Over the course of 75 years, the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young men from Ohio, has not only withstood the test of time, but has grown because of time. Yes, Superman has not always been successfully translated to the screen, big or small, just as he hasn’t always been successful in his own comic books, but he has somehow managed to survive the Senate Committee Hearings of 1954, the stark realism that grew out of the 1960s and into the 1970s due to the Vietnam War and the cynicism of modern America. His origin story is retold over and over again. I’ve read two very different retellings in just the last three years–Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, and Superman: Earth One by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis, both of which are superb–and have at least three that I can think of downloaded from Comixology (Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu, Superman for All Seasons by Jeff Loeb and Tim Sales, and Superman: Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen). His personality has changed though the core of this modern American myth remains the same.
In watching and rewatching Superman’s exploits on the Silver Screen, it becomes apparent just how much his story is our story. The baby from another place comes to the United States, learns the principle values on which this country was founded, and grows up to do his best to maintain those values both to keep what is essential about himself as well as to be a role model to the humans he could so easily annihilate. His values aren’t just American, in the end, but human.
Each version of Superman that made it to the Silver Screen was able to capture where this character was at any given time. The early Fleischer and Famous cartoons gave us a Superman who was quick to leap into battle and protect Metropolis, the United States, and the world from danger. The 1948 and 1950 serials gave us a Superman who was ready to get the bad guys with gusto and verve. Superman and the Mole Men (1951) gave us a Superman who would use his might when needed to but would appeal to our goodness and be a role model when possible. The Superman portrayed by Christopher Reeve was a straight-forward, earnest man who spoke plainly but also was all-too-human. He made mistakes but, more importantly, he rose above those mistakes. Brandon Routh’s Superman was a throw-back to Reeve’s but in the modern world. Does the earnest, caring young man with the strong principles have a place in a world as complicated as this one? What happens when the human emotions become so strong in the man who can never be physically hurt? And Henry Cavill’s Superman brings us to the modern era in which you and I live, with a young man torn between doing what’s right and doing what’s safe. How does the world react to a super man in Post-9/11 America when there’s serious talk about building walls across borders and when no one is trusted?
Superman is not on the top of very many people’s Favorite Superheroes list. For a long time, he wasn’t on mine at all. But now, I have to ask myself: does Batman still get the top spot? The big argument against Superman (and for Batman) is that one simply cannot become Superman, but anyone, with the right amount of training and education, can become Batman. And now, after watching these movies, and writing these essays, I can firmly say: You’re wrong. Superman isn’t about whether or not a boy or girl can someday become him, Superman is about living with the set of principles that includes tolerance, empathy, ethics, and love. Superman is about the goal of not being super-powered, but the goal of being human.
The two young men in Ohio, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, sons of Jewish immigrants, understood what it was like not to fit in. They understood what it was like to be different. And what was their payback to the people who surely bullied them as they were growing up in the 1920s and 1930s? They gave the world Superman. Superman isn’t supposed to save us, he is supposed to show us how to save ourselves.
Author’s Note: BEWARE! Here there be SPOILERS. You have been warned.
Despite pulling in pretty good box office and fairly decent reviews, the sequel to Superman Returns was abandoned. I can’t say that this was a surprise. In a world where Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) existed, as well as the Marvel movies leading to The Avengers (2012), it seems appropriate that Bryan Singer’s version of Superman never went anywhere. So it was announced that Superman would get another reboot. (Though it could be argued that Bryan Singer’s reboot wasn’t really a reboot but rather a sequel…but we discussed that, didn’t we?). Another problem that Warner Bros. and DC Comics had on its hands was the abysmal failure of 2011’s Green Lantern. The film opened strong but sunk quickly and the movie won over not even the most ardent comic book fans. That was okay, because there was another card up their sleeves by the time Green Lantern opened.
Based on concepts discussed during the story phase of The Dark Knight Rises (2012), David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan came up with a story for new version of Superman, one that would be more in line with the success achieved by Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Warner Bros. and DC went for it and announced in 2010 that Man of Steel was a go. Many names were bandied about as director but finally Zack Snyder was announced. As I’m sure many people were, I was unimpressed by this announcement. Snyder showed great potential in films like Dawn of the Dead (2004) and 300 (2007), as well as the ability to carry off an epic-sized production with Watchmen (2009), but he seemed mostly style and no substance. And Superman needs substance. With Christopher Nolan on board as producer as well as working on the story with screenwriter David S. Goyer, it seemed as though maybe a new Superman would come for today’s audiences.
The first look at the new Superman was released in 2011, during filming of Man of Steel. There’d already been some location-shooting leaks and the official first look featured Henry Cavill in the suit. I was unimpressed. It was dark, and rubber, and just too damn much for Superman. Still, I held out hope.
And here is where I give you, my friend, another note. Unlike most of the essays/commentaries/whathaveyous I’ve posted in this series, I have only seen this movie one time. It’s not the only one I’ve seen only the one time; the cartoons, 1948 and 1950 serials, and Superman and the Mole Men have all only been viewed once. Where those differ than this is that they were all way before my time. Beginning with 1978’s Superman: The Movie, these essays began to get real personal because they were the movies that, in some small way (and sometimes big way), have meant something to me.
Back in November, my wife gave birth to my second daughter. She is now soon-to-be-8 months old. As such, I couldn’t get out to this movie opening weekend or the weeks that followed until today (as I write this paragraph on July 2nd, 2013). I would like to see it again but probably won’t be able to until the Blu Ray comes out later this year. So this is a first-time viewing write-up, with only just under 12 hours to digest what I’ve seen.
You have been warned….
Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman is superb. I was worried by the previews and the photographs that his Superman would be dark, would be moody, and would be a drag to watch like his predecessor Brandon Routh. This is not the case. Well, not entirely. He is dark. He is moody. But he’s also real good. The moment he takes flight (for the second time) and goes, the natural smile that breaks out on his face is priceless. He is young enough to really enjoy this newfound sensation but old enough to know he’s the only one who can feel this. It is a moment when all the preceding worries slip away, and all the succeeding worries are too far away to worry about. For that moment, for the first time, he knows who he is and he’s happy. From his wandering, lost soul that we meet onscreen early on, to his final horror at what he has done to the only other member of his species toward the end, Cavill doesn’t just embody Superman, but a Superman for our time. And, if I may, let’s talk about his physique for a moment. Wow. I want to look like that. I won’t. I’m too lazy with too much of a predisposition for cheeseburgers and pizza, and I’m too short, but if I could look like any actor working right now…yeah. Henry Cavill. If Christopher Reeve was the embodiment of Superman for his generation, then Henry Cavill is the embodiment of Superman for his.
Michael Shannon deserves mentioning because he’s becoming one of my favorite actors. Like many people, I first took note of him as the scary Federal Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden. I need to see more of his work because I find him mesmerizing. And he does just such a job here as General Zod. For a generation, Terence Stamp’s portrayal of General Zod was so deeply ingrained in our minds, it seemed foolhardy to put anyone else in the role. Even the comic books began to shape General Zod after him. But when it was announced that Shannon would play Zod, I knew it would be fine. Shannon brings a passion that is quite opposite to Stamp’s cold, emotionless approach. Both men are able to use their respective takes on the character to make General Zod chilling. Shannon’s General Zod is not evil for the sake of being evil, but a man who is so convinced of his rightness that he will not be dissuaded. Reason won’t work with him. Pleading will not work. Zod wants only to bring the Kryptonian way of life back into existence that he will destroy a whole other species to do so.
If Henry Cavill is the Superman of his generation, then so Amy Adams is its Lois Lane. Intelligent, girl-next-door beautiful, and not willing to take shit from anybody, Adams gives a great performance. She owns this Lois Lane. If I have any complaint about her, it’s that I wish there was just a little more character building for her. I want to know more about her. But that’s not Adams’s fault. She brings a realism to the role and her love for Clark Kent/Superman grows naturally, not in some quick, school girl way.
The rest of the cast is really good, too. Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Lawrence Fishburn as Perry White, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent, and all the others were just really good. They gave great performances and I bought them all in their roles, which says something because I’m no fan of either Crowe or Costner.
David S. Goyer’s and Christopher Nolan’s story (Goyer’s screenplay) is really good. It’s not perfect, which I’ll get to soon enough, but I liked it a lot. They tell an origin story for this Superman that’s familiar but different. They spend about the same amount of time on Krypton as Donner did back in 1978, but this Krypton is much different and action-packed. The costumes for the Krypton Council were wonderful. Then the decision to go through Clark Kent’s past in flashbacks (like they did with Bruce Wayne’s past in Batman Begins) was good. We get to see Cavill in action sooner but still get examples of where he came from throughout the story. General Zod and Jor-El are given a backstory that tightens their relationship and makes the happenings when Zod comes to Earth that much more personal. And the decision (SPOILER) to have Lois Lane know Clark Kent is Superman through her research before he even becomes Superman is a good one. I don’t know what the reaction of it is by other people, because I haven’t read a goddamn thing about this movie (if I could help it–and let me tell you, that’s hard these days) but I’d guess that Superman purists are unhappy with this decision. I loved it. It made me love Lois even more.
Of course, the biggest upset in their story is the ending, the final moments between Superman and General Zod. Let me say this about it: It was spoiled by a relatively well-known science fiction writer who I follow on Facebook. He posted something about heroes and heroism and I began reading it. It wasn’t until the fourth paragraph that he mentions this scene, which shocked me. He had nothing at the beginning indicating that he was writing about Man of Steel or would give away the goddamn ending. Since then, there have been other instances of this scene mentioned, sometimes in headlines. Today’s culture assumes that we all go to the movies right away. There’s no time for people to go and see anything except right now because if you don’t, nudniks on Facebook, Twitter, and the goddamn nerd presses will ruin it for you. I’ll stop my rant here and go on about this new culture we find ourselves in another time. From what I can gather, there seems to be a backlash about (SPOILER–this is the last time I’m posting that. If you haven’t figured it out by now, just go to another website) Superman breaking General Zod’s neck.
Now, if this were an ending that happened because Superman suddenly became Rambo, I’d be upset. But I thought it was handled really well. Cavill’s emotions in this scene are great. Here he is at the beginning of his career as superhero, and he is really given no choice but to kill the only other member of his species that remains. He doesn’t want to, and maybe if this were the second movie of the series, he wouldn’t have gone there, but he does what he has to. One can argue about the lameness of what was going down in the museum in the moments before and all that, but the fact is, where would Zod have been held? He’s as powerful as Superman but without the ethics. There’s no molecular restructuring in this version. There really is no choice. But Superman always has the choice, you may argue. My response: Bullshit. I’m as against capital punishment as much as the next guy, but sometimes, there really is no choice. I’m sorry.
Finally, I’m going to lump Zack Snyder’s direction with the special effects. Krypton looks amazing. The feats Superman pulled off were really super. Oh, and I really liked Superman’s suit. I didn’t think I would but I found it to be closer to the original comic book suit than Superman Returns‘s suit but in line with this story’s needs. Well done. It turned a disbeliever into a believer. Snyder, for once, doesn’t get in the way of himself (300), nor does he go so purist that he misses the chance to adapt a story cinematically (Watchmen). I really feel like what I saw onscreen was a modern version of what Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel created 75 years ago.
It’s a little choppy in places. I’d like to give examples but I can’t. As I said, I’ve only seen the movie one time but I remember thinking at one point, How’d we get here? Maybe another viewing would change that.
The flying dildoes were an issue for me. General Zod’s people are punished for their crimes on Krypton and are placed in pods that go onto a spaceship that goes to the Phantom Zone. These pods fly up to the awaiting spaceship and look like a bunch of dildoes. It’s ridiculous. Did no one notice this throughout preproduction? Did no one point this out during the various viewings? How could no one look at these pods ascending toward the spaceship, stand up, and shout, “That looks like my junk!” But, alas, Zod and his crew gets put on the Phantom Zone spaceship in flying dildoes.
