Reboot, Resume, Retire – Superman


Welcome back to our series of articles where long suffering film series are checked for a pulse.

1978’s ‘Superman’ has to be what cinema is all about. Epic sets, heroic heroes, dastardly villains and a literally out of this world story. At 32 years old this film still looks good, ‘you’ll believe a man can fly!’ was the tagline – and the effects made that no idle boast. If we think of 1970’s and 1980’s fantasy films we probably just think of horrendous stop motion, matte lines and costumes that seem designed to annoy us. Superman and the Star Wars trilogy are among the only films that dare challenge this.

Richard Donner gives us easily his best film with a film written by Mario Puzo (of The Godfather fame) and was no doubt helped by a cast including Marlon Brando, Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman. Perhaps the real ace in the hole is John Williams’s magical score and a fantastic title credits sequence.  Superman isn’t clever, it isn’t free from cheese but it’s just so well made that put simply Superman is about as good as it gets – 9/10

Of course, Superman II was in production even before Superman was finished – among the first back to back sequels. Richard Donner was replaced half way though and I challenge any film to swap director and not be unspeakably dreadful.  Richard Lester adds his own inept ideas to a bucket load of equally poor ideas Richard Donner seemed to have come up with (reversing time again…really?). It’s difficult to describe just how bad this film is. The studio disliked Richard Donner’s refusal to camp things up – he was replaced and the tone of the Superman series radically altered. The epic production values are long gone, Superman II is incredibly dated. Superman had us believing a man could fly – Superman II has us believing that even on a limited budget Christopher Reeve shouldn’t be wobbling quite so much.

Superman II’s plot is set up by the first film – (so it can’t even take credit for that), exiles from Krypton have turned up on Earth to rule (for some reason). An enemy of equal power to Superman sounds like a good villain – but we get no fewer than three. It’s clownish overkill. Oh and did you know Superman can throw part of his clothes at villains as a weapon?  The real problem is the ‘cheese’, the immaturity of the film – the attempt to appeal to children comes across as silly. Superman was happy to just be a film for the masses; Superman II needs to be a film for 10 year olds. You have the triple whammy of dated effects, cringe inducing dialogue ‘kneel before Zod!’ and enough backstage politics to render Superman II among the worst sequels of all time 3/10.

Richard Lester was ruining franchises before Paul W.S Anderson (Resident Evil) had made his deal with the devil. Superman III has Lester back at the helm of the Titanic. Superman III plays out like a ‘Carry On’ film, it’s a comedy. Sure we have a rather funny opening sequence in which Metropolis is brought low by exploding penguins and an endless list of ‘funny’ accidents, but after that it’s very hit and miss. Richard Pryor plays a computer scientist who does…something….and…well the end result is Superman’s nemesis is basically an internet server. That doesn’t move.

Superman III somehow ends up better than it should be. Robert Vaughan’s maniacal industrialist is an amusing character, no doubt thanks to Mr Vaughan’s performance and certainly not the script he’s given. Richard Pryor does give us some funny moments – keeping a ‘low profile’ and turning up in a sports car. The real stand out moment though is Clark Kent v Superman – the series finest moment. The film had begun with pure slapstick but this sequence is genuinely menacing as the mental conflict of Superman literally plays out on screen. Kent is crushed and bashed by Superman with Christopher Reeve (and some clever camera work) giving us a powerful sequence which, for me at least, carries the entire film. Superman III is no classic but it know’s what it wants to be, I might not like the destination but the journey wasn’t unpleasant – 6/10.

I’m not sure why 1987’s Superman IV is so bad. A new director perhaps – Sidney J. Furie didn’t have much of a track record either before or after. Must people have settled on the budget – apparently about 40% of what 1978’s Superman had. Then again maybe it was that fact Christopher Reeve wrote a story about Superman ending the Cold War.   

