Talking Movies [Superman Month]: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace


In 2013, DC Comics declared the 12th of June as “Superman Day”, a day for fans of the Man of Steel the world over to celebrate Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, the superpowered virtue of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” who is widely regarded as the first ever costumed superhero. This year, I’ve been spending every Sunday of June celebrating the Man of Steel by expanding Superman Day to “Superman Month“.


Released: 24 July 1987
Director: Sidney J. Furie
Distributor:
Warner Bros. / Columbia-Cannon-Warner-EMI Distributors
Budget:
$17 million
Stars:
Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Mariel Hemingway, Jon Cryer, and Mark Pillow

The Plot:
When criminal mastermind Lex Luthor’s (Hackman) nephew, Lenny (Cryer), breaks him out of prison, he enacts a diabolic scheme to destroy Superman (Reeve) by creating his own super-powered minion, “Nuclear Man” (Pillow/Hackman). As if this threat wasn’t bad enough, Superman (and his alter ego, Clark Kent) is suffering a crisis of conscience and the heart as he struggles to keep the world from nuclear destruction and to balance his love life.

The Background:
Superman III (Lester, 1983) might have been a critical disappointment but producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind were happy to produce a fourth film if its predecessor made over $40 million at the box office. Somehow, it did, but the duo’s financial concerns and Reeve’s reluctance to return to the franchise ultimately saw them selling the Superman rights to the Cannon Group for $5 million in June 1985. Cannon managed to entice Reeve back with a $6 million payday, additional creative control (the anti-nuclear angle of the film was his idea), and financing for another project. However, the production was off to a rocky start almost immediately; Richard Donner turned down the director’s chair, Reeve clashed with Wes Craven and was unable to convince the studio to hire Ron Howard, and co-star Jon Cryer described the entire film as a “nightmare” to shoot. Thanks to Cannon’s ongoing legal issues, the film’s budget was routinely slashed, an entire sub-plot was cut, and the once-vaulted special effects took a dramatic decline in quality. Unsurprisingly, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was a dismal box office bomb; the film fell short of $40 million, which is frankly pathetic after the success of the first film, and has been repeatedly touted as not only the death knell of the franchise but one of the worst movies ever made.

The Review:
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is another difficult one for me to revisit; as a kid, I remember being entertained by the film, which was full of bright colours, action, and another physical confrontation for the Man of Steel but, as many have stated in the years since, it can’t be denied that the series had taken a massive and unexpected dip in quality since the ground-breaking original and its influential sequel. The film opens with a poignant scene at the Kent farm where, following the offscreen death of his mother, Clark is preparing to sell his childhood home. Before doing so, he retrieves a glowing Kryptonian energy module from the remains of his ship, which is rendered forever cold and silent as a result, and Clark’s day-to-day life is made all the more complicated by the interference of David Warfield (Sam Wanamaker) and his daughter Lacy (Hemingway) in the running of the Daily Planet; annoyed at the Planet’s lack of profitability, the Warfield’s put pressure on editor-in-chief Perry White (Jackie Cooper) to sex-up the traditional publication and the elder Warfield is so full of himself that he makes his daughter’s promotion front page news!

An odd three/four-way love triangle develops between Clark, his alter ego, and his leading ladies.

Although Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) is sadly missing from the film and no mention is made of her, an awkward love triangle (more like a love square, I guess) does become a sub-plot of the film when newcomer Lacy takes a shine to Clark Kent. This leads to such “hilarious” moments as Clark visiting a gym with Lacy and feigning difficulty with the machines, and a laughable sequence where Clark and Lacy double date with Lois Lane (Kidder) and Superman, forcing Clark to dive in and out of costume to keep both women happy before thankfully being called away by a greater threat. The film even unashamedly rips off the Superman/Lois romance from the first two films; having a crisis of conscience regarding the world’s nuclear crisis, Clark reveals his identity to Lois, takes her on a terribly composited flight around the world, and asks for her advice before wiping her memory once again. While there is a poignant moment to be found here when Clark laments how unfair it is that he is forced to share himself with the entire world rather than the woman he loves, this largely amounts to an uncomfortable bit of selfishness on Superman’s part since he freely toys with Lois’s emotions and her memory rather than finding a less invasive way of decided what he should do about the looming threat of nuclear war.

After a moral debate, Superman ultimately decides to rid the Earth of all nuclear weapons.

Indeed, perhaps the film’s most promising and appealing element is the question of worldwide nuclear destruction; I know a lingering fear I’ve always had about our world is the presence of nuclear weapons, just one of which could cause a cataclysmic disaster that could end all life on the planet, and tackling this issue with Superman has a lot of potential that really deserves to be in a better movie. When begged to intervene in the nuclear arms race, Superman finds himself torn between his morals since the ghosts of the Kryptonian council vehemently forbid him from interfering in human history. Ultimately, however, Superman decides that he loves the Earth too much to see it go the same way as Krypton and announces to the world’s governments that he is going to rid the planet of all nuclear weapons. He does this by, of course, having them all shot into space so he can gather them up in a giant net and hurl them into the Sun, an ingenious solution that potentially means the world should calm down into a semi-utopia but actually gives birth to a supervillain whose powers match (and, in many ways, surpass) Superman’s.

Using Superman’s DNA, Luthor births Nuclear Man, a ridiculous supervillain capable of crippling the Man of Steel.

This Nuclear Man is the latest brainchild of criminal genius Lex Luthor; easily freed from his imprisonment by his loud-mouthy, goofball nephew Lenny, Luthor (now completely disregarding both bald caps and wigs for Hackman’s natural hair) hatches a plot to take advantage of Superman’s deeds and birth a superpowered minion of his own using a strand of Superman’s hair (also acquired with a ridiculous amount of ease) and some ill-defined genetic tissue attached to one of the nukes. The result is the violent but child-like Nuclear Man, a being born of both Superman and Luthor who exhibits incredible superhuman powers when exposed to sunlight but becomes useless and dormant when bathed in the slightest of shadows. Still, Nuclear Man proves to be a formidable threat; not only does he cause all kinds of chaos and destruction across the globe with his powers but he is also able to cripple Superman with radiation sickness using his talons. However, thanks to the energy module from his ship, Superman is able to recover and ultimately defeat Nuclear Man by shifting the orbit of the Moon and dropping his inert form into a nuclear power plant.

The Nitty-Gritty:
I find Superman IV incredibly fascinating in a lot of ways; considering both Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman were pissed at the treatment of Richard Donner, I find it mind-boggling that the two (especially Hackman) agreed to be in this absolute mess of a movie. While the film doesn’t have to worry about being dominated by the buffoonery of Richard Pryor, any drama and tension that might be felt by Nuclear Man is completely negated by the presence of Lenny. Thankfully, he’s nowhere near as prominent as Gus Gorman but he’s basically Otis (Ned Beatty) dialled up to eleven and infused with a lazy, surfer-dude persona and I never quite understood why these films felt compelled to lumber Luthor with halfwit accomplices (though I actually probably would have preferred to see Otis take Lenny’s place).

The special effects and film logic have taken a massive hit thanks to the miniscule budget.

Of course, one of the first things you’ll notice about Superman IV is that the once-lauded special effects have taken a massive hit; the budget cuts are apparent right from the off as the opening titles pale in comparison to the first film, John Williams’ score seems devoid of all its usual enthusiasm, and even Superman’s rescue of a runaway subway train is lacklustre. Rather than film dynamic and unique flying sequences, the film simply reuses the same shot of Reeve flying at the camera over and over again and, unlike in the previous films, it’s pretty much impossible not to spot that this is a poorly-composited effect. The film’s wirework is equally sloppy and embarrassing compared to the last three films; the fight between Nuclear Man and Superman on the Moon is a plodding affair the lacks any of the intensity seen in Superman’s battles in the second and third movies. Add to that the frankly ludicrous depiction of Superman’s powers (he can now rebuild the Great Wall of China using just his eyes) and concepts as simple as outer space (not only do Nuclear Man and Superman move around freely on the Moon but Lacy is somehow able to breathe in the great void, despite astronauts and space-faring equipment being seen in the opening sequence!), and it’s frankly humiliating to see just how far the series has fallen since the first movie.

