In 1978, one movie made the world believe a man could fly.
Superman: The Movie was a blockbuster hit. The late Christopher Reeve WAS Superman, and his supporting cast of Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Terence Stamp and more elevated a film that, nearly 40 years later, is still considered to be one of the best superhero movies ever made.
Even today, it casts a long shadow, and popular opinion says no Superman movie made since has even come close to eclipsing it. Not 2006’s Superman Returns, which was criticized for being too much of a spiritual sequel to the Reeve films (among other things), and certainly not Man Of Steel, the first entry in the much-maligned DC Cinematic Universe.
Yet, the 2013 effort starring Henry Cavill as the Last Son of Krypton deserves a second look. It’s undoubtedly a different kind of film than the Reeve classic; it's a more grounded, serious take on the concept of a god-like man appearing on Earth. That take may not be for everyone, but those who embrace it and enjoy the film for what it is can find a lot to enjoy. Seen through that prism, the film tells an epic Superman origin story; one that, in some ways, arguably surpasses the beloved original.
Here are 15 Things Man Of Steel Did Better Than Superman: The Movie.
15 Superman's Physique
Christopher Reeve cut a fine form as Superman in 1978. The formerly gangly actor transformed himself under the tutelage of bodybuilder (and Darth Vader himself) David Prowse, packing on muscle to look more like, well, Superman. Even so, the iconic blue, red and yellow suit he donned was accentuated with some rubber muscles to complete the look.
Years later, Henry Cavill would undergo a similar, arguably more strenuous process. To build a physique worthy of Superman, Cavill endured six months of training at Gym Jones, a private establishment that works with the U.S. military and which famously helped the cast of 300 create their imposing figures. Countless hours of weight training and high intensity cardio paid off for Cavill with a shredded, muscle-bound physique that lent credibility to Kal-El’s status as the most powerful man on Earth. It also lent Cavill himself perspective on power and pushing through boundaries, which certainly informed his performance.
14 Martha Kent
Clark’s relationship to his adopted parents has always been a crucial part of the Superman story. It was the loving upbringing they gave him in Smallville that sowed the seeds for the hero he would become. Look at “what if” stories from the comics, like Red Son, or what happened to his alternate universe counterpart Ultraman for examples as to what Superman could have been like without the values the Kents instilled in him.
Fittingly, the Kents have played small but critical roles in all of Superman’s cinematic adventures to date. You can’t take anything away from Glenn Ford’s short but memorable turn as Jonathan Kent in the 1978 film, especially the scene where he imparts some final wisdom to Clark before succumbing to a fatal heart attack. Phyllis Thaxter had less to do as Martha, but performed her role well.
In Man of Steel, Kevin Costner’s Jonathan was a controversial figure due to his repeated insistence that Clark hide his powers from the world, at the expense of innocent lives if necessary. While it’s an understandable argument from the perspective of protecting one's own son from a distrusting world, it’s not quite the inspiring speech the audience wanted to hear.
On the other hand, Diane Lane was note perfect as Martha Lane. Whether comforting a confused young Clark at school or standing toe-to-toe with Zod, she ably portrayed a protective mother balancing her love for her son with the knowledge she would one day have to let him go so he could fulfill his purpose on Earth. Jokes about her being a bit young for the role aside, Lane's performance was unanimously praised.
13 Higher Stakes
When you're dealing with a hero as powerful as Superman, it can be difficult to find a challenge that is worthy of him.
In the 1978 classic, Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor hatches a scheme to divert a nuclear missile into the San Andreas Fault, thus sinking California and transforming his worthless desert property into prime ocean-side real estate. As evil plans go, it's sufficiently dastardly; millions of innocent people will die, all for Luthor's own gain. But it's also fairly similar to villainous plots you might find in a James Bond film. Luthor's plan didn't necessarily call for Superman, and only Superman, to save the day.
Compare that to Man Of Steel's story of Zod and his plan to terraform the Earth, destroying all life and building a new Krypton on the ashes. When Zod and his followers arrive on Earth, they have the same powers as Superman does under the yellow sun, and he is the only person on Earth who can stand against them. The cataclysmic battles between Superman and Zod's forces do a lot of damage (more on that later), but ultimately the world and all of humanity is saved. It's a threat worthy of Superman.
