He may have been overshadowed recently by both Batman and Spider-Man, but it’s worth taking the time to remember just how prolific, and downright enjoyable, Superman has been in terms of onscreen adventures over the years.
Here’s a very brief overview of the character as he was sold to viewers before we get to the main event, the movies that remain the most recognisable part of his cinematic legacy. As usual, feel free to reply with any important additional information or points that you’d like to argue. Unlike Superman, I am all too fallible.
His birth name was Kal-El and he was born on the planet Krypton. When Krypton was nearing destruction, Kal-El’s father, Jor-El, took the infant and bundled him up in a rocket before sending him to Earth. On Earth, Kal-El was lucky enough to be found and adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent and he was given a more Earthly name in the form of Clark Kent. When old enough, Clark headed to Metropolis where he found a job as a reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper alongside smart and sassy Lois Lane and the rest is history. There’s more, of course there is, and there are also a number of alternative takes on the character, but this brief bio describes the Superman that most people, myself included, have grown up with and it’s the cinematic Superman that I was in awe of.
The character, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, first appeared in Action Comics #1, but his first onscreen appearance, to my knowledge, was in a cartoon named Goofy Groceries (1941), where he was voiced by Mel Blanc. So, in that case, Mel Blanc was the first person to play Superman onscreen. Before that cartoon there was a radio series (1940) that featured the voice of Bud Collyer as the Man Of Steel and Collyer would go on to voice the character in a number of animated outings. Kirk Alyn became the first person to physically portray the character onscreen in Superman (1948), though Ray Middleton takes the credit for the very, VERY first actor to don the suit during his appearance at the New York World’s Fair in 1940, but most people who have a passing knowledge of the character probably (as I did) think that the famous 1950s interpretation, featuring George Reeves in the main role, really lit the fire in those who wanted to see superheroes on the big screen. Which is why we’ll then skip all manner of animated outings and small screen appearances to get to 1978 when that famous cape would be worn by a man who, to many, would embody all that IS Superman. Christopher Reeve.
Even if you haven’t seen the movie, and shame on you if you haven’t, then you’ll probably know, or remember, the tagline: You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly. That’s what audiences were promised when Superman was released in 1978 and, despite the fact that it looks pretty dated nowadays, that’s what they got.
For a big film, things start off surprisingly small. In fact, things start off so small that when I recently rewatched the movie I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d accidentally selected a different DVD menu instead of the main feature. In a theatrical touch that would please Baz Luhrmann, viewers are shown a small, square cinema screen before the opening titles swoop forward and push the picture into widescreen mode. It’s an impressive little touch and it’s needed because when the main feature properly begins, well, it’s not the most exciting stuff.
Marlon Brando plays Jor-El (and he was famously overpaid for his work) and he spends some time being sombre and moody toward his fellow Kryptonians before putting his son into a rocket and sending him to Earth. Then it’s bye bye Krypton. The infant lands on Earth some time later, he is found by Mr. and Mrs. Kent and he grows up in a rural area while learning just how his body has been changed by Earth’s atmosphere. But once he turns 18 it’s time to go out into the big, wide world. Or it’s time to go and put in some serious study time, not to come out until 12 years later, before heading to Metropolis and beginning his life as a reporter for the Daily Planet.
For anyone who can’t imagine what a big deal Superman was when it was first released, the opening 10-15 minutes serve as a great reminder. The bombastic music by John Williams accompanies a selection of big names including the aforementioned Brando, Gene Hackman (who plays villainous Lex Luthor), Glenn Ford, Ned Beatty, Margot Kidder, director Richard Donner and many more. Mario Puzo helped to co-write the screenplay, for goodness sake, that’s Mario “The Godfather” Puzo. Christopher Reeve may not have been a big name at the time, but once he appeared onscreen as Clark Kent, which only happens after about 45-50 minutes, he was a true STAR.
There are some pacing issues, especially in the first half of the film, and the finale makes little to no sense at all, but this is a hell of a good superhero movie that takes the viewer from the origins of the character through to their first major encounter with an arch-enemy. The special effects may be a bit hit and miss, but they just add to the fun, sometimes thanks to their realism and sometimes, yes, thanks to the pulpy, fake nature of what’s onscreen.
