by Steve Habrat
Richard Lester’s 1983 debacle Superman III had shifted the Superman franchise from serious to shaky ground. It was a bloated and unfunny two-hour sight gag that failed to make you laugh and relentlessly mocked its own hero. Plus, it had Richard Pryor in a major role, which basically says it all. Things went from sort of bad to unfathomably awful in 1987 when Sidney J. Furie released Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, an awkward plea for world peace that was co-written by series star Christopher Reeve. About the only positive thing that can be said for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is that it does away with most of the comedy that plagued the third installment of this rapidly dying franchise. Lacking producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and in the hands of a new production company, Golan & Globus, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is a cheap and poorly thought out franchise killer that simply borrowed from the previous three Superman movies all while trying to make a straight-faced statement about the nuclear arms race. It is a 90-minute mess that couldn’t even be saved by strong performances from Reeve and returning cast members Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder. They certainly try but their lack of interest bleeds through on nearly every single frame.
After news breaks that the United States and the Soviet Union may engage in nuclear war, Superman (played by Christopher Reeve) contemplates how he should handle the situation. Desperate for advice, he travels to the Fortress of Solitude to confide in the spirits of Krypton, who advise him to find a new planet to call home. Superman soon receives a letter from a young schoolboy about the threat of nuclear war, which leads him to attend a United Nations convention and vow that he will rid the world of nuclear weapons. Just as the world is breathing a sigh of relief, Lex Luthor (played by Gene Hackman) escapes from prison with the help of his spaced-out nephew, Lenny Luthor (played by John Cryer), and the two begin cooking up a plot to send the world back into chaos. Luthor decides to steal a strand of Superman’s hair that is on display at a museum in Metropolis, attach it to a nuclear missile, and launch it into the sun in an attempt to create a superhuman that can match Superman’s strength. The result of this experiment is Nuclear Man (played by Mark Pillow), who travels to Earth and begins taking orders from Luthor. Meanwhile, the employees of the Daily Planet are stunned to learn that they have been taken over by tabloid tycoon David Warfield (played by Sam Wanamaker) and his daughter, Lacy (played by Mariel Hemingway), who has been brought in to replace Perry White (played by Jackie Cooper) as editor. To make thing worse for Lois Lane (played by Margot Kidder), Lacy begins trying to seduce Clark Kent.
Under a very limited budget, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is like something that would have sent straight to the VHS bargain bin at a hole-in-the-wall video store. Even for 1987, this is a seriously chintzy production that is weighed down by poor special effects, lame prop work, and some of the laziest sets ever put on celluloid. The sets in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space were more convincing than the moon set at the end of Superman IV. The opening credits will certainly have you chuckling as they look like they were ripped from a Super Nintendo video game, but wait until you see some of the flying effects. When the strings aren’t clearly visible, you’ll be shocked by all the shaky superimposed images of Superman as he hurtles himself towards the viewer. The superimposed image that is used of Superman never changes, making you wonder if the filmmakers even considered doing another take of Reeve in his flight pose. Things don’t get much better when Reeve and Pillow are asked to play around with massive styrofoam props that look like they were spray painted in the director’s basement. When it comes time for the big brawls, Reeve and Pillow look like they are just trying to hug each other to death rather than seriously hurt each other. There is barely a punch thrown and the two just roll around in the dirt like they are participating in a high school wrestling match. It is beyond painful to have to endure.
