Category Archives: Sum Up

Director | John Carpenter, Part 4: The Mundane Years

In the four phases of John Carpenter’s career, the final one–starting in 1992 and going on eighteen years–contains almost forty percent of his theatrical output. This final period is almost an afterthought’s afterthought. While Sandy King produces most of the films, Gary Kibbe photographs most of them, and Peter Jason has a part in most of them, the films are not defined by Carpenter’s collaborations but by their lack of success, creatively, critically, and commercially. It’s a somewhat cynical way to classify these nine films, but not an inaccurate one. Nothing Carpenter does works, regardless of cast, regardless of budget. He’s no longer creating or recreating genres, he’s firmly–and often disinterestedly–in established ones. His closest thing to a success from the last half of his career is just a return to his early standards, only half as good.

Daryl Hannah consoles a visible Chevy Chase in MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN.
Daryl Hannah consoles a visible Chevy Chase in MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN.

Given 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man kicks things off, I suppose Carpenter’s final phase could be a lot worse because Memoirs–four years after Carpenter’s last film, They Live–threatens an already asleep at the wheel John Carpenter. Memoirs is the first Hollywood “Invisible Man” with CGI, it’s an attempt at (another) revitalization of Chevy Chase’s career, and it’s the return of John Carpenter. It’s also one of the least “John Carpenter” John Carpenter films. He’s doing a studio picture without his regular supporting cast, without his regular crew (though he did previously work with editor Marion Rothman on Starman and Christine); it’s very different John Carpenter film.

Chevy Chase can't been seen in MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, directed by John Carpenter for Warner Bros.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2014 review

It’s also an unfortunate John Carpenter film. The script is weak and Carpenter is checked out. It’s like he knows it’s not going well. The CGI’s good, anyway, but it’s fairly clear Carpenter hasn’t got any more a handle on it than he does the rest of the film. There’s a distressing lack of personality when it comes to the production, except maybe in Carpenter’s indifference.

When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.
When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man was a fairly big box office bomb, but it’s not like anyone blamed Carpenter exactly. You don’t blame the directors for bad Chevy Chase movies. They’re not the problem. Even when they’re bad, they’re not the problem. Since its release, Memoirs has not gotten a better reputation or a discovery. There’s nothing to discover; at least it’s available widescreen now, so you can see the Panavision, but you shouldn’t because there’s no reason to see the movie.

Even a hackneyed Charlton Heston is better than Julie Carmen and Sam Niell IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.
Even a hackneyed Charlton Heston is better than Julie Carmen and Sam Neill IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.

Carpenter’s next film, In the Mouth of Madness, stars Sam Neill in the lead. Neill was the villain in Memoirs, promoted here to an insurance investigator who has to try to stop a Stephen King wannabe from ending the world. It’s made more difficult because the entire world is going crazy from reading the author’s books. Violence and chaos ensues. It’s New Line–written by studio exec Michael De Luca no less–so some occasional gore. The film does bring back a bit of Carpenter “flavor,” with Peter Jason in a cameo, Sandy King producing (she worked on Starman through They Live), and Gary B. Kibbe on photography.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2014 review
In the Mouth of Madness (1994). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2014 review

Mouth of Madness has a lot of varied fans. I’m not one of them. The Maltin guide, at least at the time, described it as (partially) Carpenter’s “best work as a director” or something to that effect, which is a ludicrously absurd (and patently wrong) claim. The acting is terrible–Neill and leading lady Julie Carmen in particular. It’s got a bad script, the production isn’t good, Kibbe’s photography is bad. Some of the editing does work out. Otherwise, it’s a too short, unfocused slog.

Sam Neill is trapped in a book, the viewer is trapped with Sam Neill.
Sam Neill is trapped in a book, the viewer is trapped with Sam Neill.

Of all Carpenter’s post-They Live films, which is actually almost half his career, In the Mouth of Madness easily gets the most regard. Still, it’s never had much curation on home video; solid home video releases always encourage Carpenter discovery. But I still think it’d be too much of a slog to catch on. Neill’s really lame.