I’ll pin my colours to the mast and say Superman IV is better than Superman II, though it’s a bit like saying you prefer to be punched than kicked. Superman IV atleast has a intresting villian in Nuclear Man (though he looks like a hair metal band guitarist and is powerless in the dark) and Gene Hackman is back too. Superman IV’s dire effects and monetary constraints ravage every scene, though breakdancing lakey’s, an overweight Superman and a Lois Lane evidently as high as a kite don’t help. I did like the double date sequence – but this is yet another ‘comedy’ bit, its not kryptonite that can kill Superman but 80’s humour.  Superman IV proves that the most important element of a successful film is an appropriate budget – without it you don’t stand a chance, 4/10.

We’d see Superman again in a quite excellent TV series (well, that’s how I remember it, I don’t care to view it again and double check) but it was 2006 before the Man of Steel was back on the silver screen.

Bryan Singer was at the helm and this time a budget was not going to be a problem – with $200 million the studio threw everything they could at this project. Superman Returns looks gorgeous – a set piece where Superman saves a passenger jet as it tumbles through the air is a real highlight. Cast wise Brandon Routhe is Clark Kent and delivers a performance that’s perfectly acceptable, Kevin Spacey makes for an excellent Lex Luthor but Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane damns them all. So she’s 21…with a 5 year old son (Superman’s hitting a 16 year old?)….and a massive name in journalism, yeah, that’s not working for me. Superman Returns is a film that just needs to shut up – when ever Superman is saving the day the film crackles along, I couldn’t help but cheer him on his way. Whenever it pauses for dialogue though – then we hit a problem. The story about killing people to make land more valuable is preposterous (and self evidently in defiance of any notion of economics) and Superman lifting an island made of kryptonite just seems designed to annoy the auidence. Superman has a kid – why oh why? People complained of the lack of a real enemy for our hero, I think the bigger problem is the need to tie Superman Returns with what came before. Regardless Superman Returns barely broke even on its release and its sequel ‘The Man of Steel’ was cancelled. I like Superman Returns but it’s full of some many bad ideas at it gets a 7/10.

So where does the series go now – there are rumblings of a Christopher Nolan produced sequel, it would appear Superman will get the Dark Knight treatment – ‘’oh make it dark, dark = good!’’. I liked Superman Returns but I have to wonder where Superman fits in the 21st century. Created as Nazi fighting embodiment of American values, the Superman character just seems dull. A flying goodie two-shoes somewhat conflicts with audience’s love of darker and violent superheroes. Making Superman a tortured soul might work but how does the ‘flawed’ hero dynamic work if you’re indestructible? Superman doesn’t have great villains to carry a film – we’ve seen Lex Luthor a bit too much, is Braniac a box office draw? Would we really entertain Batman V Superman – I pray not.

I’d have Superman as strong but vulnerable – we wouldn’t rely on kryptonite and while one bullet couldn’t hurt him multiple could. He’d be struggling to fit into a suspicious society that didn’t know whether it wanted him or not. We’d see Superman carrying the burden of trying to help but overwhelmed by the scope of the task and resentful of all he was required to do. We wouldn’t have any of this ‘truth, justice and the American way’ crap – he’d be a man, capable of love and hate – and connecting with the audience.

Ultimately I’m not sure if that character is still Superman. If the changes can’t be made, if it can’t be rebooted, then sadly – it’s retire.


Tags: , , , ,

3 Responses to “Reboot, Resume, Retire – Superman”

  1. Danjo Kazooe Says:

    I would happily see a sequel to Singer`s Superman Returns. Ok, so the film was flawed (aka kinda boring) – but the setup is there to be improved upon. The cast is great (minus maybe the actress playing Louis) and a direct sequel will spare us another bloody origin movie 😛 Just up the action, and zods your uncle…. 😉

  2. Danjo Kazooe Says:

    Which “quite excellent TV series” are you referring to? Smallville or Louis and Clark? If you are referring to Louis and Clark…lets just say it hasn’t aged well 😛

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: