Superman Returns Review
Superman: The Movie
Well, this is where it all began. The planet Krypton is about to be obliterated so scientist Jor-El decides to fire his baby boy Kal-El into space to save his life. Landing on Earth, the child is taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent, farmers in the town of Smallville, Kansas. As the child grows, he soon discovers that the one sun gives him powers beyond that of human beings, energising him and making him capable of flight, travel faster than a speeding bullet, x-ray vision, heat vision and basic invulnerability. As an adult, he journeys to the Big Apricot, Metropolis, where he uses the guise of Clark Kent, mild-mannered and hapless reporter, to ingratiate himself amongst other Earth beings. But when danger strikes, he is only a super-quick telephone-booth change of clothes away from saving the day as... Superman.
The first adventure establishes his origins, his life on the farm with his adoptive parents, his alter-ego of Clark Kent and his complicated relationship with fellow reporter Lois Lane, as well as setting up his nemesis, Lex Luthor, an evil genius determined to find Superman's weaknesses and destroy him before he can prevent Luthor's money-making plans to 'revolutionise' the 'States (at the expense of millions of human lives).
It is a superb opening gambit for the celluloid interpretation of the Man of Steel, flawed slightly by an incomprehensible, nonsensical ending where he spins the world backwards to save the life of his secret love, Lois (although not to save the dozens of lives probably lost in the contemporaneous earthquake). It is credit to a story and script by The Godfather's writer Mario Puzo, performances by the likes of Christopher Reeve (who will always be the definitive Superman), Gene Hackman (as a mischievous Lex Luthor) and The Godfather himself, Marlon Brando, and keen direction by Richard 'Lethal Weapon' Donner that the movie still stands up as one of the best comic book superhero adaptations of all time, despite this irritating plot defect.
Here, we not only get the original 1978 Theatrical Cut, but also the 2004 Expanded Edition of the movie, which is debatably superior, and includes extra scenes with Marlon Brando as Jor-El (which are always welcome) and a 'gauntlet' scene with Lex Luthor testing Superman's invulnerability (although, arguably, this does not quite make sense - why would Luthor be worried about the Man of Steel's immunity to bullets, fire and ice when he has a lead box filled with Kryptonite in the other room?).
Two years later, the sequel took everything one step further, with Clark still following Lois around like a lost puppy but slipping away to don his tights and capes and save the day, only this time to have his secret revealed. Pretty soon our love-birds are visiting Superman's 'Fortress of Solitude' in the further reaches of Alaska and he is giving up his super-powers for the sake of his love. In the meantime, three super-villains, originally banished from the planet Krypton and relegated to eternal imprisonment in the 'Phantom Zone', have been unintentionally freed by a nuclear explosion in space, caused by the Man of Steel himself. The three evil-doers, headed up by Terence Stamp's General Zod, descend upon the Earth with a view to taking absolute control, but for a small part given to the scheming Lex Luthor, who allies himself with the villains, bargaining with the knowledge he has of Superman's weaknesses and the location of his refuge, the Fortress of Solitude.
The second movie is also a very enjoyable affair, with Superman battling three super-powered equals, as well as battling his emotions over Lois Lane. With the presence of Terence Stamp, the return of Gene Hackman and many of the other original cast members, it stands up as a solid sequel. There are still, of course, a couple of strange, inexplicable moments - like when a single kiss to Lois can erase the entire memory of her having slept with Superman, as well as his secret identity, even though she is not in the slightest bit puzzled as to where she is or what she is doing after having lost a few days of memories - but it is still a perfectly enjoyable superhero romp.
Here we not only get the original Theatrical Cut, but we also get the heavily anticipated 2006 Richard Donner Cut. Now, the history briefly goes that creative differences caused Donner to film most of his sequel on the back of the original movie, but then leave the project in the hands of another Director, who took some aspects in a slightly different direction. Fans have been lobbying ever since to turn back time and see what could have been had Donner stayed on board. Here we get the best anybody is ever likely to see - the closest to Donner's vision of the movie that will ever be possible. Is it better? Well, yes and no, but the overall feeling is of disappointment. Not only does this new cut not fit in at all with the continuing adventures in Superman Returns (to be discussed later), but it also ends with another ridiculous spin-the-earth-backwards-to-go-back-in-time moment. The extra Marlon Brando segments are a welcome addition (aside from the slightly silly poem-recital) and the 'father becomes the son, son becomes the father' moment where all of the remaining crystal power is used to re-energise Superman at the expense of ever being able to 'communicate' with his father again is definitely superior to the alternative, but that does not make up for a very disappointing, repetitive ending. And honestly, if all he has to do is spin the world backwards, why would any innocent being ever have to needlessly die again? It is actually even worse than the original amnesia kiss ending, as if fans could ever think that was a possibility.