Superman IV‘s few good moments would shine all the brighter in a film that was actually good…

Superman comes under fire when he initially turns down the heartfelt plea from schoolboy Jeremy (Damian McLawhorn) to step in and help with the nuclear crisis, something he feels compelled to do despite the urgings of the long-dead Kryptonian council. Feeling a deepfelt love for his adopted world, he feels morally obligated to step in but only does so after confiding in Lois once more. Truthfully, the nuclear plotline is something I’d love to see addressed in the comics some time; I get that it’d be “too easy” to have Superman simply solve the world’s problems but I feel like getting rid of the world’s nuclear weapons deserves a bit of a pass. Clearly attempting to leech off what worked in the first movie, Superman IV’s various call-backs (Superman and Lois go for a fly, Luthor impersonates a military officer and communicates with Superman on a special frequency, Lois gets flustered interviewing Superman, and his abilities are restored using Kryptonian technology, to name just a few) just paint it as a pale, low-budget imitation of better movies. While there are a few decent moments in the film (Superman addressing the United Nations and being accepted by the world’s different representatives is pretty inspiring, and Reeve and Hackman continue to elevate even the weakest of scripts), all of them belong in a far better film. As a kid, I was enthralled by the battle between Superman and Nuclear Man but as intimidating as Nuclear Man with his demonic voice (his declaration of “I am the father now” hints at the potential of him to be a significant threat) and own array of terrible superpowers, but he looks absolutely ridiculous in his little black-and-cold outfit and his menace is ultimately neutered with ludicrous ease (though I guess this makes sense and goes a long way to show how Luthor prepared for his “son’s” hostile impulses).

The Summary:
I mean…what can you say about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace that numerous others haven’t already said? The film’s been picked and critiqued and criticised to death and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone say a good thing about it beyond praising Reeve for maintaining a consistent portrayal of the Man of Steel. I think the one thing you can say about the film is that it’s probably a decent amount of fun for little kids who, if they’re anything like I was as a child, will be easily pleased by the bright colours, daft comedy, and fight scenes between Superman and Nuclear Man. Once you grow a old enough to recognise how cheap and lazy the film is, though, it’s hard to look past Superman IV’s glaring flaws. If there’s any concept that can’t be done on the cheap, it’s Superman, because the result is this; a whole mess of recycled, low-quality shots, poor special effects, and a lame rehash of concepts realised far better in even the third film. Ultimately, there’s a reason people avoid this film as it’s a pretty sad state of affairs to find the once-lucrative and ground-breaking franchise in and you should only check it out if you have kids to entertain or if you’ve got nothing better to watch and want to get drunk to a bunch of ridiculous nonsense.

My Rating:

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Terrible

I don’t suppose you’re a fan of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace? I mean, probably not but it’s worth asking the question, right? What did you think to the focus on nuclear weapons and do you think Superman should tackle this issue more directly? Were you a fan of Nuclear Man and his ability to injure Superman? What did you think to the romantic sub-plot and the return of Gene Hackman to the franchise? How influential was Christopher Reeve’s turn as Superman on your perception of the character? Whatever your thoughts on Superman IV, and Superman in general, drop a comment below.

Talking Movies [Superman Month]: Superman III


In 2013, DC Comics declared the 12th of June as “Superman Day”, a day for fans of the Man of Steel the world over to celebrate Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, the superpowered virtue of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” who is widely regarded as the first ever costumed superhero. This year, I’m spending every Sunday of June celebrating the Man of Steel as I expand Superman Day to “Superman Month“.


Released: 17 June 1983
Director: Richard Lester
Distributor:
Warner Bros. / Columbia–EMI–Warner Distributors
Budget:
$39 million
Stars:
Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Robert Vaughn, Pamela Stephenson, and Annette O’Toole

The Plot:
Clark Kent (Reeve) returns to his hometown of Smallville and reunites with his old flame, Lana Lane (O’Toole). However, conniving industrialist Ross “Bubba” Webster (Vaughn) hatches a devious plot to control the world’s oil supply by corrupting Kent’s alter ego, Supermen, using the computer genius of bungling programmer Gus Gorman (Pryor).

The Background:
Although, as I mentioned in my reviews, both Superman (Donner, 1978) and Superman II (Lester, 1981) were critically and financially successful, their production had been not only expensive but also tumultuous; behind the scenes tensions between director Richard Donner and the film’s producers saw him replaced by Richard Lester despite having plans for a third film in the series. Development of a third film continued regardless, with both Vril Dox/Brainiac and Kara Zor-El/Supergirl considered as inclusions; elements of this story, which also featured Mister Mxyzptlk (as played by Dudley Moore) corrupting Superman, remained prevalent throughout the long scriptwriting process. By the time filming began, the production continued to be fraught with bad blood; both Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman had publicly opposed the treatment of Donner and were removed or significantly downgraded for the third film, which was much more focused on slapstick shenanigans. Nowhere was this emphasised more than in the casting of comedian Richard Pryor, who was paid $5 million for his substantial role after declaring his affection for the previous films. With a worldwide gross of barely over $80 million, Superman III was the least financially successful of the series at that point; the reviews were even worse, especially regarding Pryor’s tomfooleries (though Reeve’s consistent portrayal of the Man of Steel (and his turn as the corrupted Superman) continued to be praised).

The Review:
Despite the fact that I had some issues with the first two films, there’s no denying the quality on display in Superman and Superman II; even with all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, both films have pretty much the perfect balance of action, romance, intrigue, and humour and never veer too far into one element or the other. This means that they both manage to deliver perhaps the most influential portrayal of the Man of Steel while also including just the right level of camp, with both of these aspects being bolstered by some truly impressive and ambitious special effects. Here, things largely proceed as you might expect; with the status quo restored following the memory-wiping kiss of the last film, Clark continues to pose as an awkward, mild-mannered reporter while exuding confidence and reliability as the charismatic Superman.

Clark returns to his home town, reconnects with old friends and earns the town’s adulation as Superman.

However, in a change from the last two films, Superman III sees Clark return to his hometown of Smallville for a high school reunion; there, he reconnects with old friend Lana Lang but continues to right wrongs with his superpowers. Crucially, this includes preventing a nearby chemical plant from a potentially disastrous meltdown, which earns the Man of Steel the adulation of the entire town. One aspect about the film that I really enjoy is seeing Superman interacting with ordinary civilians and emergency services more often; when approaching an emergency situation, Superman always defers to whoever is in charge before offering his assistance, which goes a long way to showing how polite and willing to collaborate with others he is and is a great parallel to his later turn towards the dark side. With Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) absent for the vast majority of the film thanks to an assignment in Bermuda, Lana fittingly takes over as Clark’s new love interest. A childhood friend and former flame of Clark’s, Lana is a struggling single mother to young Ricky (Paul Kaethler) who is constantly fending off the unwanted advances of the bullish borderline alcoholic Brad Wilson (Gavan O’Herlihy) and dreams of escaping the suffocating confines of Smallville. Though she’s maybe not quite as loud and feisty as Lois, Lana is a capable enough woman in her own right but still laments that she’s stuck without a husband since all the “good” men in Smallville are taken. Crucially, unlike her Metropolis counterpart, Lana’s far less besotted by Superman and is more appreciative and interested in Clark, whom she sees as a kind and caring alternative to the likes of Brad. Lana admires that Clark has made a life for himself out of Smallville and is grateful for his positive influence on Ricky, who is often shunned for being the only kid in town to not have a father, but there’s really not a whole much for her to do in terms of the film’s overall plot beyond be a pretty face for Clark to converse with and to ponder Superman’s later change of character.    

Webster is willing to do anything to add more power and wealth to his already-vast empire.

Also absent from the film is Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman); in his place is Ross Webster, a wealthy philanthropist who is, basically, a poorly veiled stand-in for Superman’s traditional archnemesis. Alongside his spiteful and cruel sister, Vera (Annie Ross), and the voluptuous Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson), Webster initially plots to avenge himself on the nation of Columbia after they refuse to do business with him but soon turns his attention towards the more profitable hording of oil, and makes destroying Superman his top priority after the Man of Steel interferes with his coffee plot. While Vera enables Webster’s ambitions and craves the acquisition of further power and influence (it’s her idea to target the oil, for example), Lorelei plays the part of an airheaded bimbo but is actually much smarter than she appears (it’s her idea to use Kryptonite against Superman). Unlike Luthor, who saw pitting his criminal genius against Superman as the ultimate challenge, Webster is largely dismissive of the Man of Steel and believes destroying him should be a simple task since they’re well aware of his weakness to Kryptonite. It can’t be understated how much Vaughn’s presence and allure elevates this film ever so slightly above mediocrity; thanks to him, Webster makes for a charismatic and manipulative villain. Webster is far more approachable and fair-minded than Luthor but no less dangerous and authoritative; he doesn’t care a lick for the lives he endangers with his schemes and is easily able to threaten and coerce the likes of Gus Gorman into doing his bidding thanks to the power and breadth of his wealth.

Sadly, the film is far too focused on Richard Pryor’s bombastic attempts at comedy.

That, of course, brings us to the ultimate underdog, Gus Gorman, who begins the film as an out-of-work buffoon who finds that he has a talent for computer programming when he lands a job at Webscoe. Gus is a greedy, bumbling fool who believes that the world owes him more than it’s given and who wants to enjoy life now, while he’s young. While it’s child’s play for him to embezzle Webscoe’s funds into his mediocre pay cheque, Gus immediately regrets this decision when he is brought before Webster; however, Webster is as impressed by Gus’s capabilities as he is despondent by the man’s foolishness. To get out of being locked up for this crimes, Gus agrees to redirect space satellites and oil tankers for the industrialist but soon comes to realise that his talents make Webster’s threats obsolete and thus demands that the villain fund and construct a giant super computer of Gus’ own design. A selfish and outlandish figure, Gus only realises the error of his ways when his supercomputer is perverted by Webster into a tool for killing Superman but, sadly, Gus mainly exists to flood the film with all kinds of ridiculous pratfalls; providing both physical comedy and outlandish, energetic rants that appear to be ad-libs on Pryor’s part, Gorman is like a living cartoon and sticks out like a sore thumb as the one buffoon in a film full of mostly straight men.  

Synthetic Kryptonite alters Superman’s demeanour and splits him into two beings!

When Webster orders that Superman be killed, he has Gus synthesise a chunk of Kryptonite but Gus is forced to make some compromises in the element’s construction due to its alien nature. The result is a green hunk of rock that, rather than weaken and kill Superman, affects him more like the red variant from the comics. Initially, Superman becomes distracted and disinterested in his usual duties, which causes him to arrive too late to help out in a minor disaster on a Smallville bridge. Pretty soon, though, he’s flying all over the world and causing all kinds of nuisances, such as straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa (brought to life through the finest green screens money can buy…), blowing out the Olympic Flame, and gulping shots at the bar. Soon, his costume and demeanour noticeably change for the worst; he wears a constant scowl, sports dark stubble and darker eyes, and his suit takes on a muddier, subdued hue. After being sexually manipulated by Lorelei to cause an environmental crisis with one of Webster’s oil tankers, Superman has a violent breakdown in a junk yard and literally splits into two beings! This leads to a violent brawl between the virtuous Clark Kent and his aggressive doppelgänger that ultimately results in Clark emerging victorious and returning as the one, true Superman. It’s quite a bizarre sequence, to be sure, and is mostly hand-waved away but I can’t deny that the fight between the two is a real highlight of the film.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Right off the bat, Superman III shows us exactly what it’s all about: slapstick, goofball attempts at comedy. Skipping the traditional title sequence (though I swear this was included when I first saw the film on television…), the film opens with this convoluted series of pratfalls and accidents as the people of Metropolis get into all kinds of madcap hijinx. These elements are only exacerbated every time Pryor is onscreen and we’re treated to such delights as him acting out Superman’s impressive feats; rather than spending the money on showing Superman stopping a tornado, we get to hear Gus tell us about it while wearing a makeshift cape which, as entertaining as Pryor can be, is never going to be as enjoyable as actually watching these events happen onscreen. Instead, we get to see Gus flailing around like a fool, falling from the roof of Webster’s skyscraper without injury simply because he’s wearing skis, and him getting into all kinds of scrapes such as impersonating a military officer, jumping at his own reflection, going off on wild tangents in an attempt at humour, and drinking Brad into a stupor to access his company’s computer.

The effects are surprisingly decent and the evil Superman gives Reeve more chances to shine.

These comedic elements are a stark parallel to the film’s darker elements; seeing Superman go from a virtuous paragon of truth, justice, and the American Way to an apathetic and mean-spirited villain is perhaps the best element in this otherwise ludicrous film and really belongs in a far better Superman movie. The dark Superman really gives Christopher Reeve a chance to show his range as an actor and he spits his lines with a real venom and spite and seeing him relish in causing trouble and indulging in his vilest whims really helps the film to keep its head above water. While Superman’s rescue of the trapped chemical plant workers and his solution to freeze a nearby lake and drop it on the inferno is ambitious and impressive, other special effects don’t hold up so well, especially the rendition of technology. Overall, though, the film’s special effects remain largely consistent with those from the previous two films; there’s far more in-camera shots of Reeve being propelled across through the air on wires (though there are some instances where the wires are a little too visible…) and the flying effects, in general, actually hold up a little better than in Superman II, potentially because the film’s budget is being used to slightly better effect or not being stretched across two films that are spiralling out of control.

Despite the awesome power of Webster’s supercomputer, Superman is able to triumph through his wits.

One of the main themes of the film is that of the growing reliance on computers and technology, which is depicted as being both mysterious and capable of almost anything. With just a few taps of a keyboard and a swipe of a screen pen, Gus is able to make all kinds of ludicrous stuff happen, and the depiction of computer “hacking” horribly dates the film since we know that there’s no way that he’d be able to issue the commands he’s making without utilising proper code. Later, Gus is able to manually reprogram everything from traffic lights to cash machines to send the city into a frenzy, the severity of which is, again, played to cringeworthy comedic effect (the traffic light men even inexplicably get into a fist fight!) Finally, when Superman heads off to confront the villains, Webster manually sends a number of rockets and a large ballistic missile his way using a crude videogame-like interface. While Webster is, in many ways, exactly the same as Luthor except without the same level of personal animosity towards Superman, what helps bolster him and make him slightly more distinct are his sister and lover and his commission of Gus’s supercomputer. Just as the dark Superman is basically a version of Bizarro, this supercomputer is kind of like a dumbed-down interpretation of Brainiac; sure, it doesn’t speak, or look or act anything like Brainiac, but it’s clear that the finale has some roots in the popular villain. The machine is capable of analysing and counteracting with a person’s weaknesses when it feels threatened and is constantly adapting to combat threats; this includes trapping Superman in an odd plastic bubble (that, somehow, manages to choke him even though he doesn’t need to breathe…) and bombard him with pure Kryptonite. Seemingly gaining sentience through its battle with Superman, the computer turns on its creators and even transforms Vera into a cybernetic avatar in a truly horrific scene. Ultimately, Superman takes a page out of Luthor’s playbook and opts for mind over muscle by utilising a highly corrosive acidic substance to fool the machine into destroying itself. Since Gus tried, in his own way, to help Superman in the finale, Superman spares him imprisonment (a favour that Gus immediately squanders) and Kent sets Lana up at the Daily Planet, ending the film with a hint towards a rivalry between her and Lois over Clark’s affections that, sadly, would be completely ignored in the sequel.

The Summary:
Honestly, this is a hard one for me. I remember really enjoying this film as a kid because it’s not like we had superhero films coming out of our asses like we do these days; however, as so many have said on many occasions, Superman III can’t be seen as anything other than a massive disappointment. There are some positives to be found here, though: Robert Vaughn adds a great deal of gravitas to the film and Christopher Reeve continues to be excellent in the title role and Superman III gives him some fantastic moments to show new sides of his personality; the fight between him and his dark self remains a highlight of the film, it’s just a shame that it’s wedged into this unfortunate mess of a film. There’s so much potential in Superman III that is sadly never fully realised because it’s more focused on giving the late, great Richard Pryor a chance to practise his stand-up routine; had the filmmakers exercised some restraint and pulled back on some of Pryor’s more outlandish outbursts and scaled back the slapstick comedy, and maybe even gone all-in with the supercomputer to bring Brainiac to the screen then there might have been something here. As it is though, what we’re left with is a film that’s probably enjoyable enough for little kids but is a bit of a slog to sit through unless you’re a big Richard Pryor fan.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

Are you a fan of Superman III? What did you think to Richard Pryor’s inclusion in the film and his attempts at comedy? Did you enjoy the switch from Metropolis to Smallville and what did you think to Ross Webster as the film’s replacement for Lex Luthor? Were you a fan of the dark Superman sub-plot and the fight between him and Clark Kent or would you have preferred a more direct interpretation of Bizarro? What did you think to the themes of computer technology spiralling out of control? Where would you rank this film against Superman’s other live-action adaptations and how have you been celebrating the Man of Steel this month? Whatever your thoughts on Superman III, drop them down below and check out my review of the much-maligned fourth entry in the franchise.

Talking Movies [Superman Month]: Superman II


In 2013, DC Comics declared the 12th of June as “Superman Day”, a day for fans of the Man of Steel the world over to celebrate Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, the superpowered virtue of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” who is widely regarded as the first ever costumed superhero. This year, I’m spending every Sunday of June celebrating the Man of Steel as I expand Superman Day to “Superman Month“.


Released: 9 April 1981
Director: Richard Lester
Distributor:
Warner Bros. / Columbia–EMI–Warner Distributors
Budget:
$54 million
Stars:
Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran, and Gene Hackman

The Plot:
Having thwarted Lex Luthor’s (Hackman) maniacal plans, Clark Kent/Superman (Reeve) faces a new challenge when intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Kidder) manages to deduce his secret identity. While Clark prepares to give up his incredible powers to be with Lois, General Zod (Stamp) and his two followers escape from the Phantom Zone and begin terrorising the planet, leading Clark to choose between his happiness and his responsibilities to mankind.

The Background:
As I detailed in my review of Superman (Donner, 1978), producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler convinced Warner Bros. to produce a two-film adaptation of the character back in the late seventies. However, the production was fraught with issues, both financially and creatively; director Richard Donner frequently clashed with the producers and Richard Lester was brought in as a mediator to allow the filmmakers to focus on the first film, which was a financial and critical success. Despite having shot 75% of the sequel, Donner was replaced as director with Richard Lester, a decision that irked star Gene Hackman so much that he refused to return for the necessary reshoots. Lester shot an entirely new opening for Superman II in addition to making numerous changes to the tone of Donner’s original version to place more emphasis on slapstick silliness. Star Christopher Reeve returned to the project after negotiating a better deal with more artistic control for himself but Marlon Brando was excised completely from the film due to his unrealistic financial demands. Despite all the behind the scenes turmoil, Superman II was still a financial success; its worldwide box office gross of just over $190 million might’ve been less than its predecessor but it was still highly praised, with Stamp’s turn as Zod drawing particular acclaim. Many years later, of course, in the build-up to Superman Returns (Singer, 2008), Donner would finally return to the film to assemble a version that closely resembled his original vision of the film.

The Review:
As far as I can remember, Superman II is another of those instances where I actually saw the sequel before the original; consequently, the film had much more of an impact on my childhood and I remember being more entertained by it thanks to it having a far brisker, more action-orientated flow and featuring villains who could actually match Superman in combat rather than simply just outwitting him. Not that I have a problem with the “mind over muscle” concept, it’s just far more gratifying to me to see Superman getting into a superpowered scrap as Superman II definitely delivers in that regard. Thankfully, for those who haven’t seen the first film, the movie opens with both a quick recap of the first movie over the opening credits and a return to Krypton to show exactly how General Zod, Ursa (Douglas), and Non (O’Halloran) got themselves banished to the mysterious “Phantom Zone”. Basically, they broke into one of the Kryptonian council’s crystal chambers and destroyed one of their fancy little crystals; since Jor-El (Marlon Brando) is entirely absent from this film, the three are sentenced and imprisoned by the nameless Kryptonian council yet, as they’re being thrust into the void of space in their mirror prison, Zod vows revenge upon Superman’s birth father regardless.

Lois begins to suspect that mild-mannered Clark Kent isn’t all that he seems…

The film then picks up shortly after the events of the last film to find the Eiffel Tower overtaken by terrorists who are holding a bunch of people hostage and threatening to detonate a hydrogen bomb if their demands aren’t met. Being the feisty, fearless reporter that she is, obviously Lois Lane is right in the middle of the story and her boldness leaves her in danger of being killed; thankfully, Superman is again on hand to save her and disposes of the bomb-filled elevator by tossing it into space and unknowingly releasing the three Kryptonian criminals form their prison. Still playing the part of the lovable, bumbling goofball, Clark stumbles his way through his assignment with Lois in Niagara Falls but, after springing into action to save a young boy from a fatal fall into the waters, Lois’ suspicions are raised to the point where she willingly puts herself in danger in order to prove that the two are one and the same.

Luthor escapes from prisons, learns Superman’s secrets, and forges a fragile alliance with Zod.

Despite being arrested and locked up at the end of the first film, Lex Luthor (Hackman), the self-proclaimed greatest criminal mind of all time, quickly breaks his way out of prison with the help of a holographic projector of his own making and the assistance of Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), thankfully leaving the bumbling Otis (Ned Beatty) behind. Not only does Luthor now largely sport his traditional bald head, he also has a far better plan than simple real estate; having deduced that Superman has a tendency to travel north, he tracks the Man of Steel and discovers his Fortress of Solitude, boning up on the three Kryptonian criminals and using this knowledge to charm his way into General Zod’s good graces. There’s something disconcerting about seeing Luthor in the Fortress of Solitude and poking around in his private archives and materials; although Luthor doesn’t learn that Clark Kent is Superman from this excursion, he learns more than enough to be able to barter with General Zod and spare him from the Kryptonian’s unending wrath in exchange for being able to rule over Australia after the three Kryptonians consolidate their control over the entire world.

Led by power-hungry Zod, the Kryptonian criminals quickly claim dominion over the world.

Still, even Luthor is fearful of his new tentative allies; Zod, a verbose egomaniac who craves power and acknowledgement, strikes fear into the hearts of those around him with not only his sadistic and cold-hearted demeanour but also his inclination to fly into an intense rage when his power is defied. The alluring and callous Ursa revels in causing destruction and acquiring new badges and trinkets for her uniform, while the imposing brute Non is as childlike as he is silent and literally follows his General’s orders without question. The three quickly discover and reveal in the superhuman powers afforded by the Earth’s yellow sun, which immediately grants them all of Superman’s powers but with none of his moral compass. They start small, toying with a group of astronauts on the Moon and terrorising a small town in the United States before identifying where the true power of the U.S. lies and laying seize on the White House in a harrowing scene where he forces the President of the United States (E.G. Marshall) to transfer all control to their General.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Of course, it’s difficult to talk about Superman II without addressing some of the film’s more ridiculous aspects; Otis might not be around but his status as the comic relief is usurped by Non’s infantile nature. While things quickly take a turn for the dramatic when Zod steps in out of boredom, it’s initially played for laughs when the three are causing trouble in Houston; similarly, when the three are terrorising Metropolis to goad Superman into a conflict, there’s an awful lot of slapstick and tomfoolery for what is meant to be an imposing scene. And let’s not forget the outrageous superpowers introduced in the film; while traditional Kryptonian powers like heat vision, super breath, and freeze breath are all on display to great effect when the three are causing destruction and fighting with Superman, there’s all kinds of crazy stuff added to the film. Zod is somehow able to levitate objects with a point of his finger, the three of them deface Mount Rushmore by simply blasting it, all four Kryptonians are all able to duplicate themselves in the finale (which I can only assume was originally supposed to be some kind of depiction of superspeed that was limited by the technology of the time), and don’t even get me started on Superman’s weird s-shield attack-thing! Yet, as mental as all of this, it’s actually nowhere near as insane as some of the stuff Superman was doing in the comic books at the time!

