Why has nobody made a great Superman movie since 1980’s Superman 2? It’s a question that many superhero movie fans ask when they look at the current golden era of superhero films.
And it’s a perfectly valid question, with even Christopher Reeve’s own sequels to his first two Superman films widely forgotten.
There have been two Superman movies made since Reeve left the role: 2006’s Superman Returns starring Brandon Routh and 2013’s Man of Steel starring Henry Cavill. And among fans, most seem to lean toward Man of Steel as their favorite of the two.
Which is strange, since Man of Steel didn’t set the box office alight nor did it meet with critical acclaim. In fact, Superman Returns received a better overall response than Man of Steel. So, why is it that Man of Steel remains a favorite when Superman Returns is the better film?
Here’s our take on the two films and why Superman Returns is truly the best Superman movie of modern cinema.
1. It’s Less Dark, More Classic Superman
One thing that irks many Superman fans about Man of Steel is that Henry Cavill’s Superman isn’t very Superman-like.
The style of Zack Snyder’s film is supposed to represent Clark Kent as an isolated alien who’s forced to hide his powers from society, but this comes across as much too gritty and serious in tone.
Man of Steel is clearly influenced by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which successfully brought Batman across in a dark and realistic environment. Superman Returns isn’t weighed down by that.
While Brandon Routh’s portrayal of Superman is often described as “Routh playing Christopher Reeve playing Superman”—which isn’t an unfair assessment—Routh’s Clark Kent is less moody.
While Superman’s struggle in being unsure of himself in Man of Steel isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Superman Returns is crafted in a way that allows Routh to bring a better-rounded version of Kal-El to the screen.
There’s genuine hope in Superman Returns. There’s a feeling that Superman really is the hero beyond the injustice of immorality. He’s there to help the small people of Metropolis and protect them from Luthor.
Whereas in Man of Steel, Henry Cavill’s fight wages in Metropolis despite the collateral effect it has on the inhabitants.
In other words, Superman Returns does a better job of having a comic book accurate Kal-El rather than a pre-Superman Superman.
2. The Plot Is More Complex
When all is said and done, Man of Steel ended up being one long battle from start to finish. It left little to the imagination and was too over-the-top in its collateral damage.
Everything we needed to know about Clark Kent was given to us via flashback sequences. It’s as if Snyder realized much of his movie made zero sense without immediate context, so he had to manipulate our emotions rather than allowing us to figure parts out on our own.
Whereas in Superman Returns, the plot moves forward well—a plot that’s mostly driven by Luthor and his plan to create land off the coast (which admittedly sounds a bit silly).
It’s a relatively simple story, but still more complex than Man of Steel. Superman Returns brings itself across with an understanding of itself that Man of Steel lacks. It has a purpose and a stance, whereas Man of Steel falters in confusion about its own morality.
The scene where Kal-El lands on Luthor’s island and demands his property back is a great Superman sequence.
And as Luthor beats Kal-El with his men—having laced Kryptonite throughout the island’s core—the fall of Superman is genuinely emotional to watch. Far more emotion than Man of Steel ever achieves.
3. It Has Stronger Emotional Impact
In terms of pure emotional impact and audience connection, Superman Returns is vastly superior. It delivers a story that holds the audience, whereas Man of Steel often feels like a film where Michael Bay stood in for Zack Snyder without anybody noticing.
In Superman Returns, we get scenes like the one where Superman lifts Lois’ sinking boat from the ocean, as well as the lifting of Luthor’s island into space while it’s embedded with Kryptonite. That feels like real purpose, as though Kal-El is giving everything to stop Luthor’s plan.
In Man of Steel, that tangible connection doesn’t exist even though the film tried hard to forged one (particularly through Keven Costner’s Jonathan Kent, who almost managed to have emotional resonance). But overall, it’s a popcorn flick with more action than drama.
Ultimately, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is shallow while Superman Returns is a genuine attempt at soft rebooting Christopher Reeve’s style and Richard Donner’s imaginative world. That gives it a resonance that spills over from an era long gone.
4. It Has Christopher Reeve’s Spirit
Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman is still the gold standard of the character. His performance as Kal-El is innocent and assured in equal measure, giving him an edge that no other has had.
And we feel more of that in Superman Returns than in Man of Steel. Sure, part of that is because Brandon Routh is essentially “playing Christopher Reeve playing Superman.” And yet, Routh also feels fun as Clark Kent.
Brandon Routh’s Superman has the same kind of innocence and sense of goodness to him, one that feels like it was inherited straight from Reeve. That’s hard to come by, especially in modern superhero movies.
When Zack Snyder remade Superman for the modern age, he scrubbed Superman’s image as a person who’s trying to do the right thing and turned him into a godly figure. And while the concept isn’t itself terrible, the execution of the idea was sorely lacking.
It’s easy to sit here and say what Snyder should or should not have done, but one thing is certain: when it comes to Superman, the character needs more of Reeve’s spirit to really be a winner.