The last time I wrote about the original Superman: The Movie at length was back in 2013, back when Man of Steel came out and, unknowingly, kicked off this whole interconnected DC universe. (I say “unknowingly” because, at the time, there were still talks of tying Man of Steel into the Nolan Batman movies.) Actually, to tell the truth, I still like Man of Steel.
At the time, it seemed like a fresh take on a stale character – a movie the modern people of 2013 could appreciate. Of course, then the big controversy happened, when thousands of digitally created citizens of Metropolis perished while Superman and Zod battled over their heads, neither too concerned about their safety. Then, strangely, Superman snapped Zod’s neck. To be fair, Superman did this to stop Zod from killing innocent people (which, yes, Superman, didn’t seem to care too much about just moments before). But, now, with five years of retrospect, it’s a very jarring scene. At the time I gave Zack Snyder the benefit of the doubt about this new direction for Superman, but then in the next movie Jimmy Olson was shot in the head, execution style, so it was apparent this is just the way it was going to be: Yes, we had ourselves a gritty new Superman.
The inherent problem with Superman is he’s not always “for the time.” But that doesn’t mean he’s never for the time. But he probably wasn’t for 2013, but people tried to shoehorn him in anyway and, well, it didn’t quite work. Look, you can love this iteration of Superman – there are things I do like, including Henry Cavill in general – but it certainly hasn’t been a “success.”
Now that brings up back to Superman: The Movie, which has just been released on 4K and will get a run in theaters to celebrate its 40th anniversary. And a movie that, last time, I still loved, but also called “dated,” but now I want rescind at least some of that.
The threat in Man of Steel was the World Engine, which is fun to say, but in reality just means, “Earth is going to be destroyed.” But that’s not what Lex Luthor has in mind! (Also, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor is just the absolute best.) Lex is going to destroy part of California, but it’s all for money. The plot of Superman: The Movie is a real estate scheme. Once part of California falls into the Pacific Ocean, Lex will own the entire new coast of beachfront property. As a little kid, this was always kind of confusing and seemed a little lame, but now it’s genuinely refreshing. The world isn’t at stake, just California. And Lex isn’t doing this to kill people for no reason, he wants money and power and if people die so he can get that, so be it.
But the real draw here is Christopher Reeve’s Superman. This true north superhero who aspires to be a beacon for “good.” As superhero movies became more edgy and self-aware, to “do-goodism” of Superman went out of style. Audiences craved their heroes to have striking flaws and be incredibly damaged on the inside. (Yes, Batman lost two parents. But we kind of forget that Superman lost three parents, not to mention his entire home world.)
Would audiences show up for this kind of Superman so many years later? Well, in 2006, it was tried with a literal sequel to Superman II, Superman Returns. Unfortunately, the wrong lessons were learned. The takeaway was, “No, audiences don’t want this.” As opposed to, “Superman Returns is just a watered down version of the better movie from 1978 with a cast that’s not as interesting as the original cast.” It didn’t feel like something new audiences could claim their own. It was just an homage.