Let's get this out of the way; John Williams is arguably the best film composer of all time. His theme from Superman: The Movie is rightfully considered to be one of, if not the best pieces of film score from any superhero movie ever made. Hans Zimmer, like Williams, has become one of Hollywood's go-to composers, crafting an impressive resume that includes films like Gladiator, The Dark Knight and Inception.
Charged with creating the score for a new take on Superman, Zimmer and the filmmakers immediately decided not to revisit the classic Williams theme. Excising that iconic piece, the quintessential Superman music, no doubt made Zimmer's job a lot harder, but ultimately it was the right choice. While no one piece of his Man Of Steel score reaches the heights of that classic theme, the score itself, taken as a whole, is arguably stronger than that of the Reeve film.
There are a number of standout tracks on the soundtrack; "DNA" lends an otherworldly feel to the film's opening Krypton sequences, and "If You Love These People" underscores Zod and Superman's titanic final battle. Then there's the aptly named "Flight", which starts low and keeps building before launching into a triumphant finish as Kal masters his ability to fly. Finally, consider Zimmer's take on a Superman theme, "What Are You Going To Do When You're Not Saving The World?". It may not replace the Williams classic in the hearts and minds of fans, but for this film, it's perfect.
Like many things from the 1978 film, its take on Krypton has become iconic. Yet, it spends minimal time on Krypton and among its people. Jor-El and the Council exile Zod, Ursa and Non to the Phantom Zone, and the Council refuses to heed Jor-El's warnings of imminent destruction. That destruction promptly occurs, and Kal-El is sent to safety just as the planet dies.
Man Of Steel's opening act follows a similar structure, but the audience learns a fair bit more about Krypton and its history. Among the revelations are that Krypton had established outposts throughout the galaxy before ultimately abandoning them, and that one of the many scout ships sent into the void wound up on prehistoric Earth. We also learn that Krypton began using artificial birth as a means of population control; children were no longer born in the traditional way, but rather grown, and specifically designed to fulfill a certain role in society. Kal-El's natural birth was in defiance of this protocol, and allowed him to choose his own path later in life.
The cause of Krypton's destruction differs as well. In the Reeve film, the red sun goes supernova, destroying the nearby planet. In Man Of Steel, Krypton's destruction is a result of its people's over-reliance on its natural resources. Making the planet's death an avoidable consequence of society's choices, rather than a matter of fate, arguably renders it more tragic, and compels Superman to fight that much harder for his adopted planet of Earth.
10 The Suit
Some things are simply a matter of taste. There's nothing wrong with the suit Christopher Reeve wears in the original film. It falls in line with the classic Superman suit from the comic books; a lighter shade of blue, yellow belt, red trunks, and a yellow 'S' on the back of the cape.
It should be noted, though, that the origin of the suit is never explained in the '78 film. A young Clark arrives at the Fortress of Solitude, and 12 years later he leaves, suddenly clad in the iconic suit.
In Man Of Steel, Clark is gifted his suit by Jor-El's AI presence in the Kryptonian scout ship. It bears a resemblance to the suits both Jor-El and Zod wear under their armor at other points in the film, so it's presumably similar in function (on Earth, of course, Kal-El needs no armor). It features darker shades of blue and red than the Reeve suit, and notably does away with the trunks and belt.
Both suits are right for their films' take on Superman, but the context Man Of Steel provides for it is appreciated.
9 Origin Story
Superman: The Movie takes the viewer (and the titular character) from Krypton to Smallville to Metropolis. It’s an origin story in nearly every sense, introducing the character as an infant and taking him all the way to manhood.
Yet there’s an intentional gap left in the story: the period of his training in the Fortress of Solitude. As noted earlier, Clark arrives at the Fortress as a teen, and then the movie skips ahead until he leaves for Metropolis as a man. It could be argued that within that gap lies the true story of Clark’s development into Superman, the confident hero that arrives fully formed to snatch a falling Lois Lane out of the air. It’s possible the story of that gap is simply Clark listening to a lot of lectures from Jor-El, and that wouldn’t have been very cinematic. Still, it’s a curious omission.
