Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Cinema Showdown: Superman Returns vs. Man of Steel

Originally published in 2015...
Welcome to another edition of Cinema Showdown, here at, where I'll take two movies that are either based on the same source material, present the same story, or just share many similarities, and see which one stacks up better.

Today I'll be talking about the two most recent cinematic takes on the beloved character of Superman: 2006's Superman Returns, directed by Bryan Singer, and 2013's Man of Steel, from Zack Snyder.

Superman is generally credited with launching the superhero genre of comic books, and is an internationally recognized, mythic embodiment of heroism.  The sole survivor of a doomed alien race, Superman arrived on Earth as a baby and was adopted by simple farmers.  As he grew into manhood he discovered his super powers and eventually came to understand and accept the inherent responsibility that came with them, embarking on a lifelong crusade to rid the world of evil and protect the people of his adopted home.

These themes were captured beautifully in Richard Donner's 1978 epic Superman: The Movie.  While far from perfect and frought with production challenges and creative issues, Superman conveyed a sense of wonder and lighthearted optimism in bringing to life this virtuous character, introducing him to a whole generation of filmgoers and creating the superhero movie as we know it.  After three sequels the franchise eventually fizzled, and for nearly twenty years every attempt at a cinematic rebirth for The Man of Tomorrow was aborted prior to production.

Then in 2006 Bryan Singer released Superman Returns, which was presented as a direct sequel to Superman II (1981).  Retroactively nullifying the largely-reviled Superman III and IV, Returns takes place five years after II, whereupon Superman has, well, returned to Earth after a mysterious five-year absence and found that the world didn't necessarily miss him.  At the same time Lex Luthor has been released from prison (largely due to Kal-El being unavailable to testify against him) and hatched a new plan to take over the world using crystals from the Fortress of Solitude.  The plot of this film was eerily similar to that of the 1978 original (Luthor attempts to change the Earth's landscape to create his own priceless real estate, almost certainly at the expense of millions of lives), and while a few of the performances were well-received, the film was a box office disappointment.  Its planned sequel was scrapped, and it was back to the drawing board for The Big Blue Boy Scout.
Seven years later director Zack Snyder (with assists from the vaunted Dark Knight creative team of Christopher Nolan and David Goyer) presented Man of Steel, an honest-to-goodness reboot of the franchise apparently steeped in reality and with a darker tone than previous Superman films.  The film reimagined Superman's origin story, creating a more complex version of Krypton's destruction and characterizing Kal-El as a troubled, reluctant hero who must save Earth from fellow Kryptonians led by the evil General Zod.  Like Returns, Man of Steel was met with mixed reviews, but was a solid worldwide hit and has now become the springboard for a DC Cinematic Universe (a sequel of sorts, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is slated for an early 2016 release).

But which 21st century Superman adaptation was better?  Singer's rather derivative entry, or Snyder's dark and moody reworking?  Let's break ol' Supes down and see what makes him tick, shall we?  I'll start with a side-by-side comparison of the casts, and then look at the scripting, action, visual effects, and music.


 Superman: Brandon Routh vs. Henry Cavill


Following Richard Donner's lead, both Singer and Snyder cast relative unknowns as Krypton's Last Son - this is generally the way to go, for as Donner once stated, putting a famous actor in the Superman suit would result in the audience seeing Robert Redford or James Caan dressed up like Superman, rather than actually "seeing" Superman.  If the audience doesn't buy into the illusion that this man can fly, there's no movie.

Brandon Routh was seemingly cast due to his physical resemblance and mild-mannered similarity to Christopher Reeve.  Given that Returns was to be a direct sequel to Reeve's first two outings, this made sense somewhat.  Routh brought the same humble midwestern charm to the role of Clark Kent, while also infusing Superman with a shy, likable masculinity and presence.  He didn't really hit any new notes in the role, and unfortunately no one was going to outplay Christopher Reeve as that incarnation of the character.  But he was easy to root for and managed to project some vulnerability to this nigh invincible hero.

