So with Man of Steel hitting the cinemas this month I felt it was only right to do a Cinema Cocoa Saga Review of all five previous Superman films!
Which is quite an undertaking for me. I am not the biggest Superman fan… I find him as a character to be extremely limited in terms of creative story writing and he is hard for your general audience to relate to. The stories are often about Superman, but they are angled more towards how secondary characters interact with him.
Plot-wise, the films suffer from only one gimmick in which to threaten Superman’s life and give the audience a sense of danger… Kryptonite. So the story structure for many of the films is nearly identical, only occasionally did they break away from the pattern.
Having said all that, Superman in the past has been used as a symbol, and his purpose on Earth is to imbue us, the wrecked and easily wayward Humanity, with goodness. It is a remarkably simple theme that can be made gaudy and tacky if done incorrectly, but whether or not the films maintain it or simply descend into madness is another matter…
Superman: The Movie (1978)
When I was growing up, I didn’t have much respect or appreciation for Superman as a character and looking back at the 1978 classic by Richard Donner, I can see why. But simultaneously, I found a lot more to like about it.
The film opens with Superman’s parents on their doomed planet Krypton, his father Jor-El (played by Marlon Brando) predicts their destruction and sends his infant son to Earth so he may survive. The story follows Clark Kent (aka Superman, aka Kal-El) played and immortalised by Christopher Reeve, as he lives among humans in the city of Metropolis. Vowed by his father to never interfere with human destiny by using his powers, yet raised by kind, supportive human parents, he is conflicted when a criminal mastermind Lex Luthor unleashes a torrent of natural disasters upon the American west coast.
The film feels long; it takes its time with setting up and realising locations and Superman’s development (we don’t see the real Superman until fifty minutes in!) but considering this was one of the first major film adaptations of a comic book and was considered extremely risky at the time, this attention to detail with his origin is thoughtful and welcome.
It is an optimistic film, asides from a very occasional act of cruelty from Luthor (and a vicious moment at the end) this film is triumphant and roaring with positive energy. Superman is an energised character, full of life, insatiable enthusiasm and patriotism: “I stand for Truth, Justice and the American Way” he says proudly. You cannot help but feel a certain sense of joy from Reeve’s performance here, especially in today’s film environment of grim, tormented and realistic heroes.
It isn’t a very complex film though, so far as to say the characters themselves are not. Superman is by design a very honest, heroic standard. His love interest Lois Lane (while sometimes seen as a strong woman) is just a damsel in need of rescuing, or simply to provide romance, and while Gene Hackman is hamming it up as “super villain” Lex Luthor… the film plays it incredibly campy. Asides from the one or two acts of heartlessness, Lex isn’t very threatening, especially with his two comedy sidekicks chewing the scenery!
But, despite how simple and two-dimensional the characters are, I felt all the right emotions towards them, especially between Lois and Superman (the chemistry here is great!) and it really marks this film more as a romantic adventure film rather than an action movie. It has its flaws, but in looking back at it, this film is a great success and many new comic book adaptations could learn a thing or two.
Superman II (1980)
Okay, I’m already surprising myself… I think I prefer Superman: The Movie over Superman 2, though it is a close thing!
In this classic “bigger is better” sequel to the original film, Superman has everything to do: Lex Luthor breaks free from prison and locates Superman’s fortress of solitude; upon stopping terrorists Superman inadvertently releases three Kryptonian prisoners, who find their way to Earth and have all the same godly powers he has. Plus, as their relationship grows, Lois Lane begins to suspect Clark Kent isn’t all he appears to be…
I know Superman 2 better than the first film, and with good reason. The three villains General Zod, Ursa and Non steal the show so completely with over the top, cold and robotic line delivery and in destroying everything in their path. Zod would become one of the 1980s classic comic film villains.
With them come some pretty spectacular action sequences. With matching powers, we see these godly beings punching and throwing themselves through buildings, tossing buses at each other and repelling bullets and rocket blasts (some with an unnerving lack of CG realism!)
So as an action movie and an all out war between Kryptonians it is a great film, but compared to the first film… new director Richard Lester hasn’t taken the same inspirations as Richard Donner, scrapping the long, thought-provoking and sweeping scenes for more comic-book inspired action pieces and quick editing solutions.
But it maintains tethered to the original, Lois and Superman still have their chemistry and the relationship develops as it must, with difficulty and compassion. Luthor is still present but takes a back seat to General Zod’s controlling presence (he even sports the shaved head, though temporarily).
The goofiness is still present too. This film probably has some of the most hilarious extras seen in film, and a lot of them aren’t because of the deliberate jokes. A lot of people living in Metropolis are… well… a little stupid. Oh, and product placement, quite a bit of marketing going on.
