Super Strengths and X-Ray Revision: How ‘Superman’ Past Affects ‘Man Of Steel’

By  · Published on June 12th, 2013

Look, up on the marquee! It’s a sequel, it’s a remake…no, it’s another Superman reboot! A mere seven years after Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns leaped into theaters in a single bound, Zack Snyder now has his chance to reset the Superman dial and hopefully make the series more powerful than a locomotive.

However, if Man of Steel is to represent the future of the franchise, it must first train its superpowered eyesight upon its own filmic past. Whether revisiting these films on DVD, Blu-ray or Kryptonian crystal, the franchise’s successes and failures must be weighed in order to ensure the triumph of Man of Steel.

Here is what each movie has taught us, and how those lessons have refined our expectations.


The tagline of the 1978 original film is profoundly encapsulating not only of the significance of that first cinematic installment, but also the daunting task that lies before Man of Steel. There was a time when the thought of actually translating Superman’s power of flight to the big screen seemed an insurmountable challenge. However, Richard Donner’s effects team, which was massive, crafted an ingenious method of combining forward projection photography with modified zoom lenses that appeared to send Christopher Reeve soaring – making us believe that a man could fly. In 2013, we have far more cinematic spectacles to draw upon; monumental advancements in digital effects technology. The elemental wonder at seeing a man fly has been dulled in contemporary audiences. Man of Steel must find a way to bring the thrill back to the mechanics of Superman’s slipping loose the bounds of gravity, a thrill that doesn’t feel underwhelmingly manufactured.

Though largely accidental, 1978’s Superman is the only title to demonstrate what could be called franchise foresight. While not an absolute necessity by any stretch of the imagination, Marvel has demonstrated the enormous potential of approaching superhero cinema production as a game of chess; continually thinking several films ahead. This is what made their run up to The Avengers so successful.

The opening scene of the very first Superman movie is the trial of General Zod, a villain we would not see again until the sequel. Donner shot much of parts one and two simultaneously, with pieces of his cut becoming Superman II after he was fired and replaced by Richard Lester. Still, this moment represents the only point in the entirety of the Superman franchise in which we’ve gotten any inclination as to what the next movie would involve. With Warner Bros. still clamoring for, though largely spinning their wheels in futile stagnation towards, a Justice League movie, it should really take a page out of Marvel’s playbook and finally use Man of Steel as a way to at least bridge this sixth Superman film to the inevitable seventh.

Superman II

In many ways, Superman II is the most crucial tendon linking franchise past to, if not future, than certainly present. Man of Steel is the first film since Superman II to broach the subject of the sinister General Zod. In full deference to Terence Stamp and his iconic portrayal of the mad general, Michael Shannon can ill-afford to simply construct an imitation and ape the delivery of notable phrases like “kneel before Zod.”

His challenge is made more arduous given that there exist fewer adapted depictions of Zod than there are of, say, Lex Luthor. It’s similar to the task that faced Heath Ledger; taking on The Joker knowing that many would be expecting a rehash of Nicholson’s iteration. Furthermore, Zod’s arrival in Man of Steel cannot be treated with the same fish-out-of-water silliness as it was in Superman II. I do not blame the 1980 film for its handling of Zod and his band of Kryptonian separatists; the tendency was not yet toward severity in comic book cinema. However, as much as Man of Steel appears, from its marketing, to be borrowing from Superman II, it must give us the heavier, more consequence-rooted hero stories that have come to define DC properties in particular.

Superman III

One of the things the Superman franchise can’t seem to avoid is the constant re-exploration of Clark Kent’s past. The repeated delving into Kal-El’s Earth upbringing is a major reason why it feels as if we’ve had a dozen Superman origin stories to date. To this is added the complication of the existence of a certain popular, ten-season TV series on the subject of Superman’s youth and it’s easy to see why there were those who cringed at the sight of more Clark-in-Smallville content in Man of Steel’s trailer.

Heck, Superman III, which admittedly isn’t anyone’s favorite Superman movie, devotes the majority of its runtime to a reunion between Clark and his first love Lana Lang. It’s pretty clear that Man of Steel is going to again trod upon this Kansas ground, and therefore places itself in danger of seeming like white noise to audiences. Snyder’s film needs to use the time in Smallville sparingly; recognizing that we are more interested in progressing the character forward than once again getting tangled in his roots.

The one issue from the filmic universe that appears as though this return trip to Smallville may address is the minimization of the role of Clark’s adopted father Jonathan Kent. Again, this is a character featured prominently in the television series Smallville, but one who has had an incredibly brief amount of screentime across the five existing movies even with the series’ recurring glimpses into Clark’s past. Especially given that Zod is a foe who embodies the concept of paying for the sins of one’s father, Jonathan Kent, Superman’s other father, needs to have a more solid visible impact upon the fledgling superhero. Luckily, Kevin Costner’s appearances in the Man of Steel trailer have been a source of emotional resonance with fans, and it appears that he will indeed be a more significant presence in the movie.

Superman IV

Superman IV further illustrates a major problem within the Superman film franchise that first cropped up in Superman III. Despite a rich and fascinating rogues gallery of villains to call upon, we still haven’t reached a point in which this franchise knows how to operate outside the narrative confines of General Zod and Lex Luthor. In fact, the last time we saw General Zod in a film, he shared the screen in a limited capacity with Lex Luthor.

When it wasn’t Zod or Luthor on screen, the franchise has trotted out laughable antagonists, or at least they would be laughable were they not so idiotic, like a hacker played by Richard Pryor and Superman IV’s Nuclear Man. Man of Steel unfortunately appears to be continuing this trend of limited imagination in the villain department. That being a given, what Zack Snyder must do is deliver a Zod so removed from the one we’ve seen before that he feels like a completely different foe. Then, hopefully, some brainiac at Warner Brothers might figure out that the next Superman movie needs to explore another antagonistic avenue heretofore unseen on the big screen.

Superman Returns

Watching Superman Returns, and then simply observing the names in the credits for Man of Steel, highlights an unfortunate problem with the contemporary Superman films: lack of franchise stability. Once upon a time we had the late, great Christopher Reeve donning the cape for four movies; for better or worse. He was definitively our big screen Superman. Seven years ago, it seemed the studio was building a rebooted franchise around Brandon Routh, but only managed to keep him for one film. So the very fact that you have a new set of broad shoulders under the red cape gives the impression of Man of Steel being yet another reboot. It’s hard to take this series seriously if we can’t even assure ourselves that we won’t have to acquaint ourselves with a new Kal-El with each new movie. This may also be the reason the same villains keep being utilized again and again. Therefore, DC/WB, if you like what Henry Cavill does for you in Man of Steel, for the love of Krypto the Superdog, sign him for a multi-picture deal and stabilize this franchise.

Incidentally, Superman Returns is the only movie in the franchise to in any way acknowledge the rest of the DC universe, albeit it a completely thrown-away manner. However, the mere utterance of “reports are coming in from Gotham” by a reporter on a background television is more inter-connectivity than we’ve experienced from this series in the past. Again, this is where Warners and DC need to consider borrowing from the Marvel Studios playbook. There is no reason to compartmentalize all of the DC properties and try and convince audiences they don’t exist in the same universe, especially if Warner Bros. is serious about that whole Justice League movie. The barriers between the existing film worlds need to come crashing down. That’s not to say Batman needs to make an appearance in Man of Steel, but he at least needs to enjoy a shout-out at some point.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.