“Easy, Miss. I've got you.”
“You … you've got me? Who's got you????”
The back-story to the production of this much-cherished, though often derided series of comic-book adventures is as fascinating as it is frustrating. I suppose that when it came to putting Jerry Siegel's and Joe Shuster's classic modern-mythological hero up there on the big screen for a now sophisticated audience – and audience that had grown up with Superman in tri-colour DC panels, on radio shows and in black-and-white TV serials – there would have been a potentially limitless number of ways in which it could have been interpreted, though only one avenue, and one vision, would have ensured success and, perhaps more importantly, respect for the origins of the iconic character. And, thankfully, we got it first time around.
With Richard Donner, bon-vivente after the rip-roaring Satanic zeitgeist of The Omen, grabbing the idea by the cape and imbuing it with genuine heart and soul, not to mention bravura action set-pieces, then state-of-the-art visual effects and epically structured and downright classical narrative, and capturing genre-defining performances from Christopher Reeve as the titular Boy Scout, Margot Kidder as his spirited paramour and Gene Hackman as the ever-dastardly Lex Luthor, and establishing one of the most instantly recognisable and triumphant of film scores, courtesy of the on-a-roll John Williams, a genuine fantasy classic was moulded … and it is still the pinnacle that all superhero movies bow down to.
After Jaws, The Exorcist, Donner's own The Omen, and naturally Star Wars, Superman was the biggest possible movie event that the world had witnessed. Like the Bond pictures, this was to be huge – a widescreen spectacle that was brimming with different locations, expansive sets, a huge cast and mind-boggling action.
We all know the story, so I am not going to outline it here, sufficed to say that this is most popular, accessible and entertaining religious parable that Hollywood has ever offered. Big name casting and genuine sincerity in all aspects of its transition to the screen catapults the gravity of the plot, eclipsing the ridicule that should, quite rightfully, be levelled at it with all of its inherent campiness allowed to filter blissfully through its vivid Technicolor splendour. Geoffrey Unsworth's extraordinarily sweeping cinematography captures the eerie beauty of Krypton, the Norman Rockwell vistas of vintage, apple-pie Americana, the awe and grandeur of the Fortress of Solitude, the random hustle and bustle of teeming, crime-addled Metropolis and the wild escalation of death-defying deeds that the big feller in the red and blue must undertake to save the day. There is so much going on in this film that you can dip into anywhere and discover intrigue, action, romance and humour. We have the sinister despatching of the detective on the trail of Lex Luther (look out for the colleague who finds his train-mangled remains ... that'll be Steve Kahan, who not only appears in a number of Donner films, but also looks like his cousin, the director, as well!) the glamorous sabotage of the nuclear missile via buxom Valerie Perrine (who got the part after the Salkinds baulked at paying for Goldie Hawn or Ann-Margaret), in fabulous Marilyn Monroe garb, the chain of fault-line disasters that ravages California and the immaculately staged super-rescues that put them all right in a whistle-stop blur of blue and red. The way Donner reveals such an assured understanding of comic timing with lots of brilliantly conceived visual and verbal gags and asides – the mugger's bullet, Clark's incessant fumbling, Otis knocking over a lampshade and wrapping Lex Luther up in a dressing gown whilst he is still standing in the water, etc. Something that he would go on overplay in the Lethal Weapon movies to their increasing detriment, I'm sorry to say. But he would absolutely nail the romance between Lois Lane and Superman which, together with the clumsy attachment of Clark Kent, creates one of the weirdest and yet most charmingly addictive of love triangles.
