I was in Europe when "Man of Steel", the latest update to the Superman franchise was released. I'm a long time comic book fan of both the DC and Marvel superheroes, and after recovering from jet lag, I finally managed to catch it. As regular readers of my columns know, I have a thing about remakes, especially when it comes to comic book heroes. The biggest challenge these film makers have is to make those classic stories relevant, to find a new way to retell those iconic tales with each new generation; and without sacrificing the things about them that made them great. With the exception of the gratuitous, CGI destruction of Metropolis during the last 30 minutes, this is perhaps, one of the best of the Superman films or TV series made to date. Now I've seen every single film and TV series ever made about the Man of Steel, so I will share my thoughts about each of them, and why I think this latest version ranks among the best.
I'm afraid I'll have to leave the animated versions out for now; there's been a ton of them to feature Superman and Superboy. Most of them are horrible, very few have great plots and just as important, great animation. I'll revisit them in a later column, but for now here's a brief look at the best known film and TV versions.
Not much to say about these old serials with Ray Middleton and later Kirk Alyn, except these were the first; made during World War II and after, they followed the formula of the day; low budget effects, gangster bad guys, and cheesy animation. Alyn and Noel Neill (Lois Lane in the George Reeves Superman series), had a cameo appearance as the parents of a young Lois Lane in the 1978 Christopher Reeve film.
The George Reeves Era: 1951-1958
This was the most popular of the early Superman series and one of the best known. Good music and a decent cast usually overcame the silly plots, and Reeves was actually a very good actor, however, being typecast as Superman and pressures both internal and external proved too much and Reeves ended up taking his life in 1959.
The Christopher Reeve Era: 1978-1987
Clearly the all time favorite of all the actors to play Superman, Reeve brought the franchise back to life. Although a bit campy, an all-star cast featuring Marlon Brando, Susanna York, Gene Hackman, Jackie Cooper, Margot Kidder, Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine gave the Superman films the credibility and stature that would propel them to legendary status. After "Superman II", (which features a plot similar to the latest film and Terrence Stamp as General Zod), the following films were terrible; actors like Robert Vaughn, Richard Pryor and others couldn't overcome horrid plot lines. Helen Slater would play "Supergirl", alongside Peter O'Toole, Mia Farrow, Faye Dunaway and Brenda Vaccaro, but by then, the franchise had "jumped the shark" and the Christopher Reeve era came to an end.
With music and titles akin to the Christopher Reeve era, the TV series Superboy sought to cash in a franchise already on life support. Played first by James Haymes Newton and later by Gerard Christopher, Superboy suffered from all of the aforementioned ills of bad plots and a low budget. Lights years away from the 1950s in terms of animation, it never took off. The creators of Smallville surely learned from the mistakes made in that show and improved upon them, most notably by never having "Superboy" in costume, and by capturing the teenage angst made famous by Joss Wheadon's popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Lois and Clark, The New Adventures of Superman: 1993-1997
I'll confess, I never liked the Dean Cain/Terri Hatcher Lois and Clark series, despite its early rating success and popularity. Its focus was more on their romance; soapy and silly, much like the Wonder Woman series with Linda Carter, or the Greatest American Hero with William Katt and Connie Selleca. There was never any real drama; the villains were stupid, the plots even more so. Eventually America agreed and it was cancelled.
A killer opening theme song, really great music, the handsome Tom Welling, and a formula made famous by the aforementioned Buffy series, helped make Smallville the series Superboy never was. The series introduced Lex Luthor, Lana Lang, Jimmy Olson, and Lois Lane in a way never done before. A great ensemble cast kept the series alive, (Terrence Stamp was the voice of Jor-El, and even had a cameo by Christopher Reeve before his death), however it may have reached too far with crazy plot lines, and the under-budget introductions of Green Arrow, the Legion of Superheroes and others. The series made a point of never showing Clark Kent in the Superman togs until the very end, and followed the modern versions of the Superboy stories and graphic novels. Despite the flaws, Smallville may be remembered as the best of the Superman TV series.
Superman Returns: 2006
Brandon Routh did a decent job of reviving the franchise in Superman Returns; like the Spider-man reboots, the 2006 version takes all of the previous into account and tells a story that attempts to bridge the nearly 25 year gap between it and the Christopher Reeve films. On its own, a decent film, especially with Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, however Routh had to battle several hurdles; the love America has had for the late Reeve, and the modern popularity of Welling. Too much too overcome perhaps, and Routh eventually decided to eschew the opportunity to play the Man of Steel again.
Man of Steel: 2013
I'd watched Henry Cavill in the BBC's most recent take on Henry VIII in the "Tudors". Cavill was great as Henry's best friend, the 1st Duke of Suffolk, but I was shocked to see him cast as Superman. Cavill proved up to the task, and his British accent was gone, (I can't say the same for Russell Crowe and his Australian accent). Great cast with Lawrence Fishburne, Amy Adams, Christopher Meloni, Richard Schiff, a superb Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, my biggest complaint about the film was the over the top final 30 minutes of the film where Superman and General Zod basically destroy Metropolis, (couldn't they take the fight to the moon?).
Costner and Lane were indeed excellent as Jonathan and Martha Kent and really made the film for me. Their homespun, mid-western ethics and common sense are what made Clark into the "human" he would grow to become. Director Zack Snyder gets it and this is why the Man of Steel and the TV series Smallville succeeded with John Schneider and Annette O'Toole as the Kents. At least Glenn Ford's all too brief appearance as Jonathan Kent in the 1st Reeve film briefly touched on this all important part of the Superman story, unlike the other TV and film Kents which never really did.
Russell Crowe was OK as Jor-El, although it's still a little weird to see African-American actors playing characters that were traditionally white in the original comic books, like Fishburne as Perry White, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the Avengers or Idris Alba as Heimdahl in Thor, but if Hollywood didn't cast these great actors, we likely wouldn't see any black actors in these films at all. Perhaps our society is changing for the better, one role at a time.
Taking into account our penchant for CGI driven film making, and a story told more times and more ways than any other superhero franchise save Batman, Man of Steel is a fantastic retelling of the Superman story, one that will stand the test of time and still pays homage to all those who donned the red and blue cape and costume before.
E. "Doc" Smith is a musician and recording artist with Edgetone Records, who has worked with the likes of Brian Eno, Madonna, Warren Zevon, Mickey Hart and many others. He is also the Arts & Entertainment editor for Beyond Chron and inventor of the musical instrument, the Drummstick.