Adventures of Superman TV show. It took a quarter of a century, but Superman wowed movie audiences again in 1978, with Christopher Reeve in the blue suit. Superman: The Movie was such a success, it spawned three sequels, in 1980, 1983 and 1987.


Finally, Brian Singer – famed for making X-Men a viable movie franchise – took a swing with Brandon Routh in Superman Returns (2006). It was an homage to the earlier films; almost but not quite a sequel.


And it flopped.  


Perhaps that’s why Snyder made his famous comment about Superman being “broken.” The last Reeve movie, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, had its heart in the right place, but not its wallet, resulting in a film where fans pointed out that outer space looked a lot like a black curtain and The Moon looked an awful lot like a sound stage. And Superman Returns was off-putting, giving us a Superman who had abandoned Earth for five years (ridiculous!), was a deadbeat dad with the child he left Lois (preposterous!) and spent a lot of time in the movie playing Super-Voyeur with his X-ray vision (despicable!) 


Snyder was right. Something had to change.




Snyder, who directed 300 and Watchmen, may just be the guy to do it.


“It’s the most realistic movie I’ve ever made,” Snyder said of Man of Steel to the LA Times Hero Complex website April 25. “There no tongue in anyone’s cheek. I’m not apologizing for Superman in any way. I’m saying, ‘Superman is a thing that must be taken seriously and embraced and understood’.”


And he’s getting a lot of serious help. Christopher Nolan – of Dark Knight Rises fame – is one of the producers. The titular character is portrayed by English thespian Henry Cavill (The Tudors), with support from an all-star cast, including Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Michael Shannon as Gen. Zod, Kevin Costner as Pa Kent, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and Russell Crowe as Jor-El.


And it’s looking and sounding really good so far. But don’t expect your daddy’s Superman (or even your grand-daddy’s). Snyder is updating our hero for the 21st century, as he should.


Still, the basic outlines of the story are simple, and fairly familiar. And I can’t describe Superman’s trip from Krypton to Earth any better than Grant Morrison did on the four-panel, first page of his classic graphic novel, All Star Superman (2011):


“Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”


We know the story so well, baby Kal-El’s trip from Krypton to the Kent farm can be summed up in eight words!  But there will be some differences. For example, Krypton isn’t going to explode for unknown reasons. Instead, it will be a cautionary tale of failed conservation.


“The filmmakers envisioned a planet on the eve of collapse, a place whose leaders had surrendered to the inevitable and turned inward, their inertia allowing their culture to decay along with the land,” reads the production notes. “Light years ahead of Earth in their technology, they nevertheless had exhausted their resources, the mining of Krypton's core for energy having been the last insult the planet could bear.”


Further, Snyder’s team is abandoning the ubiquitous crystal construction (and technology) of “Superman: The Movie” for a less structured feel. Krypton doesn’t just have plants, it uses them!


“We designed their architecture and technology to have an organic feel,” production designer Alex McDowell said. “Nothing is sculpted in the manner that we understand; there are no straight lines whatsoever on Krypton."
Will purists howl? Not this one. That crystal business extends no further back than the first Christopher Reeve movie, and it got pretty played out in “Smallville.” If Snyder wants to go back to the strip’s SF roots, that OK with this fan.


The next surprise is Kal-El’s two dads.


Well, not Pa Kent – he’s the straight arrow he always was, dedicated to raising his unusually gifted kid with core Midwestern values to guide his great potential. “I don’t know why you were sent here, but it wasn’t to win football games,” Pa Kent (Glenn Ford) says to young Clark Kent in Superman: The Movie. Not much has changed in 35 years, as the new Pa Kent (Costner) says, “I have to believe that you were sent here for a reason, and even if it takes the rest of your life, you owe it to yourself to find out what that reason is.”


A more interesting angle is taken with Jor-El. In a press release, screenwriter David Goyer described Kal-El’s biological father as “very much an advocate of free choice, and that made him an outlier on Krypton. In effect, it made him a criminal, an enemy of the state.”


Crowe follows up with “there’s a touch of madness to him, a touch of massive desperation in what he’s doing. As far as he’s concerned, it’s the last roll of the dice for keeping Krypton alive.”