The destruction is stupid. I know I’m not the only one to say so since a quick Google Search brought up many articles that are only about the destruction. Days ago, this one from BuzzFeed crossed my feed and I ignored it because I hadn’t seen the movie, but knew I wanted to give it a looksee. The destruction was staggering. It was as though Goyer, Nolan, Snyder, Warner Bros., and DC watched The Avengers and said, “We’s gotsta go bigger!” It was ridiculous. I know we live in a Post-9/11 world where the imagery of falling cities is supposed to be cathartic in some way, but can all agree we’ve had enough? If this were the sequel, I could almost understand the reason to go so goddamn big, but it’s the first movie of (hopefully) a good series. What’s going to happen in the next movie? Will half the planet be wiped out? And the worst part about it is that there’s no follow-up to the destruction. We get a scene between Superman and a United States general, a touching scene between Clark and Mom, and Clark Kent donning the glasses as he arrives at the Daily Planet to “meet” Lois Lane and begin work as a reporter. This is all well and good, but about the damage? The lives lost? Shouldn’t Superman be out helping rescuers and clean stuff up? Will that be brought up in the sequel? Either way, I found the destruction of Metropolis too much and it detracted from my overall enjoyment of the movie.
After the Battle
Overall, I really liked Man of Steel. It’s not as good as I’d hoped it would be, but it’s the best Superman movie we’ve had since Donner’s 1978 film, and it’s just different enough to be its own thing. I’m looking forward to what happens next. If Goyer and Snyder were smart (and they are) they’d go with a more personal story instead of the spectacle. A Superman story will inherently have spectacle, whether he’s fighting a rogue Kryptonian or a street thug. And if they follow The Dark Knight Trilogy in the way that Man of Steel used the template set up in Batman Begins, then the next movie will be a more personal. And judging by some of the LexCorp logos on buildings and tankers, I have a feeling we know where they’ll go.
Nineteen years. The world changed substantially between 1987 and 2006. One thing did not change: The desire to bring Superman back to the Silver Screen. After the disastrous Superman IV, it looked as though the Man of Steel would be on sabbatical. That was fine because 1989 brought a different superhero to the Silver Screen. Batman, starring Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton, written by Sam Hamm, and directed by Tim Burton, was one of the most anticipated movies of 1989. Don’t think that Superman still wasn’t on people’s minds, though. 1988 saw the worldwide celebration of Superman’s 50th birthday, he appeared on the cover of Time, and the Salkinds returned to him…kinda-sorta. They produced a syndicated television series of Superboy that lasted between 1988 and 1992. But the word on Batman was good. People were looking forward to it and the Warner Bros. marketing machine went into overtime. And when the movie finally opened on June 23rd, 1989, it was a blockbuster. A new era in the comic book movie had dawned and Superman seemed like a relic.
The success of Batman and its 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, as well as the general popularity in comic books that resulted, made the comic book movie seem like a legitimate film genre. Despite Superman appearing on television in a new series in 1993, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which promised at the outset a more grown-up Moonlighting feel but quickly descended into a juvenile adventure show, the idea of bringing Superman back to the Big Screen was very much on the minds of Warner Bros. Jon Peters, the famed former-hair-dresser-turned-Big-Time-Hollywood-Producer and one of the producers of Batman and Batman Returns, wanted to bring Superman to the Silver Screen in a big, big way. And that is how the Superman Lives fiasco came about. The film, written by Kevin Smith, directed by Tim Burton, and starring Nicolas Cage as Clark Kent/Superman seems to be a near-miss for Superman fans. Peters kept at it, though, and so did Warner Bros. I won’t go much more into it but a simple Internet search for Superman movies will bring you a lot of information.
Besides, by the late-1990s, the comic book movie genre had pretty much died. Aside from the Batman movies, no other movie hit its mark. There was a lot of development but little actual production. What movies were made looked horrible, weren’t taken seriously, and died a quick death. Television was a little kinder with the Warner Bros. Animated series of Batman, Superman, and Justice League.
And then in 2000 came X-Men. With a story by Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer, a screenplay by David Hayter, and direction by Singer, the film adaptation of one of Marvel Comics’s most popular teams hit all the right chords and was a mega-hit. The idea that Bryan Singer would have gotten involved was shocking. He was an up-and-coming indie film director and his film The Usual Suspects was an Oscar darling. What he brought with him was the knowledge that the characters were important, that without strong characters, these films could have as much spectacle as anyone could put in them but it wouldn’t mean a thing.
X-Men rejuvenated the comic book movie genre, but it took Sam Raimi’s adaptation of Spider-Man to really get it going.
I loved these movies, but not being a Marvel kid, I kept waiting for DC’s triumphant return while skipping the 2001-2012 TV series Smallville. With Batman Begins (2005), DC returned to the Silver Screen in a triumphant way. Using the model set up by the Marvel Entertainment movies, Warner Bros. went with Christopher Nolan, who’d gained tons of attention for his indie thriller Memento. So it wasn’t a shock that Warner Bros. would have a new Superman movie for the following year. What was the shock was the director: Bryan Singer. After two successful X-Men films, who would’ve called him jumping ship for Superman?
So in June 2006, I found myself with a friend whom I liked a lot sitting in a local movie theater eagerly awaiting Superman Returns. With a story by Singer, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris, and screenplay by Dougherty and Harris (who’d written the screenplay for the great X-Men sequel X2), there was no doubt the movie would be great. Although I’d seen the trailers and wondered about a few things–Marlon Brando’s posthumous return as well as the use of John Williams’s original theme–I was pretty excited.
It was a movie that I was truly looking forward to. Things hadn’t been so great for me starting in 2003 but were beginning to take an upswing. I would be starting a new job at the end of the summer as a teaching assistant. Though I was pretty depressed, I knew that I was on the road to recovery. Things were looking up. And there was a new Superman.
So the lights dimmed, and I was transported away for my first Superman movie viewing on the Big Screen….
The opening title sequence. Though I’d seen all the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, I’d seen none of them in theaters. So to see the opening title sequences for the first two films recreated on the Big Screen gave me chills. John Williams’s music has been a part of my life seemingly forever, so sitting there and seeing a “new” version of the old credits with his music just blew me away and brought tears to my eyes.
The special effects were astounding. Superman’s flying effects were as real as anything done to that point. It wasn’t just the flying effects that were good, either, but all of the effects. A little too good, perhaps. In the sequence when Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is covering a space shuttle test on an airplane and the plane ends up plummeting from the sky until Superman (Brandon Routh) saves it, I actually had a panic attack brought on by the uber-realistic effects, both visual and sound. It is a scene that started me wondering if maybe special effects are too good these days.
The story wasn’t bad. It took the material seriously and did its best to give the characters pathos. It honored what came before but went off in a different direction. And it took some bold risks in the adaptation. It’s not perfect, which we’ll get to, but it’s a valiant attempt with some good moments.
Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor is perfect. He comes across as arrogant enough, and cold enough, to be Lex Luthor. Besides being one of the best actors working today, he embodied what a modern Lex Luthor would be like. And, unlike Gene Hackman, Spacey was willing to shave his head for the role.
The Phantom Zone
This is a tough one. I’d like to talk about the rest of the cast, but I don’t feel like they should be placed under The Kryptonite, so I’m placing them in The Phantom Zone. Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman, Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, Parker Posey, and James Marsden were all actors I had some issues with, especially upon rewatching this movie. Marsden plays Richard White, Perry White’s (Frank Langella) nephew. Look, I’m not a fan of Marsden. I’m not sure what it is exactly, though I’ve liked him in some stuff I’ve seen him in. He was great as Cyclops in the X-Men movies, but here I didn’t particularly care for him. He plays Lois’s boyfriend–partner? fiancé?–her not-husband and seemingly the father of her child. He has some good moments in this movie, but there’s something about him that just doesn’t sit well with me. Parker Posey is another actor who I think is great but who got on my nerves here as Miss Tesch–er…um…Kitty Kowalski. She’s obviously supposed to be the modern Miss Teschmacher except she’s not…how to put in a Politically Correct way? Aw, to hell with it. She’s not sexy enough. Valerie Perrine, I’m sure, got many a young men started on the road to puberty in 1978. Parker Posey? Not so much. She’s attractive in different ways and I think her talents are under-utilized in this role. She’s not bad, she actually brings a lot of emotion to the part, but she just doesn’t feel right to me.
Which brings me to Kate Bosworth and Brandon Routh. As the two most important characters in the movie, their roles are essential. Both look too young to be in their roles. Considering both look (and, according to Wikipedia, were) in their early-to-mid 20s, it’s hard to believe they were together five years before this story for any substantial amount of time in Metropolis. They’d be better cast as young Superman and young Lois Lane first meeting, but even that wouldn’t be ideal since Lois was already established as an up-and-coming major reporter. Bosworth lacks some of the toughness that Margot Kidder had that made Lois Lane believable. Whether it’s 1948, 1978, or 2006, being a woman reporter is difficult because the news agencies are boys’ clubs. Lois Lane needs to be tough-as-nails while still being soft and, sometimes, vulnerable. Bosworth doesn’t sell me on the tough part. She’s cute, she’s a capable actress, I guess, but I had trouble buying her as Lois Lane. Not only that, but I never sensed any onscreen chemistry with Brandon Routh. The chemistry is essential to the part.
And now I go to Brandon Routh. I want to love him as Superman, and after that first screening at the Flagship Cinemas in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on July 15th, 2006 (I keep my ticket stubs), I did. I thought he was the perfect Superman. But now I’ve seen the movie three, four, maybe five times (I think it’s four) and I’m not so sure. He plays the role fine in the sense that I’m sure he did what he was directed to do or as the script called for him to. He mostly looks the part of Superman and Clark Kent, and even resembles Christopher Reeve when he smiles. But he’s too muted. He’s too serious. He’s too goddamn subdued. And because he looks so young, I had trouble believing him as Superman. His Clark Kent has nearly no personality, and his Superman only a modicum more. As a matter of fact, he hardly speaks as Superman. Again, I think it’s the performance that was asked for, and he delivered. But….
The story. Here’s one of those contradictions I enjoy employing. I mentioned what I liked about it so here’s where it rubs me the wrong way. Is it a new movie that’s paying homage to the original Donner movie(s)? Is it a follow-up to it/those? What is this beast, exactly? It has the John Williams theme, the opening title sequence, pictures of Glenn Ford as Jonathan Kent, Lex Luthor’s obsession with real estate, Lois’s article “I Spent the Night with Superman,” a consummated romance between Superman and Lois, the Kryptonian crystals forming the Fortress of Solitude, and Marlon Brando as Jor-El. It looks as though it’s a follow-up to the Donner film(s). But the fact that it takes place in modern America, with cell phones, flat screen televisions, etc., disputes that. So it seems to be a new movie with a helluva lot of homages. This is cute when you see it in the theater for the first time, but it gets old upon further viewings and once you bring your brain to the party.
The lack of wonder and fun is a problem for me. It tries for wonder, I’ll give it that. The image of New Krypton rising from the Atlantic towards space is something to behold, however, the rest of the movie falls short. In some parts, the movie is just plain boring. Maybe it’s the lack of chemistry between actors. Maybe it’s boring lines. Maybe it’s because the fact that this entire movie feels like the song “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” by Five for Fighting. Don’t get me wrong, I love the song and the ideas behind it, but I don’t want a 2hr 34 minute movie based on it. Yet, that’s exactly what it feels like. Superman spends a lot of time alone and serious. It’s not that I don’t want Superman serious, or alone, but I don’t want him emo, either. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was serious, but not slit-my-wrists-serious. Lex Luthor and his gang have some dark humor, and there’s some humor at the Daily Planet with Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and Clark, but overall the movie just went on and on and the performances and story in between action set pieces aren’t engaging enough.
