Why We Still Want to Believe in a Man Who Can Fly

Zack Snyder's reboot lets down all the little kids who grew on up on Christopher Reeve's Superman.

This article is from the archive of our partner .
A not-insignificant portion of my childhood was spent running around my family's home with a pillowcase tied around my neck like a cape. At some point, I would usually stretch out between the end of the couch and a nearby armchair, because ... duh, that's how you fix a broken railroad bridge.

I knew this, of course, because I learned it watching Superman: The Movie. (Remember when studios actually had to put that qualifier on the poster?) This was probably the first movie that I was ever able to call my "favorite," because it was really the first movie that made me aware of what movies are and what they could be. The famous tagline was "You will believe a man can fly," and while I never tried to jump off my parents' roof, I swear I got the front end of the family Chevy an inch or two off the driveway a couple of times.

(Note: While generally spoiler-free, this piece does mention certain elements of Man of Steel you may not want to hear about yet. Normal warnings apply.)

Then Superman II came out and are you kidding me? Flying and heat vision and kicking things ... times three! Then he loses his powers, then he gets them back, and we all learned who E.G. Marshall was. Amazing.

There was some boring romance stuff in the middle, but when Superman asked General Zod to "step outside." Hi-larious. (See, it's funny because how would you step outside from the 40th floor? Get it?) Even Superman III has it moments, if only for the unintentional comedy of the "Drunk Superman" scenes. The Quest For Peace is best not discussed, but I mean, I would even sit through Somewhere In Time on the off chance Christopher Reeve might throw a bus at someone.

So great was my affection for the original epic that I was probably one of the only people in America who actually enjoyed Superman Returns. I appreciated Bryan Singer's 2006 reboot, because it managed to be both a sequel and remake, extending the original story by honoring the source of its power. Like its inspiration, Singer's attempt was highly flawed (the Superboy stuff was just wrong), but it had the same spirit and captured a little bit of the wonder of the original. A little bit serious, a little bit silly, and not too much mushy stuff with Lois. He's got a plane that's falling out of the sky to catch.

I was upset there wasn't a second, but understood why Singer didn't get another chance. When I found out Zack Snyder was getting the helm of the contractually obligated reboot, however, I despaired. I know Warner Bros. thinks "from the director of 300 and Watchmen" is supposed to be a selling point, but nothing about the plans for Man of Steel encouraged me. Another unknown lead actor? A darker suit to match the darker hero? General Zod as the fallback villain? For someone with so much invested in the Superman of the '70s and '80s, these were all bad signs.

After seeing the film this week, I was not disappointed — which is to say, it was incredibly disappointing. Illogical, poorly staged, and thematically confused, the movie fails to even stick with the few pointless rules it bothers to establish for itself. (Confidential to ZS: When the sun is shining on one side of the Earth, it's usually dark on the other side.) The main conflict pits two equally-matched superbeings of almost limitless power against each and all they can think to do is re-enact the second Matrix movie. Less punching, more kneeling before Zod, please.

I'm not even going to get into the fact that Terrance Stamp's Zod should be blasted in to space Kal-El-style should our culture ever need saving, and not-trifled with by second-rate remakes. Michael Shannon's goatee was perfectly fine, but let's be reasonable here. Would you re-make Gone With The Wind without Clark Gable? Or Star Trek II without Ricardo Montalban? Don't answer that.

(Actually, they didn't remake Gone with The Wind, but do you remember the made for TV-sequel in 1990s, where they replaced Clark Gable with Timothy Dalton? You probably don't, but just imagine how that might play out. Marlon Brando got $19 million to not memorize lines for 11 minutes of screen time, but would you really have traded that for Russell Crowe in a Gundam suit? Sheesh, Kevin Costner for Glenn Ford? Anyone on Earth for Ned Beatty?)

For more on what went wrong,  read my colleague Richard Lawson's review, which I mostly agree with except for one key point: I found the score monotonous and overbearing and spent the two-plus hours praying for just a few bars of John Williams' iconic horns. Would that have been too much to ask from a movie where a character who is supposed to be a scientist actually says the line, "If these readings are correct..."?

It was at the end of the movie, when we see a young Clark Kent running around the yard with a towel around his neck like a cape, that I finally realized what Man of Steel's worst crime was. First of all, in a world without a Superman, where would he get the inspiration to wear a cape? Second of all, in a world with this Superman, what kid would even be inspired to put on a cape the way I did all those years ago? What kid today is going to watch this movie and not fall asleep? It's dark and brooding and dreadfully dull. Henry Cavill's abs may actually be made of steel, but I don't think that will make the young ones ask for a little "Kryptonite Codex Sit-Up Machine" in their stocking this Christmas.

As a kid, I admit that I was sorta bored by the first half of Richard Donner's Superman, with its swaying wheat fields and dead fathers. Get to the flying and saving stuff. As a adult, I like that part the best. (OK, the Jesus stuff is a little on the nose, but it went over my head the first dozen viewings or so. Sue me.) But the kid in me still enjoys the rescuing and it remains one of the stalwarts of my DVD collection. It never lets me down.

This new version is all "first half Superman," but with clumsier dialogue and worse green screens. As Richard surmises, that's Christopher Nolan's fault, because his mistake was thinking that Batman and Superman can be handled the same way. Not true. Batman works best as psychodrama. Superman works best when he's bantering with jewel thieves and lifting schools buses. (He does that here too, but this time it plays out as a personal trauma, not a triumph of patriotism.) "Supes" is not there to brood, he's there to perform feats of wonder that give kids with pillowcases around their necks something to emulate.

The problem is that in Snyder's gloomy and confusing world, there are no great feats to even imitate. It's just brawling and smashing and shaky cameras and a million little September 11 callbacks that eventually plod their way toward the only genuinely surprising and emotional moment in the whole darn thing. Sadly, it's a moment that the film does not earn and then immediately squanders, because the screenwriter had to leave to work on the sequel.

There is no question that the Christopher Reeve movies are corny, but here's the thing ... so is Superman. He wears a cape. He doesn't lie. He's from Kansas. His foolproof "disguise" is a pair of glasses. If the original movies were occasionally ham-fisted and way too jokey, at least they were trying to have a good time. (And Gene Hackman was legitimately hilarious as Lex Luthor.) Even when they were serious, they were also fun.

There is nothing fun about Man of Steel. Fortunately, I have my DVDs with the real music and the real General Zod and the real Brando reading his lines off a child's diaper. More than 30 years after they came out, a good phone booth joke beats a hundred crumbling buildings every time.

Top photo by Tony Alter via Flickr.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.