Meanwhile, the various stories of Clark leaving Smallville – there are several versions – are dropped in favor of one similar to writer Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright (2005), in which the young Clark Kent goes on walkabout after high school to figure out who he is. This repeats in the movie, with an added twist: In today’s interconnected world, a man wandering the Earth occasionally doing impossible things is hard to hide. And a certain star reporter at the Daily Planet is on his electronic trail.


Which is essentially just an update; in virtually all Superman origins Lois Lane plays a role, and is nearly always the person who gives Superman his nom du combat.


The real surprise, though, is probably Jimmy Olsen. There’s no Olsen in Warner Bros.’ production notes, but IMDb.com lists a “Jenny Olsen,” played by Rebecca Buller. Great Caesar’s ghost! Is Superman’s pal now a palette?


Not necessarily. This could just be a curve ball, introducing Jimmy’s sister or cousin or something first, before the male version arrives. But if Jenny sticks around in place of Jimmy, it won’t come as much of a surprise to long-term fans, who watched Jimmy cross-dress enough in the 1950s and 1960s (to get a “scoop,” naturally) that he was in the running with Bugs Bunny for "Most Famous Drag Queen." And besides, a grown man taking a strong interest in a teenage boy might have been a wholesome mentoring schtick back in the day, but in the modern world it’s a little icky. Superman having a female groupie makes more sense, and naturally his innate sense of honor will keep her at a distance. That’s a win-win.


Meanwhile, the trailers have given us a clue what Superman’s challenge will be, as Gen. Zod and Faora-Ul (Antje Traue) arrive, demanding that the son of Jor-El join them in rebuilding Krypton on Earth – or else. This ties in with a larger theme Snyder has built into the movie as a whole.


“The film is very much about choices,” Snyder said in the production notes. “It's about a man with two fathers: Jor-El, Kal's Kryptonian father, and Jonathan Kent, Clark's dad on Earth. Clark/Kal has grown up with two sets of histories, though only one was known to him until now. And now he needs to reconcile those teachings if he is to become the man that, arguably, both fathers would want him to be, in their own ways.”


Zod’s challenge presents Clark/Kal with the movie’s ultimate choice: Will he kneel before Zod, or will he stand with the human race?


Not that there’s really any mystery. “In the world of superheroes, Superman is the completely uncompromising figure who exists to represent the best that all of us can be,” Snyder said. “He is the ideal; he's what we strive for, that magical, golden god, the kind of icon that has extended beyond the comics world and into all of popular culture.”


So we know he’s going to do the right thing. The fun is going to be seeing how he comes to the decision – and what variety of mayhem follows.




As it happens, Snyder is premiering his Super-rebirth on screen the same year as the Man of Steel’s 75th anniversary. DC Comics has noticed that as well, and pulled out the stops in support of their Main Man. Here are some Super-things to anticipate:


* First, Warner Bros. Entertainment and DC Entertainment have released a new Superman 75th-anniversary logo that will be used on Superman-related products and initiatives in all divisions, including DC Comics, Warner Bros. Pictures, AWB Television, WB Animation, WB Interactive Entertainment, Warner Home Entertainment and WB Consumer Products.


* Out already is Superman Unbound, a straight-to-video animated movie that arrived May 7. It adapts a Superman vs. Brainiac story that appeared in Action Comics in 2008, written by Geoff Johns, who is now DC’s Chief Creative Officer (Go here for a clip.)


* Injustice: Gods Among Us is a new fighting game franchise that arrived April 16, that allows players to enjoy the powers and gadgetry of their favorite DC characters. It’s supported by a comic book as well.


* DC’s “We Can Be Heroes” campaign, which is trying to help the Horn of Africa, has launched a second crowdfunding initiative. June features limited-edition Super-merchandise to help Superman’s fans be heroes, too.


* Next is Superman Unchained, a new series written by DC’s hottest writer Scott Snyder (Batman, American Vampire) and drawn by DC’s hottest artist (and co-publisher) Jim Lee (Justice League).  The first issue goes on sale June 12, but few details are available.