Superman’s beating has always bothered me. New Krypton is made with Kryptonian crystals stolen from the Fortress of Solitude combined with Kryptonite. This means that when Superman is standing on it, he becomes powerless (and, in theory, should eventually die). Lex Luthor and his gang use this opportunity to beat the living shit out of Superman, ending with Luthor stabbing him with a shard of Kryptonite, breaking it in Superman. The beating is brutal and probably is what led to the PG-13 rating, because none of the rest of the movie really warrants it. It’s a bit overkill, really, based on everything that’s been set up so far. I know Lex Luthor is a ruthless criminal, and there’s no Otis this time bumbling around, but the beating feels out of place in this particular movie. That’s probably because the movie is so closely related, by its own cleverness, to the 1978-1980 films. Maybe I’m being too judgmental here, but I just don’t think it fits.
I’m not a fan of the new Superman suit. It’s a little too much. I don’t mind the switch away from tights/spandex, but there’s something about the costume that just doesn’t feel like Superman to me. It’s unfair, perhaps, due to the perfection of the Christopher Reeve costume when compared to the comic book version, to be so critical over the suit, but there are things that just bother me. The boots look like something from Nike, which makes me wonder how it fits into Clark Kent’s shoes. For that matter, how does the S on the chest go unnoticed under Clark’s shirt? Also, the dark red and gold aren’t right. I made an allusion to this in my essay on Superman III; Bad Superman’s red and yellow is the same color as Brandon Routh’s Superman’s, only he’s not evil (he’s barely even alive!). The shirt goes up too far, too, or something. I don’t know. I’ve just never been a fan of this costume.
Finally, by biggest issue with Superman Returns is Jason White, played by Tristan Lake Leabu. Jason White is Lois Lane’s son, whom we think belongs to her fiancé Richard, but is actually Superman’s son. This shocker wasn’t all that shocking, which is part of the problem. The moment the audience is introduced to the asthmatic little boy it knows the kid belongs to Superman, even though they look nothing alike. The kid doesn’t look like Lois, either. The thing that made me think that maybe the kid wasn’t Superman’s was the thought that I’m sure every fan had: Oh, wow. The creators of this movie are really adapting this by giving Lois a kid. It must be Superman’s, except, who’d be that stupid? Surely fans will revolt against this. But it is Superman’s son. Which, again, throws the plot into a weird light in regards to the Donner movies. There’s no hint in this movie (other than the boy) that Lois and Superman were ever together, just that they obviously cared for each other. So the question goes back to: Are the filmmakers going back to Superman II with this, and if so, which one? The Lester Cut has Superman giving up his powers before sleeping with Lois, which would mean his sperm wouldn’t have the super powers anymore, right? The Donner Cut has Superman sleep with Lois and then lose his powers. But since most people probably wouldn’t have seen this version, isn’t that a little out there? And if it doesn’t have anything to do with those cuts, or the first Donner Superman, then how come more isn’t made of Lois and Superman’s relationship? Does she realize who Clark is? There are so many damn questions, never mind the science of two different species conceiving a child. If it’s impossible for two species of creatures on Earth to conceive, how can a humanoid creature from another planet conceive with a human woman?
And that’s not even my biggest problem! Because if it were Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder on the Big Screen, directed by Donner, with a screenplay by Mankiewicz that exhibited the same dedication to the characters that their movies did, I’d be with Superman, Jr. Or if Singer and his writers done a better job with their characters and hired actors I could get behind more, I’d be with Superman, Jr. But that’s not what happened. Their story is good, but never really finds the right balance. Their actors are all right, but I have trouble really buying them as people who’ve gone through these kinds of adventures before. And the worst of the actors is, I hate to say it, Tristan Lake Leabu. Look, I don’t want to beat up on a little kid so I won’t say it’s his talent that’s lacking, I’m sure the kid is a fine actor as he’s worked in movies and television after Superman Returns, but it’s the story and the directing. He becomes a Creepy Kid. As I wrote about Miko Hughes in the otherwise phenomenal Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Creepy Kids seem to infiltrate many movies. Why does Jason White have to walk around like a zombie? Why must he have no personality? There’s nothing charming about what this kid does in the movie. Again, I don’t think it’s the young actor so much as the way Jason White is written and Bryan Singer’s direction for the boy. When a kid is used to advance the story like this, and really doesn’t do much else to contribute to it, he’s a prop, and the filmmakers should be ashamed. It would’ve been far more interesting having the child behave like a five-year-old child, running around, getting into true mischief, than having this Golden Boy who walks catatonically through the movie to finally throw a piano at someone.
After the Battle
I left the movie theater that summer night happy, and I guess that’s what really matters. Superman had returned (for the time being) and things would be getting back on track for me, too.
If it seems as though I dislike Superman Returns it’s because I get hung up on the details that bother me. I don’t dislike it, nor do I particularly like it. It’s better than Superman IV and, overall, Superman III (though there are parts of Superman III I like better than anything in Superman Returns). I think it was a lost opportunity. On its own, I think there’s some great stuff in this movie, but I think some of the ideas going into it were flawed, as were many storytelling aspects of it. I think Brandon Routh could’ve done better in the role had the script (and direction) had him do so. I think Bosworth does as well as she can but is miscast as Lois Lane. I guess I just expected something better from the people who brought us X-Men and X2.
I still would have seen a sequel to this, though. It does intrigue me on where Singer and company would’ve gone. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
After the mixed and bad reviews that Superman III received, as well as the same for Supergirl (1984), Alexander and Ilya Salkind sold the film rights to Superman to Golan-Globus Productions, which were working with Cannon Films. Interested in bringing Superman back to the big screen, they approached Christopher Reeve, who had pretty much sworn off playing Superman again. They made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: If he signed on to reprise his role as the Man of Steel, 1) he could help come up with the story, 2) they would greenlight any project he wanted, 3) if Superman IV were a success, he could direct Superman V. Reeve signed on.
The story came from an actual letter he received from an actual little boy who asked how come Superman didn’t get rid of all the nuclear weapons in existence. For those reading this who were born after 1990, keep in mind that while the shadow of nuclear holocaust still envelops us all, back in the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan as President and Gorbachev in power of the Soviet Union, it felt like there would be nuclear war at any time. I remember being a little boy and aware of this, terrified of it. By 1987, the year I turned 10, I’d been living with the understanding that the kind-looking old man we called President was really a lunatic with a charming smile, and so was the dude with bird doo on his head. So the idea that a little boy would write the actor who was Superman for a generation of youth isn’t surprising. The fact that Reeve wanted this to be the basis of the fourth Superman movie is surprising.
I saw some pretty earth-shattering movies in 1987: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Beverly Hills Cop II that were personal favorites. I also saw Three Men and a Baby and The Secret of My Success, because I was a big Michael J. Fox fan. Even though I wanted to see it, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace wasn’t in my cards. I had to wait until it came on HBO/Cinemax.
The movie that Reeve got Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus to produce was 1987’s Street Smart, which earned Morgan Freeman an Oscar nomination. As far as Superman V is concerned, well….
It’s 90 minutes long.
All right, all right. I’ll try harder.
The concept isn’t bad. The credit for story belongs to Christopher Reeve, Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal. Moving into a direction where Superman decides to go against the rule that he should not interfere with humanity on such a grand scale was done in the first movie, but it’s something that’s bound to come up again and again if you’re Superman.
Also, Christopher Reeve is still a real good Superman/Clark Kent. He still plays the part with earnestness and takes the character seriously. That’s important. He even dyed his hair this time around. The scenes of his I like the most are at the beginning when he’s on the Kent farm, just looking around. There’s a scene where he’s brooding on the couch of his apartment when there’s a knock at the door. He looks up, surprised, and grabs his glasses. It’s subtle but it never feels put-on. He’s even good as he’s sick from radiation poisoning (though I find this scene chilling since the makeup isn’t too different from what Reeve looked like as he began to lose his hair after his accident).
The acting is pretty bad by everyone else. Margot Kidder’s role is once again fairly prominent, Marc McClure returns as Jimmy Olsen (though his part is even less existent than in Superman III, where they at least gave him stuff to do other than stand in the background). Jackie Cooper is firing on all cylinders as Perry White in this one, though he seemed to have aged quite a bit in the four years between movies. Finally, Gene Hackman returns as Lex Luthor, which should be a welcome thing considering the watered-down villains of the previous installment. Newcomers include Mariel Hemingway as Lacy Warfield; Sam Wanamaker as her father, David Warfield; Jon Cryer as Lenny Luthor, Lex’s nephew; and Mark Pillow as Nuclear Man. With the exception of Cooper, all the acting falls flat. Kidder should be a welcome return but the dumbing down that began with Lester’s rewrite of Superman II continues here. As I mentioned, Jimmy Olsen is barely involved in this movie. The Warfields are boring, Wanamaker is the typical 1980s tycoon who cares only for money and Hemingway is the typical 1980s-spoiled-rich-girl-who-finds-there’s-more-to-life-than-money (that may be the longest hyphenated title I’ve ever written. May be). You’d think that Gene Hackman’s return would up the ante but he pretty much phones in his performance. There are maybe one or two good moments, but they’re brief moments. The rest of the time he’s hamming it up. Jon Cryer, one of my favorite actors of the 1980s, is horrible as the silly Lenny Luthor. Horrible. Uck. He actually calls Superman “The Dude of Steel.” I know that’s the writers’ fault but the fact that he agreed to say it…. And don’t get me started on the piece of cardboard called Mark Pillow. Maybe it’s because a decision was made that he’d sound like Lex Luthor (which doesn’t make sense), his acting is wooden. Or it could be that he was a terrible actor. His IMDb résumé shows that this was his only film role, and he only acted twice afterward on TV.
I think there’s a good reason for the bad acting: bad script and direction. The screenplay is by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (I’ve already mentioned they worked with Reeve on the story) (and now I’ve mentioned it again), and Sidney J. Furie directed. Now, Furie seems to have been around forever and has done some good work, but Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is not among the good. I’ll be talking about the budget for the movie, which was low and seems to be the thing blamed most for the poor reviews and earnings of the movie, soon enough, but I think the small budget is only a fraction of the issue. Sure, you may not be able to have great special effects or shoot on the locations one would like, but that doesn’t excuse sloppy acting, writing, or directing.
I mentioned above that this movie is only 90 minutes long. Superman: The Movie runs at 2 hrs 23 mins (the Extended Edition runs 2 hrs 31 mins), Superman II runs 2 hrs 7 mins (I’ll add the Richard Donner Cut only because you may be interested: 1 hr 54 mins, but keep in mind that this really isn’t a finished film, but rather as finished as it could get nearly 30 years after shooting began), and Superman III runs 2 hrs 5 mins. At 90 minutes, it’s the shortest of the Christopher Reeve series. That was not the intention. The original script went much longer and there was much more footage shot. Word is that Cannon Films cut nearly 45 minutes from the film during the editing phase. Part of it was due to budgetary issues, a lot of it was because it was just bad. There are several places for more information about this, including Mark Rosenthal’s commentary on the DVD and Blu Ray releases of this movie. The Superman Homepage is one such place, as is Caped Wonder. If you’re interested but don’t feel like going to hardcore Superman websites, then Wikipedia will do. No matter, the extra 45 minutes would’ve brought the movie up to 2 hrs 15 mins, the second longest movie of the series. Rest assured, having seen some of the cut material on the Superman Anthology Blu Ray of the movie (if my reading is correct, there’s actually more deleted goodness on a DVD version of the movie), no one is missing anything.
