The first, and greatest, super hero, Superman has had a rather mixed bag when it comes to adaptations of his comic book adventures. There have been numerous television shows, radio serials, animated series, animated movies, video games, and live action movies, more of which were either just ok or straight up bad than good.
What is it about the big, blue boy scout that leads to so much crap?
You would think the elements that have been in place for 75 years now would be easy to adapt to the big screen, or the small screen. It’s not like there aren’t literally hundreds of pre-made stories in his publication history that are begging to be filmed and thrown on the screen, yet time and time again people think they can ‘improve’ upon the man of steel and his epically large library of awesomeness, and time and time again they fail miserably.
That’s not to say there haven’t been some success stories… “Superman: The Movie” was a high point, as were the Bruce Timm animated series and his representation in that same universe’s “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited”, as well as a handful of direct to DVD animated movies that did well. Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” may have divided some fans on its quality, but both Erik and I will go to our graves defending it.
But for each of those, there are Superman 3, Superman Returns, Lois and Clark, most seasons of Smallville and the dreaded Superman 64! It’s curious. And as bad as those are, you wouldn’t believe some of the utter shit that almost got made. (6 Terrible Superman movies, you won’t believe almost happened!)
For now, just to keep things relatively simple Erik and I are skipping 1951’s “Superman vs the Mole Men” and are only going to discuss the live action feature films, starting with…
Superman: The Movie (1978)
Directed by: Richard Donner
Starring: Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent / Kal-El / Superman), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Glenn Ford (Pa Kent), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Jeff East (teen Clark), Valerie Perrine (Miss Teschmacher), Ned Beatty (Otis), and Terence Stamp (General Zod).
Plot: You will believe a man can fly in front of a blue screen. You will also believe that flying around the planet can reverse time. You will also also believe that Lex Luthor has the worst plan in the history of plans. Orphaned when his home planet was obliterated worse than Cuba Gooding Jr’s career, young Kal-El crashes in the most boring place on Earth and is raised by a couple of boring do-gooders. As an adult he moves to Metropolis to work at a newspaper, hit on a crazy chick, act like a doofus, and, oh yeah, put on a costume and be FUCKING SUPERMAN.
Comic Zombie: While it is rather cheesy at times, this movie holds up surprisingly well to this day. Yeah, it’s goofy and tongue in cheek at times, but for the most part it works. They got everything ‘Superman’ in there: Krypton, Jor-El, the fortress of solitude, the costume, his powers (mostly), the Daily Planet, Metropolis, everything is pretty much spot on. Lois Lane, I feel, was a bit miscast, and Lex Luthor is just…. well, it’s like a different character with the same name. The comics’ Lex Luthor would never have such a retarded plan.
The dude stole 40 CAKES.
Christopher Reeve is pretty perfectly cast. Like Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, he has been the face of the character since he first stepped into frame. It was very hard to picture anyone else in the role for years (and wasn’t made any easier after the abortion that was Superman Returns, but I’m getting ahead of myself).
The world of the movie feels real, and is clearly not a bunch of sets on a studio lot, which helps the ‘real world’ atmosphere that the movie depends on. Anyone could have made a movie with a guy in tights flying around, but one of director Richard Donner’s genius moves was to place Superman in the real world, where there are no other super heroes, and nobody has ever even considered the possibility that a man could fly unassisted. So when Superman shows up and saves Lois and the helicopter, literally everyone, everywhere, is screaming HOLY SHIT WHAT!?
My only real complaints here are Lex Luthor’s “plan”, his sidekick Otis (played by Ned Beatty), and the general cheesiness of the film at times. Also, the whole ‘reverse time by flying against earth’s orbit’ thing would NOT work, and would actually just result in insane disasters across the globe.
Oh, and the poem Lois recites in her head when Superman is flying her around (while holding one of her hands; how can she fly like that? wouldn’t she just be dangling from his hand?). That shit is hilariously horrible.