The romantic flying sequence is an established classic. “Can you read my mind?” wonders Lois, and we don't need superpowers to work out what she's thinking. Freud said that to dream of flying was the desire to make love … and this is precisely what the long sequence is all about. It borders on the warped and the surreal, but it works exquisitely. The younger Clark watching as the Fortress of Solitude thrusts its crystalline beauty from the frozen wastes, and the exquisite and strangely soothing passage as he learns from his image of his Jor-El within its gleaming walls. However, my favourite part of the film is the splendid montage of Super-deeds that our boy from the sticks indulges in on his first night out on the town – or high above it. This is just magnificent stuff. The suction-cup robber, the gun-blasting baddies making a getaway to their yacht, the plane that loses an engine and, best of all, the elaborate disaster that drops a Daily Planet helicopter and Lois Lane down the side of a skycraper. It is a simply terrific mixture of pulse-pounding excitement, amusing scenarios, and rousing rescues, all cut together with dazzling flair, sheer large-scale exuberance and some of the most rousing music ever composed. Donner and co were having a ball doing this, and it shows.
Making Lex Luthor into a bit of a satirical super-ego, festooned with a gallery of wigs, was something that could have been a downside, especially as we have this criminal genius saddled with Ned Beatty's dunderheaded sidekick, Otis. But this is one of the great double-acts that becomes an integral part of the film's unstoppable mechanics, the fact that such a mastermind feels he needs to have someone around as imbecilic as Otis is a cool kick up the stereotypical backside. It doesn't make any sense, and yet it works. Both Beatty and Hackman are terrific scene-stealers in what is already a celebrity-packed showcase.
Even Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure as, respectively, Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White and wimpy press photographer Jimmy Olsen, fit the bill, nicely updating their characters without a hint of the pantomimic acidity or saccharine “gee-whiz, Superman!” traits that would broken that fragile balance between realism and whimsy. And then there's Glenn Ford who is brilliant as Pa Kent during that ravishingly shot Smallville act, totally embodying the sweet affection of a man who feels no need to question the miracle of his adopted son.
How many fantasy films can layer-in so many complex characters and such emotion as well as this. I still recall my tears at the cinema back in 1978 when I saw Jonathan Kent collapse and poor Clark lamented about having “all those powers” and still not being able save him. Richard Donner, his team of screenwriters, including Mario (The Godfather) Puzo, and his composer, John Williams, remain unsurpassed at making such flights of fancy believable and genuinely affecting. And the passage of time, with its multitude of superhero movies that have flown, morphed, fought and thundered their way into the collective imagination of audiences all over the world since Clark found that glowing green crystal shard in the barn and realised his destiny, has not diminished its evocative and inspiring grace and power to captivate.
I know that turning Earth back in time was originally slated for an appearance later in Superman II but, regardless of when it comes, it is a something of a sore point in an otherwise pitch-perfect film. We can suspend our disbelief almost entirely with the devout commitment we see and feel from Reeves, Kidder and Donner, but to be honest, this last-minute get-out clause, all of the emotional sacrifice and rule-breaking that we find in Superman notwithstanding, is pushing things too far. I just can't buy it, I'm afraid. This sort of ability makes a mockery of virtually everything that has happened, is happening or ever will happen in Superman's universe. Once you know that he can do that, ignoring the laws of physics and whatnot, each and every dilemma he ever faces becomes a moot point. I accept it as part of a film that I love … since, as Merlin says to the fledgling King Arthur in Boorman's Excalibur, “It is easy to overlook folly in a child,” because the movie does enough right that you can't help but dote on it, warts and all. I don't like the sequence, but I can live with it. And besides, that roar of rage that Superman hurls to the heavens accompanied by that meteoric upward zoom from his stricken form holding the limp body of Lois, makes it all worthwhile from a purely heartstopping point of view.
And what a view this film provides.
The film is strikingly elegant to look at. Geoffrey Unsworth's photography makes even the most glaring of miniature sets look awe-inspiring. The destruction of Krypton, with all of its denizens cascading to their doom is like a Dante-infused painting. The urban sprawl of Metropolis (actually a completely undisguised New York) is also captured in a way that makes it appear lush and romantic in a big, old fashioned way. And then there is the dexterity of Donner's direction when coupled with the camera. Just look at the long tracking shot that curls alongside Clark and Lois as they get up from their desks and move through the crowded offices of the Daily Planet. This is impeccable stuff that maintains the focus on the characters, yet addresses the authenticity of a workplace that doesn't understand the concept of a rest-break. At any point you care to choose, you can lose yourself within the film.