If there is any saving grace to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, it is the performances from Reeve and returning cast members Margot Kidder, who was reduced to a brief cameo in Superman III, and Gene Hackman, who wasn’t present at all for the third film. Reeve somehow remains strong as Superman/Clark Kent despite seeming well aware that the movie around him is just a disaster. Reeve also helped develop the story but it seems like it got away from him in the filmmaking process. He still manages to excel as Kent and emit warmth as Superman, even when the script starts piling on made-up superpowers. Kidder is still her feisty self as Lois Lane, but she never reaches the level of her first two performances. Hackman is clearly having fun as the scheming Lex Luthor. By this point, he was clearly phoning it in but he’s immensely enjoying himself. Hackman is nearly brought down by an awful performance from Cryer, who is supposed to serve as the comic relief, something that we could have done without. Pillow is downright hilarious (and not in a good way) as the stomping and scowling menace Nuclear Man. You’d think it would be neat to have Superman facing off against a villain who can match him but Pillow is the furthest thing from menacing. As far as the Daily Planet players go, Cooper is on autopilot, Wanamaker is reduced to a snapping businessman with no bite, and Hemingway is here to add a bit of sex appeal to the project.
When you’re not covering your eyes due to the horrendous special effects and embarrassing action sequences, you’ll be in openmouthed disbelief over the countless other flubs in the script. I’m still trying to figure out how Luthor was able to snip that strand of Superman’s hair even though it is able to hold 1000 pounds, and I haven’t quite wrapped my head around how Lacy was able to breathe in space without some sort of helmet. Then there is Nuclear Man’s lame weakness, which seems like it would make him very easy to defeat. And don’t even get me started on the made-up powers that Superman has here. Oh, and then there is the relentless preaching about world peace and nuclear weapons that practically makes you want to tear your hair out. Overall, you could fill a book with everything that is wrong with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The actors all seem thrilled to be reunited but every other aspect of the film is just downright awful. The film runs skimpy, filling out its runtime with slow-motion fights that are unintentionally hilarious and side plots that we could honestly care less about. It is no wonder that this film killed the Superman franchise and left it shelved for almost twenty years. Not even Reeve, who made the third film tolerable, was able to make this flaming turd work. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is one of the worst superhero movies out there and one of the worst movies you may ever see.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is available on Blu-ray and DVD. You’ve been warned.
by Steve Habrat
Way before Tim Burton’s Batman franchise fell into the hands of hack director Joel Schumacher and was turned into a giant neon toy commercial with nipples; a similar fate struck another DC Comics superhero hero. In 1983, comedic director Richard Lester shifted Richard Donner’s Superman franchise from serious-minded optimism into full-on sight gag camp. The result was Superman III, a comic book movie that isn’t nearly as horrible as some may have you believe but is by no means a cinematic masterpiece. On its own, Superman III is a fun action comedy that will keep your ten-year-old son preoccupied while you take a nap, but when compared to the stellar Superman and its awesome follow-up, Superman II, the film is a humongous disappointment that only intermittently entertains. While every single one of the players tries their darndest, the one who is solely responsible for running the franchise into the ground is Lester, who flat-out refuses to take the Man of Steel seriously. To make things even worse on Superman III, Lester casts funnyman Richard Pryor as the thorn in old Superman’s side. As if he sensed this was a giant turd, returning star Christopher Reeve steps in front of the camera with fire in his eyes and he single handedly makes the entire thing, well, sort of watchable.
Superman III introduces us to Gus Gorman (played by Richard Pryor), an unemployed goofball who lands a job as a computer programmer at Webster Industries. Unhappy with his pay, Gus begins embezzling money from Webster Industries, but it doesn’t take long for him to grab the attention of the power hungry CEO, Ross Webster (played by Robert Vaughn). It turns out that Webster, his sister, Vera (played by Annie Ross), and his mistress, Lorelei Ambrosia (played by Pamela Stephenson) are out to take over the world financially and they plan on blackmailing Gus into helping them out. Meanwhile, Clark Kent (played by Christopher Reeve) and Jimmy Olson (played by Marc McClure) travel back to Smallville for Clark’s high school reunion where he reunites with his old childhood friend and recent divorcée Lana Lang (played by Annette O’Toole) and her young son, Ricky (played by Paul Kaethler). After being led to believe that Clark knows Superman, Lana pleads with him to convince Superman to attend Ricky’s birthday. Smallville turns the appearance into a celebration but Gus and Vera crash the party and present Superman with a chunk of synthetic kryptonite in an attempt to weaken him and prevent him from stopping their evil scheme. At first, it appears that the synthetic kryptonite has had no effect on Superman, but soon he becomes depressed, angry, and selfish, just when the world needs him.
