Today: May 27, 2024

Superman On Screen Part 1

Not quite the first comic book superhero, but definitely the standard setter for the whole subgenre, Superman will be 75 years old this month. So, with both the anniversary and the new reboot of the movie franchise Man Of Steel on the way, Ed Boff takes a timely look back at the cinematic career of Clark Kent…

The 1940s Cartoons
Barely four years after his debut in print, Supes was popular enough to hit the big screen in animated form.  These now iconic cartoon were made for Paramount by noted animators the Fleischer Brothers who, back then, were almost as a popular as Disney – and this was their biggest challenge yet.  It wasn’t just the fact that no one was doing action cartoons. It was that they broke new ground by attempting to bring huge, comic book storylines to the big screen.  City-levelling death rays, bullet-cars, robots, secret labs are all here, straight from the comic panels to animation cells.  While the series do seem a bit formulaic when viewed all together it’s remarkable how much storytelling these shorts do in just eight minutes.

The cartoons have been hugely influential over the years.  In fact, the almost noir look and style directly influenced those Batman, Superman and Justice League animated series of the 1990s.  The robots in the episode The Mechanical Monsters inspired Miyazaki’s Castle In The Sky, Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow and much, much more.  Also, the episode The Arctic Giant is almost a direct precursor to Godzilla!  The Fleischers were incredibly ahead of their time.  Unfortunately, they left the series after nine episodes, and the subsequent eight parts by Famous Studios have not aged well at all, especially since the series had suddenly become WWII propaganda (the episode Japoteurs features some pretty horrific racial stereotypes).  Nevertheless, the Fleischer’s shorts are still incredible stuff which helped cement the Man of Steel into the popular consciousness!

Superman And The Mole Men
This wasn’t the first live action Superman; there were a pair of film serials starring Kirk Alyn from Columbia beforehand, which were so low budget that the effect of Superman flying was achieved by having him turn into a cartoon! This feature film pilot for the later Adventures Of Superman TV series couldn’t even afford that.  This story of Clark Kent (George Reeves) having to protect the titular creatures who emerge in a small town from the world’s deepest oil well, is a pretty threadbare production.  The Mole Men are just little people in brown leotards and the worst bald caps ever put on film, and the only time Superman is seen to fly all film, he looks like a Terry Gilliam cardboard cut-out. Nevertheless, there is a certain earnestness about things that makes this an endearing little film, if only for Mystery Science Theater potential.  George Reeves gives a good, charming performance as Superman too, and it’s easy to see why he was so beloved for the role.  Sadly, his story came to an unhappy and shocking end in 1959 as dramatised in the docudrama Hollywoodland. However, it’s still well worth seeing him in this and the series that inspired so many.

Superman The Movie  (Main Picture)
The film was marketed with the tagline “You will believe a man can fly”, and that’s almost the mission statement for the entire production. Gone were the days of George Reeves with a rear projector behind him and a fan in front.  Instead, everything was set up to truly make Superman seem as real as possible and it’s amazing how well most of the effects have withstood the test of time, even at Blu-Ray levels of picture quality.

The film itself takes on the story on a grand scale too; from the opening, horrific destruction of Krypton, to Clark Kent’s rise to adulthood, to Superman’s full arrival in Metropolis and his fight to stop Lex Luthor’s plans.  It’s such a successful take on the Superman mythos that pretty much all subsequent adaptations take note from it, and indeed many aspects written for the film later became part of the comic’s canon (such as the crystalline look of Kryptonian technology).  In fact, it’s telling how many over superhero movies over the years follow so closely the format of this films’ storyline, following many of the same beats (the origin, the first reveal, their first big rescue/mission…).

It’s directed with a grand scope by Richard Donner, and bought to life with great performances all round.  Marlon Brando brings great dignity to the early part of the film as Jor-El (for which he received a total of $3.7 million for two weeks work and about twenty minutes screentime!), Gene Hackman is obviously having a ball as Luthor, and Christopher Reeve (no relation to George) is just perfect as both Clark and Superman.   The film isn’t without faults; the comedy moments with Luthor’s sidekick Otis (Ned Beatty) feel a bit forced, a few plot points are jumped to with some pretty shaky logic, and the ending has been mocked and made fun of quite rightly for being more than a bit of a cheat.  However, this film still holds up, delivering a true sense of wonder few other Superhero movies have since.  It celebrates Superman as an icon, and it truly helped make him timeless.

Superman II
So one aspect of the first Superman that may have had the audience scratching their heads back in the day was wondering “what was with those three people being sucked into a mirror at the start?”.  Well, that was set up for this sequel, filmed back to back with the first.  As Superman and Lois Lane’s (Margot Kidder) relationship has reached a turning point, a nuclear explosion in space cracks the prison holding Kryptonian criminals Non (Jack O’Halloran), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and their leader General Zod (Terence Stamp).  Now the three are on Earth intent on conquest, whilst Superman has decided to go without his powers; extremely bad timing on his part!

It’s a good progression for the series. After setting up just how powerful Superman is in the first film, this one pits him against three more of his kind, and in the film’s last half-hour they do have quite the battle royale in Metropolis.  Terence Stamp makes for a memorable, imposing villain, especially in moments like his invasion of the White House; as the President prays to God, he simply corrects him with “Zod”.  Also, Reeve and Kidder do have a really tender chemistry together, again building upon the first film naturally.

However, as good as these aspects are, the film is never quite the sum of its parts.  The film’s very oddly paced, with sections almost treading water till the final showdown, and with aspects like Gene Hackman’s return as Lex Luthor seeming a bit superfluous.  The real issue against the film though, is its really schizophrenic tone at times, with some darker aspects like Zod’s tactics (such as their attack on NASA) set against some overly light-hearted scenes.  There’s a reason for some of these issues though…

Superman II The Richard Donner Cut
Superman I and II were filmed back to back, with director Richard Donner handling both shoots.  However, issues arose during production, forcing Donner to focus on finishing off the first film.  Meanwhile, he and the producers weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on a lot of things, and so he left the project after one was completed.  A new director, Richard Lester, was bought in to do reshoots and finish off the film (notably removing all of Marlon Brando’s scenes because they didn’t want to pay him again!), resulting in the theatrical version we all know and love.  In 2006 though, a new cut of the film, closer to what Donner intended (but still using some of Lester’s footage since Donner didn’t shoot everything he wanted) was released to home video.

So how does it compare to the theatrical cut? Basically, it’s a much better film!  The tone is a lot more consistent, the action is much tighter, the alternative footage is fascinating to see for the first time, and it links in with the first film in some pretty clever ways.  It’s also an impressive technical achievement, as apart from a few scenes that were originally test footage and the odd CGI moment to cover unfinished effects work, for a film that was reconstructed from twenty-five year old deleted footage it’s pretty seamless.  What’s particularly fascinating is the way aspects of the original ending of this film were used instead for the first (which makes you wonder what the planned end to the first was).

This version still isn’t without a few flaws, but on the whole, it seems that time has vindicated Richard Donner. Although the theatrical version is still fun, this cut is superior and well recommended (although some series continuity issues may prove to be a headache if you watch this instead).

Next time, join Ed Boff as he takes a look at the rest of Christopher Reeve’s films, an attempt to add some gender equality, what we almost got in the 90s, and the franchise’s last big comeback.  Just remember, when you go to see Man of Steel, be courteous to your fellow audience members. Don’t talk on your mobile, and whatever you do, don’t smoke, or Superman will do this!

Man Of Steel is in cinemas Friday 14th June. 

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