Superman on the Big Screen: Part 4 - A Fresh Start

To celebrate the bravery of a new creative team, and a new actor, in the upcoming Man of Steel, we will explore all of the Superman films leading up to its release, and see if Henry Cavill can become Kalel of Krypton for a new generation.


When Superman Returns failed to meet expectations at the box office and Bryan Singer’s attentions shifted to the Tom Cruise led Valkyrie, Warner Bros. started thinking reboot. Batman and, more recently, the Hulk had shown audiences were receptive to another interpretation in fairly short order, and in early 2008 they began taking pitches in earnest to restart the Superman franchise once again.

There was also a legal reason: a court ruling came down in 2009 in the favour of Superman creator Jerry Siegel’s estate. They were awarded the rights to the origin of the character, and while Warners were found not to be liable for any previous monies made from the other movies, they would be found liable for lost revenues if a new Superman movie didn’t enter production no later than 2011.

Zack Snyder - Man of SteelCompletely apart from the wheels and cogs moving throughout the studio, Batman collaborators Chris Nolan and David Goyer had a conversation about the Man of Steel over a meal that led to Superman’s new future. Goyer pitched that he would approach the world’s reaction to Superman as real, with all the paranoia and mistrust that would follow the revelation of an extra-terrestrial among us. Nolan liked the idea so much he took it to the studio. With his Batman trilogy netting close to 3 billion at the box office, the reigns of Kal-El’s next story were instantly handed to him, and a new version of Superman was on its way.

Zach Snyder, who had effectively established himself as an impressive visualist with such films as 300, Sucker Punch and Watchmen, was chosen to direct in late 2010, after Guillermo Del Toro, Ben Affleck, Tony Scott, and many others were considered or offered the job. Goyer would write the film, and Nolan would produce.

With a new direction, it came as no surprise the studio and new creative team wanted to go with a new performer to play Superman—a fresh take needs a fresh face. An actor who had been linked to the role twice before, and was once dubbed ‘the unluckiest man in Hollywood’ would once again pop up the radar. British actor Henry Cavill, an actor now in his late twenties, had so impressed filmmakers before that he had, in fact, been cast as Superman in a previously unsuccessful incarnation of Superman and came very close to playing James Bond in Casino Royale. Always the near miss for tent pole leads, Cavill had made his way impressively into television, gaining praise especially for his turn in The Tudors. After so many near misses, it was announced in January 2011 that the Brit would be finally have his chance to play Superman, with Snyder calling him ‘the perfect choice’.

Amy Adams, also a front runner for the role of Lois Lane in previous incarnations, would also finally receive her turn; Lawrence Fishburne became the first African American to play Perry White; and a cast of heavy hitters like Russel Crowe, Kevin Costner, and Diane Lane were assembled to play Jor-El and the Kents respectively. There would be no Jimmy Olsen, and stepping into the formidable shoes of General Zod would be Michael Shannon.

With the edict to, in essence, ground the character as much as humanly possible in a modern 21st century world, the story quickly took shape. Kal-El of Krypton is still sent to Earth by his parents as their planet faces annihilation. Raised by the Kents, the child, now named Clark Kent, is taught to hide his super human abilities, for fear of the consequences, should the world learn of his existence. As he grows into manhood, Clark becomes something of an aimless wanderer, moving throughout the world, taking odd jobs—a true outsider. But everywhere he goes, as in his childhood, he sees those that need the help only he can offer, and he can’t help himself. His lapses in using his abilities have made him something of an urban legend: one that has caught the attention of one Lois Lane. When a long buried Kryptonian ship is found in the ice, and triggers a signal that lures a ruthless Kryptonian despot, Zod, to Earth, Kal-El discovers his alien heritage and finally finds purpose in his adopted world, resulting in the birth of Superman.

Man of Steel LogoThis film jettisons many things from both the comics and the movies we’ve seen before. I think the establishing of a less accepting world to the Man of Steel is an inspired direction to take it, and provides oodles of opportunity for conflict in the future for the character. What the film offers in spades is gravitas, loads and loads; it takes the subject very, very seriously, and that’s where something is missing (for now). Superman is a difficult character to navigate; he’s the ultimate boy scout, benevolent to a fault with his unflinching morals and heightened capabilities. With goodness literally oozing from his pores and it would be easy to make him pious, but it’s those virtues that give him warmth, and that’s what’s missing from this story. As a detached being, an outsider, Cavill’s incarnation has yet to display the affection and love Superman has for the human race. There are all too brief snippets, usually in flashback, of the Kents’ influence on him, and while it’s certainly implied, there is not time afforded his inherent warmth between gargantuan set pieces and the carnage that unfurls. What comes across the most in this version is how utterly powerful he is, and how hard he finds it to supress it in a world he fears will never accept him. This is an interesting jumping off point, but the character’s evolution to the Superman we know and love is yet to be seen, even after two and a half hours of being with him.

One wonders, considered all the accusations of Superman Returns’ lack of action, if this type of pacing wasn’t a knee jerk reaction to go in a polar opposite direction. A balance that Superman requires is yet to be met, but there is promise within this new narrative that may come to bear impressive fruit in further instalments.

And there will be further instalments; Man of Steel has gone on to earn over 600 million, far out-grossing its immediate predecessor, and well on the way to being the most successful Superman movie to date. Its critical reception is middle of the road at best right now, but it has certainly succeeded where others have not. Right or wrong, Man of Steel found its audience, and that, in this day and age, is the only criteria a studio will look at to continue their approach.

Henry Cavill is a fine choice for the new Superman; he is handsome, chiselled, muscular, and has a strong authoritative voice. From his interviews, he seems a very warm-hearted and humble man: one can only hope in the next of his Superman movies that a little of this is allowed to show in his Kal-El incarnation. If they can balance the spectacle with more emotion what a franchise this could become.

Check out part 1 of the Superman series - Superman on the Big Screen Part 1: The Donner Era

Check out part 2 of the Superman series - Superman on the Big Screen Part 2: The Lester Era

Check out part 3 of the Superman series - Superman on the Big Screen Part 3: The Misfires