Richard Donner kicked off the definitive era of comic book movies and put superheroes on the mainstream map with Superman in 1978. Christopher Reeve was a major part of this, adding charisma to the title role, helping usher in DC Comics’ greatest superhero to the masses. He spanned four films and laid the groundwork for directors like Bryan Singer and Zack Snyder to follow, with several other television depictions sparking to life as well. Reeve is considered the perfect Superman for many fans, but his iteration was done in a different era with different technology and for an old-school audience that wasn’t as geek-driven as we are now.
The one that stands at the opposite end of the spectrum is Snyder’s take via Henry Cavill. This version was more of a budding hero out of his depth, making mistakes and costing the planet a lot of collateral damage. However, through movies like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, we saw him emerge as how Superman probably would in this day and age. With Justice League set to resurrect the character after he died at the hands of Doomsday, CBR compares the two and looks at 15 reasons why Cavill’s modern and self-sacrificing spin actually blows Reeve’s version out of the water!
SPOILER WARNING: Major spoilers ahead for all Superman movies
15. NUCLEAR MAN
Superman IV: A Quest For Peace is one of the most critically panned films ever and a lot of this has to do with its abysmal villain, Nuclear Man. He was created using Superman’s DNA and crazy nuclear shenanigans from Lex Luthor. We then saw him engage Superman in a feeble attempt at a rivalry, which even involved a battle on the moon. It was pretty ridiculous.
The way in which Superman eventually defeated him was even more ludicrous, drumming up the story like a badly-written comic. Nuclear Man had no real substance to him and instead of posing a threat, his presence left you chuckling more than anything. Cavill’s Superman, on the other hand, faced off against serious threats like Zod and Doomsday. Nuclear Man probably pushed Snyder not to repeat such a cinematic catastrophe and showed him how not to make a villain for cinema!
14. THE LAUGHABLE LEX LUTHOR
In the three movies that Gene Hackman played Lex, it all felt like one big repetitive joke. There wasn’t any sense of dread in his portrayal. He wasn’t a scientific genius or a sinister villain, but a goofy thug who wanted to rely on real-estate schemes, bombs and the occasional kryptonite. Hackman lacked any kind of intensity, which is magnified when you look at how sinister he’s been done in so many iterations in comics and television since.
His portrayal here was so aloof and it never allowed Reeve’s Superman to really lift his game. Compare this to Jesse Eisenberg as Lex and whether or not you liked his eccentric take on the character, he brought doom and gloom to Superman by pitting him and Batman against each other, monitoring other metahumans and superheroes in the world, and oh, almost killing Martha Kent!
13. THROWING THE S
In Superman II, there were quite a few moments that back in the day would have seemed cool, but in retrospect, even if they’re meant to be tongue-in-cheek, they are actually pretty cringeworthy. Reeve’s Superman throwing the S-shield at Non (a Kryptonian terrorist) in the Fortress of Solitude was a disaster and truly painful cinematic moment to watch.
Zod, Ursa and Non lured Superman back to his Fortress and everyone schemed to de-power each other, but prior to that, Superman pulled out something that looked like plastic, briefly trapping Non before it disappeared. What was that about? Where did he get it? What science was behind this weapon? This is one instance that makes Cavill throwing down fisticuffs look damn good on the big screen. Cheesy is one thing but being super silly is another!
12. THE MINDWIPE KISS
After Superman defeated Zod and his minions in Superman II, he went about restoring America following the damage done, but he also had to do the same for his relationship with Lois. She knew that he was masquerading as Clark Kent (and who can forget that passionate night they spent together), but still, Kal-El decided that the less she knew the better. Thus, he kissed Lois and mindwiped her at the end.
Reeve’s character apparently had that neuralizer ability from the Men in Black franchise. This was such a head-scratching moment, compounded by the fact that the filmmakers were content to cram concept after concept down our throats, merely expecting us to accept it without asking questions. When did Superman get this ability? Cavill’s Superman never had such deus ex machina abilities chucked into his arsenal, and we’re pretty sure he wouldn’t ambush his Lois like this.