Seemingly carved out of marble, Englishman Henry Cavill looks perfect as the red-and-blue-clad super-alien.  He's easily the most rugged actor to ever don the cape, and appears exactly like you'd picture Superman if you ever ran into him on the street.  With a cast-iron square jaw and an absolutely ripped build, Cavill fills the suit like no other.  The only problem is the Man of Steel script gives him almost nothing to do from an acting standpoint.  Cavill's performance as Kal largely consists of moping about, trying to figure out how to fit in, or engaging in city-demolishing fistfights with the other Kryptonians.  There is almost nothing heroic about this Superman - rather than actively protecting the citizens of Metropolis he is pretty much forced into saving them once General Zod starts "terraforming" the planet.  He makes no effort to draw the baddies away from populated areas, and seems unconcerned about the dozens of large buildings being destroyed during the melee.  Worse, at the end of the film he actually says this line to an Army General: "I'll help you, but it's gotta be on my terms."  Simply unbecoming of this supposedly valiant protector/savior of humanity.

While I think Cavill is probably the superior actor, I'm going with Routh in this face-off.  I enjoyed watching Routh fly around and save people, and actually cared about what happened to him.  Cavill's Superman on the other hand is morose, self-absorbed, and just kinda douchey.  To be fair it's mostly the script's fault Cavill's performance doesn't work, but in the end if we don't like Superman, there's no reason to watch the movie.

Point: Superman Returns

Lois Lane: Kate Boswoth vs. Amy Adams

Lois Lane is a very difficult character to cast, and here's why: Superman is a superior, essentially perfect being, who decides that of all the regular, screwed-up humans on this blue/green ball, Lois Lane is the one he holds above all others.  Lois Lane is the mortal for whom Kal-El would give up everything (as he does for a little while in Superman II).  So the actress cast in the role has to make us believe that Superman would potentially forsake his entire sense of purpose and identity to be with her.  Unfortunately in the original Supes films I never felt that with Margot Kidder.  She always struck me as a bit of a self-destructive burnout.

Kate Bosworth in Superman Returns plays Lois as an even more jaded figure.  She was in love with Superman, he left, and she eventually moved on, intending to marry Perry White's nephew Richard.  The couple apparently had a son but it becomes evident through the course of the movie that the kid isn't really Richard's.  Anywho, Kate's Lois is seething with resentment at being abandoned by the love of her life, and Kate brings a rather passive-aggressive cattiness to the role.  This frankly does her no favors in terms of convincing us Superman could idolize this woman.  She's kind of a jerk, truth be told - dismissive, hot-tempered, and rather unpleasant.  

Amy Adams on the other hand is likable in pretty much every role, and while Man of Steel's Lois is quite headstrong and a bit standoffish, we can still identify with her, at least in the early portions of the film.  She is shown cleverly investigating the identity of this strange man she met in the Arctic and idealistically pushing for her story of an alien visitor to be published.  Sadly though, the script doesn't supply her with much of a character to play beyond that.  Once all the Kryptonian smashing and fighting begins, Lois's only function is to miraculously be wherever the script needs her to be.  So yet another cinematic adaptation of the Superman mythos has shortchanged the character of Lois Lane.  Still in a perfect world Adams fits the character far better than her 2006 counterpart, so I'll give her the nod.

Point: Man of Steel

Perry White: Frank Langella vs. Laurence Fishburne

Frank Langella is a tremendously underrated actor.  From his 1979 turn as Dracula to his oily portrayal of the loathsome Bob Adams in Dave, to his somehow otherworldly, intimidating interpretation of Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, Langella brings a palpable presence to the table whenever he's onscreen.  As Perry White he perfectly blends gruffness with an air of thorough decency.  Perry talks a big game but underneath he's a big teddy bear.  Langella's one of the standouts of this film.