Superman willing gives up his powers to be with Lois.

While a romantic element was present in the first film (and gave us the God awful cringey scene of Superman and Lois flying together), it’s far more prominent here. Although Clark is able to momentarily quash Lois’s suspicions about him, his dual nature is ultimately revealed after an accidental stumble. Of course, bearing in mind that Clark is clearly besotted with Lois and was tempted to reveal himself to her in the first film, both Clark and Lois suggest that this was anything but an accident and that Clark subconsciously wanted Lois to learn the truth and made sure that it happened. Regardless, the two embark on a romantic tryst that sees Clark focus on her above all other concerns. Busy wooing her with flowers and food from the far corners of the world at his Fortress, Superman ignores the chaos caused by General Zod and his subordinates and makes the ultimate sacrifice when the consciousness/artificial intelligence of is mother, Lara (Susannah York), dictates that to live with a mortal, he must live as a mortal.

Superman immediately has to reclaim his powers to stop the Kryptonian criminals.

This wrinkle, which results in the destruction of the main control console in the Fortress, goes a long way to showing just how serious Clark is about his love for Lois; indeed, he willingly gives up all of his superpowers just to be with her despite the fact he can hear that people are pleading for his intervention. Clark’s adjustment to mortal life is a tough one; almost immediately, he feels the fatigue and pains of us normal folk and runs afoul of mouthy trucker Rocky (Pepper Martin). Humbled and humiliated, Clark is horrified to find that Zod has taken control of the world and immediately journeys back to the Fortress (from what looks like Canada…because I guess there’s a direct road from Canada to the Arctic now?) in a desperate bid to regain his powers. Although the Fortress appears dead and his father Jor-El doesn’t answer his son’s desperate plea, Clark finds the green crystal that birthed the Fortress and this, somehow, restores his powers. Although this whole sequence is a little sloppy, mainly thanks to the way the film was cut up and re-edited from Donner’s original version, I can’t say that I was ever really a fan of it; we’ve seen in the comics, and other adaptations, that Superman is fully capable of being in a relationship with Lois without having to give up his powers and it seems like this aspect was only included to give some humanity to the all-power Man of Steel. One part of it that does work for me was the emphasis on Lara; since Jor-El is entirely absent, Lara’s importance is greatly increased and makes Superman II an interesting companion piece to the first film by placing the focus on his mother rather than his father.

It’s clear the budget was stretched to its limit to depict a brawl between the four superpowered characters.

Armed with Luthor’s knowledge of Superman’s true heritage and affinity for Lois Lane, Zod, who quickly grows bored of having absolute power, relishes the opportunity to exact his revenge upon Jor-El’s progeny. To this end, the three ransack the Daily Planet and then cause destruction in downtown Metropolis in entertaining scenes of devastation that were certainly ambitious and in stark contrast to the first film’s slower, more subdued tone. It’s clear that the budget is being pushed to its limits to show all four characters flying and fighting in the skies and streets of Metropolis and, while the special effects and the quality of the fight does suffer a bit as a result (there’s a lot of awkward standing around, posturing, and slow, easily telegraphed attacks on show), it’s still a commendable effort for the time. Crucially, Superman goes out of his way to draw the fight away from the city and to save lives rather than mindlessly ploughing his opponents through buildings and causing as much damage as the film’s villains, which goes a long way to emphasising Superman’s selfless and heroic nature (something that arguably needed to be reinforced after he seemed to abandon his responsibilities in favour of getting laid).

Superman turns the tide on his foes but is forced to erased Lois’s memory of his dual nature.

Although the three have the numbers advantage, and are clearly better fighters than he, Superman manages to hold his own but, realising that continuing the fight would only endanger further lives (despite the commendable spirit of the Metropolis citizens in their willingness to stand up to the three after Superman appears to be killed), he flees from the city and lures them to his Fortress for a final showdown. The three are led their by Luthor with Lois as their hostage; when Zod declares that Luthor has outlived his usefulness, the criminal mastermind attempts to double-cross Superman in order to regain favour with the General and, in the process, unwittingly plays right into Superman’s plan. Having reversed the molecule chamber so that Krypton’s red sun rays erase the three’s powers, Superman and Lois are easily able to best their foes and send them hurtling to their deaths. However, in the aftermath, Clark and Lois split up since Superman can’t prioritise one life over the lives of the world and, to spare his love further pain from the burden of knowledge, Superman busts out another new power: the ability to erase minds with a kiss. With Luthor back in prison, the Earth saved, and the status quo restored, Superman promises the President that he’ll never abandon his responsibilities again and heads off for his victory lap.

The Summary:
When I was a kid, I absolutely loved this film; it was probably the closest and most accurate depiction of a live-action Superman I had seen and definitely set a high standard for superhero movies in general for its mixture of heart, action, and comedy. Even now, thanks to the ambitious and impressive special effects, the film holds up surprisingly well; once again, it’s the performances that help bolster the film, with Terrence Stamp putting in a scene-stealing turn as General Zod. The inclusion of three evil Kryptonians to match Superman blow-for-blow was a great way to raise the stakes from the first film and Superman II definitely builds upon the themes and standards of the first film. While I still have a lot of affection for Superman II and definitely prefer it to the first movie, it’s difficult for me to rate it much higher as there are a number of aspects of Superman II that don’t sit too well with me. The same can be said of the first film, and the rest in the series, but I’m still a little baffled by the idea of stripping Superman of his powers and then immediately restoring them and the absurd memory erasing kiss that is almost as preposterous as Superman turning back time at the finale of the first film. Still, it’s easily the best film out of the original four for me and, crazy superpowers aside, deserves to be rated as being at least on par with the influential original and is well worth a watch of only for Stamp’s iconic performance and the battle between Superman and his Kryptonian adversaries.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

What are your thoughts on Superman II? Did you feel like it measured up to the first film or do you perhaps consider it to be superior, or inferior? What did you think to the introduction of more physically capable villains for Superman to fight and were you a fan of Terrence Stamp’s performance as General Zod? What did you think to Superman sacrificing his powers for Lois and then erasing her mind with a kiss? Do you prefer the theatrical cut of the film or do you think the Donner Cut is the superior version? What is your favourite Superman story, character, or piece of media? How are you planning to celebrate Superman Day today? Whatever you think, feel free to share your opinion and thoughts on Superman in the comments below.

Talking Movies [Superman Month]: Superman


In 2013, DC Comics declared the 12th of June as “Superman Day”, a day for fans of the Man of Steel the world over to celebrate Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, the superpowered virtue of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” who is widely regarded as the first ever costumed superhero. This year, I’ll be spending every Sunday of June celebrating the Man of Steel as I expand Superman Day to “Superman Month“.


Released: 14 December 1978
Director: Richard Donner
Distributor:
Warner Bros. / Columbia–EMI–Warner Distributors
Budget:
$55 million
Stars:
Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Valerie Perrine, and Marlon Brando

The Plot:
In the dying moments of the planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El (Brando) rockets his son away to Earth. After learning of his alien origins and discovering the limits of the fantastic superhuman powers afforded him by Earth’s yellow sun, the now-adult Clark Kent (Reeve) assumes the costume identity of “Superman” while disguising himself as a mild-mannered reporter. However, he faces his greatest test when genius criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Hackman) hatches a plot to cause devastating earthquakes west of the San Andreas Fault.

The Background:
In the years since his dramatic debut, Superman quickly became the subject of numerous adaptations and his 1940 radio drama even introduced many aspects that became synonymous with the character. The idea of a feature-length Superman film was first conceived of by producer Ilya Salkind in 1973; entering into a partnership with his father, Alexander, and Pierre Spengler, the filmmakers were able to convince Warner Bros. to produce a two-film adaptation of the character and paid screenwriter Mario Puzo (of Godfather (ibid, 1969/Coppola, 1972) fame) $600,000 to write the screenplay. Steven Spielberg was courted to direct but was unable to commit and, while Guy Hamilton was attached to the project, the producers eventually settled on Richard Donner, who immediately ditched the campy tone of Puzo’s 400-plus-page script. The first actor signed to the film was Marlon Brando (who had some pretty funny ideas about Jor-El’s appearance and characterisation and had a lackadaisical attitude towards the film) and Oscar winner Gene Hackman soon followed, with the two receiving top billing.

