The first Superman franchise started alongside, for the most part, the culturally redefining Star Wars and–sort of–Indiana Jones. But it had little in common with those franchises. It had a big studio feel to it. Superman is the culmination of the American epic. It just happened to coincide with the rise of Spielberg, who never makes the American epic, but managed to replace them.
The first Superman captures the mythology of the movies. It’s kind of like The Sting version of Superman. There’s an innocent gee whiz attitude, but also a starker, cynical one. It asks for a lot of magic, usually with Christopher Reeve’s grin and Margot Kidder’s innocent smile. Donner plays with the iconography of the characters, not so much in their “super” roles, but their human ones. It’s a very interesting way to develop a property too, because it had very little to do with the comic book and everything to do with the brand.
Superman II had a much more British feel; it feels like a Bond movie of the era or even the second Muppet movie. It feels British. It’s also pretty darn good; sure, there are a lot of big plot problems but it’s just good enough to forgive them. Lester goes for a lot of big action in the film; it has a very different understanding of special effects than the first film. The gee whiz is now itself cynical. Still, it’s got wonderful work from Reeve and Kidder.
And then there’s Superman III, which is Lester unbound from any Donner material. It’s a bad amalgamation of a Richard Pryor movie–not a good one–with a Superman sequel. No one gets enough to do, definitely not Pryor, not Reeve, not Kidder. Reeve actually gets the most to do because Kidder’s gone for most of the picture; Annette O’Toole’s the love interest. She’s great. It stinks she wasn’t back for IV because she and Kidder would’ve had great rapport.
Superman IV, of course, is a worse film than III and an embarrassment, technically speaking, to the franchise itself. And I feel like I’m more forgiving of it than most people. It’s just a crappy Cannon movie, often incompetent. However, there’s good acting from Reeve and Kidder, against the odds, and Gene Hackman’s awesome.
Hackman, Reeve, Kidder. Everyone else from the first two movies. The casting is perfect not because they’re perfect personifications of the comic book characters, but because they’re perfect characters. You want to spend time with Ned Beatty. You’re happy when he gets a scene again. It’s a studio picture, no question about it.
There have been a number of alternate cuts–starting with the infamous Superman: The Movie TV cut, which you could buy at a con for thirty bucks on crappy VHS. Donner’s done a director’s cut. He doesn’t break it, but he doesn’t improve it. Donner doesn’t do well with director’s cuts. Superman II, of course, had an infamous history. Supposedly there was more Donner footage and Warner wasn’t letting us see it–there’s the Geoffrey Unsworth memoriam on the first film, yet he’s the cinematographer on the second–what wasn’t Warner letting us see! And then the Internet happened and fans put together the Restored International Cut back when fan restorations were a thing. It’s interesting; not good, but interesting. Warner got around to bringing Donner in to cut together his own director’s cut, which is worse than the Restored International Cut because of Donner’s ego. The frustrating thing about Superman II is no one doing a cut is doing it to make the film better, just to make it longer or their own. It’s a shame. They should’ve let Tom Mankiewicz do a cut in addition to Donner.
There are mild alternate cuts of Superman III and Superman IV circulating unofficially, but none promise major changes. The also infamous Superman IV–all of the films have infamous alternate cuts except the third one–anyway, the longer Quest for Peace cut is apparently gone. Bummer.
So, fast forward a number of years and Warner is putting together another studio Superman picture. The resulting Superman Returns strictly followed the continuity of the original series. But only the first two movies and with questionable memory. Returns was special effects spectacular in a way most movies don’t have the patience to be anymore. But it can’t overcome the script problems or the acting ones. Bryan Singer doesn’t have any patience and it shows. Enthusiasm, ambition, but no patience.
Superman Returns didn’t make enough money for the studio and so Warner went ahead with a new one after a seven year break. Since the release of the Superman: The Movie DVD in the late nineties, the film’s enjoyed a bit of renewed appreciation. On one hand, should it be enjoying this particular kind of renewed appreciation, fueled by fan enthusiasm and then happening to spill over thanks to interest in the DVD and subsequent blu-ray formats? Wouldn’t it be purer if Christopher Reeve finally got his due? Or Gene Hackman? On the other hand, Superman: The Movie was unappreciated for almost twenty years, so why not.
When Superman returned again, it was without any of the Salkind “flavoring.” Instead, Warner went to Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, and Zach Snyder to bring out a Superman capable of competing with the Marvel Comics movies. Things did not go as planned, but Warner seemed to be understanding how much critical opinion–even of movie bloggers–didn’t matter anymore and kicked off an entire “DC Comics Extended Universe” off Man of Steel, which retained the Superman Returns sequel title but none of its story elements.
I’m a big fan of Man of Steel, though I can understand why it has problems catching on with people. It requires you to buy into the theatrical aspect of the story in a different way. The film itself is standout work from people I otherwise can’t stand–David S. Goyer, Snyder, Hans Zimmer. If they ever make a good sequel, it’ll make aughts film worth it to me.
But there hasn’t been a good sequel to Man of Steel, instead there’s been Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which Warner unleashed on the world after it had been in the can a year. During that year, there was lots of bad press, concerning rumors, occasional hopefulness (remember the “Doomsday can’t be the only villain” crowd?). But then it came out. And people felt dumb for having any hope.
Turns out the “S” doesn’t translate.
Dawn of Justice is a problematic, often well-made, blissfully unaware of itself, prodding TV mini-series of a thing. It’s like marathoning the least dramatic television show; part of the problem with superhero movies, especially the team-up ones, is getting everyone into the room. Marvel threw down a gauntlet. Warner made The Thornbirds out of it.
Still, there are some good performances and effective moments. If nothing else, it shows the importance of casting in these franchises. The theatrical version shreds Henry Cavill and Amy Adams’s performances, yet they’re still extremely strong and the most comfortable in Snyder’s confusion. The charm helps. Unfortunately, when you get their full performances (or fuller performances) in the R-rated Ultimate Edition, it’s a worse film. Turns out there was a somewhat decent Man of Steel 2 in Dawn of Justice but they ruined it.
Strange thing about Dawn of Justice though. It made a lot of money and moviegoers don’t seem to care about the things people said about it. Let’s not forget Warner Bros. was the studio of Steven Seagal. They know their true demographic.
Will Superman survive arrogant populism? Will Lois Lane ever get a scene to herself not in the sole function of the A plot? Do the glasses really confuse Perry White or does he just like yelling at Superman? Will we ever get to just watch a couple new Superman movies for fun? Because what Snyder doesn’t care about and Singer didn’t get (or was scared to attempt) is you want Superman to hang out with you.
- Superman (1978, Richard Donner)
- Superman II (1980, Richard Lester)
- Superman III (1983, Richard Lester)
- Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987, Sidney J. Furie)
- Superman Returns (2006, Bryan Singer)