As many people already know, my absolute favourite superhero of all time is Batman. By a long way. But, even with this in mind, I have to say that, without a shred of doubt, Superman The Movie is the best superhero film ever made. It does almost everything right. It treads that fine line between camp and seriousness with absolutely perfect poise and balance. It is vast and epic and elegiac. It has great action, a thunderous score, matchless performances, incredible zest and a profound belief in what it is doing with such an iconic and well-loved figure. Plus, it is enormous fun that, even in its extended version, never outstays its welcome, and just leaves you demanding more. Which we certainly got, didn't we?
“Son of Jor-El … kneel before Zod!”
Of course the idea that they would make Superman 1 and 2 back-to-back, as ambitious as that seemed, was something that the Salkinds and director Richard Lester already had experience of when they, as a team, made The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers at the same time and then released them as a one-two parry and thrust only a couple of years before Superman went into its leviathan production. But this was where things got messy. Very messy. The Salkinds' exasperation with Richard Donner's spiralling shoot and budgetary needs reaching unresolvable levels, the outspoken producers ousted the director well into the shoot and replaced him with Lester, full-time. But with so much footage already in the can, it was both too expensive and pretty much pointless to go and re-shoot material. So, as we all know, Lester did a patch-up job and finished the film off, with the resulting mix being roughly 60/40 in Donner's favour. Without a doubt, the best stuff came from Donner, who knew the material and knew the direction in which he was going. Lester, though, must be given a lot of credit for how he handled a difficult situation, wrestling such a huge project to the ground and delivering it on-time and in a coherent and exciting fashion that has since gone on to attain definite cult status. Superman II is the one that even most casual fans cite as being their favourite of the series. Not only is it a terrific follow-on (which it was always supposed to be – Donner had viewed this and Superman The Movie as being just one big film), but it delivers the sort of action that you craved from something based on such a vibrant genre. For now, we had some bonafide super-villains for Superman to butt heads against.
All three of the bad guys are excellent.
I won't labour the point about how implausibly coincidental it is that the terrorist bomb that Superman hurls into space during the first great action set-piece fractures the Phantom Zone enough to unleash the very trio of Kryptonian criminals that we watched spinning off into limbo in a flat-packed glass cell at the start of Superman The Movie. But it was certainly inspired, and poetic, that these three were the antagonists who would make Superman's life so difficult this time around.
Terence Stamp struts the very fine line between high camp and sincere skulduggery with impeccable panache and the sort of educated evil that you only get from a Brit. Sarah Douglas became one of the genre's first and sexiest female wall-coverings as the cold-hearted and ruthless Ursa, looking absolutely gorgeous in that black PVC costume and sporting a chic Parisian hairdo, sinister pout and massive Barbara Steele eyes. Jack O' Halloran, fresh from background duty in Dino De Laurentiis' King Kong, is tremendously intimidating as the brutish Non. Whereas it always seemed illogical that Lex Luthor would employ such an imbecile as Otis, Zod's use of the much slower Non is purely that of the gangster and his devoted henchman. He needed Non to handle the rough, neck-breaking stuff back on Krypton and, here on Earth, where Zod's powers are so considerable that Non's importance in the trio is virtually null and void, it is still clear that he has reluctant fondness for the oaf.
The sequence set on the Moon when the nasty trio destroy a joint NASA-Soviet Lunar Mission is justly celebrated. Playing to the same ominous tones of John Williams' Kryptonian Council as they sentenced the three in the first film, this is downright creepy and wittily intense. Ursa's fascination for badges, medals and insignia commences with deadly results. Non's complete wrecking of the module is quite ferocious and Zod's realisation of how their powers have come to be is full of shocking ramifications as they take flight towards “Planet Houston”. A nice touch is the almost prophetic image of Non carrying the flags of both the USA and the Soviet Union over his shoulder and then casually dropping them onto the remains of the battered module. It is like the three saying that the two vast super-powers on Earth are, quite simply, nothing compared to their super-powers.