And it goes back to story. As the movie opens, The Daily Planet is being bought by David Warfield, who is planning on turning the Planet into a tabloid and letting his daughter, Lacy, run it. So it pokes fun at the Rupert Murdochs of the world, as well as every other businessman who performed hostile takeovers of companies and destroyed them. As this is happening, arms talks fail and it’s announced that both the United States and the Soviet Union are going to expand their nuclear weapons, which could lead to, well…BOOM! A school somewhere is watching this where two of the worst actors of the movie are. One is a school teacher and the other is the boy, Jeremy, who will write Superman despite the taunts of classmates. He wants to know why Superman doesn’t just collect all the nuclear weapons of the world and destroy them. After some back-and-forth and public humiliation, Superman, Jeremy, and a crowd that includes Lois Lane, Lacy Warfield, Jimmy Olsen (I think), and many others, go to the U.N. (not the real U.N.–not even close) where Superman announces to the world leaders that he will be ridding the world of all nuclear weapons. And, just like it happens in real life, every world leader agrees to let this alien from another planet, who could kill them all with a fart, take the weapons they’ve spent decades and billions of dollars building and accumulating and destroy them. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor breaks out of jail with the help of his nephew, Lenny. Luthor devises a plan to stop Superman by taking some of Superman’s hair from a museum exhibit, grinding it up, using some science, and launching it into the sun on one of the missiles to create…(music)…Nuclear Man! There’s fighting and this and that and Superman wins and gives a speech. The end.
If you skipped over the above paragraph, or skimmed through it once you realized it was the movie’s story, I don’t blame you. But you have to understand that it’s that kind of movie. The kind that you feel compelled to retell in detail because you’re not sure it could be that bad. Watching the movie is painful at times, and it’s the story. It often feels like the screenwriters took pieces from the previous Superman movies and threw them into this one because they knew fans enjoyed them the first time around. One of Superman’s earlier appearances in this movie is when Clark misses the subway but Lois gets on. The driver has a heart attack and Superman has to save the train. He literally stops rescue personnel from getting to the driver to tell the crowd that the train is still one of the safest ways to get around the city. Just like he told Lois in the first movie that flying was, statistically speaking, the safest form of travel right after the helicopter she was in nearly killed her. Speaking of Lois Lane…. Remember that scene I mentioned where Clark is brooding in his apartment until a knock on the door? Well, it’s Lois. They’re going somewhere together and he’s not ready. He takes her by the hand, goes onto his balcony with her, and they walk off the building with her protesting and screaming. He changes to Superman in front of her and she suddenly remembers Superman II. Then, like Superman: The Movie, Lois and Superman fly around. Only this time, he actually lets go and she keeps flying (more on this later). Finally, they return and he feels better. He kisses her and as she stands, out of it, he quickly changes back to Clark Kent and she awakens, having forgotten that Kent and Superman are one and the same. You know, like Superman II. Of course, Lex Luthor is back and there’s a supervillain with many similar powers. There’s a return to the farm in Smallville and the Fortress of Solitude with holograms. It’s all familiar and so bad the second time around. There’s very little original in this movie and when there is, it’s bad.
Take the double date between Lacy Warfield and Clark Kent and Lois Lane and Superman. It’s supposed to happen at Lacy’s apartment where Lois is cooking for them. What happens in this scene is some fun slapstick for a kid, where Kal-El keeps changing between Superman and Clark Kent, doing things to trick the women so they don’t know the two are the one (I wrote that purposefully confusing). I remember particularly enjoying this scene at the age of 10 but now, at 35, I find it pretty mean. Why schedule both “dates” on the same night with women who will be together? Lois needs to interview Superman, and Lacy has the hots for Clark. Okay. So why allow them to happen together? The same night, a few hours apart? All right. But together? No. Only a dick would do that. No logic.
And speaking of logic, because of the cuts made, and the poor budget, there are some ridiculous leaps from logic and science. At the end, Nuclear Man sees a picture of Lacy Warfield and decides he must have her. He goes to the Daily Planet building and lands on the street outside, because that’s what a guy with super powers would do, as opposed to busting through an exterior wall. He wreaks havoc and suddenly Superman re-appears (he was nearly killed after his last fight with Nuclear Man) and shouts, “Leave her alone!” or something like that. Huh? How does he know why Nuclear Man (oh, how it pains me to write that name) is there? Well, it’s in the cut scenes, which actually make things more complicated. Anyway, Nuclear Man finally gets Lacy and flies her into space. Go back, reread that sentence. I’ll wait. Good? Good. Yeah, Nuclear Man takes Lacy Warfield into space sans spacesuit. You know, he takes her into the freezing vacuum of space unprotected. And Superman is okay with this. He saves her, but… Ugh. Need I go on? I know it seems trivial to be upset about her not having a spacesuit since, by all rights, even Superman should, technically, have one. I’m willing to buy that Superman (and his kind) can survive in space without a suit, fine, but not a human. Not no way, not no how. And there’s the science of Lois’s flying alone. It happens for a few seconds in the film (the deleted scene had her flying alone for far longer) but is ridiculous and goes against what happens in the first movie when Lois’s hand slips from Superman’s and she begins plummeting. And there are more instances, I’m sure, but time is running out and I still have more bases to cover.
The budget was miniscule. As I mentioned before, the budget is the thing that seems to get the most blame for the quality of the movie. That’s horsepucky. Yeah, the effects suck, but they were already on the decline in Superman III. Now they’re even worse. Apparently, Cannon Films had many movies in development that, for a small company, ended up hurting all the films. They simply didn’t have the funds to make the movie they’d intended. Consider the costs of making the prior three movies:
- Superman: The Movie – $55 million
- Superman II – $54 million
- Superman III – $39 million
When you take into consideration that the first films were begun simultaneously and one of the reasons that the Salkinds fired Richard Donner was that he went over schedule and over budget, it should come as no surprise that the third film’s budget is lower. Most likely, that’s probably closer to the budget wanted for each of the first two movies. Now, according to the Wikipedia article on the Superman series (and they give the source as Empire), the original budget for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was $35 million. That was cut, though, due to all the other films Cannon was trying to do. The final tally for the budget of the fourth film of one of the most popular franchises of the 1980s was…(drumroll)…$17 million. We’re talking low-rent Superman in a time before rampant digital effects. Still, that doesn’t excuse poor writing, poor directing, or poor acting. Hell, let’s throw the editor under the bus, too. Poor editing. The reason the budget was probably cut wasn’t only because of all the other movies Cannon was trying to make at the time, but probably because the Powers That Be saw the script, saw some of the crap that was coming in from dailies (like the first Nuclear Man. Yes, there were originally two. The first one is like Bizarro and is destroyed the first time he fights Superman), and said, “Hells no!”
After the Battle
Look, I could keep going. I’m at nearly 2,800 words at this point, though, and you want to go back to your life. Needless to say, this movie is bad. The only charm this movie has to offer is that it’s so 1980s. When I did a similar essay on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, another movie I hate that comes from a much-loved franchise, I mentioned one of the only redeeming factors of the movie is its 1980s charm. The same can nearly be said about this movie. The shoulder pads, Nuclear Man’s hair, the corporate greed thing as well as the nuclear arms thing–these all give the movie some charm, but it’s taken 26 years.
As a 10-year-old when I watched it on HBO/Cinemax, I was shocked by how bad it was. Yeah, some of it entertained me, but most of it was bad. My opinion on it hasn’t changed in that regard, and has only become more venomous. I never understand how people who get the ability to take the reins on such a good franchise would hurt it so much. I know that wasn’t anyone’s intention, but it still angers me. Maybe it’s that inner-9-year-old who still dreams of being a filmmaker, but when things go so wrong like this, it gives me pause and makes me angry. Give me the keys to the goddamn car and let me drive! Alas, that will not be.
Due to the failure of this film, the Superman franchise died. There was always talk of the possibility that maybe, possibly, someone would come along and rejuvenate the franchise. That Christopher Reeve would don the blue spandex and red cape and fly once again. But you and I know that would not happen. You and I know that it wasn’t Kryptonite that would kill this Superman. It was almost 20 years before Superman would fly across the Silver Screen again, and my, how things changed in that time.
One Last Word
If you’ve been reading these essays since the beginning, then you surely noticed that I mentioned Christopher Reeve’s performance in each of his movies. I struggled about whether or not I should do so. After all, death tends to sweeten such a performance. The thing is, that’s not the case here. Reeve was a great actor who never really got the credit he deserved in his screen career. His comic timing was great, his energy always came through, and he was classically trained and able to do drama. His way of speaking his lines and his acting was unique. I sometimes think about what would have happened had he not fallen off that goddamn horse in 1995. I like to think he would’ve had a career upswing sometime in the 1990s, one that would’ve brought him along to us today. It looks as though his career was already on an upswing when the accident happened.
The thing about Christopher Reeve as Superman was that he was always approachable, and I think that’s because Reeve himself embodied much of that same spirit. Kirk Alyn’s Superman was eager to fight bad guys and be Superman. George Reeves was the wise uncle. Sure, he’d fight the bad guys, but he always had good advice. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was earnest, honest, and had true beliefs and morals, and was flawed. He was our brother, our friend. One of the successes of Superman IV, that I purposely waited until now to mention, is its politics. In that way, it’s a brave movie. Greed, war, fear are all bad and government-sanctioned in some capacity, but Superman is able to still see the good in everyone and uses his kindness to sway others. He acts as a role model, not out of a sense of being better than us but by trying to be us. Reeve surely brought a lot of that into the role.
As a child, Christopher Reeve was a hero. Not because he was Christopher Reeve, but because he was Superman. As an adult, Christopher Reeve was a hero. Not because he was Superman, but because he was Christopher Reeve.
In 2000, I went in for an appendectomy and woke up with much more done to me. My appendix had been fine when they removed it and further exploration led the surgeon to discover that my intestine had ruptured due to undiagnosed Crohn’s Disease. This led to a temporary colostomy bag. What was supposed to be “three, four months,” became a year-and-a-half. During that time, whenever I’d fart in public because I couldn’t stop it, whenever I’d have an issue with a colostomy bag leaking, whenever I felt bad for myself because of my situation, I’d tell myself, If Christopher Reeve–Superman–can find a way to stay positive and keep fighting, then I can get through this.
Reeve’s accident happened days after I signed out of high school.
I learned of his death in an apartment I lived in a few months after my separation from my first wife. I think I cried. I don’t remember. I remember, though, the feeling that this man had lived. He’d done good for others. He was…well…Superman.
One last, brief, thing. The story of Superman IV can work. In 1998, DC Comics published an oversized graphic novel called Superman: Peace on Earth. It was written by Paul Dini and painted by Alex Ross. In it, Superman decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons. However, instead of all the nations of the world cheering him, many are offended and threaten war. It’s a beautifully written and illustrated book that I highly recommend.
1983 was a big year for me. I turned six in August. I was finishing up kindergarten that spring and going into first grade that fall. And, most importantly, the third film of my favorite movie series was coming out: Return of the Jedi! I was also excited that there was a new Superman movie. I only got to see one of them that summer, though, and the honor went to Return of the Jedi. Still, I was very much aware of Superman III and even watched the hour-long Making Of special that aired on TV to promote the movie. What a delight for a six-year-old that special was! Superman was going to go bad! That funny dude from The Toy (which had been on HBO), Richard Pryor–whom Mom said told dirty jokes for adults–would be in it. There was a lady named Lana Lang, and Clark Kent would go back to Smallville. And, the coolest of all: Superman would fight Clark Kent…in a junk yard!