Superman’s early adaptations had a profound influence on the character for decades.

Many notable names were considered for the title role before relative-unknown Christopher Reeve was cast after a laborious casting process. Having bulked up for the role, Reeve’s experience as a pilot paid off when performing the film’s complex flying sequences, which were achieved through a combination of green screens, wire work, and other camera tricks while the striking Kryptonian suits were the result of a happy accident with a reflective material. Very quickly, the film’s budget ballooned and filming began to over-run, causing tensions between Donner and the producers; Richard Lester was brought on board as a mediator and work on the sequel halted to concentrate on the first film. After several delays, Superman (also marketed as Superman: The Movie) released to rave reviews and was an incredible financial success, making over $300 million. Although the producers continued production of the sequel immediately, the damage was done and Donner did not return, necessitating a series of expensive reshoots and raising the ire of many of the film’s actors. Still, the first film was an incredible achievement, massively influential on Superman’s comic books, and was eventually preserved in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry.

The Review:
Superman begins, as most Superman origin stories do, on the far away world of Krypton (or “Krypt’n”, if you’re Marlon Brando), a technologically advanced civilisation that inhabits a largely barren, crystalline world. In a fantastic seed for the sequel, Jor-El sentences three seditious criminals – Non (Jack O’Halloran), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and their leader, General Zod (Terence Stamp) – to the mysterious “Phantom Zone” for their treasonous and destructive efforts to usurp the Kryptonian council and subjugate the world to Zod’s will. Defiant to the last, Zod vows to avenge himself upon Jor-El and his heirs, no matter how long it takes and against all odds, before the three are cast into the strange mirror prison. Following this, Jor-El is unable to convince the council that Krypton is doomed to be destroyed by its red giant sun within thirty days; indeed, despite being a highly respected and rational member of the council, Jor-El’s claims are so adamantly refuted that he is threatened with being labelled a terrorist himself.

Unable to save his planet, Jor-El sends his infant son to Earth, where he gains awesome powers.

Apparently despondent (it’s hard to tell with Brando…), Jor-El resigns himself to ensuring the survival of his young son, Kal-El; his wife, Lara (Susannah York), laments that their son will forever be an outcast amongst the “primitives” of Earth but Jor-El remains confident that the powers bestowed upon Kal-El by Earth’s yellow sun will make him a symbol of hope and afford him physical advantages beyond all known understanding. As Krypton shatters around them, the baby is rocketed away and, guided by his father’s voice, slowly grows into an infant within his escape craft; Jor-El, who encoded all of his knowledge and wisdom into the crystalline form of the ship, stresses that his son is “forbidden” to interfere in Earth’s history and instead let his example inspire others. In time, many thousands of years after Krypton’s destruction, the ship crash lands on Earth and is stumbled upon by kindly, elderly couple Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter) who are awestruck by the child’s super strength and, despite Jonathan’s concerns, take him in as their own.

After losing his adopted father, Clark learns the extent of his powers and reveals himself to the world.

About fifteen years later, the boy has grown into well-meaning teenager Clark Kent (Jeff East, with Christopher Reeve dubbing his voice); though Clark is frustrated that he has to hide his physical capabilities from the world, Jonathan stresses that the boy was sent to them (and the world) for a greater reason than to simply score touchdowns or show off to the other kids. As he just wants to make his parents proud, Clark takes his father’s advice to heart but is left utterly heartbroken when Jonathan suffers a fatal heart attack. At his graveside, a devastated Clark laments that his awesome powers were ultimately useless in saving his father and thus learns a valuable lesson about the limits of his superhuman abilities. Drawn to the remains of his ship (which the Kents kept hidden in their barn), Clark discovers a glowing green crystal that leads him far north, all the way to the Arctic, where the crystal births a piece of his home planet on Earth. In this Fortress of Solitude, Clark communes with the spirit of his father, who lives on as a glorified artificial intelligence, and spends a further twelve years absorbing all of Jor-El’s knowledge and teachings of his newfound abilities. After his training is completed, Clark emerges as Christopher Reeve and garbed in a bright Kryptonian costume and ready to share his abilities with the world as Superman.

Clark poses as a mild-mannered reporter, which allows Superman to captivate Lois.

Clark sets himself up as a reporter at the Daily Planet (apparently it’s as easy as being able to type incredibly fast and being overly polite), meeting hot-tempered editor-in-chief Perry White (Jackie Cooper), enthusiastic young photographer Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure), and feisty reporter Lois Lane (Kidder). Despite her inability to spell, Lois is a lively and fearless journalist and, consequently, she both despairs of Clark’s overly friendly nature and sees him as a bit of a dorky milksop and finds her curiosity sparked by some of his oddities. In comparison, Lois is immediately captivated by Superman when he not only catches her in mid-air as she’s plummeting to her death but also snags the helicopter she was falling from. Enamoured by his mystery, confidence, and the seemingly limitless superhuman abilities he possesses, her normally controlled and forthright demeanour is shattered and she’s left absolutely awestruck during (and following) her exclusive interview with the Man of Steel (where she names him and he also, curiously, divulges a number of secrets about himself that later come back to bite him in the ass).  

The maniacal Lex Luthor plots to destroy Superman in his quest to profit from real estate.

The villain of the piece, the enthralling Lex Luthor, has set up an impressive hideout beneath the city streets; there, protected by a series of cameras and deadly booby traps, he surrounds himself with the dim-witted Otis (Ned Beatty) and sexy but cynical Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Egotistical and arrogant in his intellect, Luthor sees himself as the world’s greatest criminal mind and is busy planning the crime of the century, which involves the acquisition of seemingly worthless land and profiting from it by causing a cataclysmic flood, endangering and ending countless lives in the process. Luthor immediately surmises that Superman is not of this Earth and relishes the opportunity to pit himself against the Man of Steel, and to both prove his intellectual superiority over him and destroy the very virtues that Superman stands for, seeing the Man of Steel as the ultimate challenge for his self-proclaimed criminal genius.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Of course, you can’t really talk about Superman without mentioning John Williams’ bombastic and immediately iconic “Superman” theme that is rendered in full glory over the opening credits. While this theme has become so synonymous with the character that no composer or filmmaker since has come close to crafting a more suitable melody for the Man of Steel, I continue to be baffled by the absolutely cringe-worthy “Can You Read my Mind?” sequence. Like, I get it; it’s supposed to be this big romantic moment between the Lois and Superman and to showcase the film’s wirework, but it stands out like a sore thumb and is all kinds of different flavours of cheese.

While Reeve set the standard for Clark/Superman some of the other performances are a bit hit and miss.

If I’m being brutally honest, the film’s performances are a bit hit and miss; despite being a relative unknown, Reeve provides the quintessential portrayal of Superman and simply exudes confidence and sociability as Superman while masking his true nature as loveable, bumbling fool. Indeed, by simply straightening his posture and slightly altering his voice, Reeve effortlessly depicts the simple differences between his two persona and his performance so explicitly set the standard for the character that it continues to be emulated to this day. Once the story shifts to Metropolis, the film becomes a much more vivid and over-the-top production that emphasises buffoonery and comic book camp; nobody embodies this more than the bumbling Otis, who is mostly here for comic relief, but there’s also the suggestion that Luthor socialises with cretins simply to have someone to lord over. While Beatty and Cooper seem to have stepped out of a pantomime for their roles as the goofy Otis and bombastic Mr. White, respectively, Hackman brings a certain gravitas to the film that perfectly walks a fine line between camp and severe. Hackman seems to be enjoying himself in the role and commands every scene and room that he’s in; though he lacks Luthor’s bald head, he sports a variety of wigs and exudes a sadistic menace in his willingness to kill millions of innocent people in his quest for power, profit, and to have his matchless intelligence recognised by the world.

While some effects don’t hold up well, they’re all very ambitious and impressive for the time.

