Superman Movies Matter More Than the Comics: A Film-by-Film Breakdown

Superman Movies Matter More Than the Comics: A Film-by-Film Breakdown
Man of Steel looks like it will make the hardcore fans happy.

Superman is an idea.

OK, fine. Technically he’s an intellectual property — a set of data points slammed together by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the 1930s, sold for $130 to National Allied Publications (later DC Comics/TimeWarner), and subsequently transformed into a nugget of multivariously exploitable content that has netted entertainment conglomerates trillions of dollars via cross-platform revenue-stream transmedia synergy or whatever.

Yet the bond that nerds like me feel to our internalized idea of Superman is potent and abiding. That’s the nature of early onset passions: Each new comic mainlined a fresh bolus of super-wonder (Lori Lemaris! Luma Lynai! Jewel kryptonite! Beppo the Super-Monkey!) into our childhoods; we pored over and debated his adventures like so many Talmudic scholars in Toughskins.

But that’s us.

Your idea of Superman — by which I mean the conception of him that floats in the cultural ether — is different. It’s simpler, cleaner. And it was shaped, overwhelmingly, by the movies.

Put it this way: There’s a reason my sweet, silver-haired, 79-year-old Aunt Fay asked me, upon hearing I was writing a cultural history of Superman, if my book would have General Zod in it. And that reason had nothing to do with the minor-league 1960s comic book villain, who made a handful of appearances before getting eclipsed by Jax-Ur, another Kryptonian criminal with a higher Q rating. It had everything to do with Terence Stamp in leather thigh-high boots.

It’s the movies that define Superman in the public mind, while the comics merely serve up internecine backstory and endless reboots (thus ensuring that the DC Universe remains a rigidly Newtonian one, eternally defaulting to factory presets) for a small, ever-aging, ever-shrinking readership.

Which is why, like the films that have preceded it, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel has the potential to shape an entire new generation’s perception of the character — for better or (see: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) for really, really, oh my God you guys, worse.

Superman: The Movie (1978)

What it’s about: Your basic bildungsroman of steel, divided into three tonally distinct acts: origin story (John Ford epic); first adventures (screwball comedy); climactic confrontation (’70s disaster film).

Best bit: The interview scene between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, which points up the power of Reeve’s performance. His Superman is centered and calm, while Kidder’s Lois is the ’70s incarnate — a frayed nerve.

Worst bit: The words that greet the Man of Steel upon his first appearance are not the canonically appropriate “Look, up in the sky!” but rather, “Say, Jim! That’s a bad out-FIT!” They are spoken by a pimp who makes Huggy Bear look like Jim Gaffigan.

Contribution to the zeitgeist: Christopher Reeve = Superman. Also the notion that an oft-dismissed piece of junk culture intended for children could be taken (semi-)seriously, dressed up and turned into a blockbuster.

Super-power the filmmakers pull out of their asses: The whole spin-the-Earth backward thing. Understand, the Superman of the comics broke the time barrier on the regular. But the movie’s screenwriters employed it as a cheap cop-out, engendering much dismay and debate among the type of people who care overmuch about such things. (See Superman: The Unauthorized Biography for much, much more.)

Superman II (1980)

What it’s about: Just as a trio of Kryptonian super-villains in fetish gear arrive on Earth, the Man of Steel gives up his powers to get his super-freak on with Lois. Basically: You will believe a man can fuck.

Best bits: Stamp’s vain and juicily imperious General Zod. Sarah Douglas’ icy, proto-punk Ursa. Thigh-high boots.

Worst bits: Director Richard Lester, who took over for Richard Donner, evinces a weakness for weak slapstick, as when the villains use super-breath on the Metropolis populace, causing toupees to fly off heads, roller skaters to skate backward, ice cream scoops to fly hilariously from cones, etc.

Contribution to the zeitgeist: “Kneel before Zod!”

Super-power the filmmakers pull out of their asses: White, zappy, entirely non-canonical rays erupt from the tips of Zod and company’s fingers. Superman throws a giant, S-shaped Fruit Roll-Up at various and sundry.

Superman III (1983)

What it’s about: Richard Pryor is a computer programmer who invents synthetic kryptonite that (eventually) splits the Man of Steel into an evil Superman and a good Clark Kent.

Best bits: The junkyard fight between the two super-selves still holds up.

Worst bits: “Richard Pryor is a computer programmer.”

Contribution to the zeitgeist: Grievously wounded the Superman film franchise, and made everything about the Man of Steel seem small, low-rent and risible.

Super-power the filmmakers pull out of their asses: The whole splitting-in-two thing actually bears a long comics provenance. So, shockingly: none.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

What it’s about: Superman decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons, just as Lex Luthor creates an evil super-powered being who sports a blond mullet and a gold lamé codpiece.

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