Superman III begins with a chain reaction of slapstick disasters and sight gags that are all painfully unfunny and just way too drawn out. As if this isn’t bad enough, the sequence almost feels like it is poking fun at the hero we are supposed to be rooting for. The mocking tone never fully disappears, but every so often, Lester cuts through the carefree camp with a perky rescue sequence, but for the most part, the film is a far throw from the thrilling Superman II, which he worked on when Donner was fired. When we are introduced to the villains, things don’t get much better for Superman III. There is no Gene Hackman as the barking Lex Luthor and there is no Terence Stamp as the authoritative General Zod, but rather three screwballs who cower behind a giant super computer as Superman stomps their way. You could almost mistake them for Bond villains. Together, they wouldn’t make an infant tremble and they sure as hell don’t seem like they could do much damage to old Supes but somehow, to the horror of this viewer, they actually manage. While their plan is beyond stupid, it actually opens a door for Reeve to save the entire picture from crashing and burning.
It is undeniable that Reeve is the heart and soul of this entire Superman franchise and it makes me shiver to think what it would have been like without him. Even in Superman III’s worst moments, Reeve is almost too good. When the script asks him to be bad and play a bunch of juvenile pranks around the world (he straightens the leaning tower of Pisa and he blows out the Olympic flame), Reeve manages to keep his composure, which is really something special because anyone else would have been on the ground laughing at how idiotic these moments are. As Clark Kent, he is still the sweet and bumbling fool we all know and love, but this time around, he actually gets to throw a few punches. In the film’s highlight scene, the corrupted Superman projects the good Clark Kent and then gets into a fistfight with him in the middle of a rusting junkyard. Naturally, the scene is loaded with unnecessary laughs, it goes on for about five minutes too long, and it is wildly unclear as to how exactly Superman exactly split into two people, but it is really fascinating to see Superman, a force of complete good, at odds with himself. I didn’t think I’d write this, but well done, Lester!
Then we have Pryor as the film’s reluctant baddie, Gus Gorman, and really, he isn’t that bad, he is just grossly miscast. Pryor does drop a few laugh bombs along the way, but he seems like he is on a short leash by the director and the producers. He also really has no business being anywhere near a superhero movie, especially a Superman movie. Still, you can’t really fault him for trying. As far as the other villains go, Vaughn’s Webster practically blends into the woodwork, a cardboard stand-in for Hackman’s diabolical Lex Luthor. Annie Ross brings a bit more mean to her small role as Vera, Webster’s sister who in the final moments of the film becomes an android-like monster that does absolutely nothing (yeah, don’t think too much about it). Stephenson is irritating as Webster’s seemingly ditzy but surprisingly smart mistress, Lorelei, who doesn’t miss a chance to seduce the corrupt Superman. Margot Kidder, who was not pleased when Donner got the axe on Superman II, is reduced to basically a cameo, a shame considering how entertaining and frankly spot on she was in the role. The new love interest here is O’Toole as Lana Lang, a sweet old pal of Clark’s that slowly develops feelings for the bespectacled nerd. O’Toole is good, don’t get me wrong, but is it too much to ask for Kidder’s Lois Lane back?
I wish I could tell you that Superman III has some spectacular confrontation at the end, but instead it is approached like some forgotten Atari video game that was left on a dusty shelf. It takes forever to get to a real showdown between the two parties, with the plot practically stopping to take a nap at certain points. At least twenty minutes could have been cut from the finished product, including the fist-fighting traffic light stick figures bit that will actually tempt you to get up and turn the whole thing off. I wish there was something at stake here or some sort of actual threat looming over Superman’s head as he battled with his demons, but instead the bad guys would rather hang out on top of their skyscraper that has been fashioned into a ski resort and chat about defeating Superman. Through all the bad, Reeve is still the glue that keeps the entire thing from falling to pieces. Overall, it is big, dumb, bloated, and flat lining in the creativity department, but a handful of soaring rescues and Reeve’s irresistible warmth manage to triumph over the long line of groan-inducing jokes that Lester insisted upon. Maybe that Reeve was some kind of Superman.