Erik Smash: This is the original, the trend-setter for all comic book movies to come, the first big budget super hero movie. PERIOD. ‘Superman’ is where it all began. “Superman: The Movie” is a milestone in cinematic history – The classic story, the unforgettable characters, the revolutionary effects, and the iconic score. Even today, it’s still an entertaining movie, even if a bit slow-paced by today’s standards and campy.
The film is based on the Silver Age version of the character (an interpretation that continues throughout the movies, until the reboot with 2013’s “Man of Steel”), and as such, Christopher Reeve does a brilliant job bringing both the characters of Clark Kent and Superman to life.
As I’ve mentioned before on the site, I really despise Gene Hackman’s version of Lex Luthor at times, mostly because we didn’t get an ideal interpretation of the character until Michael Rosenbaum’s show-stealing performance in ‘Smallville’. That said, I do kind of like his plan, even if it is ultimately a real-estate scheme, the dude hijacked TWO nuclear weapons! That’s some ballsy shit right there, but he doesn’t just threaten to use them, he actually launches them! If that’s not enough, he taunts Superman, introduces him to Kryptonite when he least expects it, then shoves him in a pool and leave shim to drown! Seriously, Luthor would’ve won, if it wasn’t for the writer’s coming up with that stupid time-travel power at the last second, oh and Tess having the hots for him…
And even that I can let slide, because honestly the execution of it was so well done.
The scene where (spoilers?) Lois dies and Superman loses his shit is one of the most emotional moments in comic book movie history. The only thing that could’ve made it better, is if he rages out and goes to kill Lex but then stops himself at the last second because it’s not what she would’ve wanted, instead of you know, fixing everything with a deus ex-machina cheat code. Just my opinion, but it could’ve hypothetically been an interesting and different way to launch a franchise… but then again, that would’ve been way before it’s time and doesn’t really matter, because that’s not what happened.
There’s really not much more to say about the movie, except that it’s definitely worth watching, as either a fan of movies, or superheroes.
Superman II (1980)
Richard Donner Richard Lester
Starring: Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent / Kal-El / Superman), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Terence Stamp (General Zod), Sarah Douglas (Ursa), Jack O’Halloran (Non), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Valerie Perrine (Miss Teschmacher), Ned Beatty (Otis), and E.G. Marshall (The President).
Plot: Now established as the protector of Meteropolis, Superman flies around saving morons from certain doom while Lois, in a rather bitchy attitude, tries to figure out who he really is. Three Kryptonian criminals escape from the Phantom Zone and come to Earth to be jerks. Superman gives up his powers, because… because plot reasons… and has to figure out a way to restore them so he can fight these ridiculous looking jerkstores and save the day. And in the process displays some powers that defy explanation.
Erik Smash: First thing worth noting – there’s two very distinct versions of this movie.
The original theatrical release deviated from what Richard Donner originally had in mind, when WB booted him from the project and brought in Richard Lester to finish the movie. You see, the first movie was originally intended as a four hour long epic. During production they decided to split it into two parts. The first half ended up being the original movie released, leaving a large chunk of “Superman II” already filmed.
The Richard Donner Cut of the movie was only recently released, re-edited with added scenes, cutting out some of the stupidness, and special effects in order to restore the director’s original vision of the movie, which is a much more serious and darker chapter than the one released in theaters. After re-watching both back to back, I got to say, the Richard Donner cut is far and a way superior… in most aspects.
So let’s first talk about the one that audiences got.
It’s not necessarily a bad movie, per say, but compared to the first one, it really falls short.
The epic – There’s a lot of great moments, memorable quotes, and three awesome villains. The plot is great, it’s a perfect followup to the first entry, which was a by the numbers origin. This time: the stakes are raised (but focused more on a personal quest), the hero loses his powers, the love story deepens, the hero must work with his arch enemy to overcome an even greater threat, and the hero must contend with multiple adversaries – all essential elements to a great superhero sequel.