But there are some issues. The President of the United States of America taking full responsibility for the entire world and all of its inhabitants over the television (to surrender no less!) is an example. But the film suffers some awkward production problems, mostly due to both this film and the first being shot simultaneously but given to two directors. One such problem being that much of Lex Luthor’s scenes were scrapped; the scenes that remain are in fact from previous shoots during the first film’s production! (This might explain his hair inexplicably reappearing…)
Due to this controversial power struggle between directors, changes were made to the first film that influenced the sequel; Zod and his fellow prisoners were originally released by the missile Superman throws into space in the first film… only it was edited so the first film was a stand-alone experience… Here Superman defeats terrorists in France and throw an elevator with a bomb inside it into space, which subsequently frees General Zod. This scene, among others, was chiefly directed by Lester.
As you can clearly see, these films had production issues, and while not distinctly apparent, some of these problems make Superman 2 feel a little clunky in both story and editing. Whether or not you see these as real problems or not, it is still a good film to watch, and a worthy return of Christopher Reeve as the definitive Superman!
Additional Marshmallows: Because this review isn’t long enough, there is a special Richard Donner director’s cut edition of the film now available on DVD. I only watched the Lester version, but the “Donner Cut” includes the lost scenes that he directed earlier, unseen footage of the late Christopher Reeve and the return of Marlon Brando’s role as Jor-El.
Superman III (1983)
It felt like this film physically hurt me.
So, Superman must stop a conniving businessman from… uhm… toppling the world’s supply of coffee beans, by using a weather control satellite, and then turn his attention to the world’s oil. At the same time, the villain’s technical expert… a bumbling moron played by controversial comedian Richard Pryor… wants to create a computer that can do anything he wants.
I… ow… Ow. I don’t know where to begin with this! This was an uncomfortable, unbearable and confusing pile of nonsense, reminiscent only of such travesties as Batman and Robin.
Well, from the start we see the budget has declined seriously since the first two films, and director Richard Lester apparently loved his random goofy jokes so much he decided to have the opening credits follow a Mouse Trap style chain of bizarre mishaps befall Metropolis citizens, from a car filling with water to… to… burning toy penguins and a blind man accidentally driving a road marker painter? I… huuuuuuh?
If you survived this surreal experience, you will be pounded further by how you are not in fact watching Superman 3, but instead The Richard Pryor Show. Yes, Richard Pryor is the focus of most of the movie (dare I say he is on screen more than both Superman and Clark Kent combined!) and no he isn’t funny! At all!
I must move on, there’s a lot of ground to cover. Lois Lane isn’t around, she is assigned to a case elsewhere, so we get a new love interest Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) who springs out of the ground and the chemistry goes nowhere.
I’ve just described the first HOUR of the film. Nothing happens but Pryor glibly mumbling his unfunny lines, Clark Kent mumbles as usual, Superman saves people who really don’t deserve saving by how fundamentally brain dead they clearly are, and our villains…
Our villains are replacements for Lex Luthor, only we have Perry White, the least threatening villain I have ever witnessed, his demented sister, and a blonde woman who is also such a bumbling airhead that she’s the only one who knows exactly what Kryptonite is… wait, what?
Because of this avalanche of senseless garbage, the one scene that sticks out like a nail through your finger is a dark and twisted moment where a poisoned Superman fights himself in a scrap yard. After seeing nothing but bad comic timing for over ninety minutes, seeing Superman GETTING THROWN INTO A POOL OF ACID, or perhaps Clark Kent getting CRUSHED IN A CAR CRUSHER… you might be a little disturbed, and not in a healthy way! Instead, you will be wondering: “Who took over writing this film, Freddie Kruger??”
This… film… this film is something else. Richard Lester must have been on something to think this was good. I can only claw a microscopic amount of respect from its challenging idea of an “evil Superman”, and stepping away from formulaic writing between Lois and Clark.
But it takes a full HOUR, an HOUR to do anything! It gives you nothing to go on, nothing to suggest Richard Pryor is going to scribble on chocolate wrapping paper the designs for a supercomputer that will eventually meld with a woman and create an entity to fight Superman. A computer that targets Superman with missiles, displaying the combat as an 8-bit video game with Atari sound effects! Literally, Atari sound effects!
I… I’m seriously confused and a little scared right now. This film is insane, and it doesn’t stop. It keeps going with some manic, demented energy, as if a ten year old is writing the script in the space of a single breath!
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Lex Luthor breaks from prison once more and vows to destroy Superman once and for all, and uses the disarmament of the world’s nuclear arsenal to create Nuclear Man, a foe as powerful as the man of steel.
IMDB and the great majority of people will say that The Quest For Peace is the very worst Superman film… yet I have to stun most people and say that for me, at the heart of the matter, this film is better than Superman 3.
Firstly yes, there are a lot of problems, but they are mostly due to big financial problems during production that cut the film’s budget by half. The special effects are both recycled and of frankly laughable quality; Superman and Nuclear Man tween across the sky like cardboard cut-outs, scenes with Lois and Superman flying (ala Superman 2) are embarrassing to watch. The film looks older than the previous films!
