The thing is, even if Man of Steel is great, it won’t be a great Superman movie. It can’t be. Miracles are not subjects for duplication, and Superman: The Movie was nothing if not a miracle. There had never a superhero movie like it. There hasn’t been a good Superman movie since. And come this December, on the occasion of the Richard Donner-directed film’s anniversary, “since” will be going on 34 long years. Superman II, the first sequel from the hero’s Christopher Reeve era, is entertaining enough, but its on-screen flaws—the creeping silliness, cheapness and disregard for Lois Lane, whose Fortress of Solitude affair with Superman is insultingly erased with a superkiss—are signs of far worse things to come.
Bryan Singer‘s 2006 attempt at a reboot, Superman Returns, while far better than any of the Reeve sequels, isn’t a good Superman movie, either. Rather, it’s a well-meaning attempt at making a Donner Superman. If Brandon Routh‘s hero hadn’t been so closed-off as to have ceded the movie to Kevin Spacey‘s Lex Luthor, if not some guy named Richard (James Marsden), maybe Superman Returns would’ve worked better. But even then, it wouldn’t have worked entirely because only Donner can make a Donner Superman movie, and only Donner could make it when he made it.
In 1978, Superman: The Movie’s flying credits fly because Star Wars, released the year before, had made sci-fi wanted and desired. Metropolis looks like a place that needs saving because its stand-in, New York City, like many U.S. urban centers of the time, was a decaying place that needed saving. The Daily Planet is abuzz because newspapers could still do that then. Lois Lane smokes because she’s a Virginia Slims ad come to life.
Above all, Superman is a confident, unburdened hero because Donner and his writers let him be. And Donner and his writers let him be because, all those years ago, they didn’t have graphic-novel-prescribed psychoanalysis to answer to or sift through. Today, the modern movie superhero is a wreck. He (and it’s still almost always a he) must be touched by a form of madness in order to get to the point where he dons a suit. The Superman in Superman: The Movie, by comparison, just does it.
One scene, a teenager is sifting through his late Kryptonian father’s archives. The next, a fully-grown man is decked out in a cape, uniform and trunks, as ready as he’ll ever be to fight for truth, justice and the American way. Because Reeve’s Superman doesn’t wonder who he is or why he is, the citizens of Metropolis (aside from ever-inquiring editor Perry White) don’t wonder, either. He’s a hero, plain and simple. Let the battle with the bad guy begin. That’s how a great Superman movie is built. And that’s how Man of Steel probably won’t be built.
Nolan is the last filmmaker who should be expected to let Superman be. He’s been given the keys to the franchise precisely because he’s been so successful at not letting Batman sleep soundly. And maybe, hopefully he’ll work his magic again on the new film. Maybe, hopefully, together with Snyder, he’ll torture the last son of Krypton all the way back to the top. But remember, no matter how good their movie looks this weekend, no matter how much the Comic-Con crowd oohs and aahs, Man of Steel can’t possibly be a great Superman movie