Originally posted by Jake Hinkson at The Night Editor, June 20, 2013.
I saw MAN OF STEEL the other day, and I liked it. I didn’t love it, as some people seem to. And I didn’t hate it, as an equal amount of people seem to. It hit me right down the middle–I liked it more than GREEN LANTERN or THOR but not as much as CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER or THE DARK KNIGHT.
It did put me in the mind to rewatch Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, a movie I loved as a child but haven’t watched in a while.
Here are some observations from my viewing last night [Note, I’m assuming readers will have seen both films]:
1. SUPERMAN was probably the last charming superhero movie. Despite the grandeur of the opening Krypton scenes and the big action set pieces later on, the spirit of the thing is gentle and fun. It takes its source material seriously (at times, too seriously–Exhibit A: Marlon Brando’s plagiarism of John 3:16), but overall it’s got a light touch. It is, in a word, charming.
2. It owes a great deal of its charm to Christopher Reeve. He’s beautiful here–part sly comedian, part stalwart hero. What’s interesting, though, is the way Reeve occupies a delightful middle ground between those two poles most of the time. His Superman has a sense of humor, a wit that appreciates the absurdity of his situation–both in and out of his cape. Contrast this with, say, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and you’ll see the difference. Downey’s Stark has charisma–as an actor, Downey exudes charisma like a pheromone–which is what makes the Iron Man movies so much fun. But charisma is different than charm. Tony Stark is a playboy, a badass, a jester who stands aloof from the world and mocks its absurdities. Reeve’s Clark Kent is a gentle spirit–he winks rather than sneers. One approach is not innately better than the other, but it is evidence that we live in a harder climate superhero-wise. I can’t think of the last charming performance in a superhero role.
3. Henry Cavil is playing a different character than Reeve. His Clark Kent is more neurotic, harder around the edges, less of a boy scout. He’s closer to Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne than Reeve’s Clark Kent.
4. The Krypton in SUPERMAN is a really original idea for an alien planet. I don’t know enough to say whether or not it adheres to the Krypton of the comic books pre-John Byrne (Byrne’s 1980s run on Superman is really all I know of the books), but it doesn’t look like anything else in the movies. The block-ice surface of the planet, the giant dome, the weird crystal technology–it all stays fresh. The Krypton in MAN OF STEEL, in contrast, looks a lot like a planet that would have been in one of the STAR WARS prequels.
5. The first ten minutes or so of MAN OF STEEL are, all on their own, pretty bad. A lot of exposition, a lot of derivative sets, and a lot of action that’s standard action movie fisticuffs. And Michael Shannon screams a lot. In short, it’s a lot.
6. SUPERMAN has Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter as Superman’s adoptive parents. (Two film noir icons, btw.) Both are excellent and create, in just a couple of brief scenes, the sense of middle-American groundness that Clark takes with him the rest of the movie. Brando got paid a heap of cash to play Jor-El, but less of him is more. (The expanded director’s cut of the film has way too much Brando. It starts to feel like he’s popping up just to justify his huge payday rather than to serve any story purpose.) Glenn Ford, on the other hand, is in the movie for about five minutes and has more emotional impact.
7. In MAN OF STEEL, Kevin Costner pretty much does to Russell Crowe what Ford did to Brando. Then again, maybe I’m just more partial to Kansas farmers than Kryptonian scientists. That’s a distinct possibility.
8. Margot Kidder gets criticized by certain folks because she’s not hot enough to be Lois Lane. Which misses the point. She’s spunky and quirky–like a girl reporter in a 30s newspaper movie. Another actress might have disappeared in that role. Kidder gives it a nice screwball twist. [Amy Adams in MAN OF STEEL is good in a more conventionally written role. She plays the role straight, and the filmmakers make the brilliantly simple choice to have Lois discover Clark is Supes before he even attempts the whole Clark Kent charade. Doing this deftly sidesteps one of the biggest obstacles in accepting their romance.)
9. Gene Hackman pretty much invented the way you play a super villain. Part funny, part scary. Everyone from Jack Nicholson to Tom Hiddleston owes him a debt. [Michael Shannon’s Zod gets better as MAN OF STEEL goes on, mostly because he gets to stop and take the occasional breath. The opening scenes have him at full pitch–and Shannon hits a high pitch–but the actor is better when he ramps up to fury. He’s the master of the slow burn that explodes in rage. I love Michael Shannon. He’s one of my favorite actors and he does a good job with this role, but as a character Zod is pretty much a one dimensional would-be dictator. I hope that in the sequel we get a character with a little more nuance.]
10. The debate over MAN OF STEEL’s ending is overblown. Yes, Superman isn’t a killer, but he’s a warrior and sometimes people die. Remember that Zod dies in SUPERMAN II as well. Though, just to be clear, in MAN OF STEEL I don’t know why Superman didn’t either sweep Zod’s legs or throw up his hand to block Zod’s heat vision. [Wow. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.] For that matter, here’s one last word on SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE: when Lois dies at the end and Superman turns back time to save her (never been sure exactly how he did that, by the way) wouldn’t he also have turned back everything else? Wouldn’t some of the people he saved in the previous scenes now perish? That ending never made any damn sense.
Jake Hinkson is the author of the novel HELL ON CHURCH STREET and the novellas THE POSTHUMOUS MAN and SAINT HOMICIDE. He’s also a regular contributor to Macmillan’s websites CRIMINAL ELEMENT and TOR, as well as the film journal NOIR CITY (the flagship publication of the Film Noir Foundation).