I’ve never been a big fan of Margot Kidder, but many people think she’s good in the role of Lois Lane – I’ll grudgingly admit that she doesn’t do too bad. It’s a shame that she gets stuck with the worst moment in the entire movie, a sequence in which she is being taken on a flight by Superman and recites a poem/song entitled “Can You Read My Mind”. Reeve is fantastic, mesmerising in both of his onscreen personas, Kent or Superman, and Gene Hackman gets a lot of great one-liners as Lex Luthor, accompanied by the idiotic Otis (Ned Beatty) and lovely Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure both do well as, respectively, Perry White and Jimmy Olsen and fans of Superman II will certainly enjoy the beginning of this movie for the way in which it sets up a story arc involving Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran.
In summing up, Superman is like many superhero origin movies that would come along after it. Enjoyable, but flawed. Most of its failings, however, are easy to overlook thanks to such a pitch perfect performance from Christopher Reeve, effortlessly oozing charm and strength one minute before showing some great physical comedy and ineptitude the next. It’s as if he was born to play the role.
DIRECTOR: RICHARD DONNER
WRITER: MARIO PUZO, DAVID NEWMAN, LESLIE NEWMAN, ROBERT BENTON, TOM MANKIEWICZ
STARS: CHRISTOPHER REEVE, MARGOT KIDDER, GENE HACKMAN, NED BEATTY, JACKIE COOPER, GLENN FORD, VALERIE PERRINE, PHYLLIS THAXTER, JEFF EAST, MARC MCCLURE, TERENCE STAMP, JACK O’HALLORAN, SARAH DOUGLAS
RUNTIME: 143 MINS APPROX/151 MINS APPROX
Superman II (1980)
It’s time once again for a great movie to come out of a bit of a mess. Superman II is, for my money, a film that manages to edge ahead of its predecessor and it remains one of my favourite ever superhero movies. Almost as famous nowadays for the behind the scenes turbulence as the final result, Mark Lester replaced Richard Donner and drastically changed the tone of the movie, it doesn’t really show any hint of those problems as the adventure begins, and never really lets up from start to finish.
The film starts, pretty much, with another look at some of the events of the first movie. Most importantly, it shows General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran) being imprisoned in The Phantom Zone and banished from the soon-to-be-destroyed planet of Krypton. The opening credits then sketch out the arrival of Superman as a child on Earth and his subsequent development into the man he is today and then it’s on with the action.
That action kicks off with a group of terrorists on the Eiffel Tower, threatening to set off a hydrogen bomb. To make sure that she has the best possible take on the story, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) decides to, ummmm, hang about and get herself stuck under one of the elevators located in the tower. Because that’s always a good thing to do with a hydrogen bomb, get as close as possible. Thankfully, her stupidity isn’t fatal because Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) knows that she has put herself in danger and heads there ASAP in his Superman guise. One disposed bomb later, there’s an explosion in space that ends up freeing the three prisoners from The Phantom Zone. As the three Kryptonians end up making their way to Earth, Superman puts himself in a strange position when Lois puts two and two together, at last, and deduces that he and Clark Kent are one and the same. If he decides to fall for an Earth woman, then Superman can have his powers removed, but what will that mean for everyone else if he’s no longer there to protect them? Especially when master criminal Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) still wants payback and General Zod remains obsessed with getting people to kneel before him.
Superman II remains a much-loved outing for the man of steel, thanks in no small part to the villains that turn up to give Superman a real run for his money. Mind you, the fact that Superman spends a portion of the movie no longer being so super is also a big plus point for the movie. There’s nothing quite as dull as a champion that can never be defeated.
The cast are all fantastic. Reeve has owned the role since he first appeared as Clark Kent in the preceding movie, Margot Kidder has more fun this time around thanks to her character’s development and Stamp, Douglas and O’Halloran are some of the finest super-villains ever to be put onscreen, easily matched by Hackman. Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure, Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty all return, even if their roles are greatly reduced, and the cast even has room for some small turns from Clifton James, E. G. Marshall and John Ratzenberger (blink and you’ll miss him).
The script is on a par with the first movie, which means that there are some big gaps here and there to spoil your enjoyment if you think about it all too much, but everything is just made that little bit better for the second instalment of this franchise. Lester may have more of a flair for comedy than drama, but he’s kept slightly in check by the fact that he took over something which had already been developed on a lot of groundwork.
There was a time when I thought this movie was universally loved. I’ve since found out that’s not the case. Thankfully, whenever I watch the movie I still love it just as much as ever, and I know that there are at least some people who agree with me.