“Oh God ...”
There's a real sense of shock and disbelief when the White House is taken apart and the President (E. G. Marshall in a more obvious wig than any of Luther's) is made to fall to his knees before Zod. Even the great moment when the trio carve their own faces into the wall-canvas of Mount Rushmore elicits a cold shudder at the same time as a smirk at the sheer audacity of the image. We can say what we want about American arrogance and self-belief, but they are superb at laying waste to their own monuments, landmarks and institutions in celluloid terms at least, which I find to be a charming quality. The showdown in Metropolis is righteously barnstorming. Obviously, these days, the sequence seems tame and almost sedate when compared to the CG slugfests of Spider-Man or the X-Men, but, at the time, this was what the comics regularly gave us and what we'd longed to see being enacted in live-action across Technicolor panels ninety-feet wide.
The comedy isn't forgotten. We have the zaniness of the Niagara Falls sequence – all bumbling-about and hidden heroics (forget the fact that the passersby all seem bizarrely indifferent to the fact that a woman is being swept down-river at high speed whilst a bespectacled klutz is attempting to rescue her) – and highly welcome return of Clifton James who gets to play yet another cantankerous hillbilly cop after his celebrated turn as Sheriff Buford T. Justice from Live And Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun, this time at the mercy of the Kryptonite criminals. His deputy may be willing to bet that the trio standing in their way are from Los Angeles, but to James' irascible, ruddy-faced lawman, they're just another bunch of hippies!
There's just so much to love with this film.
Ursa flipping up a manhole-cover like a skateboard and spinning it into Superman's stomach. The casually wild arm-wrestling that clearly inspired Jeff Goldblum's mutating Brundlefy for David Cronenberg's The Fly. Superman's pained reaction as he recoils from the explosion of the concrete panel he has just incinerated with his laser-beam eyes. The sight of Ursa and Non attempting to outflank Kal-El, the pair of them like big black spiders pouncing down from the sky. Ursa taking out the Secret Service goons in the White House a long time before Nightcrawler bamffed his way through them in X2. Perry White having his head shoved through the ceiling of his office – something that Sam Raimi aped in Evil Dead II. The brawl beneath the city streets between Superman and Non that we don't see, but we hear and feel. I even like the admittedly ludicrous moment when Superman is somehow able to use a detachable Super-logo from his chest as a form of villain-ensnaring cling-film! I'm not sure just how Ursa can be hurt by a snake, or, for that matter, why that exploding concrete seems to hurt Superman – but I still think that these little touches are great. Let's be honest, though, none of us like the mob scene in Metropolis, do we? Lester ramped-up the slapstick and sort of lost the plot here. Those hurled cars look terrific, though!
Richard Donner's original cut of Superman II gained some degree of mythical status amongst aficionados over the years. People believed that his version would be darker, more considered and less inclined towards the slapstick elements were beginning to creep in and would, in the future, completely undermine the series. Fans clamoured for him to return to it and paste it all together again, and for Warner to release it as the final statement on the roundhouse delivery of the first two films, cementing Donner's name as being the prime artist on the team. And then, spurred on no doubt by Ridley Scott's considered predilection for offering alternates cuts and expanded editions of his films and the seemingly insatiable hunger that audiences had for seeing apparently long-lost sequences finally dusted-down and aired, Richard Donner and Warner finally delivered what would be called Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut – although it is actually edited and produced by Michael Thau. But was this hallowed project really worth the wait? Erm, yes and no. We were possibly fools to have hoped that this cobbled-together Holy Grail was going to be a game-changer. If Donner never completed the film, what were the chances that this muddled hodgepodge of alternate scenes (including screen-test footage and the use of stand-ins), with some slight additions and some omissions and a re-jig of momentum, and with a fair bit of the ever-popular familiar version dropped, would hang together with anything that resembled a satisfying narrative? If he'd got a “complete” version of his take knocking around somewhere, then I'm sure this would be a different ballgame altogether and would, perhaps, tower tall and proud. But, as it stands, his cut it incomplete, rough-looking and jumbled. In short, it is a curio, and nothing more.