Obviously, you have to expect that some of the effects aren’t as impressive and haven’t aged as well as others, as ambitious as they are; the Arctic is clearly a set like something out of Star Trek (1966 to 1969) and I can only assume that Krypton is so barren and lifeless because it was cheaper and easier (though it also makes it cold and alien and a stark contrast to our lush world). The young Clark’s running effect and a number of the rear-projection and miniature shots leave a lot to be desired and almost every skyline appears to simply be a gigantic matte painting as the film is heavily reliant upon impressive sets the likes of which are akin to a James Bond film. While Clark’s super fast changes to Superman and his little spin down into Luthor’s lair aren’t that great, easily the weakest effects come in the conclusion as the San Andreas Fault is ruptured and painstakingly crafted models are washed away by water and dirt before Superman circles the globe at superspeed. To be fair, though, the film’s effects are still incredibly impressive; the helicopter sequence is an ambitious and remarkable composite of miniatures, rear-projection, and live-action wire work that makes for a suitable debut for the Man of Steel and, overall, the film has largely stood the test of time thanks to its practical effects and undeniable charm. As you might expect, Superman’s powers and abilities are the highlight of the film; Superman’s invulnerability, super strength, and superspeed are all accounted for and realised well enough and Superman’s first night on duty provides a great showcase of what he is capable of. No job is too big or too small for Superman, who does everything from rescuing a cat from a tree to apprehending jewel thieves as they clamber up the outside of buildings using sucker pads.

Superman comes up with a unique solution to save the day.

Naturally, it’s the flying sequences that are the true spectacle of the film; even now, the rear-projection holds up pretty well in these scenes but what really sells it is Reeve’s dynamic and believably movements. Reeve banks and turns with an elegant grace and really sells the illusion that we’re seeing a man fly and makes even the most ridiculous aspects of the film (from the 100% comic-accurate suit to using his own body to repair a broken train track to repairing the San Andreas Fault by ploughing through questionable-looking magma) seem entirely plausible thanks to his charming smile and undeniable charisma. Of course, when talking about Superman, you have address the ending. Thanks to acquiring a chunk of Kryptonite, Luthor is able to weaken and cause incredible agony to Superman and it is only thanks to Ms. Teschmacher’s change of heart that he’s able to recoup his strength and intercept Luthor’s missiles. However, while he’s able to stop one, he’s unable to keep the other from striking the San Andreas Fault and is so busy repairing the damage it causes that he’s unable to save Lois from being crushed to death by debris. Devastated and overcome with grief, Superman flies into the upper atmosphere and defies his birth father’s warnings of interfering in human history to favour his adopted father’s advice and is able to literally turn back time by reversing the rotation of the planet. This undoes all of the damage caused by Luthor’s missiles and prevents Lois’s death but remains the most ludicrous aspect of the entire movie and just ends up raising all kinds of questions like…wouldn’t there be two Superman? Why doesn’t he just turn back time all the time? Ultimately, it’s just one of those crazy, over-powered feats that we’ve come to expect from older versions of Superman and I guess it works to show that Superman is capable of overcoming even his limits by pushing hard enough (plus, Reeve’s anguished cry does make for an incredibly intense scene).

The Summary:
I honestly went into Superman ready to give it a lower score of two stars; it’s never really been my favourite superhero, or Superman, film as it’s just got a little too much cheese and cringe in it for my tastes. There’s an undeniable level of camp at work in the film that makes it very cartoony and over-the-top in places, to say nothing of long, oddly paced inclusions that seem decidedly at odds with the rest of the film. However, all of these elements are in perfect balance with the film’s more dramatic and spectacular sequences; this is a film that is, primarily, a showcase of ambitious and trend-setting cinematic techniques as much as it is perhaps the most influential interpretation of Superman ever seen outside of the comic books. While not every effect has aged too well, the majority have stood the test of time remarkably well and there’s just the right balance of goofy comedy, heart-warming charm, and exciting spectacle that simply scream “Superman”, a character who is often characterised as being the world’s biggest Boy Scout and embodying timeless (if slightly antiquated) ideals. There’s no denying that Superman is an absolute classic; while I cannot sanction Marlon Brando’s attitude and I may not be a fan of some of Donner’s choices (Luthor being a real estate maniac, the barren depiction of Krypton, and the time travel ending are all cons of the film for me), Superman remains a delightful and enjoyable little slice of camp goodness that is worth it for Reeve’s incredible and career-making turn in the title role if nothing else.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Are you a fan of Superman? What did you think to Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of the character and were you a fan of Lex Luthor’s interpretation in the film? How influential was Donner’s film on your perception of Superman and are there any aspects you would prefer to see films and media move away from? What did you think to the film’s campier elements and were you a fan of the ending? What is your favourite Superman story, character, or piece of media? How are you planning to celebrate Superman Day next week? Whatever you think, feel free to share your opinion and thoughts on Superman in the comments below.

Back Issues [Superman Day]: Action Comics #1


In 2013, DC Comics declared the 12th of June as “Superman Day”, a day for fans of the Man of Steel the world over to celebrate Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, the superpowered virtue of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” who is widely regarded as the first ever costumed superhero.


Story Title: Superman
Published: 18 April 1938 (cover-dated June 1938)
Writer: Jerry Siegel (credited as “Jerome Siegel”)
Artist: Joe Shuster

The Background:
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both sons of Jewish immigrants, first met in 1932 while attending Glenville High School; by the time they were both sixteen, the two were already accomplished comics creators and, in 1933, they thought up their first concept for a superman with the story “The Reign of the Super-Man”. This story depicted a bald mad scientist (very much a prototype for Superman’s arch nemesis, Lex Luthor) attempt to dominate others with his telepathic powers; later, the two would revisit and dramatically retool this concept into the world’s first super-powered crimefighter.

From humble beginnings, Superman has become a worldwide cultural icon and paragon of justice.

Considering the massive success Superman has become as a character and a brand, it took some time for Siegel and Shuster to sell their revised concept, which took inspiration from mythological figures such as Hercules, fictional adventurers like Robin Hood and Zorro, and even circus strongmen for the character’s now-iconic costume. Yet, when DC Comics eventually purchased the character for publication, the two were paid a pittance for the now globally renowned superhero. Legal issues and disputes would follow the character for many decades before DC were able to iron out a mutually beneficial agreement with Siegel and Shuster’s heirs and allow them to be more fairly compensated for depictions of perhaps the most influential fictional character in American history.

The Review:
Action Comics #1 presents a much different version of Superman, one who might seem far removed from the virtual demigod we know and love today; back in 1938, for the Man of Steel’s iconic debut, Superman was still very much superhuman but he had yet to develop many of the powers and abilities he is now known for, much less the crazy, over-the-top powers he would later possess throughout later decades.

Clark’s powers were a far cry from his later world-moving, God-like abilities.

The story begins by detailing Superman’s memorable origin…by summing it up in one simple panel. Yep, Superman’s home world (not yet identified as “Krypton”) is “destroyed by old age” in the comic’s opening panel and the future Superman’s rocket is discovered by a passing motorist in the next. Unlike traditional depictions of Superman’s origin, the alien infant within is immediately handed over to an orphanage where the attendants were “astounded at his feats of strength”. The next few panels quickly showcase the range of Clark Kent’s (his name comes out of nowhere a few panels later with no explanation) superhuman abilities: he can easily leap over a twenty-story building, lift incredible weight, run faster than an express train, and possesses impenetrable skin. Rather than explain his abilities as the result of Earth’s yellow sun or the differences in atmosphere between Earth and Krypton, the comic explains that the inhabitants of Kent’s home world had evolved a “physical structure millions of years advanced of our own” and compares them to the abilities of insects to lift incredible weights and leap vast distances.  

Superman forces his way into the governor’s house with brute force and little explanation.

Rather than being taught values and morals by loving, doting parents, Clark simply decides, off panel, to put his fantastic abilities to good use and crafts the persona of Superman, “champion of the oppressed [and] physical marvel]”. Superman is then introduced racing through the night with a bound and gagged woman, with no context or explanation; he can’t fly yet so he just runs at super speed to “the governor’s estate”, barging his way in and forcing his way past the governor’s butler with an uncharacteristic discourtesy.