DIRECTOR: RICHARD LESTER/RICHARD DONNER (INITIALLY UNCREDITED BUT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE VERSION RELEASED AS “THE DONNER CUT”)
WRITER: MARIO PUZO, DAVID NEWMAN, LESLIE NEWMAN
STARS: CHRISTOPHER REEVE, MARGOT KIDDER, GENE HACKMAN, NED BEATTY, TERENCE STAMP, SARAH DOUGLAS, JACK O’HALLORAN, JACKIE COOPER, MARC MCCLURE, VALERIE PERRINE, CLIFTON JAMES, E. G. MARSHALL, JOHN RATZENBERGER
RUNTIME: 127 MINS APPROX/ 116 MINS APPROX (“THE DONNER CUT”)
Superman III (1983)
I have a strange relationship with Superman III. I have told the tale many times before, but it’s worth repeating. When I was a young lad, about nine years old (I think), I once spent a day with an older cousin who was babysitting me. Well, she was supposed to be babysitting me, but ended up being distracted by her boyfriend. She was so distracted that she kept popping next door to “keep him company” while I was left to watch Superman III. And watch it again. And again. I grew to love Superman III that day, the way in which only a child can love something so much without ever getting bored by it, until it’s one day discarded for something better. When I was older I watched Superman III again and found it laughably bad, even horribly inept in places. Now, after the passing of some years, I have revisited the movie and found myself in a nice middle ground. It’s a flawed film, no doubt about that, but it’s also in line with some of the sillier and more childish Superman comic strips that I’d read as a young boy. It’s a film for the kids, and it succeeds in that regard.
Strangely enough, it’s also a Richard Pryor movie. Pryor was one of the hottest comedic properties of the time and was given a plum role in Superman III, a casting decision that many think led to a shift in focus and a weakening of the film. I disagree.
Pryor, from start to finish, is a lot of fun as Gus Gorman, a man who finds out that he has quite a talent for computing. He starts making quite an impression on dastardly businessman Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) at the same time as Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve returning to the role) decides to head back to Smallville for a high school reunion. Clark gets to catch up with the delightful Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) and the not so delightful Brad (Gavan O’Herlihy) while in Smallville, oblivious to the fact that someone is trying to recreate Kryptonite in order to cause him harm. Luckily, the Kryptonite isn’t faithfully recreated. Unluckily, it’s made into a substance that starts turning Superman from the goody goody hero that he always has been to a selfish and uncaring slob that wants to cause trouble. Can he save himself from his dark side? Webster, and his sister, Vera (Annie Ross), certainly hope not.
Margot Kidder is noticeably sidelined in this outing, with her character, Lois Lane, onscreen for only a few minutes, while Jackie Cooper and Mark McClure are also given very little to do, but the newcomers to the franchise more than make up for the absence of the more familiar faces. Pryor is as amusing as you’d expect, Vaughn is suitably megalomaniacal, Annie Ross is quite stern and pretty terrifying at some points and Pamela Stephenson, as Lorelei, is memorably sexy even while helping Vaughn to carry out his diabolical plan. Annette O’Toole is okay, if a little bland, as Lana Lang while Gavan O’Herlihy does a great job of portraying a small-town douchebag.
Richard Lester has directing duties again, this time without taking over someone else’s work, and David and Leslie Newman are solely responsible for the script, which means that this is very much a comedy. There are times when that’s not a problem – a wonderful opening sequence that features some fun stunt work and one or two great in-jokes is highly entertaining, any time that Richard Pryor is onscreen makes for some laughs and some moments set in the offices of the Daily Planet are quite enjoyable – but there are times when viewers might wish that the whole thing had been just a bit darker. When Superman turns bad is one of those times, but it keeps the film firmly in the realm of family entertainment, and that’s the way I am now able to view it once more with fondness.
If you want your superhero movies to be dark, brooding reflections of the time in which they were made then this isn’t for you. But if you want something with a lot of goofy moments, a “flying boy scout” and one unforgettable, scary cyborg (well, it traumatised ME when I was young anyway) then give this a whirl.
DIRECTOR: RICHARD LESTER
WRITER: DAVID NEWMAN, LESLIE NEWMAN
STARS: CHRISTOPHER REEVE, RICHARD PRYOR, ANNETTE O’TOOLE, ROBERT VAUGHN, ANNIE ROSS, PAMELA STEPHENSON, GAVAN O’HERLIHY, JACKIE COOPER, MARK MCCLURE, MARGOT KIDDER
RUNTIME: 125 MINS APPROX
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)
You see it happen on TV quite often. A show with a core audience so loyal that it won’t end, even when it really should. The familiarity keeps it going, viewers enjoy just being in the company of the characters as opposed to the stale, old-fashioned material being used to pad out each episode. It’s sad, but it happens. It also happens in movie franchises, as anyone who watched the last Police Academy movie (number seven, I think it was) will be able to confirm.