Laurence Fishburne could very well have equaled Langella's performance, had the filmmakers written an actual character for him to play.  Man of Steel's Perry White is given almost nothing to do.  Early on he chastises Lois for attempting to publish her expose, and after that.....he runs away from a collapsing building and feeds barely-encouraging sentiments to an office intern trapped under a pile of rubble.  I'm still baffled as to why Fishburne's even in the movie.  Literally any actor could've played this character.  This is no contest.

Point: Superman Returns

Main Villain: Kevin Spacey (Lex Luthor) vs. Michael Shannon (General Zod)

It's very easy to say this now, but in the early 2000s when it was announced that a new Superman film was being made, my first choice for Lex Luthor was Kevin Spacey (just like my first choice for Luthor in Batman v. Superman was Bryan Cranston).  Spacey in 2006 was the perfect contemporary actor to play Superman's cerebral archenemy, with a superb mix of dark humor and sadistic menace.  Luthor is destructively clever and without a moral compass, literally going to any lengths to acquire wealth and power, and as with his performance in the indie flick Swimming with Sharks, Spacey conveyed these traits wonderfully here.  Also Spacey, unlike Gene Hackman in 1978, actually shaved his head for the role.  Christ, Hackman, commit a little!

Michael Shannon was horribly miscast as General Zod.  I like Shannon as an actor - he plays an excellent seedy scumbag villain, or even a crazy social misfit like in Revolutionary Road.  What he doesn't play well is a dignified, powermad alien General.  It'd be hard for anyone to one-up Terence Stamp, whose performance as Zod was note-perfect.  But Shannon came across as a whiny, petulant teenager most of the time.  We should be in awe of Zod, not annoyed by him.  Someone like Viggo Mortensen or Benedict Cumberbatch would've fit much better in this role.

Point: Superman Returns  

Peripheral Characters

Superman Returns only had a few important tertiary characters - Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen, who was affable but disposable; Parker Posey as Luthor's squeeze Kitty Kowalski, who much like Miss Tessmacher from the original was a lot of fun to watch and rode the line between loyalty to Luthor and her own desire to be a good person; and James Marsden as Lois's fiance Richard, who is a pretty insufferable bore.

Man of Steel also has a handful of supporting characters - Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are both quite wonderful as Superman's adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent, supplying tenderness and unconditional love (though Jonathan's hangup about Kal keeping his identity a secret goes way too far); Antje Traue is badass but robotic as Zod's right-hand Faora; and then there's Russell Crowe as Jor-El, who is a pretty insufferable bore.  

This basically comes down to Parker Posey vs. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner.  I'll give a slight nod to The Kents, as they're kinda the only likable characters in the film.

Point: Man of Steel

Visual Effects

Both films have very strong, CGI-enhanced visual effects.  Superman Returns has a few scenes where we are quite obviously looking at a digital representation of Superman.  Man of Steel had the technological advantage of being made seven years later and the effects are understandably that much more sophisticated.

Point: Man of Steel

Action Set Pieces

That being said, it isn't the quality of the special effects that matter, it's what the filmmaker does with them. 

Superman Returns features several thrilling action set pieces, the first of which involves Superman saving an out-of-control aircraft with Lois inside.  Another scene depicts him facing off against a baddie brandishing Gatling gun, complete with super slo-mo shots of a bullet bouncing off his Eyeball of Steel.  These are classic Superman sequences hearkening back to the Donner/Lester films and the 1950s TV series.  There's also the later sequence when Superman saves Metropolis from the effects of a new "continent" Luthor has grown out of the ocean; an epic extended action scene involving putting out fires with his breath, intercepting the Daily Planet's gigantic globe as it falls from atop the building, flying underwater and separating the new continent from the Earth's crust, and lifting it into space.  This is all awesome Superman stuff.