Man Of Steel also takes the character from infancy to manhood, but the journey makes a few more stops along the way. We see Clark at two different ages in Smallville, instead of just one, and in both cases he is struggling to control and understand his incredible powers. But we also see Clark as a man traveling the world, unsure of his purpose, working odd jobs and helping people when he can. This road is what leads him to the Arctic and the scout ship where he discovers his true heritage and purpose. His journey to heroism is more gradual in Man Of Steel, and thus, arguably, more rewarding.
8 Earth's Reaction
Christopher Reeve’s Superman is welcomed with open arms when he reveals himself on Earth. With the exception of Lex Luthor, everyone is pretty happy to have him.
Henry Cavill’s Superman can only dream of such a warm welcome. Making his presence felt on Earth in a much more cynical and distrustful time, he is immediately viewed with fear and suspicion. When Zod arrives with a demand that Earth’s Kryptonian refugee be turned over to him, the American government and army are only too happy to comply. When Kal-El turns himself in, all guns are trained on him and he is even placed in handcuffs.
The more idealistic among us might want to imagine the world lining up behind Superman and following his example, but Man Of Steel (and this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice) imagines a much less positive (and probably more likely) scenario; fear, mistrust and even hatred. As seen in the latter film, it’s only after Superman is gone that the world truly learns to appreciate him.
7 Youth In Smallville
Both movies show Clark growing up in Smallville, and both are effective in revealing his struggles. The Reeve film shows Clark as his high school football team’s water boy, unable to play in the game even though his natural abilities would have made him unstoppable. He does revel in his power though, notably when he races a train (and waves to an incredulous young Lois Lane).
In Man Of Steel we see young Clark at two different points in his childhood, and in both cases we see him struggle with his otherness. Grade school can be traumatizing enough for normal kids, let alone a young boy whose superhuman senses are bombarding him with sights and sounds. This scene, where Martha rushes to the school to comfort her son while the other kids mock him for his odd behavior, establishes the unbreakable bond Clark shares with his adopted mother, and justifies his rage when Zod threatens her later in the film.
Clark’s parents agree he has a higher purpose, but must reconcile that knowledge with their fear of seeing him harmed or mistreated should he ever reveal himself to the world. This parenting approach explains why Clark’s initial attempts at heroism are anonymous, and why he struggles with the decision to announce himself to the world as Superman.
Seeing more of Clark's childhood lends us a better understanding of his choices as a man.
6 Man Of Action
In Lex Luthor, the original movie offered a villain who simply could not stand against Superman on a physical level. A better comparison to the newer film is Superman 2, with its own version of Zod and his followers menacing Earth. But even that film's action and spectacle pales in comparison to Man Of Steel. That’s to be expected, however, with almost 40 years of advancements in special effects to work with.
Critics of the film have seized on that spectacle as a point of criticism. As Superman battles Zod and his minions throughout Smallville and Metropolis, the collateral damage left in their wake is considerable. The consternation over this destruction is a major plot point in Batman v Superman, with Bruce Wayne in particular refusing to trust this supposed alien savior.
The critical backlash against the film’s destruction (and Superman’s supposed indifference to it) has been considerable, but arguably misguided. To say that Henry Cavill’s Superman doesn’t care about the human toll of his battle against Zod is to misunderstand the character. For one thing, as noted earlier, by staving off Zod’s threat, he literally saves the entire human race. Battling Zod in Metropolis guaranteed collateral damage, but the site of the battle was hardly of Superman’s choosing. Zod explained his desire to cause Kal-El as much pain as he possibly could by killing as many of his adopted people as possible, and he did just that. Were it not for Superman’s efforts, the damage would have been much worse.
5 Lois Lane
There are no weak links in the cast of the 1978 film. As the Lois Lane to Christopher Reeve’s Superman, Margot Kidder shared great chemistry with her leading man and made for a convincingly daring reporter.
She was, however, a daring reporter who essentially melted in the presence of Superman, while being comically disinterested in his alter ego Clark Kent. The dynamic changes somewhat in Superman 2, but in the first film, she is so dismissive of Clark that it’s a wonder he develops a romantic interest in her at all.
The less said about that “can you read my mind?” inner monologue, the better.
