Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a combat drone! No, it’s Superman, returning to multiplexes in a complete reboot seven years after Bryan Singer’s tedious Superman Returns. Warner Bros. decided that one didn’t merit a sequel and instead started over with Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, who wrote the “Dark Knight” trilogy. This raised the prospect of an anguished Superman dealing with the new problems of the 21st century (hurricane season alone would keep him busy for an entire movie), yet aside from a few topical gestures (just outside his Fortress of Solitude in the arctic, a polar bear hops from one shrinking ice floe to another), Man of Steel is a battle between supermen, with humans mainly looking on. After escaping the destruction of Krypton, the hero (Henry Cavill) defends earth against the snarling General Zod (Michael Shannon), a fellow native hoping to colonize the planet. This is the best one he could find?
Granted, Man of Steel is a big improvement over Superman Returns, mainly because the writers have created a satisfying arc between the hero’s genesis story, retold every time he gets rebooted, and the big blowout at the end. Russell Crowe does the Marlon Brando honors as Jor-El, a noble scientist who berates the Krypton council of elders for their foolishness in mining the planet’s core (something even we haven’t thought of yet) and fires off his baby boy in a rocket to earth just before Zod ices him and Krypton blows up. Little Kal-El crash-lands in Kansas (of all the luck), where he’s raised by the homespun Kents (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, the latter in straight Gary Cooper mode) and learns the value of peace, justice, and not letting the gummint find out you can bend girders. As a young man, Clark Kent wanders around the country from job to job like an illegal, uh, alien, before Zod arrives and forces him to embrace his superpowers.
Recently I discovered that the 17 Superman cartoons released by Paramount in the early 40s are all in the public domain now, and you can watch them for free at the Internet Archive (archive.org). Shot in Technicolor and beautifully drawn, they mark the character’s first screen appearance following his 1938 debut in Action Comics; the first nine installments were directed by the great Dave Fleischer. No Superman movie has ever really topped them, and none will, because they were made back when the character was still fun, before he became an American institution and an international corporate commodity. That’s probably the reason Man of Steel feels so solemn and heavily freighted. We all know he can leap tall buildings in a single bound—but can he get a three-film franchise off the ground?
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that Superman first appeared in Action Comics.