Superman performing a typical feat of strength

Man of Steel's action set pieces mostly consist of Superman engaging in meandering, stalemate punchfests with other Kryptonians wherein dozens of buildings are destroyed, presumably with thousands of people inside.  All this disaster porn conjures unpleasant parallels to 9/11 and when it was over I just wanted to go somewhere quiet and read a children's book.  There is so little structure or imagination applied to the action sequences in this movie - it's literally punching, smashing, and flying into buildings for the final hour.  I don't understand how the filmmakers thought this would make for exciting summer viewing, or how some audiences were actually exhilarated by it.  Imagine a film where the last sixty minutes was nothing but two guys whacking each other with Wiffleball bats.  Think of how dull and exhausting that would be to watch.

Look at all them 'splosions!!

Where Superman Returns' action stayed true to the heroic parameters of its central character, Man of Steel's action was mean-spirited, confusing, and draining, and above all devoid of fun.

Point: Superman Returns


Superman Returns recycled John Williams' iconic main themes and featured supplemental material from frequent Bryan Singer collaborator John Ottman.  It was fine but Ottman was clearly just trying to echo what Williams had done better thirty years earlier.

Man of Steel was scored by visionary composer Hans Zimmer, who has reinvented the blockbuster film score over the past decade with such masterful work as The Dark Knight, Inception and Interstellar.  The music is one of the strong points of Man of Steel, and as with the Dark Knight Trilogy, Zimmer created a fittingly epic musical backdrop that's completely different from what other composers had done with the character.

Point: Man of Steel

Superman Suit

Both films opted for a somewhat muted-color, textured version of the original costume featured in both the comics and the 1978 film.  The Superman Returns suit sported a streamlined look, with electric blues and blood reds, low-rise shorts, and an angular "S" insignia.  It almost looks like a Calvin Klein version of the costume.

The Man of Steel version resembled stylized body armor, with a dark blue chain mail texture, an oversized "S" logo, and in keeping with the current comic book iteration, no red undies. 

Overall I prefer the newer version, as it looks more alien and durable.  Plus I like the exaggerated insignia.

Point: Man of Steel


Alright, this is the category it all comes down to.  While the performances and effects are important in keeping the viewer immersed in the cinematic experience, the backbone of a film is almost always the story and how it's written.

Superman Returns centers around an admittedly unoriginal premise - Lex Luthor hatches a plan to create his own piece of land which will make him the richest, most powerful man on the planet.  Enter Superman to thwart this dastardly plot and save the people of Earth once again.  Boiled down to basics, the only major difference between this and the 1978 Superman is the subplot with Lois's son, who curiously displays super powers.  I found the stuff with the kid pretty tedious, quite honestly.  Since there wasn't sufficient chemistry between Routh and Bosworth I didn't have much interest in seeing what happened with their offspring.  Also there's a long sequence in the third act where Superman has to rescue Lois and her son from a sinking yacht.  Lois's fiance swoops in with a plane to take her and the boy safely back to the city while Supes deals with Luthor.  Then Superman gets stabbed with Kryptonite and tossed into the ocean, and Richard has to turn the plane around to go save Superman.  Then Superman recharges in the sun and has to go back to remove Lex's continent.  This whole sequence is very drawn-out and repetitious, adding unnecessarily to the film's already bloated running time.  So the Returns script is pretty flawed but has perfectly serviceable dialogue and some glorious popcorn action. 