I will say that the reinstated Marlon Brando footage does have a tremendous impact, totally eclipsing Lester's use of Susannah York in the same scene. Here, at last, is some true feeling and a sense of the eternal symmetry of Jor-El and Kal-El, and of the destiny that Superman must pursue. You can clearly see, here, where Donner was going with his version … and it was a wonderful place. But it was not meant to be. The loss of the Eiffel Tower sequence at the start is sorely missed – the Lester cut contains a fabulously realistic flying shot of Superman just as he reaches the Parisian landmark, and I love the goofy Richard Griffiths playing a terrorist – and the hardening-up of the villains comes at the cost of some nicely balanced humour served at their expense in Lester's version.
Therefore, the theatrical cut, albeit a mixture of how the two directors interpreted the same material, is the best and most satisfying version out there. Well, that's what I believe, but the great thing is that we do, at least, have the option of viewing both incarnations and are, thus, able to make up our own minds as to which cut soars highest and truest.
“I asked you to kill Superman, and you're telling me that couldn't even do that one simple thing.”
Fate, however, seemed determined to finish him off.
The damage had been done all right and the Salkinds were anything but kind to Donner, who had now left the momentum of the franchise for good. With the mammoth success of Superman II, there was no possibility of there not being another adventure for the boy from Krypton. So along came Richard Lester again to helm Superman III in 1983. But with the prime mover and shaker now gone, Hackman going with him, and Kidder, McClure and Cooper only staying on-board for the most fleeting of appearances to bookend the film, Superman III went off on its own illogical tangent. Reeve, increasingly dismayed with the liberties being taken with the character he had brought to life, remained and battled-on in earnest in a film that is certainly likeable, but also rather shoddy. With Robert Vaughn taking on the villainy, and not doing a very good job of it, and Richard Pryor injected to supply some guest star comedy that ends-up threatening to swamp any and all tension from the proceedings, this episodic but shallow adventure marked the immediate decline of the franchise. Very definitely the Jaws 3 of the saga – and no-one could argue that Superman IV: The Quest For Peace was any better than the lamentable Jaws: The Revenge, if we are to maintain this analogy – this one sees society's big evil of corporate domination as the antagonistic force that Superman must defeat, as well as utilising the perceived menace of all-powerful computers as the moral warning that the makers wanted to highlight. With comedian Pryor's Gus Gorman becoming a hugely unlikely IT expert and opportunist accomplice in Vaughn's power-mad scheme for global takeover, the scene was set for a surprisingly unthreatening clash of brains and brawn, superpowers and super-processors.
Flamboyant and anarchic, there are lots of moments in Superman III that can be savoured.
Lester sets out his comedic bent right from the get-go with a protracted chapter of clowning-around on the streets of Metropolis as the sight of an attractive woman causes all sorts of double-take pandemonium with a variety of passersby, eventually leading to a rather lacklustre rescue from Superman. The freezing of a lake with super-breath, and its subsequent lifting out of the landscape and aerial transportation to be dumped on top of a raging inferno at a chemical plant is a daft but enjoyable set-piece, and the sight of Superman kicking aside a legion of missiles that have zeroed-in on him is pure comic-book. But the definite highlights in this wildly uneven caper involve Clark Kent returning to Smallville for a high school reunion that will re-ignite the flame he once had for the luscious Lana Lang (Annette O' Toole), who would, of course, go on to play Ma Kent in the hit show, Smallville). There is such ditzy chemistry between O' Toole and Reeve that we are able, albeit temporarily, to forget that Kidder's Lois is painfully AWOL. And, beyond this, there is the actually very cool section when Supes, tainted by the effects of synthesised Kryptonite, turns bad. Here, Reeve excels as the dour, unshaven and anti-social flip-side of his superhero, drunken and aggressive, he truly looks, well, bad. With his costume darkened and dirtied, this rogue saviour rights the Leaning Tower of Pisa, refuses to rescue a damsel in distress and blows out the Olympic Torch (in a ridiculous moment that rivals the double-taking pigeon in Moonraker, and the Mrs Thatcher impersonation from Janet Brown in For Your Eyes Only) and then, in a stroke of almost genius, splits in two and is forced to fight his own dark self in the pulverising battleground of a vehicle junkyard. Taken literally, this scene is preposterous. But taken as a psychological struggle made manifest, it is hugely effective.