* Superman Unchained #1 arrives (with a bonus two-sided poster) on June 12, which DC has declared “Man of Steel Day” (which is also two days before the movie launches). Those visiting participating comic shops on MoSD will receive a free copy of All Star Superman #1 Special Edition. They’ll be surrounded by Man of Steel promotional posters and bags, and 12” Man of Steel statues – including Superman, Jor-El, Gen. Zod and Faora-Ul – will be on sale.


* On the digital front, All Star Superman #1 will be available for free download, and tons of Super-books will be on sale at www.readdcentertainment.com, the DC Comics app and all digital platforms (like comiXology).
* DC and Random House are teaming to promote Man of Steel at more than 1,000 local libraries, which will offer Superman buttons, bookmarks and comics.
* Snyder also plans a new animated short, which will likely debut at this summer’s Comic-Con International: San Diego. Aiding in the endeavor are Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series), Jay Oliva (Man of Steel storyboard artists), Johns, Mike Carlin (DC editor) and Peter Girardi (DC animation). WB hints at other Superman celebration rollouts at the country’s biggest comics and pop culture convention July 17-21.


* But if you don’t want to wait, there’s already a video making the rounds with Snyder and friends discussing the making of Man of Steel. Go to YouTube.com and search for “Zack Snyder featurette.”


* Talk about product placement! Sears outlets will not only appear in Man of Steel, but the retailer has teamed with Warner Bros. Pictures on a “retail theatrical integration” whereby Sears Shop Your Way Rewards members will have exclusive first-look at footage from the film, a limited-edition comic book and a chance to participate in a variety of Man of Steel sweepstakes. Check out shopyourway.com/manofsteel for details. And check out the new Man of Steel-inspired shoppable video at youtube.com/sears.


* Finally, Superman will be a major character in the new Infinite Crisis, a new multiplayer online battle arena game that will debut this fall. And the “DC Nation” block on Cartoon Network, which includes Teen Titans Go! and Beware the Batman, will have all-new Super-shorts airing throughout the year.


* To stay up-to-date on all things Superman and the celebration activities, please visit www.Superman75.com or http://www.dccomics.com/superman.


Will it all work? Or is Superman doomed to be a bright character in a dark, Batman world? Is it Superman that needs saving -- or is it us?


If that's the case, there's no one better suited to the job than the man dedicated to truth, justice and the American way.


“Superman is the jewel in the DC crown,” Snyder told Hero Complex. “And really what we’re trying to do is get his house in order, and then who knows what’s possible.”


Contact Captain Comics at capncomics@aol.com.

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Comment by Michael R. Neno on June 28, 2013 at 7:40pm

I liked it much better than I thought it would. I didn't mind the absence of Jimmy Olson because the movie is only setting up Clark Kent's world. It would make sense for Jimmy to finally appear in the next film.

I liked the logical "fundamental change to the Lois/Clark/Superman relationship" - it makes a whole lot more sense!

A few drawbacks: the film could have used more humor. Amy Adams is a fine actress, but there's nothing about her that projects "Lois Lane". I disliked the controversial scene at the end - needless and not in keeping with the character. The action sequences, while pulse-pounding, were ludicrous in the number of deaths which would have resulted.

Still, I loved the Kryptonian costume design (straight out of '20s silent movies) and the entire opening sequence was space opera reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Comment by Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) on June 27, 2013 at 6:28pm


Comment by ClarkKent_DC on June 27, 2013 at 6:05pm

Religion News Service takes a look at reaction to Man of Steel, and one of the people interviewed is our very own Mike Parnell! "Superman: Jesus Figure or Anti-Christ?" There's even a link to the Comics Cave!


Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on June 18, 2013 at 1:25pm

...See my SPOILER-ORIENTED line , for the discussion of " that " plot development !!!!!!!!!!!

Comment by ClarkKent_DC on June 17, 2013 at 9:42pm

Captain Comics said:

As to the "rule" that was broken, it's a rule in the comics, sure, but I don't recall it being established in this movie. And the character who "broke" it was pretty affected by it anyway. Much to the consternation of the audience at my viewing; my wife said "what's he so upset about?" Since I had to explain it to someone who hasn't been reading Superman comics for 45 years, I'm comfortable that the movie didn't establish it, or didn't establish it very strongly, and our complaints are those of comics fans, not your average movie viewer. And the character was upset, so we see that the "rule" may exist as an internal one, so we should rest easy. Maybe this is the origin of the rule.

