Man of Steel helmer Zack Snyder recently commented on the comparisons viewers make between the Superman character of his 2013 Man of Steel movie and the 70s/80s Superman movies starring the late, great Christopher Reeve.
“The thing I was surprised about in response to Superman”, he admitted, “was how everyone clings to the Christopher Reeve version of Superman, you know? How tightly they cling to those ideas, not really the comic book version but more the movie version”.
Can we argue that given they are based on the same character, its a comparison that was always going to happen?
The frustration that is borne from this however, is that Man of Steel is not a remake, and both movies are independently based on source material – the character of Superman from his DC Comic titles. As a comic fan I share Snyder’s frustrations, and the fact that he will likely always be hounded by this comparison, but as a movie fan, I also kinda get it.
The fact of the Matter is that even in this day and age of constant Superhero television shows and movies (with several being released each year for the last few years), few of the viewers have actually read the source materials. This is not a criticism, it just means that many of the mainstream audience are only reliant on the versions they have seen in certain media. In this way it is totally valid that the audience are going to compare it to the other versions that they know, and of the mainstream audience this is likely Christopher Reeve over the source material.
Christopher Nolan doesn’t seem to have suffered in the same way as Snyder over his portrayal of Batman in his Dark Knight trilogy as compared to the Burton/Schumacher movies of the 80/90s for examples. I believe this is because Batman is a whole different story. Although the versions of Batman and Superman have had roughly the same number of actors playing them over time (not included animated shows and films) Batman comes across as a more transitional role than Superman.
I think there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, more recent portrayals of Batman have made clear that the role is iconic over the actor – case in point is the fact that three actors play Batman in the same film series (Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney).
Secondly, the opposite is true of Superman – that the actor became iconic over the role. This iconic status has been propagated and played on over time, partly because our child/teen nostalgia means we are happy for that to happen.
With his excellent acting making it truly a pleasure to see him switch between the very different and definitively two separate identities of Clark Kent and Superman, it is easy to see why Christopher Reeve is iconic in the role.
The movies themselves fit well with the day and age in which they were made and our love for Chris in the role helped us see past the terribleness of Superman IV (and to a lesser degree Superman III). With their memorable score and casts the films became the official line in Superman – to the point where we find the music and cast pulled into Smallville (I cried when Chris Reeve was in Smallville… don’t judge me!).
Moreover, when Bryan Singer made Superman Returns in 2006 it was set up to be a direct sequel to the Christopher Reeve movies, with Reeve lookalike-ish Brandon Routh essentially playing Christopher Reeve playing Clark/Superman.
Icons and Heroes
In some ways, over time, Christopher Reeve as Superman has become it’s own canon and its own sub-genre isolated from the source material. Even more so for the fact that many members of the audience will not have read the source material and so for them this is the only reality of Superman. Much of the target audience for Man of Steel are those who grew up with the Christopher Reeve movies, increasing the likelihood that they will compare this to their icon.
Personally, I loved Man of Steel, and I felt it was much closer to the source material than any other incarnations of Superman. One of the things I particularly enjoyed, which I feel it captured well, was the alien-ness of Kal-El/Clark. The opening sequence on Krypton was beyond anything we’d ever seen before, and really drove home the fact that Clark is a man out of place. Given my familiarity with the source material and love of Superman in general, I did not and could not watch Man of Steel with a comparative eye. For me, it is completely separate from any other Superman movies/shows that have come before and I think it can be a missed experience for those too focused on drawing a comparison to just sit back and enjoy the movie.
This should never be about who played Superman better, or which movie is better. It arguably shouldn’t even be about which version better represents the source material. Even so, it is inevitable that the shadow cast by such a cult icon as Christopher Reeve’s Superman has a long reach, and that is something Snyder really shouldn’t be surprised about.