Superman III is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I’ll never forget the jolt of excitement that I felt when I first saw the Superman Returns teaser trailer, the one with Marlon Brando’s Jor-El commanding the speakers and explaining to Kal-El why he has sent his only son to earth. It looked like Superman was in good hands, picking up shortly after the events of 1980’s Superman II. Director Bryan Singer worked overtime to make a film that captured the nostalgia of the original two films while also updating the character for modern audiences. I really can’t express how disappointed I was in the finished product of Superman Returns, a dull, lumbering, and bloated reboot that basically served no purpose other than to let us know that Superman now has a son and that he is still not with Lois Lane. It has been said that Singer cut fifteen minutes from this movie when he should have cut about forty minutes from it. For almost two and a half hours, we go in circles while Kevin Spacey tries his hardest to perk the film up. Even worse, you’d think that with all of our beefed up special effects, Singer could have conceived one thrilling action sequence but nothing ever rises above mildly attention grabbing. They almost seemed like they were in there just as an excuse to crank the volume up and wake the audience up from their naps.
After assuring the president that he would never abandon Earth again, Superman Returns begins by explaining to us that Superman (Played by Brandon Routh) has been missing for five years, searching the galaxy for the remains of his home planet Krypton. He apparently didn’t say goodbye to anyone he deeply cared about, which has really upset Lois Lane (Played by Kate Bosworth) and led to her writing an article entitled Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman. Lane has also won the Pulitzer Prize for the article, an award that she has mixed feelings about when Superman suddenly returns to earth and makes a daring rescue. The Daily Planet is sent into a frenzy covering his return and Superman confronts the now engaged Lois, who also has a mysterious son named Jason (Played by Tristan Lake Leabu) about the article she wrote. As Superman tries to reignite the flame between Lois and convince her that the world does need a savior, the dreaded Lex Luthor (Played by Kevin Spacey) hatches a plot that elaborates on his destructive real estate scheme from 1978’s Superman. Luthor travels back to the Fortress of Solitude and steals multiple crystals that can allow Superman to grow massive landmasses that resemble his home planet. Luthor isn’t content with just growing alien landscape and he figures out a way to lace the rocky terrain with Kryptonite, which would prevent Superman from stopping him. Luthor plans to grow his new landmass in the Northern Atlantic Ocean, which would cause the sea level to rise and destroy the United States, killing billions of people.
My first complaint about Singer’s Superman Returns is that casting of the blank slate that is Brandon Routh, who has absolutely no screen presence at all. He barely even registers half the time and seems downright uncomfortable when he pulls on the iconic tights. He is expressionless and bland, cast simply because he has a striking resemblance to Reeve. Routh has so much make-up caked onto his face that at times he looks artificial, making him more creepy and off-putting rather than warm and inviting like Reeve was in Superman and Superman II. Singer twists him into more Christ-like poses and double underlines the idea that Superman is in fact Christ sent from heaven to deliver us from evil (Lex Luthor). He glides above Earth with his arms outstretched, listening to a world cry out for his help. His awkwardness does transfer well to the bumbling Clark Kent but he never pulls that side of performance off like Reeve did in the original films. I hate to compare Routh so much to Reeve but it is virtually impossible since he is picking up where Reeve left off. The best scene he does have is when he confronts a crook wielding a Gatling gun, smirking as a bullet bounces off his eyeball.