Why have I started my review of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace by mentioning this phenomenon? Well, as you may have guessed, the same thing has happened here. Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Jackie Cooper and Mark McClure return to their roles in the franchise (playing, respectively, Clark Kent/Superman, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Perry White and Jimmy Olsen) and go through the motions, but it all feels a bit tired and stale.
There is still some fun to be had here as Superman is given an impressive new foe (Nuclear Man, played by Mark Pillow). Where did this foe come from? Well, Lex Luthor used a hair from Superman’s own head to get his source material before trying to improve upon it. The only downside is that Nuclear Man needs to stay in sunlight or he immediately loses power. Superman also finds some trouble in his Clark Kent guise when the Daily Planet is taken over by David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker), a man more interested in sensationalism and sales figures than actual news. His daughter, Lacy Warfield (Mariel Hemingway), follows in his footsteps but starts to change her mind as she spends more and more time around Lois and Clark, leading to an enjoyable sequence in which Lois and Lacy try to enjoy a double-date with Superman and Clark.
Based on a story idea by Christopher Reeve (who agreed to play Superman once more in exchange for the financing of another film he wanted to star in, Street Smart), there’s a dopey sweetness about this movie that stops it from being completely irredeemable. The script by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, who helped develop the story with Reeve, is pretty sloppy and simple, but its heart is in the right place. Or, at least, that’s how it seems.
Director Sidney J. Furie doesn’t do anything to make up for the many flaws in the script. The special effects aren’t too special and a lot of the movie feels, if I’m being brutally honest, quite lazy. Of course, that may have something to do with the budget being approximately halved just before filming began. The cast all do an okay job, just enough to deserve some goodwill at any rate, with the notable exception of Mark Pillow as Nuclear Man. He’s just no good in the role, never convincing as a real threat OR a real actor. Even Jon Cryer, seemingly shoehorned in to play Lex Luthor’s nephew and give the movie some added teen appeal, doesn’t do too badly. Hemingway and Wanamaker are decent additions, changing the dynamic for the better, and so it’s a shame that the big baddie is so weak (though Hackman has fun, once again, as Luthor). Jim Broadbent has to put on an embarrassing French accent, but he only appears onscreen for mere minutes so it’s not the worst thing he could have done.
Reeve, Kidder, et al. go through the motions and easily slip back into familiar roles. It’s just a shame that the material, or execution of the material, wasn’t better. Everyone involved deserved a better swansong for the characters that they brought so brilliantly to life. Still, as with the previous movie, there’s fun to be had for those who recall some of Superman’s sillier comic-book adventures.
DIRECTOR: SIDNEY J. FURIE
WRITER: LAWRENCE KONNER, MARK ROSENTHAL
STARS: CHRISTOPHER REEVE, MARGOT KIDDER, GENE HACKMAN, JON CRYER, JACKIE COOPER, MARK PILLOW, SAM WANAMAKER, MARIEL HEMINGWAY, MARK MCCLURE, JIM BROADBENT
RUNTIME: 90 MINS APPROX
Superman Returns (2006)
Starting with a bit of trivia, it’s happy coincidence that Superman says: “see you in twenty” to Lex Luthor at the end of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace because it took almost that long for the two characters to be reunited for another big screen battle.
Famously becoming mired in development hell for over a decade (names attached at one point or another included Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, Brett Ratner, McG, J. J. Abrams and many, many more), Superman Returns was finally completed by director Bryan Singer, working from a script by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. Despite a worldwide box office tally of just under $400M – according to Box Office Mojo – it was considered a disappointment. It’s not even a film that people revisit and re-evaluate. If anything, it seems to get more and more disparaged and dismissed as time goes on, which is a shame because it’s really quite a good film.
The story picks up, pretty much from the end of Superman II. Not all of the continuity is set in stone, but it’s close enough for fans of the character and those earlier movies to know the background to the characters. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released early from prison, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) managed to win her Pulitzer prize and also has a son and Superman (Brandon Routh) has been away from Earth for about five years. Why? Well, he wanted to revisit Krypton and see if there was more there than just a dead planet. There wasn’t. Superman returns, as the title informs everyone, and he’s just in time to deal with another nefarious scheme by Lex Luthor and to upset Lois Lane, who won her Pulitzer for an article all about how the world no longer needs Superman.
