Today: May 28, 2024

Superman On The Silver Screen Part 2

As Man Of Steel hits UK cinemas this Friday, Ed Boff continues his retrospective with a look at some of Kal-El’s Super – and not so Super – Silver Screen moments. So put those pants on over your trousers and join us as we look to the sky and ask … is it a bird, is it a plane …?

Superman III
Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) is a computer genius whose potential has been seen by industrialist Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn).  Webster plans to use Gus’s skills in elaborate schemes for worldwide sabotage but he needs Superman out of the way.  They try using a synthetic Kryptonite, but instead of draining his life-force, it has another dramatic effect…

This is where the series really started to run into trouble, after the behind-the-scenes issues that afflicted IIRichard Lester is a fine director (A Hard Day’s Night, Robin And Marion, The Three Musketeers…) but as he stated in a later interview, he and Superman were not the right fit at all.  The film is technically well made but the decision to make it an out and out comedy falls flat as the jokes, and there’s not much left to the script beyond that.  Richard Pryor tries hard but for someone with comedic chops like him, it’s embarrassing to watch.  It’s also disappointing that the main villain is basically a clone of Lex Luthor, when there are plenty of other characters from the comics to work from.  In fact, original plans for the film included Mister Mxyzptlk, Supergirl and Brainiac!.

The film has its saving graces, there are some good action and rescue scenes but the main plus point is Christopher Reeve himself.  He has some nice tender scenes with new love interest Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) and the storyline of Superman turning evil gives him plenty of chances to show off his range, which makes you wish they’d focused on this far more.  By far the highlight of the whole film is a battle scene between Superman and Clark Kent over his very soul.  So while Superman III is a deeply flawed film, it’s not without merit.  If nothing else, this film features perhaps one of the most terrifying moments in a family film ever; anyone who saw this as a child knows exactly which part…

In 1984, an attempt was made to bring some gender balance to the franchise  … by introducing Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El to mainstream audiences. Supergirl had been around in comics form since 1958 and here she gets a film to herself, instead of playing a supporting role in the main series as had been originally planned.  Kara (Helen Slater) lives in the surviving Krypton colony Argo City, within a pocket dimension.  An accident sends the city’s source of life, the Omegahedron, to Earth, so Kara sets out to get it back.  But it’s fallen into the hands of would-be sorceress Selena (Fay Dunaway), who’s made it part of her rituals and is tapping into its power.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with this movie. There are plot-holes galore, such as why did these Kryptonians, given they knew all about Superman on Earth, never think to make contact and let him know they’re alive?  Invite him round for tea at least?  There’re also pacing issues; for someone on an urgent mission to find the Macguffin-hedron, Kara wastes a lot of time with the whole secret identity thing for no reason.  Oh, and what a co-inkidink that both Lois Lane’s sister (Maureen Teefy) and Jimmy Olsen (Mark McClure) just happen to be around.

Despite all this, and the absolute mauling it got from critics at the time, it’s a pretty fun watch.  It’s well filmed and made, there’re some cool concepts and striking imagery (like a glimpse within the otherworldly prison the Phantom Zone) and Helen Slater’s a more than decent and quite endearing lead.  Besides, any film with Peter Cook in can’t be all bad.  It’s kind of a mess but it has a sort of bewildering charm to it and it’s a far more entertaining mess than what came before.  As for what came after…

Superman IV: The Quest For Peace
A lot of what’s wrong with this film can be traced back to the fact the producers this time were Golan-Globus, a pair infamous for penny pinching and playing musical chairs with their productions’ finances.  Superman IV was no exception, as it had its budget slashed by over half and it shows.  Milton Keynes is having to double for Metropolis, the same shot of Superman flying at the camera is constantly repeated and the effects look a lot worse than what came nearly a decade earlier.  This isn’t helped by obvious over-editing (at least 45 minutes of footage was cut), and a script that shamelessly rehashes elements of the first two films when it’s not making up dumb things of its own.

The storyline centres around Superman, because of a kid’s letter (really!), deciding to get rid of all the nuclear weapons in the world.  However Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) has escaped and has created the incredibly silly looking Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) to take Superman out.   The script’s biggest issue (of many) is that nuclear warfare is a big issue – and an extremely complicated one – and this film doesn’t really grasp the deeper moral concepts inherent in the debate. There’s the germ of a neat idea in here, about the morality of Superman and whether he should use his power for political change, but nothing is really done with it. Which is a shame, because this makes for a very poor last outing for Reeve’s Superman. However Reeves, even after the tragic accident that left him paralysed, remained an inspiration and true icon to many.  He’s the one who really made us believe a man could fly.

Superman Lives
Even though there wasn’t a Superman film in the 90s, it’s worth mentioning the one that got away …This was the Dark Age of comics and that point was made clear by the biggest selling DC comic of the period, Superman #75, The Death of Superman.  This storyline made international news and even though Super got better less than a year later (he was only mostly dead), the storyline did much to save the Superman brand. Not surprisingly, Warner Brothers wanted in on this and so plans for an adaptation of the story began.

What followed is a perfect example of “development hell”.  Kevin Smith was tapped to do a script and tells in An Evening With Kevin Smith of how producer Jon Peters insisted on some very odd conditions for the story, namely “Superman shouldn’t be in that suit, shouldn’t fly, and must fight a giant spider in the third act”.  Then Tim Burton came on board with Nicholas Cage set to star and it seems that Peters was making even more radical changes to Superman lore, given the leaked concept images and costume tests that have shown up since.  The project fell apart around this time but it looks like we may have dodged a bullet there.  It’s still fascinating to consider what almost occurred. Look out for a documentary on the un-making of the film by Metalocalypse‘s Jon Schnepp.

Superman Returns (Main Picture)
A year after the Dark Knight’s big screen comeback, it was the Man of Steel’s turn under X-Men director Bryan Singer. Whereas Batman Begins elected to reboot the franchise, this film was a sequel in the already existing series… well, the first two, it quietly swept the events of III and IV under the carpet.  Superman (Brandon Routh) has been away for five years in deep space, investigating Krypton’s remains. He returns to find that the world and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) have moved on.  But he’s back just in time as in his absence Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has raided the Fortress of Solitude and has big plans for the secrets held within.

It’s clear from the word go that this was made with a lot of love for the Richard Donner films and that may be the film’s biggest flaw.  In being such a tribute there’s a lot of retreading of old ground, with not much plot wise that hadn’t been seen before. However, since this film also had to act as a stepping on point for new viewers, it’s understandable they’d want to stick to the basics.  Also, there’s one subplot and revelation that, if the series had continued, would have had some awkward implications and consequences to the Superman lore.

Apart from that, though, the film stands up very well.  It’s well acted, has some great effects scenes, and the plane rescue is one of the most breathlessly exciting scenes of superheroics ever put on film (and has some real physics in there).  A lot have been dismissive of this film since its release, but there’s really not a huge amount to hold against it. It’s still a strong Superman movie, just one that’s a little too by-the-numbers.  It’s a shame the franchise didn’t continue from this, as it laid the groundwork for 21st century Superman well and Brandon Routh, though a little too young, was damn good in the role and deserved another go.  In fact, he deserves more screen roles period, as he was also one of the best things in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The campaign starts now!

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