Then we have Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane, another small blip on the radar when she was such a firecracker in the other two films. Singer puts a heavy emphasis on her character, almost making her the centerpiece in all the apocalyptic mayhem. Bosworth is pretty enough and Singer doesn’t go to cheesy lengths to make her look like Margot Kidder, letting her physical appearance stand as it already is. At least she isn’t creepy like Routh. She is overly cold to Superman when he shows up for an interview and she is too torn between her fiancé Richard White (Played by James Mardsen), the nephew of Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White (Played by Frank Langella), and the alien savior. The finale is basically an extended sequence of Lane getting herself into one nasty situation after another, all there simply to reveal that her son may be the offspring of the Man of Steel. Luckily, the two bland leads are saved by Kevin Spacey’s inspired take of Lex Luthor. He steals the movie and holds our interest through the entire project. Going for a lower key interpretation of Gene Hackman’s over-the-top tantrums, Spacey owns the role until the final frame.
Superman Returns also doesn’t stray from the massive apocalyptic obstacles that the Man of Steel must overcome. Pointy alien rock formations poke out of the sea while lightning crashes down on Superman as he swoops in to pull Lois, Jason, and Richard out of harms way. Metropolis also sees its fair share of devastation as Luthor’s plot sends tremors right into the heart of the city. The Daily Planet globe tumbles off the top of the building while a damaged gas lines ignites a discarded cigar and sends flames shooting out of the sewers. The message here is quite simple in Superman Returns: Don’t smoke! Superman manages to keep everyone safe through the extended sequences of devastation—you never once fear that he won’t overcome what is thrown his way, which is the major problem of the film. Things do get a bit edgy when Luthor pummels Supes on his Kryptonite laced landmass. The best action scene has to be Superman’s rescues of an airplane that tumbles out of the sky, right towards a crowded baseball field. It is perhaps the most rousing aspect of the entire film. Luckily, all this CGI destruction looks great but it fails to ever really get our hearts pounding.
There was plenty of potential here for Singer to really make America fall back in love with the Man of Steel. He really tries hard but his choices in his cast are what really drags Superman Returns down. Nobody really grabbed me outside of Spacey and made me like them and trust me, I really did want to like these characters again. Singer is also quick to elaborate on the religious subtext made in Donner’s Superman, something that didn’t need to be rehashed to the audience. The lack of stunning action set pieces also really hold the film back and we know that Singer can do action, especially after watching his X-Men films. If Singer had provided a tighter runtime, a different thespian in the iconic tights, and a different villain to annoy Supes, Superman Returns would have been a much better film with a hell of a lot more flavor. Singer’s nostalgic nod had its heart in the right place but there is nothing here justifying Superman’s return, which is a real shame because it would have been nice to have him back.
Superman Returns is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If action fans were turned off by Richard Donner’s 1978 slow burner origin story Superman, they will find tons to enjoy in Richard Lester’s breathless action extravaganza Superman II, the controversial follow-up to the original film. Pitting the Man of Steel against the dreaded General Zod, a foe that possesses the same powers as Superman, Superman II manages to be more of a nail bitter than its predecessor by really putting Superman’s back against the skyscraper. Out of all the Superman films, Superman II has to be my favorite for how tense some of it can be. There are moments where you really think Supes isn’t going to make it out of this one alive, especially when General Zod teams up Lex Luthor. Superman II also features some really complex emotions, especially when it dives into the relationship between feisty news reporter Lois Lane and Superman/Clark Kent. Filmed simultaneously with Superman, it is said that Donner, who claimed to have made 75% of Superman II, quit working on this film because the studio pushed him to make it campier than the original, which led to Lester stepping in and finishing the film. Personally, I have always found this film to be a bit darker and lacking in the winks that were heavy in the first film, something that made me like Superman II even more.