In Man Of Steel, Amy Adams also presents Lois as a daring reporter. Like Kidder, her Lois also develops a romantic interest in Superman, but she discovers him before he takes on that mantle, and approaches him more as a story than a crush. The leg work she does in tracking down Clark Kent in his hometown of Smallville makes her believable as an investigative reporter who has won awards for her work. Her respect for his request for privacy, and her bravery in facing down Zod’s forces, also mark her as a formidable woman, and makes Superman’s eventual love for her feel earned.
Marlon Brando was one of the greatest actors of all time, which is precisely why the producers of Superman: The Movie were willing to pay so much for his services. For his role of Jor-El, Brando was paid a then-unheard of $3.7 million, as well as 11.75% of the box office. His credibility and gravitas was a huge boon to the film, and they made their investment back and then some. But for all his talent, Brando was also famously disinterested. When discussing the role, he suggested to the producers that since nobody knew what a Kryptonian looked like, they could place a briefcase or bagel on the set and he could simply provide its voice. Naturally, the filmmakers insisted he actually appear on screen, yet Brando refused to memorize his lines, instead reading off of cue cards as he filmed. It’s a testament to Brando’s talent (and the quality of the script) that his Jor-El still became an iconic triumph in spite of his lackadaisical approach.
In Man Of Steel, Jor-El is a younger man who takes a more direct role in saving his son from Krypton’s destruction, defying the council and battling Zod to the death. Russell Crowe was ideal for this more visceral take on the role, bringing passion and pathos to the doomed scientist.
“Come, son of Jor-El! Kneel before Zod!”
Terence Stamp is awesome as Zod. He plays the power-mad despot to the hilt, whether he’s screaming at Jor-El during his sentencing on Krypton, marveling at his newfound powers on Earth, or challenging Kal-El to test his might on the streets of Metropolis.
As great as he is, though, his Zod is a one-note villain. No context is ever provided for why Zod tried to take over Krypton, or why he felt he alone was fit to rule over the planet. When first we see him, he is awaiting sentencing, and his promise to Jor-El that his heir will one day kneel before him is as unhinged as it is prophetic. There's nothing wrong with a villain being evil for the sake of evil, but an onscreen evildoer can be even more effective if you give him a valid perspective.
Michael Shannon's Zod is a man who was born and bred for the sole purpose of protecting Krypton. He pursues that purpose ruthlessly, going so far as to attempt a coup to remove ineffective leaders from power. On Earth, he has no qualms about committing genocide of one race to ensure survival of his own. His methods may be horrific, but they all stem from his given purpose: to protect Krypton.
2 Clark Kent
Christopher Reeve embraced the concept of Superman as a dual role -- the heroic Kal-El and his bumbling cover identity, Clark Kent. As part of Superman's strategy to hide in plain sight, it's perfect; his Clark is so nerdy and clumsy that nobody would mistake him for the most powerful being on Earth. It's a characterization that arrives fully formed, however, and we never learn why or how it was chosen and developed.
In Man of Steel, Clark's journey is one of discovery, traveling the world and figuring out how he wants to use his gifts. He doesn't arrive at the Daily Planet until the end of the film, but we see enough to recognize his intent to present 'reporter Clark Kent' as a more confident, capable man.
The line between Clark Kent and Kal-El is less clearly defined in Man Of Steel. That might demand more of the audience's suspension of disbelief when they're wondering why nobody can connect the two, but it makes the time we spend with Clark more interesting.
1 Superman's Flight
Millions of dollars were spent and new filmmaking techniques were perfected in pursuit of making Christopher Reeve fly. At a time in cinema history when special effects were still quite primitive, the filmmakers accomplished the impossible. Gone were the days of George Reeves jumping on a trampoline and bouncing out the window. You can't take anything away from that accomplishment, but time marches on, and today those once revolutionary effects show every year of their age.
Man Of Steel had a profound advantage over its predecessor in making a man fly, and it wasn't wasted. But the flight of Cavill's Superman is also superior from a storytelling standpoint. Where Reeve simply flies away from the Fortress of Solitude, Cavill struggles to perfect his new skill, literally crashing down to the ground as he struggles with gravity.
When he finally masters the skill, paired with a Jor-El voice-over encouraging him to set a standard of hope for the human race and Hans Zimmer's heart pounding score, it is a truly inspiring moment.
Which Superman live-action origin story do you prefer? Let us know in the comments.