The Man of Tomorrow vs The Man of Yesterday: Comparing Superman and Man of Steel
(Originally written in Jan 2017)
One of the biggest genres in cinema today is undoubtedly the superhero blockbuster. According to Box Office Mojo, in the last four years five superhero films became among the top-grossing films of all time (The Avengers (2012) at number five; at seven Avengers: Age of Ultron (2014); at 10 Iron Man 3 (2013); 12 Captain America: Civil War (2016); and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) at 17), and new releases regularly break opening weekend or box office records. The genre’s success shows no signs of dwindling, with sixteen more films scheduled from Marvel and DC through 2020, and even more rumoured or being discussed.
The superhero film is not a recent development, having existed in some form since serials of the 1930s, but the idea of the modern superhero blockbuster can be said to have started with Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), being the first big budget, mainstream release of a superhero film. However, since then over 60 superhero films have been produced, and naturally the genre has changed in numerous ways. This is evident through comparison of Donner’s Superman and the modern retelling of Superman’s origin, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) - as arguably the epitome of the superhero, the character of Superman embodies many tropes of the genre, and the difference in their representation across the two films can suggest how the genre has evolved in the 35 years between the two.
One key feature that differs between the two films is their treatment of Superman, played by Christopher Reeve in Superman and Henry Cavill in Man of Steel, both within the narrative and through the constructed representation. The characterisation of Superman varies dramatically despite the shared source material. In Donner’s Superman, the focus of the film is upon Earth and humanity, with the only link to Superman’s alien background being his father, Marlon Brando’s Jor-El who appears mainly within the first act, and the antagonist of the film is the egotistical maniac Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). Thusly, there is not much conflict within Superman during the film, allowing the film to focus solely on his humanity and double life as Clark Kent. However, this also means that the character has less development and stays relatively static across the narrative.
However, in Man of Steel, the human/alien duality is the focus, with the film’s antagonist being Michael Shannon’s General Zod, a survivor of Krypton like Superman who wants to destroy Earth in order to rebuild their destroyed homeworld. The narrative is intercut with flashbacks of Superman’s earlier life, learning of his alien heritage, and discovering his powers and how to control them. This is a trend of modern superhero films, since when discussing teenage characters in comic book films, Flanagan (2007, p. 139) wrote “even recent comic-inspired narratives that do not explicitly feature teen characters are recognisably preoccupied with issues of identity, belonging and ascension to the symbolic order.” This is true for Man of Steel, which has a very introspective view into Superman as he must choose between his adoptive Earth or his native Krypton, and as such the character is much less defined than he was in Superman. However, this allows the character to go on a much greater narrative arc than in Superman, with Superman only taking on the secret identity of journalist Clark Kent in the closing moments of the film, which also allows more exploration of the character in subsequent installations of the franchise, an important aspect of modern superhero films.
This idea of deconstructing a superhero and providing introspective, self-aware examinations of their motivations is prevalent amongst modern films of the genre, with one key example being Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012) which was lauded for being a deep, realistic look into the character of Batman and why he became the vigilante superhero. Burke (2015, p. 106-115) argues that this could be because, as more and more superhero films are produced, the genre eventually reaches a stage where the films must become more "revisionist or self-aware" (2015, p. 108) to stand out and do something new in a crowded genre, whereas films of the past had a lot more freedom since they were defining a new genre.
Another key difference is how the character is viewed within the narrative. Donner’s Superman is looked upon as almost infallible, with nearly every character believing in and looking up to him, especially Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, who becomes fascinated with Superman as soon as she meets him. The only character within the film who expresses any sort of negative sentiment towards Superman is Lex Luthor, and even then, his hatred of Superman feels forced and unexplained within the narrative. Even the supporting antagonists admire Superman, with Valerie Perrine’s Ms Teschmacher eventually saving Superman from Luthor’s trap and kissing him. This could reflect attitudes of the time period of the late 70s, as a period of social advancement and acceptance following the civil rights movement of the 60s.
This starkly contrasts other characters’ reception of Superman in Man of Steel, wherein Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is the only person who trusts Superman for the majority of the film, with the military and the press being distrusting of Superman, with the US Army even arresting him. This sentiment is summed up by Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White when discussing Lois writing an article on Superman, when he says “can you imagine how people on this planet would react if they knew there was someone like this out there?”
