With “Man of Steel” currently doing gangbusters in theaters around the world, it only seemed fitting to bang out a piece on just how far Superman has come cinematically in the 75 years since his first appearance in “Action Comics” #1. Since Zack Snyder’s film is liable to leave fans thirsty for more Superman satisfaction, I figured I’d go back and take another look at the “Superman” films, from Richard Donner’s 1978 classic to Bryan Singer’s 2006 reboot, to help give you a clue about which of these films, all of which are currently available for rent — although not available for purchase, at least not in any of the stores in my neck of the woods — from Netflix and Amazon. Let’s get started, shall we?
SUPERMAN (1978) – The promotional materials for Richard Donner’s much-anticipated (you might say it had been “40 years in the making”) original film made one thing abundantly clear above all else: “You’ll believe a man can fly.” If those six words didn’t get your blood pumping back in 1978, it was probably because you had something against fun.
The film gets off to a bit of a slow start. After a five-minute opening credits sequence that literally throws every single person’s name in your face, it flashes to a 20-minute long sequence on the planet Krypton, with Jor-El (Marlon Brando) banishing three leather-clad no-goodniks to the Phantom Zone, where they will live in eternal isolation. Jor-El and his wife (Susanna York), believing their planet is on the brink of destruction, jettison their newborn baby, Kal-El, many galaxies away to planet Earth, where he will grow up to become a superhero and defend the people of Earth against the forces of evil.
For the next 20 minutes, we see a young Kal-El, now named “Clark,” cope with adolescence and a noble father (Glenn Ford, outstanding) who explains to him the importance of hiding his gifts from the world until the time is right. Then, after a bit of soul-searching, Clark finds the pod that sent him to Earth, throws a green crystal into a snowpile and creates his Fortress of Solitude, where finally, FINALLY, we will lay our eyes on the dude in the blue tights and red cape.
Forcing audiences to wait over 45 minutes to get to Superman was a bold choice, no doubt a nod to the technique Steven Spielberg used by withholding the shark from us for the first hour of “Jaws.” But once we do finally get to hang out with Superman (played by Christopher Reeve, who is terrific as both the Man of Steel and Clark Kent), the movie actually turns out to be a good deal of fun. The special effects are swell, the performances are decent, and the movie has a pleasant, old-fashioned feel to it, almost like its an homage to the homespun wholesomeness of the 1950s.
If there is anything amiss in the second half of the film, it’s that the villains, led by perpetual Superman villain Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), aren’t especially threatening. Ned Beatty’s Otis is a stumbling, bumbling moron, with no explanation as to why the self-proclaimed “greatest criminal mind of our time” Luthor would even waste his time with the guy. But I do love Luthor’s evil scheme, which is to nuke the San Andreas fault to create a new coast and make a killing in the real estate biz. If that’s not the master plan of the century, I don’t know what is. ★★★ out of ★★★★
SUPERMAN II (1981) – After the phenomenal success of the original film, a sequel was pretty much inevitable. In fact, the makers were so sure of themselves that they actually filmed much of “Superman II” while filming “Superman I.” Alas, if you know much about “Superman II,” then you know of the film’s sordid history. You see, Richard Donner was supposed to direct the sequel, but was instead fired and replaced by Richard Lester midway through the project. Not everyone was on board with this decision (including Margot Kidder, whose vocal opinion on the matter reduced her to a cameo role in “Superman III”), but the producers went on with the filming nevertheless.
“Superman II” opens in James Bond mode, with Superman saving Lois Lane from terrorists who’re threatening to bomb the Eiffel Tower. Superman flies the bomb into space, and, wouldn’t you know, inadvertently frees the three villains from the beginning of the first film from the Phantom Zone, who proceed to murder a couple of astronauts on the moon before heading to Earth for their own brand of planetary domination.
“Man of Steel” fans may recognize this trio — led by none other than General Zod himself, here played in stone-cold fashion by Terence Stamp. Zod wants the planet to bow down to him or he will destroy humanity, which puts pressure on Superman to put a kibosh on Zod’s single-minded villainy. Trouble is, Superman has sacrificed his superpowers to enjoy some alone time with Lois Lane, who finally gets to discover if he’s as super in bed as he is fighting crime.
While some people agree that “Superman II” is better than the original, I wholeheartedly disagree. I’ve seen the movie twice over the years, and my opinion hasn’t changed. “Superman II” is achingly drawn out, and some of the effects are cheesier than grueyere. The film aims for the campiness of the comic book, which comes off a little silly on the screen. Most of the blame can be placed on director Lester, whose entire career up to that point had consisted of movies where the playfulness trumped everything else. There’s nothing wrong with taking such an approach, especially for a movie based on a comic, but in turn, the wholesomeness of the original gets shoved to the back burner in lieu of a jokey tone.