Intrepid reporters Sue Charlton and Clark Kent try to figure out what's wrong with the children in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.
Intrepid reporters Sue Charlton and Clark Kent try to figure out what’s wrong with the children in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.

Squinting at Carpenter’s remake of Village of the Damned, one can almost pretend there’s a parallel to The Thing. It’s a Universal release, it’s a remake, it’s… no, it’s just those two elements. It’s Carpenter’s only other remake and has his most “all-star” eighties genre cast, with Superman Christopher Reeve, Star Trek Kirstie Alley, and Star Wars Mark Hamill, along with Michael Paré, Linda Kozlowski, and Meredith Salenger. It’s like the perfect cast for a movie in the HBO Guide from 1987. Unfortunately, it’s from 1995 (the same year Madness got a domestic theatrical release, those two films the only Carpenter pictures from the same year–features at least). Carpenter brings back some familiar players–Peter Jason, of course, and George ‘Buck’ Flower–and crew–producer King, cinematographer Kibbe, editor Edward A. Warschilka. Village of the Damned sort of kicks off a sub-period for Carpenter, one where he’s no longer casting unappreciated character actors and leads, but trying to tap into something retro. Sort of. It might just be a signal of what kind of Carpenter films are to come.

Thomas Dekker, Linda Kozlowski, and Christopher Reeve star in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, directed by John Carpenter for Universal Pictures.
Village of the Damned (1995). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2013 review

And those films, like Village of the Damned, are going to be pretty lame. I even remember when Village of the Damned came out in the theater and I wouldn’t walk six blocks to see it. I just couldn’t subject myself to another lame Carpenter. It’s got a weak script, it’s utterly lacking in terms of Carpenter’s interest. He’s done confined towns successfully before (Halloween), even in Northern California (The Fog), but he doesn’t do anything to make it work in Damned. But Carpenter also hasn’t got any idea what to do with the “monsters” in the film. Why remake Village of the Damned if the damned kids aren’t going to be scary? Again, there’s some gore, but not to any great effect.

The funny looking children of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.
A VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED or an ophthalmologist’s dream?

Village of the Damned had a decent Universal LaserDisc release–which I also couldn’t bring myself to purchase back in the nineties because the movie’s crap–and a late DVD release, but has since had a Blu-Ray release with some kinds of special features. Not enough to make it worth a look (Carpenter doesn’t contribute an audio commentary); it’s another sore thumb in Carpenter’s nineties bevy of sore thumbs. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of anyone liking it.

Snake Plissken doesn't just jump a shark, he surfs over it!
Snake Plissken doesn’t just jump a shark, he surfs over it!

However, while the nineties didn’t bring much in the way of good John Carpenter, the decade did do something to (temporarily) resurrect Kurt Russell’s stardom and he utilized it to get Escape from L.A. made. Released fifteen years after Escape from New York, Russell’s the only returning actor, though the film does finally reteam Carpenter with Debra Hill. She and Russell produce; she, Russell, and Carpenter write. Kibbe’s back on photography, Warschilka on edits. The film also reunites Carpenter with production designer Lawrence G. Paull, who did Memoirs (though one assumes his Blade Runner experience came more in handy than that one). And Peter Jason’s back, of course.

Kurt Russell stars in ESCAPE FROM L.A., directed by John Carpenter for Paramount Pictures.
Escape from L.A. (1996). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2013 review.

It’s a film with a lot of familiar actors–from standards like Cliff Robertson and Stacy Keach to trendier ones like Pam Grier, Bruce Campbell, and Steve Buscemi (as Russell’s sidekick)–and some solid performances, but it doesn’t work out. If his nineties output showcases anything about Carpenter, it’s his inability to work with CGI. Escape from L.A. relies heavily on it to terrible result. And Paull’s production design turns out pretty lame. I was a moderate fan when it came out–as a teenager–but I was hopefully just hopped up on “Starlog” press about it.

The Capitol Records Building is destroyed; you should see what happened to the Hollywood Bowl.
The Capitol Records Building is destroyed; you should see what happened to the Hollywood Bowl.

If anything, Escape from L.A. starts Carpenter’s final phase of his nineties work, where he gets a bit of a pass. Unlike almost every other Carpenter film, Escape has never had anything approaching a special edition. Russell’s star power got a grateful studio–Paramount–to make the film, but after it flopped (and helped knock Russell’s career back down), it’s not like they were going to put anything into special features. The film’s since been released on Blu-Ray (from Warner, through their Paramount catalog deal), but still without special features. Presumably there’s nothing anyone wants to say about it; though people do watch it. There are some Carpenter films from the nineties no one watches (Memoirs of an Invisible Man, for instance).

James Woods looks for VAMPIRES!
James Woods looks for VAMPIRES!

And so, Vampires, Carpenter’s last film of the nineties, gives him a perfect post-Kurt Russell lead in James Woods and a strong supporting cast. Unfortunately, most of that strong supporting cast gets killed off too soon and it’s not like Woods has a good face-off with lead vampire Thomas Ian Griffith. The film’s got a high concept–the Vatican employs a band of vampire hunters, led by Woods, and they get in trouble. That trouble involves combining a road movie with a star-crossed romance (not even for Woods, but Daniel Baldwin and Sheryl Lee). There’s comic relief too, albeit entirely thanks to Woods’s yelling. Carpenter’s nineties crew stable is present–King, Kibbe, and Warschilka; but… the film’s distressingly without a Peter Jason appearance.

A scene from VAMPIRES, directed by John Carpenter for Columbia Pictures.
Vampires (1998). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2011 review.

Before it came out, I was waiting what seemed like forever for Vampires to get picked up for domestic release. Columbia eventually picked it up–Carpenter’s first Columbia Pictures release since Starman in the eighties–and it’s not a terrible film. I mean, it’s boring, dramatically inert, entirely phoned in creatively by Carpenter, but it’s watchable. It’s also maybe the only Gary B. Kibbe photography to impress me. He does a lot better with the New Mexico location shooting than one would think.

Hands out of the desert, decapitated heads flying across the sky
Hands out of the desert, decapitated heads flying across the sky

The film doesn’t have much of a reputation, but it does have enthusiasts. Again, it’s James Woods in a John Carpenter movie called Vampires. You get what you paid for (and not a thing more).

Ice Cube and Natasha Henstridge aren't quite  Darwin Joston and Austin Stoker, but they're enough to take on GHOSTS OF MARS.
Ice Cube and Natasha Henstridge aren’t quite Darwin Joston and Austin Stoker, but they’re enough to take on GHOSTS OF MARS.

After five films playing with different genres (and sub-genres), in 2001, Carpenter went as back to basics as he could, sort of remaking Assault on Precinct 13, only on Mars with zombies–or, more accurately, Ghosts of Mars. Even with a limited budget, it had the biggest mainstream, “name” cast for a Carpenter film in years. Leads Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube were at (or near) the tops of their careers and showy co-star Jason Statham was about to be on his way up. Pam Grier and Robert Carradine are back from Escape from L.A.. Peter Jason returns. Kibbe and King are back, with Paul C. Warschilka (Edward’s son) handling the edits. Carpenter even co-writes (with Larry Sulkis), which goes a lot better than the L.A. script, even with less budget.

Ghosts of Mars (2001). ★★. 2016 review.
Ghosts of Mars (2001). ★★. 2016 review.

I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the film, which I saw reluctantly in the theater; Carpenter’s not reinventing the wheel with the handling of the special effects, but at least he’s trying. There’s a mix of miniature and CGI, with the CGI nicely blending in the miniatures; Carpenter knows how to make this film. His cast isn’t the best in terms of, you know, acting, but they’re all eager. Unfortunately, a lot of the editing implies shortcuts–whether actual or just perceived–and Warschilka, fils isn’t particularly subtle with his cuts. Still, it works out far better than expected. Carpenter’s got ideas, context, and momentum, something his nineties films otherwise severely lack.

For some reason, no one likes Big Daddy Mars.
For some reason, no one likes Big Daddy Mars.

Ghosts of Mars, despite being somewhat well-received and having a number of casual fans, has never garnered much more attention. It doesn’t really deserve much more, but it does deserve some. It’s workman, but gloriously so. I should note some Carpenter fans really can’t stand it–I spent years trying to get it on the “Alan Smithee Podcast” schedule but my co-host steadfastly refused.