There is something very dodgy about a brother-sister duo isn't there? And this is a neat little device too – just because it makes you wonder how close that bond is. But the velvet tones of Vaughn are neither slimy enough nor sinister enough to warrant anything other only mild interest whenever he appears to do some scheming. And the climactic confrontation is just plain silly. Vera Ross becoming a robo-Bride of Frankenstein-thing is simply dreadful, and there's just too much of the laser-beam stuff going on. All tension is irrevocably diluted. And don't even get me started on how weather satellites can actually be used to control the weather!
“You know what I can do with a single strand of Superman's hair?”
“Make a toupee that flies?”
But as off-key as Superman III had appeared, it was a class act when compared to what followed in the sequel that no-one wanted. Superman IV was a spectacular debacle on almost all counts. In fact, it is difficult to put into words just how much the series plummeted when Sidney J. Furie's lamentable flop limped across the screen in 1987 for the foolishly cavalier Canon Group, who had bought the rights to the franchise from the Salkinds which, in turn, brought all the old crowd back in front of the camera. With Rambo and Rocky battling Russkies, John Milius fighting them on the Home Front in Red Dawn and Perestroika getting highlighted in Red Heat and Tango & Cash, the period of Glasnost and Cold War resentment was spilling over into the movies with almost relentless abandon. Thus, after saving a Soviet space mission from disaster at the start, Superman then embarks on a crusade to rid the world of nuclear weapons. As movie-messages go, it wasn't such a bad thing to promote, but this was still sap of the sickliest variety and trotted out in such a gag-inducing manner that you ended-up hating the hero for all of his patronising speeches to the UN and an adoring public.
It didn't help that much of the film was pruned-out before release due to the near-bankruptcy of Canon (Israeli cousins-in-arms Menahem and Yoram Globus losing steam after a string of box-office disasters), truncating the original to an 89-minute travesty that you could see running out of money as the clock ticked right before your very eyes. Tantalising glimpses of what could have been occasionally poke their tragically futile noses through the mire. A nice little scene set back at the Kent farm with Clarke adamant that he will only sell the property and land to someone who is a genuine farmer and not to some shopping mall agent is touching and nostalgic. It makes you think that some heart and character may have inadvertently crept back into the series. But then, quick as a flash, it's gone, snuffed-out in a turbulent whirlpool of blind and unthinking dot-to-dot (mis)plotting. However, one look at the plethora of deleted scenes reveal that no amount of re-cutting or re-integration could possibly have salvaged it from the critical mauling it received on release and has endured ever since.
With Marial Hemingway (a widescreen face, but awesome legs) and the usually reliable Sam Wanamaker joining the old stalwarts of Reeve, Kidder, Cooper, Hackman and McClure, Quest For Peace sinks to even lower depths of ineptitude with interminable scenes of Clark trying to keep his alter-ego under wraps whilst engaging in supposed double-dates as both incarnations. The effects look lousy, the staging of them inept. The pacing is all off and the wretched shoehorning-in of Lex's nephew Lenny (John Cryer from Two and a Half Men) is a disgrace. And, just when you think that things couldn't possibly get any worse, up pops Nuclear Man. Oh dear God (no, Zod!), this is the absolute nadir of the series. Walking mullet, Mark Pillow (who replaced the original Nuclear Man played by Clive Mantle whose footage was unceremoniously torn from the film), may look suitably beefed-up, but cop a load of the dubbed-on voice and that costume. While a Superman film with around twenty minutes of airborne skirmishing and a melee on the Moon might sound appealing, the sight of these two going at it is so bad that it doesn't even retain any amusing factor to lessen the crushing sadness that you feel as you watch an iconic figure and a global institution go down the pan in a blaze of sorrowful mock-patriotism.