When the movie finally came to HBO, I was not disappointed. I thought it was strange that Lois Lane was only in it at the beginning and at the end, but I thought the movie was funny and full of adventure. Sure, even at six/seven I knew it wasn’t as good as the previous movies, but I liked it well enough. So much so that when Dad brought me to an auto salvage yard, I re-enacted the fight scene. Alone. It gave the guy to whom my father spoke a great laugh. And imagine my shock when I discovered, on the dirt next to some scrap metal, a pair of broken glasses. Unaware of just how big the world was, I thought that maybe–just maybe–they shot the movie in that junk yard.
The Salkinds and Spengler rehired their screenwriters from the first two Superman films, David Newman and Leslie Newman, as well as director Richard Lester, to return to the franchise for Superman III. Most of the original cast returned, too. And with Richard Pryor on board, the movie was sure to be a winner. Right?
Christopher Reeve’s return as Superman is the best part of this movie. After all the time playing the Man of Steel from 1976 through 1980 for the first two movies, by the time he returned for 1983’s film, he had it down. Of course, the reason most people are even willing to rewatch this movie is when Superman turns bad. The bad guys give Superman synthetic Kryptonite with one wrong ingredient (this actually happens in 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman) that turns him bad instead of killing him. As a result, we get to see him leer at and try to pick up Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), be mean to people, have sex with the bad guy’s squeeze (played by Pamela Stephenson), and become a drunk. His suit gets darker, too; the same shade as the suits in Superman Returns (2006) and Man of Steel (2013). The best part, though, is the fight between Superman and Clark Kent. It’s pretty deep when you get right down to it. The Bad Superman is a symbol of the feelings that Superman surely puts to rest while Clark Kent is the symbol of the wholesome goodness he tries to live by. Does Superman literally break into two people? Is it just in his mind? Who cares? Even though the special effects are somewhat dated now, it’s fun to watch. Of course, I’ve always loved the idea of an actor playing off him/herself onscreen. It probably goes with my love of dual personalities and the like. Either way, the Bad Superman parts of this movie (which go longer than the Powerless Superman parts of the prior movie) are fun, if not somewhat silly. And you can tell Christopher Reeve is having fun. Not in a silly, slapstick way, but he’s digging his teeth into the chance to go dark.
As a matter of fact, Reeve is the only serious thing in this movie. He takes the character(s) seriously and it shows. And as much fun as it is to see him as Bad Superman, for my money, I think his best performance in this movie is as Clark Kent. It’s established in the first scenes that he would like to return to Smallville for his high school reunion (Class of ’65 representin’!). At the reunion he runs into Lana Lang, his high school crush (she’s actually featured in the first film). Lana is divorced and raising a little boy on her own. There is an attraction between Clark and Lana almost from the go and it plays out slowly through the movie. Unlike the romance between Lois and Superman, which became quite intense, the romance between Lana and Clark is simple, much more innocent. Of course, the big thing is that Lana likes Clark for Clark, whereas Lois accepted Clark as Superman but was pretty dismissive of him beforehand. Reeve understands this and it’s in his performance. Around Lana, Clark isn’t stumbling around. He isn’t the joke. He’s a real man, though he still has to throw people off the scent of Superman.
Annette O’Toole is also pretty good as Lana Lang. She’s not a Lois Lane 2.0, which is a direction the producers, writers, or director could have gone. She’s more innocent but wants to move on, wants to leave her life in Smallville for a life in Metropolis. Fear holds her back, as it does to so many. O’Toole plays the role earnestly. Plus, I just think she’s beautiful. I love her. Don’t tell my wife.
As I write this, I am at about 960 words. I never intend for these essays to go much past 1,000 words. However, the more I dislike something, the longer the essay gets. I’m going to try to keep this minimal, but it’s really not my fault. It’s the goddamn filmmakers’ fault. So….
The move opens, pre-credits, on Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) standing in a jam-packed unemployment office. He’s being kicked off unemployment after a year or so because he can’t hold down a job. When he asks another patron for a light, he sees an ad on the matchbook cover for a school for computer programmers. He grunts as though this might be a good idea, and we’re off.
Think about that opening for a moment. This is a Superman movie. There’s no Krypton, no crime, no Superman. Just Richard Pryor doing Richard Pryor (and doing it well, I might add) and then the loose set-up. If the prologue is supposed to set the tone for the rest of the movie (which it should) then this isn’t a promising start to the third Superman adventure. But okay, cut them some slack. Once the titles are streaming by us in space and we get to Metropolis and Clark, Lois, and the rest of the gang at The Daily Planet, surely things will go back into normal territory and we’ll be on our way. Gus Gorman will prove to be an important villain or ally for Superman and everything will be right. After all, these are the people who made Superman II.
So imagine the surprise that befalls the viewer when the opening credits don’t stream past us in space, but rather in blurry places at the top and bottom of the screen as a slapstick comedy opening ensues. We’re talking mechanical toy penguins running amok (one has its head on fire and is extinguished by Clark Kent), a blind man chasing his seeing-eye dog, a man who’s had a paint bucket fall over his head and then crashes into a gumball machine, the gumballs of which roll under the feet of a mime. There’s even a cream pie in the face of some poor schmuck who’s been weaving his way through this mess since the beginning. Oh! And there’s a bank robbery that goes unchecked and a guy who almost drowns in his car after it strikes a fire hydrant and fills his car with water until Superman rescues him. And that’s not all of it, either. Not by a long shot.
It’s the humor in the movie that essentially hurts it. Superman‘s humor came from character and life. Sure, Lex Luthor and Otis were a little silly, but you had no doubt that Lex Luthor would happily murder millions and not give a damn. Superman II began camping it up under Richard Lester’s control, but with a movie that still had quite a bit of Richard Donner’s (uncredited) work in it, the slapstick campy humor didn’t drown out the drama. Superman III does not have Donner’s or Mankiewicz’s touches on it at all. The script is all David and Leslie Newman, whose script for the first two movies were pretty distasteful to Donner, which is why he brought Mankiewicz on to rewrite them (uncredited, see the first Superman‘s essay). The movie is all theirs and Lester’s, and this is the heart of the problem. It keeps going for the laughs when it shouldn’t, because their laughs aren’t funny. It’s like watching two movies playing simultaneously, a Superman movie and a Richard Pryor movie.
Which leads me to Richard Pryor, a man–a legend–whom I admire a great deal. Richard Pryor has an Every Man way about him that really comes across on film. He was a great actor. Some of his scenes in this very movie are wonderful. Just not when he’s being funny. When he breaks into the Pryor persona, it falls flat. This is not the right kind of vehicle for him or his comedic talents and it sticks out and hurts the movie. I think he would’ve been great had they dropped some of the silliness and had him play it straight. The premise for his character is pretty cool, really. He’s a down-on-his-luck guy who finds out he’s a savant with computers. He makes a mistake by trying to rob his boss (Robert Vaughn) who catches him and is evil in his own way. He decides to use Gorman’s talents for bad and Gorman goes along out of fear. There could have been a really good human story here. Instead, we have Richard Pryor pretending he’s other people, from a salesman to a general, to trick people. We have strange, funny hand gestures. We have him skiing off a building and surviving.
The villains are pretty shabby, too. The rumor is that Gene Hackman refused to work with the Salkinds again after the firing of Donner (it’s said he refused reshooting scenes for Superman II) so instead of Lex Luthor we got Robert Vaughn. I have to look up Vaughn’s character’s name, hold on. He played Ross Webster. Annie Ross plays Vera Webster, his sister. Rounding out the villains is Pamela Stephenson who plays Lorelei Ambrosia. Now, I had to use Wikipedia for those names because I didn’t know them, not through the movie, not now. Vaughn, who’s been around forever, plays the evilish Webster in the way one might expect, sneering, overly dramatic, very different than Hackman’s matter-of-fact villainous ways. Pamela Stephenson’s character is sort of Otis mixed with Miss Teschmacher, only not good at either. I find that they make her pretty intelligent at moments but she hides it whenever her man and his sister is in the room. She’s conning them, and that’s the best part about this trio. There’s no real scheme they’re plotting. After Webster discovers Gus Gorman stealing from him by being a savvy computer guy (remember, this is 1983) he decides to use Gorman’s talents to ruin the Colombian coffee crop for a reason I have since forgotten. Gorman takes over a computer that runs a satellite that has the power to control the weather and–I don’t know. It goes from there to them wanting to control the oil, and there’s a super computer that suddenly becomes alive and Vera Webster becomes a cyborg and–
I know. It’s crazy. Let’s move on.
Lois who? Margot Kidder is convinced that the producers were punishing her for being vocal in the press about firing Richard Donner so they gave her what amounted to a walk-on part. Ilya Salkind refutes that. I say, who cares? She’s not in it, and when she is she isn’t all that great. If she was embarrassed by it, why sign on? Was the paycheck that good? I don’t know, but it does feel strange to have her gone and Clark Kent seemingly fall for someone else, when the last two films were about Lois and Clark/Superman’s love.
Superman doesn’t have black hair. I don’t know if Reeve didn’t want to dye his hair black this time around, but his hair is his dirty-blonde/light brown color. With the stuff they use to style the hair of both Superman and Clark Kent, it’s hard to tell completely, but for a lot of my life, I thought it was gray hair showing. It took the remastered Blu Ray to realize it was dirty-blonde showing. Continuity, man.
It’s mean-spirited. I found quite a bit of Superman III mean-spirited. Maybe it’s the 1980s vibe in this movie, maybe it’s that David and Leslie Newman and Richard Lester are just mean-spirited, but I was unhappy with some of the jokes. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe there should be limits on humor. Everything is game, if it’s funny. But from the bumbling blind man at the beginning, to the silly happenings as the computers malfunction and we’re shown the effects of these changes on citizens, there’s mean-spirited stuff. Sexist, too. One example of the sexist humor comes during a montage of shots when Gorman has used the computer to create havoc. A man and woman, husband and wife, sit down for breakfast. The man is older, with a mustache, wearing a jacket and tie. The woman is a mousy housewife type. Both have grapefruit in front of them. The man opens an envelope from Bloomingdale’s and finds he owes something like $175,000. He takes the grapefruit and pushes it into his wife’s face. She just takes it and then gives a Lucy-type eyeroll! What the hell? And then there’s Lorelei Ambrosia. She is supposed to be Webster’s Miss Teschmacher and she’s definitely got big boobs that are flaunted as much as possible in a PG-rated kid’s movie. Unlike Valerie Perrine’s performance as Miss Teschmacher, though, Pamela Stephenson plays Ambrosia as trampy, stupid, and selfish. The few times we see that she’s actually pretty intelligent, she quickly hides it for Webster and his sister. And when she seduces Bad Superman, it hits a new low.
After the Battle
I can’t say that I hate Superman III because I don’t. There are some people who do hate it and I understand why. While it never really hits any of the heights of the first two movies, Superman III does have some good, watchable moments. It’s really the performances of Reeve and Pryor that make this movie. The supporting cast ranges from real good (O’Toole) to unwatchable (the lottery winners) but it definitely is a step down from the previous movies.
Coming out a month after Return of the Jedi to lukewarm reviews, Superman III disappointed all around. The Salkinds would try one last Super- adventure on the big screen (1984’s Supergirl) before bringing Superboy to syndicated television in the late-1980s/early-1990s. In interviews to promote the movie, Christopher Reeve said he doubted he’d ever do another Superman movie. If only he’d stuck to his guns….