Even though most of the characters do end up trusting him by the film’s resolution, the fact he is met with such mistrust and suspicion is typical of modern superhero films, where superheroes are often at odds with authority, such as in The Dark Knight (2008) where Batman is branded an outlaw by the police, or in Captain America: Civil War wherein the film’s main conflict is the Avengers resisting UN sanctions being imposed upon them, and by the climax the heroes are actually imprisoned as punishment for their actions. This could be due to how the world has changed since earlier films, with the heightened security across the world in the aftermath of 9/11, and as a realistic representation of how our world would respond to superpowered individuals.
Additionally, the villains of the films suggest changes within the genre. Superman’s antagonist is Hackman’s Luthor, a camp, gaudily dressed, egomaniacal businessman flanked by the bumbling Otis (Ned Beatty) and ditzy Ms Teschmacher, whose grand plan involves making money through real estate by sinking America’s western seaboard. Despite his grand plan, he comes across as more of a minor annoyance than Superman’s arch-nemesis, and Luthor’s eventual defeat comes about from Superman reversing time to undo his plan completely, and Luthor is dropped off at a prison by Superman alongside Otis. The fact that Luthor’s plan is stopped completely and he is neatly sent away to jail could represent the ideals of a simpler time, when all villains were stopped with little to no lasting damage.
Man of Steel features arguably the direct opposite resolution. Shannon’s Zod is a hugely menacing figure, donning an almost-regal suit of armour to cut an imposing figure as a titan of destruction, who can match Superman blow for blow in the film’s climactic fight scene. Superman only defeats Zod when he is forced to kill him to save civilians, morally compromising the superhero ideal. Additionally, Zod’s plan threatens the destruction of the entire planet, and very nearly succeeds, but still manages to level a large area of the city of Metropolis. Even when Zod is defeated, the fact that he caused so much damage and killed so many stands starkly opposite to Superman’s peaceful ending.
Superman’s killing of Zod is representative of a trend in the modern genre, where the heroes must compromise their morals in order to defeat the villains. Gray and Kaklamanidou (2011, p.8) note this as “a crucial moment of indistinguishability which coincides with the superhero and where the constitutive distinction between Good and Evil can no longer be drawn”. This is evident in numerous recent superhero media, such as Civil War where the villainous Zemo’s machinations succeed in initiating a conflict between the Avengers, or in Arrow (2012-) where the titular vigilante is repeatedly forced to break his no killing code to save the day. Additionally, the large scale destruction featured in Man of Steel is reminiscent of similar scenes in recent films such as The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, which both feature massive damage and loss of life to civilian non-combatants. Nilges argues that this happens for a reason in post 9/11 cinema, however, saying “what is more striking than the terrible beauty of the disaster itself, however, is the beautiful representation of life after the destruction.” (2004, p. 24). Both ideas suggest that such destruction and its effects on the heroes is important, since it gives more dramatic weight to them surviving and keeping fighting.
The role of women within the two films also demonstrates development within the genre. Within Superman, the only major female characters are journalist Lois Lane, Luthor’s henchwoman Ms Teschmacher and Superman’s adoptive mother, Phyllis Thaxter’s Martha Kent, who doesn’t reappear after the film’s first act. Despite being almost as well known as Superman, Lois is given very little to do in the film beyond one scene where she and Superman fly around the world, since after that she leaves to pursue a story which leads her into the danger of Luthor’s plot. This leaves her as a damsel in distress for Superman to try and eventually fail to save as perishes in the catastrophe, and her death is the motivation for Superman to choose to use his powers to reverse time to save her, unbeknownst to her after she returns to life. However, the fact that the character had no agency in her death and was used as a plot device to spur Superman into action is reminiscent of a problematic trope in comics, as noted by Simone (2000), wherein female characters would often be used simply to motivate male characters or cause them pain. This was most prevalent during comics of the 70s, 80s and 90s, but less so in recent years. Interestingly, the secondary antagonist of Ms Teschmacher arguably plays the largest role of all the female characters, being the one who enables Luthor’s scheme, then later frees Superman, allowing him to stop Luthor. However, beyond those instances she is still, like Lois, largely inconsequential, existing mainly for Luthor to shout at for humour or riff dialogue off. However, Superman exists as a product of its time, and you can't directly compare the gender representation of a film made in the 70's to a film made in the 2010's, but it's an interesting change to study.