The story is paper thin too; Lex wants revenge, and Nuclear Man and Superman fight. Lois and Superman don’t so much have a relationship as much as the film’s attempts to recapture the magic of the first two films, while other subplots are present but hardly relevant (evidence of the film’s run time also being cut by nearly an hour, making it the shortest Superman movie made) such as the Daily Planet getting bought by a “corrupt media tycoon” (read: genuine media network, hey-oh!) and said Tycoon’s daughter having the hots for Clark Kent… only then to RANDOMLY have Nuclear Man having a thing for her. What?
So yeah, we aren’t winning any awards here, and seeing a woman being kidnapped and taken into SPACE and being able to BREATH is possibly the silliest thing I’ve ever seen… this film feels like a genuinely missed opportunity. Its only actual flaws are when it blatantly rips off Superman 2 with Superman giving Lois a flight around America, and then memory-wipe kissing her again.
It is a Superman film, it is about Superman and there is some progression in his character and how he struggles to help (or perhaps hinder) Humanity’s development. We even see Superman defeated and weak, without rehashing Superman 2, which may have only been a tiny setback, but for such a short movie it was unique.
Terrible special effects due to budget restraints, a limited runtime and a phoned-in plot makes The Quest for Peace a prime target for criticism, but…
AT LEAST IT ISN’T THE RICHARD PRYOR SHOW!
For God sake…
Superman Returns (2006)
With all its noble intentions, Superman Returns is fundamentally flawed; nineteen years is a long time to try and sweep under the carpet…
Superman Returns, as the name states, sees Superman return to Metropolis after leaving Earth in search for remains of his destroyed home Krypton. Finding nothing however, he returns to find Metropolis much as it was before; Lois Lane still gets into ridiculous situations, the populous are still bumbling, and Lex Luthor is hatching another devastating plan. This time, the criminal mastermind plans to forge his very own continent from Kryptonian crystals.
You cannot help but feel a little sad when you watch Returns, it’s like watching a tribute band who simply cannot grasp the enormous task they’ve given themselves. At the turn of the millennium, director Bryan Singer had the comic-book geekdom under his sway: he had brought X-Men to the big screen, and proved himself worthy with a firestorm sequel with X2. But as quickly as he gained fame he lost it all by dropping the franchise hat-trick to pursue his dream of directing a Superman film… It angered X-Men fans, who rail against the disaster that was X-Men 3: Last Stand to this day, while Superman Returns positively bombed as well. Singer would retreat from comic books for seven years…
Despite a colossal nineteen years passing, this production was adamant to replicate the original Christopher Reeve movies of the eighties. They cast Brandon Routh, a close resemblance to Reeve, resurrect the original score, opening title sequences, and even tie in with the plot of Superman 2. But try as they might those nineteen years only hardened fans dedication to Reeve’s performance, and like Superman himself they flew too close to the sun… and got badly burnt.
The film itself is remarkably dis-interesting. It is like watching someone going through a checklist of Superman scenes, and it straddles a horrid line of playing things safe; just to be faithful to the original films… But in doing so the flaws, the differences, are more apparent. Characters are disconnected and shallow; Lois has a new boyfriend Richard, and the best I can tell you about him is that… his name is Richard? Oh, and she has a young son now.
Yeah, because adding that is surely a bonus to your credibility.
The fun of the originals does not come across, Superman is seen rescuing people from CG disasters but it never feels as electric as the original; he merely solves a problem and then moves on (the guy with a massive, crane-mounted chain gun on top of a building shooting police cars?? What was his story exactly??)
Superman gets beaten up a lot in this film… but so little is revised or established because the film assumes we are recalling the first two films from 1980! Fortunately I just watched them, but I can tell you now that the story and characters here are perplexingly disjointed and quite inhuman by comparison.
You might say it is unfair to compare this to the classics, but it is unavoidable, especially as this is meant to be a sequel to Superman 2!
The only good thing here is Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. He has nothing better to do than chew scenery and I think he knows it well, but he looks and sounds the part! Sometimes the production value shines through, the Kryptonian sets and crystals look fantastic, and they even got Marlon Brando’s footage from Superman: The Movie in there too. The CG is showing age already though…
Really this film is rather sad, a hopeless attempt at capturing something long since passed, something everyone sees as legendary.
Looking back at it, it really feels unnecessary; they were never going to succeed in what they were trying to do here…
So yeah… the Superman films are hurting badly, unlike DC’s Batman character who has only had one (perhaps two) truly disappointing outings.
I am alarmed at quite how painful this experience actually was… Superman III was truly something to behold, an artistry of madness, and I suggest you watch it just to understand how I feel. There are few films that make it difficult to write reviews for… usually they are either plain bad, and that’s an end of it, or they are average-to-good, Superman III has such a variety of wrong it is hard to describe without dissecting it!
The Quest For Peace is regarded as the very worst, and it isn’t hard to see why. It is certainly the easiest to punch huge holes in it, but I put most of its shortcomings down to terrible budget cuts and limited production time. It is the last Superman film to feature the iconic late Christopher Reeve… and that is something both saddening and worth cherishing.
I will see Man of Steel soon, don’t worry, the review is coming! I can only hope it can improve this poor state of affairs and finally elevate DC comic superheroes… From what I hear already though, I have some doubts…