The third movie was where things clearly started to go wrong. Right from the outset, Superman III takes on a much more comical tone, with an opening sequence that would seem more suited to a Pink Panther movie. Still, to this day, I personally really enjoyed this movie, despite its flaws. It is pure comic-book frivolity, and whilst the story barely held together, it had some classic moments and classic set-pieces. After all, this is the movie where Superman turns evil and ends up fighting himself (thanks to some 'bad' Kryptonite), before taking on an evil billionaire holed up in the Grand Canyon with a supercomputer that may just be capable of bettering Superman.
It's also the movie where Clark, taking a 'holiday' from Lois, goes back home to Smallville and bumps into his childhood sweetheart, Lana Lang. Lana was, of course, played by the lovely Annette O'Toole (who later went on to be Martha Kent in the recent Smallville TV series), who was a much better heroine that Margot Kidder's bony, anorexic Lois could ever be.
Despite these plus points, however, the lack of Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor, and the abysmal substitution of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'s Robert Vaughn as an equally demented but less charismatic meglomaniac immediately takes away from the potential strength of this adventure. In addition, there's the dubious choice of the loudmouth-but-hilarious stand-up comic Richard Pryor to inconceivably play an unqualified on-the-dole bum who miraculously discovers that he has the skills of a programming genius (yes, this bit is really silly, especially if you know anything about computers) and ill-advisedly allies himself with the aforementioned evil billionaire, who wants to rule the world with a weather-manipulating satellite and is predictably bent on Superman's destruction.
Between these aspects, some ridiculous evil Superman moments (how exactly do you 'blow' oil back into a ruptured tanker?), some ridiculous Richard Pryor moments (surely that fall off the roof of a building would leave him squished, irrespective of his cape and skis) and some rather strange acid that splutters and becomes volatile seemingly when 'angry' (not wholly unlike the emotional slime in Ghostbusters II), Superman III is, on the whole, fairly flimsy. Still, even though the movie has nowhere near the depth or weight of the first two tales, it does embrace the more fun elements of the comic-book superhero and remains a perfectly enjoyable instalment for me.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
In fourth and last of the Christopher Reeve Superman vehicles, everything fell apart, right up to and including the cheesy title. In much the same way that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home clumsily tried to teach us about the environment and the preservation of endangered species, Superman IV attempts to warn us (very heavy-handedly) about the threat of nuclear weapons. Everything is extremely political, with a schoolboy begging the Man of Steel to intervene as the nuclear arms race accelerates to a potentially globally lethal conclusion. In the meantime, Lex Luthor is free once more, this time with his punk nephew in tow, who - using cloning techniques on cells taken from a strand of Superman's hair - he turns into Nuclear Man, a solar-powered, potentially insurmountable rival for Superman.
Despite the return of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, it is clear that this is the worst of the Superman series. There are plenty of reasons why it is such a turkey - the huge budget cuts and radical film edits - but no amount of excuses make you feel any better about watching it. Horrible moments include the cringeworthy speech made by Superman to the UN and Nuclear Man's deadly nails (not to mention his horribly gaudy gold costume and Flash Gordon hair). The story does not hold together, the characters seldom do anything particularly in-character and even the effects are comparatively abysmal (ten years on and they are not a patch on those in Superman: The Movie). All in all, it appears that everything went wrong with this sequel and The Man of Steel promptly disappeared from The Big Screen for nearly twenty years.
2006 marked the return of Superman. In as far as Director Bryan Singer has been able, he has followed the events of the first two Superman movies (note, it follows the original theatrical cut of Superman II and not the new Donner version). So basically, after the discovery of the three other beings from Krypton in the second movie, Superman decides to leave Earth to travel to the place where Krypton was, hoping that he may find other survivors in the remains.