Maybe, but I didn't find it satisfying when John Byrne did it, and I still don't. The Superman I grew up reading didn't have to personally break that rule to understand that breaking it was a bad thing.

In fact, one thing the movie did do well -- only to undermine it with the breaking of the rule -- was to establish that one of Superman's greatest and most underrated powers is the power of self-restraint.

Comment by Kirk G on June 17, 2013 at 9:13pm

One more comment: SPOILER WARNING.

I'm amazed that no one has commented about Pa Kent standing upright in a tornado without being windswept or staggering at all. (Don't jump me--- I understand the symbolic reason and I loved the scene. I just understand the weather alot more than most. I've been the TV weatherman here for 17 years last week!)

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on June 17, 2013 at 8:51pm

..._I_have_a_spoilers-friendly_line !!!!!!!!!!! :-)

Comment by Captain Comics on June 17, 2013 at 3:57pm

My wife and I saw it, and except for the sound (TOO LOUD in our theater), really enjoyed it. I'll try to discuss it without spoilers.

I was half-teared-up all through the Krypton scenes, because Jor-El's desperation and Lara Lor-Van's pain shone through. Very well done. And I like the new Krypton; the crystal thing always seemed kinda plastic. This Krypton kinda merged John Byrne's designs with an entirely new esthetic, and it seemed very coherent, very organic.
 Russel Crowe's Jor-El was terrific, especially -- as noted above -- when playing silent messenger. I was a bit surprised at his combat role; when does a scientist have time to learn hand-to-hand combat? But as the production notes state, Jor-El was something of a rebel against the planned-occupation, silent fascism of Krypton. As he says at one point to Zod, "Krypton has had its chance." And to Kal-El about Earth: "Maybe they'll do a better job." That may sound odd to comics fans, but in this movie, Krypton didn't explode by chance: Its people killed it by plundering the core for energy. Given that, it's easy to see why one of its foremost minds would conclude that a civilization that suicidal had "had its chance" and blew it. (Plus, there was that whole codex thing, and Jor-El's later comments about Kal being a "bridge between two peoples," so old Jor might not have given up on Krypton altogether.)

Oh, and the planet's finale was fantastic. My wife literally said, "Wow!"

Amy Adams, who often plays comedy or rom-com roles, was a pleasant surprise. As my wife pointed out, they didn't make her sexy, and in fact, seemed to go the other way. (Wife: "Some of her outfits were awful.") That's fine; Lois Lane should be valued for her character, not her curves. Amy Adams was a good choice to make us go down that road, as she's attractive but not distractingly so. She's pushing 40 and had a kid a couple of years ago. Still an attractive woman, but her ingenue days are behind her.

Speaking of which, my wife said of their first clinch, "I didn't see that coming." I did though, not just because of comics but because they were tossing each other longing gazes. Her comment made me realize that there hadn't been any dialogue to support it, and I had intuited it from acting alone! But there was plenty of circumstantial support, in that they developed a bond of trust through actions (or inactions), if not words.

Zod was appropriately terrifying, in that Michael Shannon (the crazy FBI agent on Boardwalk Empire) looks b@tsh!t crazy even when he's not trying to. When he IS trying it make you eye the exits. And Antje Traue as Faora-Ul (no longer Faora Hu-Ul for some reason) also did a great job; I fully believed she'd kill me without blinking, or perhaps with mild pleasure. Yuch.

As to the "rule" that was broken, it's a rule in the comics, sure, but I don't recall it being established in this movie. And the character who "broke" it was pretty affected by it anyway. Much to the consternation of the audience at my viewing; my wife said "what's he so upset about?" Since I had to explain it to someone who hasn't been reading Superman comics for 45 years, I'm comfortable that the movie didn't establish it, or didn't establish it very strongly, and our complaints are those of comics fans, not your average movie viewer. And the character was upset, so we see that the "rule" may exist as an internal one, so we should rest easy. Maybe this is the origin of the rule.