Superman II begins with a quick flashback to the events in Superman, which began with wise Jor-El (Played by Marlon Brando) banishing three criminals by the names of General Zod (Played by Terence Stamp), Ursa (Played by Sarah Douglas), and Non (Played by Jack O’Halloran), into deep space just before the destruction of Krypton. He traps them in the Phantom Zone, a glass-like cube that spirals aimlessly through the galaxy. The film speeds ahead to present day with Superman (Played by Christopher Reeve) foiling a terrorist plot to destroy the Eiffel Tower. Supes discovers the terrorists have a hydrogen bomb in their clutches, which he quickly takes to space and detonates. The shock waves from the bomb destroy the Phantom Zone and free Zod and his cronies. The deadly trio soon arrives on earth, where they begin destroying anything in their path. Meanwhile Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Played by Margot Kidder) are on a business trip in Niagara Falls when Lois begins to suspect that Clark Kent is in fact Superman, given the fact that he is never around when Superman is swooping in to save the day. She is proven right and Superman learns that if he wishes to be with a mortal, he must be stripped of his powers and also live as a mortal. Soon, Superman learns of General Zod’s plot to enslave the human race and to make things worse, his arch nemesis Lex Luthor (Played by Gene Hackman) has broken out of prison and offers an alliance to General Zod.
Bigger, louder, faster, and stronger than Donner’s original film, Superman II has an epic final showdown that goes on for almost forty minutes in the streets of Metropolis. Everything that gets in between Superman and General Zod is crushed like a tin can. Cars tumble through the air and buildings are destroyed as Superman tries desperately to prevent Zod, Ursa, and Non from reducing Metropolis to ash. It is a lot of fun with some camp thrown in to keep things from getting too dark for children. To make things worse for Superman, Lex Luthor refuses to lend him a hand in trying to figure out a way to beat Zod, Luthor revealing every single trick Superman tries to use against the trio. He is basically on his own and that adds a lot of anxiety to Superman II. How does the Man of Steel beat three invincible foes with little regard for human life? Now that is one hell of a sequel if you ask me. Screenwriters Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Tom Mankiewicz work overtime to also give the love story a set of teeth. Things are not simple between Lois and Superman, at least not as easy as Superman first figures they are. Responsibility steps in between the couple and forces them to put their love on hold as Zod forces Superman to step out of retirement.
With the screenwriters taking Superman to new emotional heights, the cast is forced to add more depth to their characters. The darkness that crept into Superman’s heart of gold flares up again in smaller ways. He grapples with being stripped of his powers as a hulking bully in a diner roughs him up. He trembles with fear and embarrassment, the nerdy Clark Kent actually helpless for once. The tough Lois Lane finally loosens up a bit, especially when her theory that Clark Kent is Superman turns out to be right. I actually enjoyed that the filmmakers made her character suspect that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. I always thought it would be a cinch to spot the resemblance. The affection between Lois and Superman is out of this world when it is being fully addressed, especially when without hesitation, Superman declares that he is willing to be stripped of his powers so that he can be with the one that he loves. It’s a sweet romance that builds up to a finale of tears and hurt, something that still pierces even after having seen the film multiple times.
Superman II also comes loaded with four villains ready to lay waste to the Man of Steel. Hackman’s Lex Luthor doesn’t really show much growth outside of the reveal that he is a slight coward. He gravitates to whoever is on top at that particular moment. He seems present just to add a little bit more comic relief to the action and to keep the kids chuckling. It is said that when Donner left the film, he went with him, refusing to work for Lester. Then we have Stamp as the booming General Zod, who speaks in third person and promises anyone he meets that they will “kneel before Zod!” He is so evil that you will want to cheer when Superman shows up and asks him if he’d like to step outside to work out their differences, which is code for throwing a few punches at each other. Zod’s second in command Ursa is a sexy femme fatale who is loyal to her general until the very end. She may just be an enforcer but she still sends chills down your spine, especially her amused smirk as she butchers a group of astronauts. Rounding out the baddies is O’Halloran’s Non, a mute giant who is capable of more destruction than Luthor, Zod, and Ursa combined. He barrels at Superman in midflight and smashes through brick like it was a sheet of paper. The trio gets a fun little destruction free-for-all in a small town where they deflect flamethrowers and break missiles in half as a warm up before the battle for Metropolis.