I don’t remember when I first heard/read about the fiasco between Richard Donner and the producers of the Superman movies. It may have been in issues of Entertainment Weekly or Starlog or even online. Either way, I was in my teens or early twenties. Maybe my mother read or heard it somewhere and informed me. Either way, there was a Eureka! moment for me, when it made sense that the feel of Superman II is different than Superman: The Movie and Lois Lane is hardly in Superman III. I know that the documentaries that came on the 2000 release of the Superman movies on DVD, along with the special extended edition of the first movie, went into it a little. And like Superman fans around the world, I wondered what could have been. By the time I really knew about Donner’s firing, Christopher Reeve was already paralyzed from the neck down and the idea that there was, apparently, a load of unused footage of him in his most famous acting role was heartbreaking. If only Warner Bros. or the Salkinds would release the footage. If only someone would go by Donner’s notes and try to piece together what was filmed for his version of Superman II (surely Donner, who’d moved onto The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon series, and other successful films, wouldn’t want to come back) it would be such a great thing to honor Reeve, the late-Marlon Brando, and the hard work put in by everyone involved in those movies.
In 2004, Christopher Reeve died. It wasn’t a surprise. Still, it broke my heart.
I don’t remember when I first heard/read about the release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, but I was excited. As a matter of fact, it was one of the first DVDs I got from Netflix when I joined.
Due to demands made by fans worldwide (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns being on its way toward theaters at the time was a big influence) Warner Bros., who now owned the sole film rights for all the Superman movies, went to Richard Donner and asked if he wanted to do a special edition. He agreed, bringing his friend and collaborator Tom Mankiewicz back into the fray. Using remastered footage from the original shoot of both Superman and Superman II, along with some Richard Lester footage, two screen tests, and even a few brand new shots, Donner told the second chapter of the Superman story as it was originally written. Or at least as close as he could manage under the circumstances.
The DVD came during a particularly dark period for me. I was living with my parents again, not long after the divorce from my first wife. I was depressed. This movie made me very happy, while it also hurt a great deal.
It’s essentially the same story as the theatrical Superman II. General Zod, Ursa, and Non are freed from the Phantom Zone and come to Earth. Superman and Lois Lane consummate their relationship and he gives up his powers for her. He gets his ass kicked and finds out about Zod, goes back to get his powers back, fights Zod and crew in Metropolis, and finally leads them back to the Fortress of Solitude where he defeats them. Lex Luthor even escapes jail the same way, finds out info about Superman the same way, and sits in the background the same way. By the end, Lois has forgotten that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same and everything is status quo again.
Yet, it’s very different.
I intend to keep this one short. I don’t wish to get as carried away by this movie as I did with the original version. Let’s see what happens….
Should I even waste the space mentioning Christopher Reeve as Superman? I think I do. I think his performance is even more impressive in The Donner Cut than in Lester’s version. While a lot of Donner’s footage was used in Lester’s movie, a lot wasn’t. Most of the Daily Planet scenes in Superman II were rewritten and reshot, which led to the continuity errors mentioned in the last essay. That said, the idea that Reeve, Kidder, and the rest would shoot a scene in Perry White’s office for Superman, then go change, come back, and shoot a scene for Superman II where there seems to be a higher comfort level for Clark and the rest is pretty amazing. Reeve brings a certain intensity and seriousness to the role that seems even more on display with Donner behind the camera than with Lester. Maybe it’s comfort. I don’t know, but while he’s great in the 1980 Superman II, he positively shines in the 2006 Donner Cut. The scene when he returns to the Fortress of Solitude after getting his ass kicked is so much more powerful in this version, with Reeve playing it not only as desperate but terrified, because–
Brando returns. By the time Warner Bros. approached Donner to do his cut, Brando was dead and his family had given consent to use footage of him as Jor-El. This meant that the story of Jor-El and Kal-El continued to its logical, and heartbreaking, conclusion. I don’t want to give anything away in case you’ve skipped this version of Superman II, but suffice it to say that the scene is great. To know that greed triumphed over this scene back in the original is a sin.
The movie is less silly. Even the scenes that needed to be kept that Richard Lester shot have been re-edited to excise superfluous silliness. If you’re from Krypton, you’re taken seriously. If you work for the Daily Planet, you’re taken seriously. The humor in this movie comes from the same place as the first film: Lex Luthor and company, as well as the simple things that come out of life, best personified by Clark Kent. The rednecks, the silly army stunts, Non’s silliness, Lois Lane’s screechy stupidity, and the people of Metropolis’s odd comments and sight-gags are all gone. That’s not to say that everything is dead serious. Lois and Clark still have witty banter, Otis still almost brings the balloon down, and other funny moments pepper the film, but they’re from character, not set-ups.
The story makes more sense because the continuity is kept in better check. From first-to-second movie, to the scenes within this movie itself, it just flows better. Let’s look at an example.
In Richard Lester’s Superman II (1980), Superman takes Lois Lane to the Fortress of Solitude. They have dinner, falling deeper in love as they do. Finally, he decides he wants to be with her, so he calls on Lara (Susannah York) and is given a speech. A chamber comes up and he steps inside. Red light shines and there’s a pretty cool special effects shot of the breakdown of Superman. The audience sort of goes into Superman and watches him become (gasp!) normal. In a strange turn of events, Superman’s costume and hair fade to street clothes and simpler hair, and he leaves the chamber as Clark Kent. Then he and Lois sleep together.
As a kid, I wondered: How the heck did his clothes change? Why did his hair suddenly change? It made no sense.
Now, Donner’s cut (2006): Superman still takes Lois to the Fortress of Solitude. They still have dinner, falling deeper in love as they do. Finally, he decides he wants to be with her, so…they sleep together. Now, let’s ignore the science of interplanetary coitus for a moment, and how someone who is called the Man of Steel might accidentally kill his lover when he…well…you know. It’s a beautiful scene, done the same way as in the theatrical version. Now, though, he awakens and leaves Lois in the shiny silver bed. We next see him dressed in a white shirt and dark pants. He is talking to Jor-El, the same basic conversation he has with Lara. And this time, not only is Lois watching, but she’s watching him wearing Superman’s shirt! It’s a subtle touch, but so effective. Even more effective, the holographic head of Jor-El looking at Lois in an accusatory way as Kal-El becomes Clark Kent. Again, the drama in the situation is heightened and makes more sense. When Clark Kent steps out of the chamber, sans special effects of him coming apart on the inside, he is wearing the street clothes he went in wearing. His hair is the same. He’s just…different. Another superb moment by Christopher Reeve.
The biggest problem with this movie is, of course, that it isn’t really the sequel to Superman. Because it wasn’t finally put together until nearly 30 years after it should’ve been, it looks like a rough cut of the movie in some places. I got the sense that this is a good outline, in some cases, of the way the final film would’ve looked. That it was mostly the best thing they could come up with based on what they had. Which is exactly what it is. The joy of watching this movie isn’t getting Richard Donner’s definitive vision, but rather as close to it as we’ll ever get, which is pretty damn close. In that way, this movie works wonderfully.
The ending. I could’ve this in the 1980 Superman II essay but chose not to because I was already very long. The deaths of Zod, Ursa, and Non. Superman tricks them out of their powers and then beats the hell out of them. Well, out of Zod and Non. Lois takes care of Ursa. They fall into the nothingness of the Fortress of Solitude and, we presume, their deaths. In the Donner Cut, the same thing happens. They up it, though, by showing only Superman and Lois Lane leaving the Fortress. They lands miles away and Superman turns around and uses his heat vision to destroy the place. Unlike Lester’s Superman II, Lex Luthor is not shown leaving with Superman and Lois, so one must assume that he’s still in the Fortress. A cut scene in the Special Features section of the Blu Ray shows the three Kryptonian villains and Luthor being taken away by the U.S. Arctic Patrol, presumably to jail. I’d understand why this was cut. If the Fortress of Solitude was supposed to be a secret, how would they get there? Of course, it also helps understand why Superman would destroy his little piece of Krypton. In the theatrical version of the movie, Superman leaves with Lois and Luthor and the Fortress of Solitude remains.
The ending, part 2. As I mentioned in the my essay on Superman: The Movie, the scene of Superman changing Earth’s spin, and thereby changing time, was supposed to end Superman II. In The Richard Donner Cut, the movie begins with what Donner wanted for the original ending of the first movie (and a much better scene of the Phantom Zone Prisoners’ escape) and ends with the Earth-spin-time-changing sequence. I feel like this is even more confusing than it was in the first movie. Did this whole second movie not happen? Isn’t that akin to saying it was all a dream? I don’t know. I really just don’t like this ending, either way. If this is only to make Lois forget about their romance, it’s kind of douchey. Speaking of which–
The ending, part 3. This is the ending of both versions of Superman II, shot by Donner. Superman saves the world and goes back to the diner where he got his ass kicked in the few days he went without power. There’s Mr. Wonderful himself, the truck driver who kicked his sorry ass. And, being the hero we all aspire to be, Clark Kent/Superman shows just how human he has become by humiliating and, essentially, kicking the bully’s ass. Now, I’m torn on this part. As a kid who was bullied, and who has some great stories about me getting my ass kicked, I still cheer that Superman/Clark Kent teaches the bully a lesson. Still, it is unbecoming for a hero who should be teaching by example. In essence, by teaching that lesson, he sorta kinda becomes the bully himself. Do you disagree?
After the Battle
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a beautifully executed case of What Might Have Been. This is not the movie that Donner would’ve released, but is as close as we’ll ever get, and it’s fine. It is a labor of love and the love seeps through. It’s also a fascinating thing to watch for those wanting to be filmmakers. To compare and contrast the two versions of Superman II shows how you can get two very good movies with the same basic story, but how the minor details can make or break aspects of it. Which do I prefer? I don’t know. Both have things I love, both have things I’m not fond of. Either way, it’s worth seeing whether you’ve seen the original Superman II a million times or only once.
Based on the success of Alexander Salkind’s, Ilya Salkind’s, and Pierre Spangler’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) being shot together as though they were one movie, when the rights to Superman were bought in 1974, the decision was made that they’d make two movies together. So their original screenwriter, Mario Puzo, wrote one massive script that was eventually rewritten by Robert Benton, David Newman, and Leslie Newman into two screenplays. When Richard Donner was hired to direct the films, he brought in his friend Tom Mankiewicz to overhaul the screenplays, though his credit on the film was as creative consultant. In April 1977, filming commenced on both Superman: The Movie and Superman II. However, due to the production of both films going over schedule and overbudget, as well as clashes between the producers and Donner, the production of Superman II was halted to focus on finishing and releasing the first film.
Because it was known that a sequel would be made, Superman: The Movie introduced its sequel’s villains in its opening scenes. Brando is putting General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) on trial for treason against Krypton. The council votes them guilty, with Jor-El’s vote the deciding factor. Zod announces that because Jor-El’s was the vote that sealed their fate, that he and his heirs will pay and kneel before him. The three criminals are placed in a flying piece of glass which holds them in the Phantom Zone. It’s one of the more jaw-dropping moments of the first film, with a giant dome opening on the crystal planet and a ray of light shooting up into the night sky and space. Superman II opens on Krypton with the three criminals going bad, getting caught, and being put to trial…without Jor-El.
It is the first change an audience member would have noticed sitting in their movie theater back in 1981. They may or may not have heard why Brando was suddenly not in the scene, I wouldn’t know, I was only three years old and knew of Superman II only through trading cards. Of course, with the huge success of Superman, one would think that the producers would have happily returned to shooting Superman II with all the original cast and crew, but that’s not what happened.
Of course, the story is legendary and if you’re here reading this, you probably know it. Still, in case you don’t know the story….
Because of the clashes between Donner and the Salkinds (I’m hoarding Spengler with them), even though Superman: The Movie was a huge success, Donner was not asked back to finish the sequel, effectively being fired. The Salkinds went with their friend, director of their Musketeer movies, Richard Lester. In order for Lester to get sole credit as director (so the story goes), he would need to shoot more than was actually left of shooting on Superman II when Donner and company left off. So more rewrites were done and in 1979, shooting (and in some cases, reshooting) began on Superman II.