11. NO MONSTERS & CREATURES
The Donner-influenced movies lacked a certain punch when it came to hyping up the monster factor that is usually attached to the Superman mythos. This was clear with the lack of aliens and creatures in Reeve’s movies, whether it be on Krypton or Earth. An argument could be made that there wasn’t the special effects to do this but the directors could have used practical effects a la Star Wars.
Cavill’s Superman saw creatures on Krypton, particularly in the opening sequence with Jor-El trying to escape Zod’s coup, and then the BvS follow-up had Snyder pitting Superman against the behemoth known as Doomsday (which was a science experiment Lex conducted using the DNA of a deceased Zod). The older Superman movies could have gambled a bit, bringing us some more extraterrestrial life or exploratory science on the whole.
10. THE IRRELEVANT DAILY PLANET
The Daily Planet didn’t feel relevant at all in the Reeve movies. There were moments when it was bustling with activity, but other than being a workplace for Clark to try to win over Lois’ heart and act goofy, there wasn’t any memorable thing about the paper or its workers, such as Perry White or Jimmy Olsen. However, in Cavill’s world, the paper provided much more of a stomping ground for him to keep his ear to the ground.
He used the paper to affect change and to monitor when the world was in danger and in need of his help. Maybe it’s because the role of the media was heightened in modern times; but still, back in the Reeve era, such an important cog in the Superman lore should have been treated like a bigger thing instead of a mere background setting.
9. NO DEEPER LAYERS
Most of the depth in the Reeve era was found in either Marlon Brando’s speech as Jor-El when he sent his son to Earth, or when Superman planted the American flag back once again atop the White House after ending the threat of Zod. Other than that, there weren’t many deep philosophies or existential questions being asked. We saw this with Cavill’s Superman as Snyder dug into the symbol on Superman’s chest, which symbolized hope (taken from Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright).
We also got space exploration and understanding of roles in society as Snyder waxed on about Krypton’s setup and cosmic ambitions. With the Reeve movies, it was all about obey the law… or else. This painted the older films as flashy movies based more on style than substance. More lasting principles were incorporated into the modern DCEU when it came to this character.
8. GOD WAS EASILY ACCEPTED
In the Reeve era, Superman wasn’t met with any cynicism at all. He was quickly accepted. That’s pretty unbelievable, as mankind would probably not react that way to an alien who had godlike abilities and could crush them at any moment. Perry White said it best about Cavill’s Superman when he told Lois not to follow up on revealing the existence of such a being.
This struggle for acceptance is a big test for the Superman character, though, as it allows him to show love for those who fear and even detest him because they don’t understand the lost alien. Reeve’s version didn’t experience this as much, since it was mostly a campy affair where folks just wanted to marvel at the hero they often mistook for a bird or plane. It had optimism and hope, sure, but it was still dangerously naive.
7. LOIS FELT LIKE A PLOT DEVICE
Donner’s Lois (played by Margot Kidder) was nothing more than a plot device and damsel in distress. This trope was dragged out over the old movies, making her really stand out as his true kryptonite. That diminished the character though because we never saw her as anything more other than a tool writers used to trap the Man of Steel. She deserved better and so did Reeve’s Superman, because a love interest is more than a crutch and someone to save.
Cavill’s Lois (played by Amy Adams) was more resilient and dogged in terms of reporting, helping save Superman and also, helping rescue the world from monstrous threats. This Lois felt like someone who understood and wanted to show the world that Kal-El could be a savior, whereas Kidder’s version came off like a doe-eyed admirer who just wanted to come along for the ride as Superman’s main squeeze.
6. OLD KRYPTON FELT AVERAGE
The best part of the old Krypton was Marlon Brando’s speech. The visual aesthetic lacked any lasting spectacle, which Snyder swiftly rectified. The Donner-influenced vision could have been spiced up a bit more because it came off as an average set. The practical effects really didn’t pop as much, and we didn’t get to see what was truly an advanced civilization. We know this was a different time, but Star Wars had much more of a timeless feel, and that series was these films’ contemporary.