Much like Superman, Superman II’s special effects are completely devoid of the wonder I’m sure they once possessed. Some of the battles are a bit flat as the actors bob around on wires that don’t allow them to move as quickly as they would like. Still, the moments where cars and buses crash through the streets of Metropolis hold up nicely, adding a wave of apocalyptic dread to the battle. Zod is capable of destruction that makes Luthor salivate, another aspect that is pretty neat to watch. Superman II is also loaded with barefaced jingoism that really fits the superhero that stands for “truth, honor, and American way”. The film fades out with Superman flying to the destroyed White House with an American flag that he places atop the ruins, promising the president that he will never disappear again. It is this beaming pride that makes Superman II endearing and reminds us that ol’ Supes will always be the American good old boy. Overall, a faster pace and trickier romance angle allows Superman II to be just slightly more fun than the influential original, even if it is not as thought provoking with its imagery. It also justifies the very idea of a sequel and proves that a sequel can sometimes be a great thing.
Superman II is available on Blu-ray DVD.
by Steve Habrat
You can’t call yourself a comic book fan if you haven’t seen Richard Donner’s powerful interpretation of DC Comics hero Superman, the first superhero epic ever projected onto the big screen. This 1978 blockbuster, based on the character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was marketed with the tagline “you’ll believe a MAN can fly” and to this day, despite dated special effects, I still do believe a man can fly. Donner’s Superman was the film that laid the foundation for superhero origin stories, one that taught Hollywood how to properly pace the origin tale of a crime fighter in tights, slowly and with a never-ending amount of care poured into each and every frame. Superman was born out of the explosion of fantasy films that came with a gigantic price tag, mainly science fiction films escapism like Star Wars. While I have never been big on Superman and I have never really been an avid collector of his comics, I will give his big screen debut credit as being one of the best big screen interpretations of his character as well as being one of the finest superhero epics ever made. I love the slow building story that arrives at an apocalyptic disaster that only the Man of Steel could prevent and the casting of Christopher Reeve is a stroke of genius as the hero who stands for “truth, justice, and the American way”. I will even go so far to say that any director planning to make a superhero origin story should be required to watch this film before they even think about stepping behind the camera.
Superman begins with the destruction of our hero’s home planet, Krypton, and his father, Kal-El (Played by Marlon Brando), sending him to earth in an asteroid-like spacepod. Three years pass and Superman or Jor-El, as he is called on Krypton, crashes in the rural farming community of Smallville. Shortly after he lands, the kind couple Jonathan and Martha Kent (Played by Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter) discovers the young Jor-El and proceed to raise him as a normal human being even though they are well aware of his astonishing superpowers. At age eighteen, Jor-El or Clark Kent, as he is now called, grapples with his superhuman abilities and his world is shattered when Jonathan collapses and dies from a heart attack. Shortly after his father’s death, Clark finds a mysterious green crystal in the Kent’s barn, a treasure that was aboard the ship that Clark arrived in many years ago. Clark says goodbye to the grief stricken Martha and sets out to discover who he really is and why he is capable of such incredible powers. He travels to the arctic where he uses the green crystal to build the Fortress of Solitude, a temple where he can communicate with a recording from his father. It is here that Clark begins learning about his abilities and responsibilities to the citizens of earth. More time passes and the adult Clark (Played by Christopher Reeve) arrives in the big city of Metropolis, where he gets a job as a reporter at the Daily Planet and he meets the striking Lois Lane (Played by Margot Kidder), who he quickly falls in love with. Clark begins to use his powers to help the people of Metropolis, which earns him the name of Superman by the press. Superman soon grabs the attention of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Played by Gene Hackman), who is developing a plot that could wipe California off the face of the earth.