Also, I never wondered why Superman didn't spend more time saving people -- he seemed to have a hard enough time just surviving while being triple-teamed by Faora, Zod and the unnamed third guy, who we should just call "Non." (Although the credits offer some other possibilities, including Dev-Em!) I thought it a nice touch that Supes was slightly superior to Zod's gang physically, having absorbed solar radiation longer, and having learned how to use his abilities -- and how annoyed the Kryptonian soldiers were that they had to play catch-up to a "civilian."

Incidentally, the credits identify the Kryptonian scientist on Zod's team as Jax-Ur. Easter egg!

I agree that they did make a mess of Metropolis (and Smallville), but I don't know what Superman could have done to stop it. Watch the movie again: He was really busy. Also, Faora didn't say "for every one you save, we'll kill thousands." She said, "For every one you save, we'll kill a million others." There was no doubt they could back that that up, too -- it wasn't a bluff, but a promise. Heck, they could send Dev-Em to China while Zod and Faora keep Kal busy on the other side of the globe, and he could wipe out two million people in minutes. And that's not counting their technology, which seemed capable of wiping out cities pretty easily.

Incidentally, did they ever establish the New York-looking city as "Metropolis"? I don't recall hearing or seeing the word. (I did see the LexCorp signs.)

The battles were appropriately spectacular, although these old eyes had trouble keeping up with the super-speed. I bet kids loved it, though.

Like Rob above, I love the new Lois-Clark relationship. I do wonder, though, after all the events we witness in the Battle of Smallville, why Clark Kent's identity would be a mystery to the military. (Who are later shown trying to track Superman, as if they didn't know.)

I also wonder at Zod's narrative. If Kryptonians had a space exploration period, did they not find the raw materials and energy they needed for the mother planet? Did they not find any yellow suns? Maybe Krypton was in a really, really old galaxy.

I'm not thrilled about the "choice" discussion (when Pa says "maybe," the lady next to me said "Wrong" aloud as simply a statement of fact). But Pa's final moments were very, very good.

Incidentally, Kirk, while you're not safe under an overpass during a tornado, experts warn against staying in your car and trying to outrun the storm, too. Everyone killed in one recent Oklahoma tornado was in a car. The advice is to get out of your car and lie in a ditch or other depression -- which nobody does, because it seems so counter-intuitive. Just sayin'!

Also, I don't mind that there wasn't very much humor in this film. A couple of times I felt I saw a set-up for a Christopher Reeve-type "Statistically, flying is still the safest form of travel" remark, but then they wouldn't do it -- and it occurred to me in those instances that I was glad they refrained. It's not worth destroying the tone of the moment, or the movie, for a nice quip.

All in all, I was pretty satisfied with Man of Steel. I don't know if it managed to upgrade Superman for a new generation, but they certainly gave it a good shot.

Also, I agree that the last line was killer. I can't believe I haven't read it in a comic book anywhere in the last 45 years!

Comment by Kirk G on June 17, 2013 at 3:41pm

I was OK with changes that Lois was in on it as well... and I liked how they left the status quo at the end of the movie too.  Nice touch, nice explanation.

When do we get to see the Batman/Superman World's Finest team-up/throw down?


Comment by ClarkKent_DC on June 17, 2013 at 3:11pm

My son took me to see Man of Steel for Father's Day. There's some interesting stuff in there I hadn't seen played quite that way before, about Clark/Kal-El being the son of two fathers. However, Jonathan Kent's sacrifice was just plain stupid and unnecessary. 

As for the rule being broken: the Silver Age maven in me is with Rob, that the Superman I grew up with always finds another way. For those who say it isn't "realistic," I say if you want reality, going to the movies is the wrong place to get it. Plus I think if this movie Superman had found another way, the general would have reason to trust him going forward. As it is, I think the general is justified in thinking that he has to guard against Kal-El turning on Earth in the future.

I also say, "Whenever someone speaks of making comics 'realistic,' more often than not that means doing something that takes all the fun out of them." There was not enough of the sense of wonder of being able to do cool stuff like fly, although Henry Cavill made the most of it when he was allowed to. 

I generally think most movies I see could stand to be about a half-hour shorter, and I definitely think so here; I could certainly have done with less full-scale destruction. 

But the funniest thing to me was, after it was over, my son told me it was wrong because they changed the original story! I told him, "Well, that depends on which original story you're talking about." I taught him well, and didn't even know it! 


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