Contrastingly, female characters play a much larger role in Man of Steel, with Lois and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) appearing again, joined by Zod’s right-hand woman, Faora-Ul (Antje Trau). Lois plays a much larger role, being the first person to find and track down Superman, and later playing a crucial part in stopping Zod. Although she still needs to be saved by Superman on multiple occasions, she in turn saves him from Zod’s capture, thus showing she has a lot more independence and narrative importance than her 1978 predecessor. Comparably, although Martha Kent plays a similar role in the sequences about juvenile Superman, she continues to appear throughout the film whenever Superman needs guidance, and acts as a link to his innocence and humanity, evidenced by the soft instrumental music that plays whenever she appears. She is a strong character, standing up to Zod when he confronts her, however she also does need saving by Superman. Arguably the strongest female character in the film is Faora, the cold and menacing Kryptonian lieutenant. She is shown to be able to go against Superman, when she and fellow Kryptonian Nam-Ek manage to fight Superman to a standstill, and she later comes the closest to completing Zod’s plan, only to be narrowly stopped.
These three characters show how the role of female characters has developed in the modern genre, showing that women have much more important roles, but at the same time are still subservient to the leading male characters, such as in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where Scarlett Johansson’s founding Avenger Black Widow needs rescuing by her male teammates, or in 2016’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, where Wonder Woman played a large role and helped defeat the villain, only to have the focus be on the titular duo. However, this aspect of the genre is still developing, with the first modern female-led superhero film, Wonder Woman (2017), set to be released this summer, and with Marvel’s Captain Marvel to follow in 2019. This should continue the development of female characters to eventually be on equal standing with their male counterparts.
Examining Superman and Man of Steel reveals how much has changed within the superhero genre, from the role of women, the nuanced discussions of morality and complex villains to further challenge the heroes. These changes can be seen to have occurred in order to keep the genre relevant for modern audiences and be able to tell new stories and break ground within an existing genre framework. However, as the genre evolves to attract young audiences and tell stories about complex morality and the nature of humans and superhumans, the original still remains for an enjoyable story of good triumphing over evil to inspire people to believe that a man could fly.
BURKE, L., 2015. The comic book film adaptation: Exploring modern Hollywood’s leading genre. United States: University Press of Mississippi
FLANAGAN M. 2007. Teen Trajectories in Spider-Man and Ghost World. In: GORDON, I., M. JANCOVICH and M. MCALLISTER eds., 2007. Film and comic books. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, p. 137-159
GRAY II, R.J. and KAKLAMANIDOU B., 2011. The 21st century superhero: Essays on gender, genre and globalization in film. United States: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, p.1-13
IMDB, BOX OFFICE MOJO, 2016. All time worldwide box office grosses [viewed 1 January 2017]. Available from: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/
NILGES, M. 2010. The Aesthetics of Destruction: Contemporary US Cinema and TV Culture. In: BIRKENSTEIN, J., K. RANDELL and A. FROULA eds., 2010. Reframing 9/11: Film, popular culture and the ‘war on terror’. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, p. 23-34
SIMONE, G., 2000. Women in refrigerators [viewed 11 January 2017]. Available from: http://www.lby3.com/wir/
Arrow, 2012- [Television]. USA: The CW
Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015 [Film]. Directed by Joss WHEDON. USA: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Batman Begins, 2005 [Film]. Directed by Christopher NOLAN. USA: Warner Bros.
Captain America: Civil War, 2016 [Film]. Directed by Anthony RUSSO and Joe RUSSO. USA: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2014 [Film]. Directed by Anthony RUSSO and Joe RUSSO. USA: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Iron Man 3, 2013 [Film]. Directed by Shane BLACK. USA: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Man of Steel, 2013 [Film]. Directed by Zack SNYDER. USA: Warner Bros.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016 [Film]. Directed by Zack SNYDER. USA: Warner Bros.
Superman, 1978 [Film]. Directed by Richard DONNER. USA: Warner Bros.
The Avengers, 2012 [Film]. Directed by Joss WHEDON. USA: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
The Dark Knight, 2008 [Film]. Directed by Christopher NOLAN. USA: Warner Bros.
The Dark Knight Rises, 2012 [Film]. Directed by Christopher NOLAN. USA: Warner Bros.