After nine years away, Carpenter can't do anything to get a performance out of Amber Heard in THE WARD; Mamie Gummer's good, however.
After nine years away, Carpenter can’t do anything to get a performance out of Amber Heard in THE WARD; Mamie Gummer’s good, however.

Following Ghosts of Mars, it was another nine years until Carpenter’s next feature. The Ward is Carpenter’s only ghost story–and his only period piece (the film’s set in the mid-sixties)–and his only eighty-five percent female cast. It takes place in a women’s mental hospital, features no Carpenter regulars in the cast or on the crew. It’s just him (and some of his regular effects crew).

Amber Heard stars in THE WARD, directed by John Carpenter for Warner Bros.
The Ward (2010). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2011 review.

It’s a disappointing film, no doubt, but not an entirely worthless one. There’s some bad acting and some okay acting. The script’s weak. The lead (Amber Heard) is one of the bad performances, which never helps. But there are twists and turns, even if Carpenter’s not really good at this kind of film. He just doesn’t care enough.

The Ward has become an footnote in Carpenter’s filmography; maybe it never was anything more than a footnote in it. I’m fairly certain I’ve never talked to anyone else who’s even seen it. The Ward’s biggest impact is–since its release–there hasn’t been much clamoring for Carpenter to return to the director’s seat.

No amount of group can make THE WARD any better.
No amount of group can make THE WARD any better.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve wanted John Carpenter to stage a great comeback. The strange thing about these seven films is any of them could have been a critical comeback for Carpenter. He could’ve created a special effects driven comedy genre, he could’ve done super-literate gore, he could’ve done moderately budgeted, moderately successful genre remakes, he could’ve made an Escape from L.A. so awesome Escape from Earth got greenlit before the first Sunday box office was in, he could’ve started a series of awesome collaborations with James Woods, he could’ve done sci-fi Westerns on a budget, he could’ve done great twenty-first century low budget, CG-enhanced horror. But he didn’t do any of those things. It just didn’t work out. It sucks. But it didn’t work out.

What has worked out is the preservation and presentation of Carpenter’s films on Blu-Ray, usually thanks to Shout! Factory. And it’s not like Carpenter isn’t finally interested in doing something; it’s just music, not movies. At least not directing them. Maybe it’ll be a good thing.

It can’t get much worse than Memoirs of an Invisible Man, after all.



Director | John Carpenter, Part 3: The Alive Duet

Following Big Trouble in Little China’s disappointing box office returns, director John Carpenter returned to low budget filmmaking. For Alive Films–and distributed through Universal, back in the Carpenter business following the failures of The Thing and Halloween III–Carpenter wrote and directed Prince of Darkness and They Live. His last two films of the eighties, the Alive Duet turn out the lights on the first half of Carpenter’s career while foreshadowing the second half.

Victor Wong and Donald Pleasence try to battle the PRINCE OF DARKNESS with knowledge.
Victor Wong and Donald Pleasence try to battle the PRINCE OF DARKNESS with knowledge.

Prince of Darkness is particularly notable as it brings back Donald Pleasance, who last worked with Carpenter on Halloween II (which Carpenter wrote and produced, but did not direct) six years before. Pleasance’s presence gives the film a very familiar feeling–he even has the same name as his Halloween character. So Prince of Darkness is visibly Carpenter, not studio Carpenter and not seventies Carpenter, but a somewhat pulpy one. Gary B. Kibbe’s photography on Prince of Darkness is muted, mundane. There’s no glamour to Prince of Darkness, so Carpenter’s able to get away with that lower budget. He’s still thinking about how to best connect with the viewer. What’s too much–and Prince of Darkness gets wackier than any other Carpenter script–and what’s acceptable. The film also returns Carpenter to his closed locations and limited cast members–they’re being held hostage by Satan slime. Dennis Dun and Victor Wong are the only other returning Carpenter players–they’re back from Big Trouble–but Peter Jason does start his run for most often cast in a John Carpenter film award. He’s got five, all theatrical, unlike Charles Cyphers who has four theatrical and two television movies.