“The son becomes the father … and the father, the son.”
In a way, with hindsight is is easy to understand how the Superman franchise fell to Earth with such a dismal, foul-sounding clunk! So much in-fighting, production-strife with unhappy directors, irate producers and a cast whose loyalty would shift, and money-men who would refuse to relinquish the required cash to get the job done properly. Couple all of this with over-reaching aims, a catastrophic veering into limp parody and an inept level of escalating comedy, and audiences who had clearly had enough of spandex derring-do, and it would have been a miracle for the Man of Steel to have bowed-out on anything more than an embarrassed whimper. Thus, it is easier to forgive both Superman III and Superman IV for their combined lunacies than it is to forgive Bryan Singer's much ballyhooed reboot/semi-sequel in 2006 with Superman Returns. The climate was right. The public were in the throes of superhero-adulation, what with X-Men, Batman, Spider-Man, The Hulk all doing the cinematic stomp, so it seemed only natural that the genre's elder statesman would once more don the cape and the external undies and fly back into the limelight. With proper writers involved, writers who cared about the character, the story and the legacy that Donner and Reeve had created, and boundless FX-technology at their disposal, it seemed a cinch that Superman could not only fly, but positively soar for today's fantasy-craving audiences.
But, despite such an amazing pedigree, Bryan Singer almost crashed and burned with a Superman fable that bravely straddled the myth and the magic, but dropped the Kryptonite when it came to the action. And, by adding in an enormous amount of pathos and emotion seemed to forget that the film should also be fun. Superman Returns must rank as one of the biggest disappointments in the last decade for fantasy/action fans.
With Brandon Routh doing a fantastic job of making us believe that a man could fly and, even more majestically, make us believe that Christopher Reeve had actually “returned” as well, Kevin Spacey putting the eee-vill back into Lex Luthor, one utterly exhilarating super-rescue that has the potential for being the franchise's most edge-of-the-seat knuckle-whitener, and a wonderfully homage-rife score from John Ottman, you would have thought that this could have been a Super dream come true. But a tidal misstep of tone, a wholly unnecessary twist and far too much wallowing in sentiment made for quite a snooze-inducing experience. Even Supies III and IV weren't boring. Being both adopted and gay seemed to have Singer believing that he could identify with the character of Superman's alienated status, but holding up placards with the message “I Love Superman!” to soothe fan-boy anxieties that he could manage the shift from Marvel to DC with integrity and passion only proved galling when his fawning love-letter to Donner's first film fell flat.
Don't get me wrong, I actually like Superman Returns. I just don't like it very much. Over the years since I first saw it – and reviewed it too – I, myself, have returned to it a few times. My fondness for it has waned, then improved, then waned again. You simply shouldn't have such ever-changing opinions of a film. If you do, then something quite fundamental is probably wrong with it.
Superman getting beaten-up had been done before in Superman II when Rocky the redneck bullyboy in the diner (played by James Caan lookalike, Pepper Martin), smacks a de-powered Clark about a bit. But you'd never seen a gleeful, taunting pack of thugs play football with him before. I found this scene shocking back then, and I still do. In a fantasy franchise that has featured knockabout violence all the way through, this was a horrible reminder of the things that can and do happen on the streets every day. And to see such a thing happen to the peerless, altruistic world saviour, Superman, was something that must have affected some people quite badly – fans and kids alike. Obviously, he was weakened by landing, unwittingly, on a new landmass created entirely from Kryptonite, otherwise this would never have happened. But I think that Singer made brave and disturbing move, nonetheless.