I eventually saw it on HBO or Cinemax when I was about five or six. I knew about it, though, and I knew of the horrible happenings in the story: Superman and Lois Lane “get married” (that’s how it was explained to me). I was horrified. The two things the main heroes–my main heroes–could not do, under any circumstances, were: 1) Fall in love/get married, or 2) cry. When I get to the Star Wars Saga (if I get to the Star Wars Saga) you’ll hear more about that rule. Kissing was all right, but actual falling in love and marriage? Absolutely not. Still, I liked the rest of the movie at that age, even more than the first movie, which had slow moments. But I’m not a kid anymore (despite writing ad nauseum about kid’s fair), so, let’s take a look at Superman II.
Superman returns! It’s the common complaint of these kinds of movies and it started with this series: The first movie may be great but it’s always a build-up until the superhero we’ve paid money to see finally makes it onscreen. Nearly an hour goes by in Superman: The Movie before we finally see Superman, and it’s another 15 minutes or so before he saves Lois Lane in the helicopter scene, his coming out party. In Superman II, he pops up in the first 20 minutes, probably even sooner. Lois is at the Eiffel Tower trying to get a story on a terrorist situation and is in trouble and Superman shows up to rescue her (and set up the rest of the movie). Because a lot of the movie was shot at the same time as the first movie, and because Reeve’s embodiment of Kal-El is so pitch-perfect, it doesn’t feel like anything’s changed. I daresay, he’s the most consistent part of this movie. Or at least one of them. He has some of the real anguish that was only hinted at in the first movie when it comes to having to choose between maintaining his dual identity or becoming human for love. When Clark Kent, sans super powers, gets his ass kicked, the look of fear and shock on Reeve’s face is perfect. Looking at his own blood for the first time is terrifying. His helplessness and anguish as the realization dawns on him that no matter how much he may want to be human, he can never be so, is simply short of amazing. The whole performance, whether it’s Donner-directed or Lester-directed, is pretty much perfect.
The Phantom Zone criminals. Zod, Ursa, and Non bring some actual danger to Superman’s world. No matter how great Lex Luthor is in this incarnation, without the green rock, he’s essentially powerless over Superman in any physical way. Sure, using Lois Lane and the Daily Planet folks can get to him, but physically, he’s no match. General Zod and company is a match…a match to be taken very seriously. They are roles that could have been too big, too much, except that casting Terence Stamp as Zod was the right choice. He is cool, calm, and venomous. He says more with a look than just about anyone else in these movies. I suspect that Sarah Douglas took her cue from Stamp and played Ursa under Zod’s spell. Non is a little too silly at times, but when is up to evil, a formidable villain that is quite dangerous. Their costumes are cool, too, though a little strange.
The battle scenes at the end are every little boy’s dream fight. Or at least it was in 1980. Earlier that year, little boys got to see Luke Skywalker finally duel with Darth Vader…and lose. Six months later, Superman took on three equally-powered villains. Before CGI effects dominated the cinema with huge, grandiose battles (that often last far too long), children of the 1970s (1980 was barely the ’80s) got to see a battle like that without any CG effects. Christopher Reeve, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran were actually on the streets of New York beating each other up using wires, camera tricks, models, and ingenuity. And the kicker? They weren’t even in New York! Instead, a set that looked like New York-as-Metropolis was built in (I believe) a studio in London. Re-watching it in the age of CGI, where just last year I saw The Avengers fight space bad guys in New York, doesn’t hurt the fight. The emotional resonance between Superman and Zod is still there.
The adult theme of the romance is another super thing about this movie. They really don’t sugarcoat it but never get graphic. Superman is giving in to his human feelings and being selfish and we root for him (while the little boys surely do not–they know what Superman should do!). We understand because we would do (and have done) the same goddamn thing for love. And this is where Superman: The Movie and Superman II succeed. “This is no fantasy” is still in the back of the mind. The beautiful sequence where Superman and Lois Lane fly together and begin to really fall in love is brought to a head here. They have an official date and then Superman chooses to give up his powers despite the hologram of Lara (Susannah York) warning him not to. It was a decision that troubled me–maybe even offended me–when I was between four and six but that I understand 30 years later. Like its predecessor, it brought Superman to the big screen not just for the kiddies, like the previous incarnations of Superman did, but also for their parents. Unlike the Kirk Alyn Superman serials (Alyn and Noel Niell appear as young Lois Lane’s parents on the train in Smallville in the first film) and the George Reeves movie, the Christopher Reeve Superman movies came out when the cost of a ticket got you movie trailers, the feature, and that was it. No cartoons, no newsreels, not endless viewings just by staying in the theater all day. This was the post-JFK assassination, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Star Wars world and the parents needed something to hold onto, too. And this aspect of the story delivers.
Marlon Brando, now known for his arrogance and laziness as much as for his talent, wanted more money–a load more money–to appear in Superman II and the Salkinds, now known for the stupid arrogance, decided not to pay. Suddenly, Jor-El was no longer convicting Zod, Ursa, and Non. Suddenly, the holograms were of Lara that Kal-El spoke to. Jor-El hardly gets mentioned until the end. It’s a shame because it’s jarring for the viewer to go from the story of the father and the son to suddenly go to the mother and the son. It’s even more jarring when a famous, perfect scene loses its key player. Jor-El placing the final guilty verdict is the reason for Zod’s rage, and in the sequel it’s excised. Foolish.
Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor is under-utilized. He’s nearly as sinister as in the first movie, especially in the way that he tries to use Superman’s friends against him and to win favor with General Zod, but he almost gets lost in the shuffle. And his escape is ridiculous. Ned Beatty is once again the oafish Otis who is roommates in prison with Luthor. There’s a plan where they fool prison guards by placing a hologram of the two of them playing chess in their cell (apparently, in whatever state Metropolis is in, they allow convicted friends to share a cell). They then attempt an escape by hot air balloon, piloted by Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Luthor gets on but Otis begins to bring the balloon down as he tries to climb the ladder. Luthor eventually throws the ladder over and Otis stays in jail. The scene is ridiculous and one I’d like to blame on Lester’s touch (which I’ll get to very shortly) but can’t. All of the Hackman scenes are said to be shot by Donner. While bringing Luthor back definitely helps bridge films, he spends most of his time making wiseass remarks and watching the Phantom Zone prisoners be evil. Maybe he’s there to bring some lightness to Zod’s seriousness. Maybe the intention was to utilize the knowledge Luthor gains when he finds the Fortress of Solitude in a future film (the end credits begin with a notice that Superman III will be coming soon). Either way, Hackman’s talents are wasted as the comic relief to Zod and gang.
Continuity is an issue with this movie. It’s pretty apparent that Superman and Superman II are supposed to be one long story, or two chapters of a long story. However, because of the issues between the Salkinds and Donner, because of the money issues with Brando, because of Richard Lester’s insistence on rewriting the story to suit his direction (which was probably needed if he were to take sole credit, according to the Director’s Guild), continuity between the two chapters is very loose. It begins right away, on Krypton, where we see Zod, Ursa, and Non murdering a guard to a red crystal to suddenly be jailed in the rings. The Kryptonian Council heads float above them on the dark dome and go through who they are, and then find them guilty. I mentioned this scene two paragraphs ago. For fans of the first movie (which I’d assume would’ve been everyone in the theater seeing the sequel), it rewrites history and lessens Zod’s motives.
Another thing that bothers me is: What happened to Miss Teschmacher? True, we’re not sure what happened to her in the first movie, but she shows up to help Lex Luthor escape from prison. She goes with him to the Fortress of Solitude. She sees the holograms of a man teaching poetry and of Lara telling Kal-El about General Zod and his friends, but then…? She’s never seen or mentioned again.
Another continuity thing is the Daily Planet offices. Their basic set-up is the same, only now Lois has an office. It was pretty blatant in the first movie that she didn’t have an office, but had her desk with several other reporters, including Clark Kent. Now, suddenly, she has an office. It could be argued that she received one because she’s such a good reporter in between movies, but the way the office looks it makes one believe she has been in it a while. Of course, there’s no mention about how much time passed between the chapters of this story, but we know two years passed between the release of Superman and Superman II, so perhaps shortly after the events of the first movie, Lois Lane received an office. Still…
Richard Lester’s decision to bring more camp into the movie, and to give Superman, Zod, and the other Kryptonians ridiculous powers hurts an otherwise really good movie. Now, this is the 35-year-old talking. At five, six, or seven I thought these powers were great, but I didn’t realize that they were very much not powers Superman had. The first movie took his powers fairly seriously. With the exception of his turning the world, and time, backward, every power Superman displays is in the comic books. Superman II gives the evil Kryptonians the ability to make people levitate. Superman has the ability to broadcast himself throughout the Fortress of Solitude at the end, making some versions of himself holograms, others statues, all to throw the villains off. Don’t forget the S he takes from his chest and hurls at the villains. The S grows and becomes, essentially, cellophane and wraps around Non. The camp of the first film remained mostly with Lex Luthor and his goons, but in this one, it’s all over. From the silly doorman at Niagra Falls, to Lois’s attempt to out Clark as Superman with the falls (albeit, Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are great in the scene, even if it is silly), to some of the people of Metropolis, Lester’s world is sillier. A little too much so. Again, I don’t want to be one of those fanboys who believes that everything in these kinds of movies must remain serious, it’s just that compared to the first movie, the tone is a little off.
After the Battle
Despite such a long list in the Kryptonite section, I actually enjoy Superman II quite a bit. After I found out the story behind the story, the firing of Richard Donner and everything else, I wondered what Richard Donner’s version would have been like, but that doesn’t hurt this movie that much. The cast still turns in strong performances, there’s still plenty of action, and it feels like a satisfying conclusion to the story begun in Superman: The Movie. As a child, I really enjoyed this movie and loved how the two movies went together. As an adult, I’m impressed by the work that went into both movies at a time when movies like these were huge gambles.
Superman and Superman II set the template for the superhero (or comic book) movie. It’s been used again and again, but hardly ever as well. Spider-Man, Batman Begins, and Iron Man are the closest to the feeling of the pure joy of discovery that Superman: The Movie provides. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, and Batman Begins and The Dark Knight the left-right punch of that Superman and Superman II delivers.
I feel like Superman II has gotten a bad rap because of the controversy behind the Salkind-Donner feud. When you get right down to it, it’s a pretty good movie. In some ways, it’s less than in its predecessor, in others, it’s better.
June 1978 marked the 40th anniversary of Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1. By now, Superman was more of a joke than anything else. Considered a square Boy Scout in tights, he chugged along in his comic books, trying hard to still be relevant. He was still on TV, though not in a live action series. After George Reeves’s death in 1959, live action Superman just didn’t happen. There’d been a Broadway show, which had been televised as a special, and a few small attempts in kiddie-fair specials, but mostly Superman had been relegated to cartoons on the small screen. He had his own cartoon from 1966 (the year another DC Comics megastar returned in live action) to 1970, and was a star in Super Friends, beginning in 1973, but live action? No. The late-1960s belonged to Batman, with Adam West bringing the Caped Crusader to the small screen, as well as the big screen for one movie. That show never even made it to the 1970s. Between the high camp of Batman and the general sour disposition of the Vietnam War, not to mention the civil unrest that was going on in the United States at the time, who cared about Superman?
Well, Ilya Salkind, that’s who. The young movie producer convinced his father, Alexander Salkind, and Pierre Spengler to purchase the film rights for Superman in 1974. At that point, the task was to make the movie. I’m not going to get into the rest of the story. It’s readily available (and, honestly, fascinating) throughout the Internet as well as a myriad of documentaries for various versions of the movie. Suffice it to say that five months after the 40th anniversary, on December 10th, Superman: The Movie premiered.