There are many convenient excuses to show off Superman’s awesome powers in the story.

The butler is aghast when Superman easily dismantles the door to the governor’s “sleeping room” which, for some reason, is made out of solid steel! Superman explains to the governor that he has a signed confession that proves one Evelyn Curry is innocent of murder but, before the governor can properly digest this information, his butler confronts the costumed intruder with a pistol. Superman, however, easily shrugs off the bullet and disarms the man.

Clark uses his position as a reporter for the Daily Star to catch wind of crimes and corruption.

With time fast running out, Superman convinces the governor to make the life-saving call and leaves the real culprit (the woman he was carrying in his first panel) in the custody of the governor. The next day, Kent is pleased to see that his actions, as Superman, have made the front page of the Daily Planet Star and the governor is left feeling eternally grateful that Superman is on their side…and well he should be given Superman’s blunt and direct approach to the fight against injustice. Kent then meets with the unnamed chief editor of the Daily Star, who orders him the assignment of covering the mysterious Superman who has been making so many headlines. While it might seem like Kent has walked in off the street, the next panel seemed to prove that he does, in fact, work for the paper as he is informed by a co-worker of a wife-beating taking place (seems like an odd thing for a paper to be tipped off about but I didn’t live in the 1930s so maybe this was a thing…?)

Clark keeps up his façade as a weakling, much to Lois’s continued disgust.

Superman immediately rushes over to the scene of the crime and makes the abuser pay by shoving him violently into a wall, breaking his knife on his impenetrable skin, and threatening the man so fully that he faints in his arms. Superman then quickly changes back into his civilian guise to explain the situation to a policeman, making sure to attribute the woman’s rescue to his super-powered alter ego. Later, Clark works up the courage to ask his co-worker, Lois (no last name yet), out on a date and she decides to “give him a break…for a change”. This, and the next panel, quickly summarises that Lois tends to avoid Clark and give him the run around in the office as, when he asks why she treats him so unfairly, she simply scoffs: “I’ve been scribbling “sob stories” all day long. Don’t ask me to dish out another”. When Butch Matson, a local tough or possibly a mobster, decides to impress his gang of apes by cutting in on Lois and Clark, Lois reveals the truth about why she avoids Clark: she sees him as nothing more than a “spineless, unbearable coward!

Superman easily catches up to and destroys Butch’s car in an iconic visual.

Of course, during Clark’s confrontation with Butch, the narration boxes and Clark’s thought balloons briefly gloss over the fact that Clark merely pretends to be a “weakling” to keep his secret identity…well…a secret, which is another pivotal aspect of the character that would be explored further in later Superman stories. Lois leaves in a huff and her taxi is soon forced off the road by Butch’s car; in what would quickly become a recurring tradition, Lois is kidnapped by Butch and his gang for little other reason than he took a liking to her, felt slighted by her rejection, and apparently has plans on raping her. Clark, as Superman, had been observing the whole thing from a distance and puts the wind up Butch and his cronies by first leaping over their speeding vehicle, then catching up to it, shaking them all out, and finally smashing it to pieces on a nearby rocky hill.

You’ll have to read the next issue to find out what the hell Superman is doing!

Superman teaches Butch a further lesson by leaving him stranded high up on a telephone pole before racing Lois, who is struck with fear and awe at his presence, to safety. Against Superman’s wishes for anonymity, Lois tries to tell her editor about her ordeal but he dismisses her story as ravings (which is really strange as the other day he was desperate for the scoop on Superman!) Anyway, Kent’s editor sends him to San Monte to cover an escalating conflict but, similar to when he was given the Superman assignment, Clark immediately disobeys this directive and, instead, takes a train to Washington, D.C. to investigate Senator Barrows. Clark snaps a picture of Barrows talking with a man whom the local newspaper identifies as Alex Greer, “the slickest lobbyist in Washington”. His unfounded and unexplained suspicions about the senator aroused, Superman climbs up to Barrows’ residence (the visual of him clambering up a building like Peter Parker/Spider-Man is both amusing and bizarre) and discovers the senator and Greer are in cahoots to get a seemingly innocent bill passed that will see America “embroiled with Europe” before anyone even knows what’s happened. Superman immediately confronts Greer and demands answers, taking him out onto the telephone wires high above the city and taunting the crook him with the threat of electrocution. He then leaps over to the White House to put the wind up Greer and the issue ends with a cliffhanger as Superman continues his intimidation of his victim by, apparently, unsuccessfully making the leap to a nearby skyscraper.

The Summary:
“Superman” is, honestly,  a dreadful story in terms of its pacing and narrative; very little time is spent explaining much of anything, with Superman’s alien origins completely glossed over and readers being forced to infer everything through context. We’re never told that Clark works as a reporter for the Daily Star, we just have to get that he is through inference; Superman races around with a bound woman and barges into homes without provocation and we only find out why after the fact; and God only knows why he pursues Senator Barrows rather than attempting to intervene in the San Monte conflict. But…it’s Action Comics #1, the first ever appearance of the greatest and most recognisable superhero the world has ever known, so I have to recommend that you read it if only for the purposes of witnessing history but, if I’m being brutally honest, the story isn’t really that great beyond the introduction of such an iconic character.

Whether by coincidence or design, Superman primarily saves women from abuse and persecution.

The entire story hinges on the colourful and extraordinary character of Superman himself; an enigma capable of incredible superhuman feats, Superman is visually and imaginatively appealing, I’ll admit. He has no time for decorum or adhering to the rules of the system; he simply strikes back at injustice no matter how trivial it may seem. To Superman, the life of an innocent woman is just as important as the torment of a victim of abuse and he tackles both with the same brute efficiency, utilising his fantastic strength and unmatched physical abilities to dominate the corrupt and the wicked. It’s interesting that pretty much everyone Superman saves in the story is a woman, with each of them being powerless victims of male oppressors, making Superman the paragon of virtue and honour as much as justice.

Superman’s more recognisable elements wouldn’t appear for some time…

As Superman’s first ever story, and a product of its time, a lot of forgiveness and leeway needs to be given to Action Comics #1. Many of Superman’s more recognisable and traditional elements wouldn’t be introduced for some time so, in that regard, the story is a little alienating to those who’ve only ever known him as the flying, all-powerful demigod with a colourful rogues gallery and fully developed supporting cast. Indeed, the seeds for Superman’s more critically regarded aspects are there, they’re just glossed over or barely touched upon: Superman’s status as the most powerful immigrant, for example, and his adoption of a meek alter ego in a reflection of his views on humankind are seen very briefly but the story is more focused on the wish fulfilment of a colourfully-garbed super man shrugging off bullets, smashing up vehicles, and teaching good-for-nothings a much needed lesson.

Make no mistake, Lois was a despiable character here and for many, many years.

Similarly, the story introduces the idea of tension and friction between Clark and Lois. I’ve always hated the early characterisation of Lois Lane and never understood what Clark ever saw in her or why she was deemed worthy enough to carry her own comic title; she was a snobby, condescending, annoying woman who constantly berated Clark and was obsessed (obsessed!) with marrying Superman for no other reason than she wanted him and she was a far cry from the strong-willed, independent, snarky, and yet actually likeable and supportive character she is often depicted as these days. Interestingly, Lois reacts to Superman more with fright than the fanatical wonder she was known for for many decades and isn’t shown to prefer Superman over Clark in this story but her bitchy attitude towards Clark is well and truly intact, though it’s just a hint towards the despicable character she would eventually become.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

Have you ever read Action Comics #1; if so, what did you think of it and Superman’s debut? Were you surprised at how underdeveloped Superman’s origin and powers are in his debut issue or do you feel the focus on the action and spectacle of Superman justifies the brevity of its narrative? Do you prefer Superman as a more grounded, less elaborate superhero or do you prefer him as an all-powerful character? Which of Superman’s later, wackier powers and stories was your favourite? What is your favourite Superman story, character, or piece of media? How are you celebrating Superman Day today? Whatever you think, feel free to share your opinion and thoughts on Superman in the comments below.