The biggest criticisms often leveled at Superman Returns are
a) not enough action
b) Superman is too much like a mopey teenager
c) the cast just aren’t up to the task.
Two of these criticisms are true. Sort of.
It’s true that the movie isn’t exactly filled to the brim with action set-pieces, but it has a few fantastic moments throughout. It’s just unfortunate that with a runtime of about two and a half hours those moments don’t do enough to appease many fans. I, on the other hand, think that everything could have been great with only some tightening up and tweaking here and there. Get the movie down to two hours and it would hold up much better.
Superman IS too much like a mopey teenager, now and again. Get rid of these scenes and you’d have a much better movie. Hmmmm, that ties in with the tightening up and tweaking idea. I wonder just how easy it would be to make some kind of fan edit to show off the rest of the film to its best advantage.
The cast, however, are pretty great. Okay, let’s leave aside Kate Bosworth (as Bryan Singer should have done, she looks about eighteen years old, has no fire in her belly and fails to do justice to the character of Lois Lane simply because she’s entirely wrong for the part) and focus on the many positives. Brandon Routh is excellent in the lead role. He takes the essence of the character, from comic strip through to Christopher Reeve’s iconic portrayal, and he absolutely nails it. It’s pretty much a perfect performance, which is all the more astonishing considering the huge shadow cast over the role by Reeve. Kevin Spacey is great as Lex Luthor, a character still getting most of the best lines and still aiming to commit a crime that will show the world his true genius. Parker Posey, as the woman – Kitty Kowalski – by his side, is also pretty good. Frank Langella makes a decent Perry White, Sam Huntington is excellent as Jimmy Olsen and James Marsden is decent and upstanding as Richard White, nephew of Perry and beau of Lois. Eva Marie Saint and Kal Penn also have small roles, both do very well with very different performances.
People either don’t care that the set-pieces in the movie were actually really good or they don’t think that they were good enough, which is a real shame. The airplane/shuttle sequence is the one that most people remember, but there are also great scenes involving Kitty Kowalski in a runaway car (leading to a nice homage to the cover of that very first comic appearance), Superman defeating some robbers who are using some heavy-duty weaponry, a sinking ship and, of course, a finale that really takes every ounce of Superman’s super-strength to deal with. Mind you, I even enjoy the fact that the biggest scenes of destruction are cheekily shown on a small scale as Luthor ends up destroying his own train set while testing out phase one of his grand plan.
Perhaps it would have been best to wipe the slate clean and start over, as is happening with Man Of Steel (2013), but I’m in the minority here as one of the people who think that director Singer made another decent superhero movie and also made a respectful and very sweet love letter to the first two films that had audiences believing a man could fly. Mistakes are present – Bosworth, the stuff about Lois Lane’s child, the pacing of the film, the fact that nobody puts two and two together when both Clark Kent and Superman disappear for five years – but it deserves to be given another chance and maybe movie viewers deserve to remind themselves of why the world DOES need Superman.
DIRECTOR: BRYAN SINGER
WRITER: MICHAEL DOUGHERTY, DAN HARRIS
STARS: BRANDON ROUTH, KATE BOSWORTH, KEVIN SPACEY, PARKER POSEY, JAMES MARSDEN, FRANK LANGELLA, SAM HUNTINGTON, EVA MARIE SAINT, KAL PENN
RUNTIME: 154 MINS APPROX
As for any people wanting to know my thoughts on Supergirl, I’ll no doubt get to that at some point, but I didn’t feel it was essential at this particular time.
It would be remiss of me to create an article like this and not mention the tragic accident that happened in 1995, leaving Christopher Reeve wheelchair-bound and paralyzed. Reeve had been loved by many cinema-goers throughout his career, but his courage and determination in the last years of his life (as detailed in his books, and well worth checking out) would serve as the ultimate reminder of why he would always be the ultimate Superman to so many fans. Because, in so many ways, he WAS Superman.
Man Of Steel flies into UK cinemas on 14th June. I encourage all Superman fans, in the meantime, to satisfy their craving for high-flying heroics with one of the megashiny-super-duper boxsets, featuring all of the main movies mentioned above (with the addition of “The Richard Donner cut” of Superman II) plus some great cartoons plus a George Reeves outing plus commentary tracks, documentaries, screentests and much, much more. The movies may have been hit and miss but the boxset is an absolute 10/10.