Donald Pleasence stars in PRINCE OF DARKNESS, directed by John Carpenter for Universal Pictures.
Prince of Darkness (1987). ★½. 2008 review

Oddly enough, Prince of Darkness would have been one of my first John Carpenter movies growing up. It was on cable a lot; on one of the movie channels. We didn’t have cable yet, but I did see it around. I’ve got a lot more respect for it today than I ever did as a kid. The pan and scan wouldn’t have helped, but you also need a certain intellectual detachment with Prince of Darkness and I wouldn’t have had it as a kid.

Carpenter did not follow PRINCE OF DARKNESS with Vatical promotional videos.
Carpenter did not follow PRINCE OF DARKNESS with Vatical promotional videos.

Prince of Darkness got a relatively early DVD release–2000–back when Image was releasing Universal’s catalog. And people finally got to see it widescreen. Universal had pan and scanned the LaserDisc in 1988. The film’s ridden a tide of casual affection–there’s a nice blu-ray special edition and everything. It’s actually rather surprisingly because I distinctly remember it being bandied about as an example of the new depths of Donald Pleasance’s career at the time. Of course I was a kid, but I feel like I paid attention to it enough. People didn’t like back to low budgets Carpenter, not on Prince of Darkness. Maybe because Jesus is a space alien too; just saying.

Roddy Piper and Keith David hug it out violently in THEY LIVE.
Roddy Piper and Keith David hug it out violently in THEY LIVE.

So while Prince of Darkness didn’t inspire a new generation of Carpenter fan, the next one did. People loved They Live, kids, adults, whatever. Guys. Let’s be clear. Always guys, but the strangest and widest variety of them. Something about Rowdy Roddy Piper in what otherwise would’ve been a Kurt Russell role, finding out the world’s being taken over by space aliens, running out of bubble gum. It’s a lot. And Meg Foster’s in it. Meg Foster was in a certain type of movie in the eighties–genre crap, basically; at the time, They Live fit into an existing genre, something Carpenter was never comfortable doing before. The more he tried, the more he failed. Except with They Live, because he didn’t take it seriously.

They Live (1988). ★½. 2005 review
They Live (1988). ★½. 2005 review

He brings back Peter Jason from Prince of Darkness, Keith David from The Thing, and George ‘Buck’ Flower from–wait, George ‘Buck’ Flower is in five theatricals. Sorry Peter Jason, you lose. Anyway, some of They Live feels like it’d pair well with another Carpenter movie or pretty much anything else. It’s accessible and iconic, but it’s also occasionally lazy and not imaginatively done enough from Carpenter. His direction is perfunctory, maybe because he doesn’t have an actor to connect with. Piper’s not good enough, Foster (in the Laurie Zimmer part) is underwritten and underperformed; maybe Keith David? But the writing isn’t there.

They Live also didn’t get a letterbox release until DVD. It too was an Image Entertainment release when they had the Universal license; it came out the same day as Prince of Darkness actually. Since then it’s had rereleases and special features and a blu-ray or two. It’s become a film people have seen, which wasn’t always the case. It’s easily Carpenter’s most referenced film in pop culture; I mean, the video game Duke Nukem just ripped off all Piper’s lines but no one really realized it for a few years because the Internet was smaller back then.

It's all going to be okay. THEY LIVE (1988).
It’s all going to be okay. THEY LIVE (1988).

After They Live in 1988, it’d be another four years before Carpenter made another film and another thirteen before he’d make one better than They Live. They’re the last of many things in Carpenter’s filmography. The last Alan Howarth collaboration, the last time Larry J. Franco is producing; they’d both been around since Escape from New York. It was the end of the archetypes Carpenter had been working with since he started–no more Laurie Zimmers, no more Snake Plisskens (not even when Snake Plissken would come back). It’d be a heck of a lot less depressing if They Live didn’t have a weak final third, because in context, the Alive Duet feel more like defeat than anything else. Carpenter tried, it didn’t work. And when he returned after four years, there’d never be any real expectation again when you saw the preview for John Carpenter’s Memoirs in the Mouth of Damned Mars Vampires.