I was aware of this movie before I saw it through Superman II trading cards. Because I was almost a year-and-a-half when the movie came out, I wasn’t aware of it, nor did I see it. It wasn’t until the movie debuted on TV that I saw it the first time. I feel like it was a yearly Movie the Week until home video killed that tradition. I feel like it ran for three hours on TV. I feel like George Reeves stopped being Superman for me at the moment of watching t this wonder-to-the-eye of special effects and…well, wonder, and the man my mother told me was Christopher Reeve, who was also not really flying, but was hanging by wires, and lying on tables, became Superman.
Like Star Wars the year before it, Superman: The Movie may have failed if had come out sooner. It may have failed had the producers gotten a Big Name Star to fill in the blue spandex. But it didn’t. Oh, boy, it didn’t.
The cast is superb. You know this, I know this, I should just stop. But I won’t. Brando is convincing as Jor-El, member of the Kryptonian Council as well as major scientist. Susannah York as his wife Lara isn’t in much of the movie but her pathos is undeniable. She does not want to give up her only child, no matter the consequences, but does so anyway. Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen also shine. And while she’s a little goofy at times, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane is spot-on. It’s really a surprise her career didn’t take off after this movie. Gene Hackman is an interesting, diabolical, and sometimes chilling Lex Luthor. The inferiority complex that Luthor must have in shown with his choice of sidekicks, the bumbling oaf Otis, played by the always-great Ned Beatty, and the sultry, sexy Miss Teschmacher, played by Valerie Perrine. Her outfits and very presence would be enough to send many boys into puberty, even in this movie. And don’t forget Glenn Ford or Phyllis Thaxter as Jonathan and Martha Kent. Ford’s death scene chilled me as a little boy (and, truth be told, does so now, too). All these actors are great in their parts, chewing up the scenery and getting the viewer to believe in the world of Krypton, Smallville, and Metropolis. But the center of the movie, the spoke on which this wheel turns, is–
Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent and Superman. I went back on forth about giving Reeve a paragraph to himself instead of lumping him in with the rest of the cast–after all, Kirk Alyn and George Reeves were both placed with their casts–but I had to. The choice of the unknown, too-skinny classically-trained actor to embody the Man of Steel in the flesh was a bold one. When Christopher Reeve was cast as Superman/Clark Kent, George Reeves was still planted firmly in everyone’s mind as Superman, even though he’d died when Reeve was only six years old. Reeve portrayed Clark Kent as a classic screwball klutz, think Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. Yet, Kent never really feels like a farce. There’s a real-world simplicity and charm to him that sells him. Reeve had said that one of keys to playing Clark Kent in the way he chose was to make sure he didn’t walk into every door, but to make sure Clark got through the door with aplomb nearly as often. If anyone has ever been able to sell that Clark Kent and Superman were two different people, it was Reeve. As far as Superman is concerned, Reeve gave him an earnestness that was almost dorky, but never made it seem like he was better than anyone. Reeve’s Superman wanted to be human, and it could be read on his face. But this Superman wasn’t simply the do-gooder as presented in previous incarnations, and he was nobody’s wise uncle. He was the older brother you trust, but he also had an edge. Take the following exchange: Lois is interviewing Superman on her balcony and says, “Clark said you were just a figment of somebody’s imagination…like Peter Pan.” After some back-and-forth on who Clark is, Superman replies, “Peter Pan flew with children, Lois. In a fairy tale.” Who knew that Superman had game? The implication, of course, was that they weren’t children. This was no fairy tale. The line would be a hard sell but it works, and I give credit to Reeve.
Still, someone had to write that line, and the writers were Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton. And after Richard Donner came onto the film as director, Tom Mankiewicz did a tune-up to the script, though his credit is “creative consultant.” The story and script are great. Because the producers wanted to film Superman and Superman II together, the original story was quite large. With Richard Donner on as director, the feeling that this was a fantasy for children went away. The director of the horror classic The Omen might be doing Superman, and he knew it would be seen by children, but his intelligence and that of the writers was not to make a kid’s movie. They took Superman fairly seriously. After a great black-and-white prelude that features a little boy speaking and opening an issue of Action Comics, as well as a Daily Planet building with rotating globe, after the opening credits with John Williams’s wonderful music, the first line of the film is Marlon Brando as Jor-El saying, “This is no fantasy.” Brilliant. We’re reminded of this throughout the movie. This is no fantasy, no fairy tale. Superman is made plausible and, in some ways, is the most realistic character in the entire movie.
And while I’m talking about Richard Donner, his direction is great. The actors inhabit the roles entirely and seem at ease. Technically, the movie looks great and has Donner’s touches as an activist as well as a storyteller. One rather adult moment that I caught (that may only be in the extended version) happens in the scene when Lois Lane meets Clark Kent. Lois’s desk in outside Perry White’s office amongst six other desks, three facing one way, three facing the opposite so the occupants can look at each other over their typewriters. Lois shows Clark where his desk is, which is across and kitty-corner to her own. In typical Clark Kent fashion, he needs to squeeze behind her in the tightly packed, busy newspaper office, just as she bends over. He brushes against her and she shoots up, eyes wide, shock on her face. Clark mumbles something, pushes his glasses up, and quickly gets to his desk. Her look at him is over in an instant, but it’s a priceless scene that proves that he is the Man of Steel…everywhere.
John Williams once again creates a classic theme. As he did with Star Wars, he created a symphonic story that matches the beauty of some of the scenes, as well as the heroism of the character. The music is as important to this story as anything else in the film.
Superman flies! The tagline on many of the posters and advertising of this movie was, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” And for the first time in live action, that was a promise nearly kept. Using masterful wirework as well as technology developed for Star Wars, Superman really appears to fly, which not only serves the story in general, but gives us one of the classic scenes of cinema: Superman and Lois Lane flying. It is a scene that is beautiful and filled with wonder. Sure, 1978’s special effects don’t hold a candle (or an iPhone) to what is capable now, but its beauty isn’t in its realism but in what goes down in the scene. Two people are falling in love though they know they can never really be together. For the first time, Clark Kent actually has found someone he can be comfortable with, and Lois Lane has found something that’s more important than her career. It’s a scene that should be silly, hokey, but works.
Otis is a bit too dumb. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ned Beatty and his role as Otis, but it’s a bit of a stretch that Lex Luthor would keep around such an idiot. I like the idea that he would have those he deemed lesser than him as henchmen but Otis seems borderline retarded. Even Miss Teschmacher is a little too dumb for Lex, though she has much more realism than the bumbling oaf. Now, I hope I’m not coming across as one of those fanboys who feel that every superhero/science fiction/space fantasy/nerdmovie should be serious with no comic relief, but I think it’s a little much. The joy of this movie is the decision to move away from the 1966 Batman‘s camp but Otis almost belongs there. As a result, so does Lex Luthor. That said, I’m writing this from the perspective of a 35-year-old. The 5-year-old thought Otis was great, so I guess that really settles this minor gripe.
The ending. The idea of having the movie end with Superman changing the rotation of Earth and thereby changing the course of time brings the movie straight into fantasy, which is great considering the first line of the movie. That said, I leaves too much open. When the world went back and saved Lois, did everyone get saved? Did the missiles not hit anything? Because it seemed that Superman didn’t bring time back far enough to erase their launch. And if he did, and there was no launch, when Superman picks Lex Luthor and Otis up, do they even know why, or are they befuddled because they never launched their plan? And if they launched the missiles, then wouldn’t they strike anyway? Or did Superman in essence make a copy of himself that took care of the East Coast missile and then is erased when time catches up again with post-Earth spinning Superman? Because if that’s the case, then maybe he disposed of the West Coast missile offscreen and understood the other one would vanish and become him.
You see what I mean? Time travel is not for the faint of heart! Only aliens in blue police boxes and teenagers in Deloreans should attempt it! It feels like a cop-out. Originally, this was to be the ending of Superman II. The ending for this film would have Superman getting the missiles in time and sending them into space, where they’d explode and meet up with the Phantom Zone inmates, General Zod, Ursa, and Non, and free them. The final shot of Superman was supposed to be the three evil Kryptonians flying toward Earth, which is why they’re at the beginning of this movie. Richard Donner was convinced by others that his original ending was too small and to put the Earth spin at the end of the first film.
And speaking of offscreen, we never actually see Superman get Lex Luthor or Otis. He is overjoyed to see he saved Lois (who is upset that her car ran out of gas and that he couldn’t be her taxi service or something), then flies away. Suddenly, Luthor and Otis are carried into the penitentiary’s courtyard. What about Miss Teschmacher? Well, if you happen to own the 2000 extended cut of Superman, you get the answer about Luthor, Otis, and Miss Teschmacher…in the bonus features. In the nearly 10 minutes of restored footage to the actual movie, that was kept out. I received the Superman Anthology Blu-ray set for Christmas last year so saw this feature, though it may be on the 2000 DVD (I’d need to check but am way too lazy).
After the Battle
Superman: The Movie is a masterpiece. It’s one of the first adaptations of a comic book character that took the whole thing seriously. It was a movie not just for the kids but also for the grown-up kids who’d been fans at all in the forty years Superman had been around at that point. When the movie came out in 1978, it was big. Suddenly, Superman was cool again. It had intelligently set up the second movie in its first few scenes. It couldn’t be long before Donner and the rest would provide Superman II. With the way this movie turned out, what could possibly go wrong?
Growing up, there were only a few superheroes I really knew: Spider-Man, Batman, the Incredible Hulk, and Superman. I knew there were more, one of my favorite cartoons was Super Friends, which was a very kids-friendly version of the Justice League, and there were the other comic book heroes in the ads that ran in the comic books my father brought home with the milk and bread, but for me, those four superheroes (and I include Robin in with Batman) were the ones I really knew. And the head of them all, the most important, was Superman.
At least until I was about 10 or 11. Which makes sense, in a way. It’s around 9 through 11 that childlike wonder begins to dull as The System has its way with children and with that wonder, the idea of a man flying around saving the world from aliens and robots and mad scientists while all the time hiding behind a pair of glasses is preposterous and obviously something only a baby would believe. It didn’t help that 1989 was Batman’s year, with him popping up everywhere you looked. And so Batman moved in as my favorite superhero.
Batman kept that title until about three, four years ago. I bought the 700th issues of both Superman and Batman and found myself walking away with a renewed interest in the Man of Steel. And so it went. If you were to ask me who my favorite superhero is now, it’d be a toss up between Supes and Bats.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Action Comics #1, the comic book in which Superman debuted. There have been many incarnations of the character over the last three quarters of a century. Just in the pages of the DC Comics comic books the modern Superman is very different from the original that was created by two very young Jewish men. What Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigel created was a god for the 20th (and now 21st) century. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan or not, without Superman, there’d be no…well…any of them.
Superman became so popular upon his debut in 1938, that by 1940 he had his own comic book and his own radio show. It wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking. In 1941, the first of Superman’s silver screen adventures played out in theaters around the world.
This year marks not only the 75th anniversary of this literary and film icon, but it also marks the release of the much-anticipated new adaptation of Superman on the movie screen: Man of Steel, written by David S. Goyer, directed by Zack Snyder, and starring Henry Cavill as Superman.
For the next 11 or so weeks, I’ll be posting essays about Superman in the movies. I will be mostly skipping over his television years because I only have so much time to devote to this, though I will touch on George Reeves as the Man of Steel, I promise. I’m afraid that the 1990s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Smallville, and the 1980s-1990s syndicated Superboy shows, not to mention the plethora of animated shows and direct-to-home-video movies will also be skipped (though the animated movies produced by Warner Animation will be looked at some time in the future, though not in as much detail). In other words, this is hardly a complete series of Superman on film, but it will do the job for a free enterprise on a website that’s not, technically, about superheroes or movies.
So let’s get this show started, shall we? Up, up, and awaaayyy!