Cavill, even when he was being schooled by Jor-El on his history, was in the same seat we were in — we were all seeing Krypton like never before. It felt surreal and wondrous. Krypton is something to marvel at and whether it be the costumes, the people themselves, the architecture, the overall design, the technology or the infrastructure, we need to be left in awe. Old-school is one thing but lacking ambition is another.
5. THE KRYPTONIAN FOES FLOPPED
Zod (played by Terence Stamp) and his minions never really came off as threatening in the old movies. That is particularly sad because, as they had the personas of terrorists, yet their actions felt like high-school bullies. Their invasion never felt high-stakes as Snyder’s did. Cavill’s Superman faced off against a Zod, who was fueled by rage and brought to life so remarkably by Michael Shannon.
Reeve’s foes, however, didn’t have that intimidation or fear factor. They enunciated well and captured a regal aura but other than that, it was tough to emotionally connect to them as true threats to the planet. As a result, they didn’t pan out as scary at all. Cavill ran up against something closer to the apocalypse and that battle was truly one for the ages, with Earth on the line like never before.
4. LACKED ACTION SPECTACLES
The action sequences of old bring a big sense of magic and nostalgia for some, but for others they tank. When Reeve first rescued Lois as she fell from a helicopter, it was heartwarming but over the course of the franchise, there weren’t any big action spectacles to leave jaws dropped. Again, the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg can be referenced as directors who wowed on the old-school action scale, so much more should have been expected of Superman’s stories.
Cavill’s Superman trumps Reeve’s here by miles. Snyder’s rescues were criminally underrated — from the oil rig to the floods to the others involving Lois and innocents. The Donner era, as mentioned before, suffered because it probably deserved some CGI and SFX treatment that didn’t exist to fully realize its vision; but still, dynamism and imagination could have been forthcoming, instead of playing it safe.
3. REEVE’S UNIVERSE DIDN’T FEEL EXPANSIVE
The Superman franchise of old suffered because it still could have painted a bigger universe. Batman & Robin in the ’90s actually showed how expansive the DC universe was when Batman made a joke about Superman working alone. We’re not asking for the DCEU in the ’70s but back then, the Donner-era could have pushed the likes of Gotham and other DC characters in easter eggs or cameos. Wasn’t anyone else reading comics on the production side?
We didn’t have to wait for Tim Burton’s Batman movie in 1989 to get wind of the Dark Knight. Cavill’s Man of Steel kickstarted the DCEU and from that we got the likes of Wonder Woman and Justice League, which in all fairness was fueled by the MCU’s world-building. Still, writers could have thought outside of the Metropolis box.
2. THE LOIS & CLARK DYNAMIC WAS ANNOYING
The Lois and Clark dynamic with Reeve and Kidder was cute but cheesy. Back in that time, it probably worked, but still, apart from doe-eyed glances, it didn’t feel like it had much substance. It was all about flights in the night and a rooftop rendezvous here and there, while Cavill and Adams had a bigger sense of togetherness. The latter also felt like they needed each other, which resonated a lot more in Batman v Superman.
Such connective tissue makes a romance more than just that. It’s a fleshed-out relationship. The new take was all about charting a love whereas the Reeve spin on things came off like high-school dating. In fact, at times, it got downright annoying, which is where we could see Smallville taking its queues from. The old vibe was too melodramatic and just didn’t feel like it was between an alien and his soul-mate in a real world.
1. REVERSING TIME
In 1978’s Superman, thanks to aftershocks created by Luthor’s scheming, Lois’ car falls into a crevice, fills with debris, and she suffocates to death. Superman then defies Jor-El’s earlier warning about altering the course of human history, accelerates around the Earth, rewinds time, and saves Lois. So, it looks like Flash isn’t the only one who loves tinkering with the time-stream.
This was ridiculous because it wasn’t in Superman’s power-set and was a deus ex machina to bring Lois back. Also, Cavill’s Superman got a lot of heat for stupid decisions but what could be more dumb than altering time? Flashpoint didn’t exist back then but Reeve’s character literally erased a timeline from history without caring about butterfly effects. If the writers wanted her alive, he could have used his super-speed to fly to her. Instead, we got Superman delivering the most arrogant and selfish act.
Let us know in the comments which version of Superman you liked more and why?
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