Superman Returns sees him coming back after being absent for five years, and a great deal has changed. Though as Clark Kent he is able to get his job back at the Daily Planet, the love of his life has moved on - apparently. Lois Lane is engaged to be married, and the mother of a young boy, no less. So whilst Clark is able to ostensibly reintegrate himself into life in Metropolis, and Superman makes a grandstanding re-entrance, saving an out-of-control shuttle-launch atop a press-packed jet airliner, things are simply not the same. Lois, in particular, simply cannot forgive Superman for disappearing without even saying goodbye. And there is one other man who is not exactly enamoured by the reappearance of the Man of Steel: Lex Luthor.
After years of incarceration, Luthor has been freed on a technicality, and is clearly out for revenge on the man who put him behind bars. He has spent a great deal of time planning his latest scheme and since he knows the locations of Superman's secret hideaway, The Fortress of Solitude (after he discovered it in Superman II), and thus has access to all the secrets within, it seems inevitable that he will not only be able to unleash his wrath upon the globe, but also on Superman himself.
Superman Returns is a solid comeback for the Man of Steel. Like the first two movies that it follows, it is not without its flaws, and does suffer slightly from prolonged Lord-of-the-Rings-style multiple-endings, but overall it is a welcome return. In an age where Big Screen adaptations of comic books superheroes are rife, I am glad that, in the midst of all the Elektras and Ghost Riders, studios are still investing money in arguably two of the greatest comic heroes - Batman and Superman. And just like Batman Begins has injected new life into the legends of the Dark Knight, Superman Returns has done much the same for the Man of Steel.
Much credit needs to go to Singer, for richly shrouding his movie in classic Superman lore, with direct references to the first two films and a cameo role for the late Marlon Brando, brought back to life to play Jor-El. We hear many of the same lines uttered, from the poignant “the father becomes the son and the son, the father” to Lex's explanation on how he became obsessed with beachfront property “[land is] the one thing they're not making any more of”. And in retaining the costume and the classic Superman theme, Singer has continued the franchise as if the third and fourth movies simply never happened.
He has also brought back to life Christopher Reeve's interpretation of Clark Kent/Superman. Arguably, the definitive portrayal of the hero, the version Reeve played was indelibly cast upon the public (not least because of the actor's tragic paralysis and death) and rather than give us a new interpretation (like we have a new Bond), Singer chose to make a relative unknown basically impersonate Reeve's Superman. Although this means that, right up until when I watched the credits on the DVD I had no idea - nor really cared - about who the new actor was, it works wonders for the movie as a continuation of the old classics. The audience really feels as if the same Superman and Clark Kent from childhood memories has finally returned, with the same Clark mannerisms (the pushing of the glasses up the bridge of his nose) and the same Superman public sermons (where he preaches about the safety of flying).
Character-wise, there are some changes, although it is debatable whether or not they are all beneficial. For example, Kate Bosworth seems poorly picked for Lois Lane, James 'Cyclops' Marsden's character seems like a slightly unnecessary addition (although after what Singer did to him as the 'leader' of the X-Men, he did deserve a more meaty role) and Parker Posey is simply wasted in what seems like a direct copy of the hapless female follower to Lex Luthor taken from the first two movies (albeit with the name changed). But then, on the other hand, you have Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Where Gene Hackman played Luthor as a reliably intelligent if slightly child-friendly villain (he never struck me as quite 'evil' enough), The Usual Suspects' Kevin Spacey gives him a very dark edge. This Luthor is clearly bent on revenge, and will stop at nothing to get it.
So that is basically it. After four movies of descending quality (and not wholly unlike the Batman series and recent revival in pattern), Superman is back, and whilst not perfect, he is arguably as good as he has ever been. Will there be another Superman movie? Well, aside from the debate over whether or not it was actually a Box Office success (at something like $250M, it is one of the most expensive movies ever made), I think Superman will be back, hopefully battling some new super-villain like Metallo or Brainiac and fighting for 'truth and justice' as he always has. As one of the aforesaid two greatest comic book superheroes, he deserves a place on the Big Screen. Long live Superman.