Oh, and let’s not forget to mention the utterly shameful product placement in this movie. Superman and Zod throw down in Times Square toward the end, where everything from Coca-Cola to KFC and Marlboro cigarettes have ads conveniently plastered everywhere you look. ★★
SUPERMAN III (1983) – If you thought the campiness was too much in “Superman II,” wait ’til you get a load of what “Superman III” has in store. The first and, frankly, only Christopher Reeve-as-Superman film to not feature Lex Luthor instead places focus on an evil wealthy businessman named Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn, hammier than Easter dinner), who wants to do away with Superman because he keeps meddling in his villainy. So he hires a goofy computer genius named Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) to create a replicate kryptonite, which doesn’t so much kill Superman as it does turn him into a massive dick with anger issues and a 5 o’clock shadow.
Oh, where to begin? You know, I didn’t really care for “Superman II” that much, but boy is it ever preferable to this hunk of junk. Richard Lester, who brought small doses of camp to “Superman II,” cranks the campiness up to 11 for “Superman III.” So we get forced bits of comedy (like Pryor skiing off a skyscraper), cartoony special effects and comic book-style moments of dopiness. One woman is sucked into a giant computer and turned into a robot, for God’s sake. What happened to the sense of awe that made the original so much fun?
There is one moment of cleverness in “Superman III,” and that’s to have Clark fall in love with a single mother from his youth, who seems to share the same wholesome values as he does. But the movie doesn’t really do much with that flirtation, opting instead to focus on the Pryor character who, despite the fact that Pryor was all the rage at the time, adds nothing to the picture except to emphasize the pointlessness of stunt casting. ★½
SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987) – More than anything, the fourth film in the long-waning “Superman” series was a product of its time. Playing up the then-ongoing war in the nuclear arms race, the film also managed to pander to the MTV generation with a punk-type character played by none other than “Duckie” Dale himself, Jon Cryer, and to the Pepsi Generation, which is all over this movie like stink on shit. Which is not an accidental analogy, I’m afraid, because “shit” is exactly what “Superman IV” is.
Look, I’m not the first guy to tell you that “Superman IV” is a disaster. The movie’s budget was $17 million, and the film only took in a meager $15.6 million when all was said and done (in retrospect, the new “Man of Steel” made $12 million in midnight screenings alone). Budgetary constraints certainly put a damper on the look of the film, which features many shots of an airborne Superman that looks like a cardboard cut-out superimposed over moving images. We get ultra-cheesy 1980s special effects, complete with characters who shoot lightning and fireballs out of their hands. And we get a supervillain named Nuclear Man who looks like a Chippendale.
Ah, but there is a reason “Superman IV” looks so terrible. It comes from the Cannon Studio, which specialized in these sorts of low-budget crapfests with middling effects and strong social statements (here, it’s anti-nuclear war). About the only thing the film does right is parody print journalism’s ongoing quest to sell newspapers by overselling their stories with big headlines meant to turn consumers’ heads. Other than that, the film is nothing more than a bullet to the head of the magic and wonder Donner and the cast had created nine years prior. ★
SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006) – After many years in limbo, Superman finally made his way back to the big screen in this Bryan Singer-helmed homage, which seemed like a continuation of “Superman” and “Superman II,” meaning it, like us, pretended “Supermans III” and “IV” never even existed. Set some time after Superman ventured off into space, leaving the world to fend for itself, this grim and overlong reboot lacked the one thing a Superman movie needs most: a sense of fun.
Instead, we got a bland Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) who now has a kid and a brand new boyfriend (James Marsden, starring in a “Superman” movie and an “X-Men” movie in the same summer) and a Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) who lacked the compassionate sleaziness of Gene Hackman with a plot to drown millions of people and profit off those who manage to stay afloat. There is some fun to be had, including a couple of visionary throwbacks to the comic book (such as recreating the iconic “Action Comics” cover from 1938), but mostly this is just a solemn melodrama with a very good performance by newcomer Brandon Routh in the iconic role. ★★½
So that’s it, isn’t it? Turns out no matter how you feel about Zack Snyder’s reimagined Superman movie “Man of Steel,” it turns out that there is only one truly decent Superman movie in existence and that’s the 1978 original. The other movies have their moments — well, two of them do, anyways — but in the end, it was only Richard Donner who could truly make the DC comics superhero fly.
Read my review of Snyder’s “Man of Steel” here.