Many may find Donner’s Superman a bit longwinded and slow to get to the action, but he really wants us to become attached to the Man of Steel. It is easy to like the guy, especially when Reeve steps into the character and lets his good-old-boy charm have some fun. As Clark Kent, he is an ungainly oaf who stutters through every word that pours out of his mouth. The employees of the Daily Planet march around him, barely even registering that he is actually in the room half the time. He scurries after Lois, who tries hard to humor him but also forgets about him like the rest of their colleagues. His confidence and warmth really takes hold when he rips open that button-up shirt to reveal that iconic “S” stamped proudly on his chest. He almost single handedly cleans up the streets of Metropolis in one evening and still finds time to rescue a kitty stuck in a tree. It is funny that Donner uses New York City as his Metropolis, a city that was slowly deteriorating from rampant crime during this particular era. He seems to literally be suggesting that this “Metropolis” could use a savior who is willing to clean up the streets and stand up to the grimy violence. That savior is a Christ-like alien from another planet who can see through walls, shoot lasers out of his eyes, deflect bullets, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Superman belongs to Reeve but his supporting cast is equally as brilliant as he is. Marlon Brando shows up as Superman’s astute father who is always offering up lessons to his pupil. When Brando steps into the frame, your eyes won’t be able to be torn away. About forty minutes into the film, he gets to deliver an unforgettable speech that compares the Man of Steel to Christ, something that may upset some viewers. Brando booms, “I have sent them you! My only son!” and you can’t help but get goosebumps. When Brando isn’t making waves as Kal-El, Gene Hackman cackles as the Man of Steel’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor, who schemes up a nuclear plot (Cold War willies anyone?) that would leave millions dead. A scene where he hacks into Superman’s head and threatens to kill thousands of people in New York City sends an icy chill through the lighter atmosphere that grips the middle part of the film. Margot Kidder is a throaty looker as the force that is Lois Lane. Moving at one hundred miles per hour, Lois is always in the wrong place at the wrong time but the scenes where she is in need of help never feel strained. A sequence where she dangles from the very top of the Daily Planet will take your breath away but you never fear that Supes won’t be able to catch his damsel in distress.
Superman is loaded with sprawling special effects, destroying everything from the Hoover Dam to the Golden Gate Bridge and everything in between. These scenes of destruction still make us scratch our heads and say, “How’d they do THAT?” The most impressive has to be the wobbling Golden Gate Bridge, where the Man of Steel glides in and saves a bus of school children from tumbling to their death. The early sequences of Superman are appropriately trippy, fitting for their intergalactic landscape that looks like it would have been at home in something like Angry Red Planet or This Island Earth. These wondrous images are complimented by a trumpeting score that could only come from John Williams, who composes one of the greatest scores in the history of motion pictures. There are moments of Superman that are devilishly funny, lovingly winking at all the blue, yellow, and red clad fans that are hanging on every second of the film. My favorite wink has to be a scene where Clark is looking for a place to rip off his business attire to reveal the Superman armor. He jogs up to an exposed phone booth but opts for a revolving door that offers him some privacy for a quick wardrobe change. Yet the sweetest moments of the film are the ones where Superman literally sweeps Lois off her feet, taking her up into the clouds. These scenes show us that the Man of Steel has a mushy center.
Overall, Superman is grand achievement for the superhero genre. It proved that these stories could have intellectual ideas swirling below the special effects as well as breezy stories with tons of “WOW” moments. At two hours and twenty minutes, the film covers an enormous amount of ground, something only Superman is capable of. In the end, the whole picture belongs to Reeve, who can’t be topped as the squeaky clean do-gooder. Surprisingly, he lets a small amount of darkness and rage slip into his soul, especially when someone close to him bites the dust in the final moments. You will be hoping that suppressed rage and darkness will be let loose in later installments. Donner’s Superman is a larger than life explosion of sheer superhero bliss that you will want to revisit again and again. Bring on part two!
Superman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.