Ultimately, Singer boxed himself into a corner with the story. The big revelation about Lois' son was damning. How could this plot-strand be successfully carried over into another movie? Just who would want to see that? Singer locked his saga into a narrative trap with this – and let's not entertain the notion that the kid could've grown up into a Bizarro-type enemy. And this element, beyond even the sombre and dour mood of the film, was what took the Man of the Steel back down a peg or two in the popularity stakes. With Batman's second outing in The Dark Knight leaving everybody champing at the bit for more, Iron Man proving to be a phenomenal hit, and the Avengers preambles gathering steam aplenty with Thor and Captain America, Superman Returns was quite quickly forgotten despite that cavalcade of marketing and merchandise. Of course, we still have Zack Snyder's forthcoming redux, Superman: Man of Steel that really does sound as though it is going to get the big Boy Scout back on track. As well as bringing General Zod back into the frame!
I've written at length about the music of Superman already (see CD review for the ultimate collection from FSM, Superman: The Music (1978-1988), but it would be remiss of me not to give it some coverage here also. John Williams had already scored massively with Jaws, Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and was certainly, by this stage, considered to be one of the leading lights in composing for the movies. To have landed him for this prestigious project was a coup that can not be overstated. But let's just look at the sheer audacity of what he created for that awesome main theme. His signature motif simply is the word Su-per-man. Like the insanely minimal title theme for Spielberg's Jaws, this is musical cheek of the rarest and most triumphant kind. His eerie music for Krypton and the spellbinding theme for the Fortress of Solitude mix beautifully with his ebullient villains' march for Luther and his cronies and his dynamic action cues. The lushness and splendour of his Star Wars themes reaches in and becomes transformed, and you can hear in several cues the development of material for The Empire Strikes Back. In short, this is a masterpiece that stands as one of the greatest film scores of all time.
Don't fall for the idea that the score remains anywhere near as good in the sequels because it doesn't. Pure and simple. Ken Thorne does a fine job of running with Williams' themes in Superman II, but there is no way that the music sounds as deep, as emphatic, or as rousing as when the true maestro led the march. In Superman III, this is even more evident.
Ken Thorne was a reliable orchestrator and conductor for Williams, and the two certainly shared a strong, almost telepathic working harmony, but although all the main themes for Superman were closely adhered-to and utilised throughout the second and third instalments, they simply do not have the same weight, impact or excitement as they did under Williams’ control. His “spotting” of the tracks is vaguely off and they sound far less grandiose, coming over as a little more perfunctory and simply by-the-numbers. The re-appropriation of material from the first part can weaken things even further because we know they have been rehashed. For Quest For Peace, Star Trek’s Alexander Courage took the baton. Once more, the signature themes are present and correct, though they sound even less satisfactory this time around. You cannot blame a composer for wanting to attempt something different, though, and Courage does create an ominous and dark (but fittingly camp) new theme for Nuclear Man.
For Superman Returns, Bryan Singer enlisted his regular composer (and editor), John Ottman, and the result was a sensational score that married-up the trademark main themes with dazzling original material. His use of a relentless pounding rhythm and an ethereal choir during the plane/shuttle rescue is awesome, the darkness for Luther is actually quite threatening and his love theme is incredibly moving. Sadly, though, none of this can elevate a dour and turgid film.
If you have managed to wade through all of this Super-indulgence with me, then I thank you. I admire your patience.
At a time when cinema screens are swamped under a veritable tsunami of “supers” - Thor, X-Men: First Class, The Green Lantern and Captain America being just the tip of the costumed iceberg – it is tremendously heartwarming to see how the genre really got started with superheroism's most respected, influential, and most universally beloved icon. And despite many brave attempts from other actors, this collection proves indelibly that only one man had the true soul of Superman.
Rest In Peace, Christopher Reeve. We all believed you could fly.
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