Man of Steel retells Superman's origins, presenting a Krypton that resembles a little too closely the world of Pandora from Avatar (see: dragons, flying).  The Kryptonian backstory has been made needlessly complex, with subplots about genetic engineering, forbidden natural births, and a Kryptonian codex containing the entire chromosomal history of the planet.  By the time Kal-El reaches Earth our attention span is already stretched thin.  The Smallville material however is understated and well-presented, as Kal struggles to deal with his powers and the fact that he's different from everyone else.  After the first hour though, the movie plunges headlong into torturously repetitive action scenes depicting evil Kryptonians pounding the crap out of Superman and destroying the entire town of Smallville (Much of this seemed plagiarized from the first Thor movie).  Then Zod launches his terraforming device, which levitates everything within an ever-expanding radius and violently smashes it against the ground.  What a pointlessly brutal and inefficient way to morph a planet into a New Krypton.  I'm also confused why, upon discovering that he and his cohorts have superhuman powers and could easily rule over the puny Earth-people, Zod decides he wants to create a new Krypton, wherein he'd no longer be special.  I always thought Zod's biggest motivation was the acquisition of power.  The final half hour of the film is an extended fight sequence similar to the Smallville one, but with much more destruction on a much larger scale.  Skyscrapers are smashed to bits, Supes and Zod are propelled viciously through multiple structures, and finally Superman has to murder Zod after one of the worst bits of dialogue in the film: "This can only end one way Kal-El.  Either I die, or you die."  Umm, that's TWO ways, Zoddy.

So essentially Man of Steel boils down to: Krypton self-destructs, Kal-El is sent to Earth, figures out he has powers that can help people but is discouraged from doing so, and becomes a superhero who just wants to be left alone.  General Zod shows up and wants to repopulate the Kryptonian species by destroying all life on Earth.  Superman decides to stop him, and there's a solid hour of smashing, destruction and death. 

Is this really a story that needed to be told?  The filmmakers tried to insert themes about choices, what it means to be a hero, and the responsibility of "saving" humanity, but the film fails to fully examine any of them.  Superman doesn't make the choice to protect or save anyone except during childhood flashbacks, he doesn't at all embody the spirit of heroism, and humanity didn't even need saving until he and his Kryptonian pals showed up. 

Say what you want about Superman Returns, but at least with that movie you get the impression the creators had a good time making it.

Point and Match: Superman Returns


If Superman Returns is a rehash of a more successful and enjoyable film, Man of Steel is a joyless exercise in CG violence.  Yes, Returns is overly long and contains too much melodrama, but at least it boasts characters worth rooting for, and some exceedingly fun Superman action.  Man of Steel is dark, depressing, noisy and mind-numbing, and has essentially no likable characters or an emotional core to become invested in.  There's literally one scene in the film I found fun: when Kal learns to fly for the first time.  He is thrilled by the experience, and so are we.  But the film is so eager to rush into frenetic action scenes none of the character development is given any time to breathe.  Man of Steel contains no sense of wonder, no heroism, no awareness of purpose on the part of its protagonist.  Superman's whole reason for being should be to protect his adoptive home and its inhabitants, and to fight for justice.  This is why we as the audience identify with and love Superman - he represents the good in all of us; our better nature that we all strive to unlock and cultivate. 

Superman as presented in Returns has these qualities - he realizes his mistake in abandoning the people of Earth for five years, and resolves not to do so again, even though they've come to resent him.  The Superman in Man of Steel is mopey, self-important, oblivious, and unenthusiastic about helping others until his hand is forced.  And even then he makes no effort to avoid the destruction of half of Metropolis.  A simple "Hey Zod, let's take this somewhere private so it's truly mano a mano" would've sufficed (like what happened in Superman II when he draws the bad guys away from the city).  Superman doesn't choose to protect humanity in this film; he's compelled at the last minute.  It's just mindblowing to me that Snyder, Nolan and Goyer managed to get everything about this character wrong.  I know today's audiences are "too cool" for a lighthearted, fun take on Superman, but does that mean he has to be presented as a Big Blue Jerkoff? 

Maybe this was all a setup for Batman v. Superman, so the audience will hoot and holler when Bruce Wayne shows up to beat a Kryptonite-assisted raincheck into Kal-El's whiny ass.

That'll do it for this edition of Cinema Showdown - join me next time as I pick apart and insult someone else's hard work to the delight of few!  Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, MeWe and subscribe to our YouTube channel!

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