The bad – Tonally the movie is all over the place, the levels of goofiness significantly detract from the more serious moments. Overall, the acting isn’t all that great. The writing at times seems very lazy. Many of the problems facing this movie are simply a product of the time, and the fact that it WAS the first super hero movie sequel, so all that considered, they didn’t do a terrible job with the limitations they were given.
The weird – There’s some truly baffling aspects of this movie!
- The opening scene with the terrorists in Paris.
- Lois Lane’s characterization? Seriously, I don’t get it.
- Zod and his cronies have telekinesis?
- Superman saves a stupid kid in Niagara Falls, but doesn’t give two shits about: three astronauts on the moon who get horribly murdered, not to mention an entire Texan town that’s obliterated.
- Clark Kent is so concerned about his secret identity that he’s willing to let Lois almost drown after she’s figured it out, to convince her otherwise. (Man, what a jerk!)
- Superman is so distracted by trying to boink Lois that he doesn’t realize the Earth has been taken over by Zod until the TV tells him (right after he gives up his powers).
- Superman has a… uh… S-shield foil wrapper thingy that he, um… rips off his chest?
- Superman develops a new power: his kiss causes amnesia… (how convenient!)
Here’s some of the changes that were made to The Donner Cut of the film:
- The movie is a lot more serious, much darker, and earnest.
- The entire Paris terrorist sequence is removed, for the better.
- The movie opens with a much better ‘Previously on’ segment which shows the opening and ending of the first movie. It shows that the hijacked nukes that Superman flung into space were the cause of the Phantom Zone breach that freed Zod.
- Instead of Kal-El’s mom expelling exposition, deleted scenes of Marlon Brando as Jor-El were restored.
- Although Lois is still trying to uncover Clark’s identity, once she does, he admits it and the two fall madly in love. (Their whole relationship works much better in this one.)
- No stupid S-shield thingy!
- Superman doesn’t have the ability to erase Lois’s memory, BUT instead he resorts back to his inexplicable time-travel powers from the end of the first movie to fix everything… so the events of the movie never happened?! (Equally as stupid.)
Comic Zombie: Erik kind of stole my thunder with the comparisons between the Lester and Donner cuts, because that’s by far the most interesting thing about this movie. I can’t think of another major release that has such different cuts available.
The Lester cut is much zanier, and is definitely made with kids and the general masses in mind, but skewing towards the dumber ones, much like a Michael Bay movie, just without the constant explosions. It’s hard to picture the people that saw this and were like “MUCH better than the first one”.
The Donner cut, meanwhile, is much closer to what this movie should have been. It’s not perfect, and I think some of the problems with it are probably more due to the fact that Donner never finished the movie, but it’s so much better than the movie most of us have seen.
The Lois and Clark relationship works MUCH better here, and she is much more likeable in this version, even if she is still kind of a bitch.
And I can’t stress enough how much better the fight between Supes and the Phantom Zone criminals is without the cellophane “S”. I mean… that’s the stupidest shit ever, makes NO sense, does nothing to the bad guys, and nobody even mentions it. There is no reason it should ever have even been considered, much less filmed, much less PUT IN THE FINAL MOVIE!
My mind, it’s straight up boggled.
And the memory erasing kiss?!?! How the fuck is that even supposed to work? There is no logic behind it. It’s like they went “we shouldn’t have had her learn his identity. Let’s make her forget.”
“Well, how the hell are we going to do that?”
“It doesn’t fucking matter, these retards will like that “S” thing, they’ll like anything. Just like have him bang her so hard she forgets everything.”
“…Let’s compromise and have them just kiss.”
“STOP RESTRICTING MY ARTISTIC VISION!”
All in all, while there may be more action in this chapter, and while the villains are more of a threat to Superman than anything from the first film, it’s just such a weird mess that it never really resonated with me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still better than the next three movies by a huge, HUGE berth, but it’s kind of like Batman Returns was. Not very good, inferior to its predecessor, in desperate need of some streamlining, but still infinitely superior to the next few.
Next up we will discuss the horror that is Superman 3 and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
Because we hate ourselves…