Series | Superman

The movie poster for Superman and the Mole-Men proclaims the film to be “the all-time ace of action in his first full-length feature adventure.” That “all-time ace of action” is Superman. 1951 moviegoers–sure, children moviegoers, but moviegoers nonetheless–had been waiting lifetimes for Superman’s first full-length feature adventure.

When Mole Men came out in November 1951, Superman–the character–was thirteen years old and already diversified media. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s first Superman comic book story is April 1938. Starting in February 1940, there is a Superman radio show. It runs eleven years. Starting September 1941, there are Superman cartoons playing in theaters, using the voice of the radio Superman. The cartoons go until mid–1943. Then there’s finally a live action Superman in 1948, with a Columbia Superman serial, which is so popular it gets a 1950 sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman. The only reason the serial took so long to make because the rights were at Paramount for the cartoons. Columbia wanted a live action Superman in 1940.

And then, on November 23, 1951, mankind is introduced to the all-time ace of action in his first full-length feature adventure.

Superman George Reeves bends steel bars to influence townspeople to be accepting of the MOLE-MEN.

Of course, Superman and the Mole-Men only runs fifty-eight minutes and is a pilot for the “Adventures of Superman” TV show, but it’s technically a full-length feature adventure.

The story has Clark Kent and Lois Lane dispatched to the small town of Silsby to cover the world’s deepest oil well. Big stories for Kent and Lane in this one. The mole men appear. The townsfolk want to kill them. Superman has to save them, but Superman also has to talk the townsfolk down as opposed to directly intervening. It’s more super-y that way.

George Reeves stars in SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MAN, directed by Lee Sholem for Lippert Pictures.
Superman and the Mole-Men (1951). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2013 review

As an hour-long pilot for a kids show, Mole-Men ought to be a lot more fun. Instead, it combines this depressing look at xenophobia with a preachy Superman. With not enough money–especially on the mole men costumes, which are absurd–and not enough Lois Lane. Except Phyllis Coates isn’t good as Lane, so it’s fine. As Superman and Clark Kent, George Reeves is uneven but earnest.

The foolish townspeople don’t realize bullets will bounce right off.

Superman and the Mole-Men was a success–Reeves appeared in the “Adventures of Superman” from 1952 to 1958. Coates came along for the first season, with Noel Neill returning to play Lane in the second two seasons. She had played Lois Lane in both serials. Mole-Men has been on home video since 1988, with occasional temporary unavailability, but it’s a curiosity more than anything else.

After “Adventures” ended, there was a brief Superman drought. Then the show went into syndicated reruns in 1965 and, starting in 1966, Superman got some new adventures, once again on television, this time animated. Between the “Adventures” reruns and the cartoons, which appeared with other superhero cartoons in various combinations on Saturday mornings, Superman remained a regular fixture on the television screen.

Then in December 1978, the all-time ace of action returned for his second full-length feature adventure. And, this time, Superman is not just for kids. It was seventies, after all; everyone had to believe he could fly.

Christopher Reeve just can’t seem to get Margot Kidder’s attention when she’s thinking of someone else.

Superman–marketed as Superman: The Movie so everyone would know it was a movie and not another TV show–features an all-star cast, phenomenal special effects, and a script ostensibly from Godfather author Mario Puzo. Often in their full-length feature adventure debuts, the film casts major stars (from multiple eras) as the Superman supporting cast–Marlon Brando as his Kryptonian dad, Glenn Ford as his Earth dad, Gene Hackman as nemesis Lex Luthor, Jackie Cooper as Daily Planet editor Perry White, and so on. Superman himself doesn’t get a name actor, rather newcomer Christopher Reeve in the role. Margot Kidder, who had more experience than Reeve but wasn’t a star, plays Lois Lane.

In addition to covering the destruction of Krypton and Superman’s Earthbound growing pains, there’s lightly romantic camaraderie for Kidder and Reeve, and appropriately cinematic villainy from Hackman. Disasters, crises, and super-heroics abound.

Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve star in SUPERMAN, directed by Richard Donner for Warner Bros.
Superman (1978). ★★★★. 2007 review

While Superman, The Movie, has great production values, great special effects, and a solid script (from Puzo, three cowriters, and one “creative consultant”), it’s Reeve who makes it work. Well, Reeve and director Richard Donner. They both approach the film earnestly, which isn’t easy given its spectacular scale. The film’s full of delightful, rich performances, something Donner doesn’t forget when it comes time for action. The human factor is the heart of Superman.

Say, Clark! That’s a bad outfit! Whooo!

Superman was one of 1978’s biggest hits and Reeve became at least one generation’s Man of Steel (no idea why all-time ace of action hadn’t stuck). While the film came just as Hollywood was discovering special effects, it wasn’t “Hollywood,” it was Euro producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind, which sets the film and resulting franchise apart from the traditional late seventies, early eighties “blockbuster” narrative. Their producing hijinks, which got the film (and a couple sequels) made, alienated cast and crew alike.

Superman (1978), the director’s cut. ★★★★. 2010 review

Director Donner didn’t get along with the Salkinds, leading to his firing from the franchise; the resulting strain meant Donner didn’t really get involved with Superman on home video until DVD. Warner Bros. wasn’t exactly into deep catalog special editions on LaserDisc, anyway, though Superman did have a fine letterboxed release. When Donner came back to do a special edition, he even did a director’s cut, featuring all sorts of cool, rare superfluous footage.

Superman was one of Warner Bros.’s first big special edition DVD releases. Albeit in a snap case. The special edition had some ups and downs before they got it right; they eventually put out a fantastic series box set on DVD and blu-ray.

Reeve and Kidder head to Niagara Falls in SUPERMAN II.

The original plan for Superman II–going back to before the first film went into production–was to shoot the films back-to-back. After firing Donner (who shot some significant percentage of II), the Salkinds brought in Richard Lester to finish it up. They chucked enough Donner footage to appease the Directors Guild and reshot with Lester. They also to come up with an ending.

Superman II involves three Kryptonian supervillains (introduced briefly in the first film) coming to Earth and taking over the planet while Kidder and Reeve are giving in to their earthly desires. Hackman’s back (though he refused to reshoot scenes for Lester), second-fiddle to the superpowered bad guys, along with most of the first film’s supporting cast. Much of the crew returns as well.

Superman II (1980). ★★★. 2010 review

Of course, Donner isn’t back and neither is composer John Williams. Lester does an okay enough job directing–it helps he’s got Reeve and Kidder–and Ken Thorne does well mixing and expanding various John Williams themes from the first movie. In all, Superman II is a problematic superhero sequel, but still a successful one. It can’t compete with the first film and struggles not to try; some problems come from that lack of competition. There’s some really nice material for the supporting cast, even if the villains are uneven.

Superman and Zod duke it out in Metropolis.

For most of its post-release “shelf life,” Superman II was neglected on home video. It didn’t even get a letterboxed LaserDisc release until the late nineties. It was remembered mostly for the Metropolis street fight sequence, but also for the rumors of the lost Donner footage. Kidder talked a lot about Donner’s removal from the sequel over the years (enough the third film shipped Lois offscreen to Bermuda); Donner didn’t comment at length; interested, enthusiastic fans didn’t give up.

Superman II (1980), the restored international cut. ★. 2005 review

In early 2005, after a global scouring for footage, the fan-created “restored international cut” appeared. It got a lot of notice, including Entertainment Weekly covering it, and was freely available through snail mail trading until Warner Bros. shut it down. Twenty-five years after Superman II first arrived, people finally got a look at what could have been.

Like the Arctic Police arresting the Kryptionian villains and Lex trying to work a deal with Superman while getting hauled off.

A scene from SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT, directed by Richard Donner for Warner Bros.
Superman II (1980), the Richard Donner cut. ★. 2007 review

But the renewed interest did lead to Donner finally getting a crack at his own Superman II cut, which Warner released alongside (and as part of) their Christopher Reeve Superman box set. Donner’s version of the film pulls as much Lester footage as possible and gets back in some Marlon Brando, but it’s a complete mess. Whatever is wrong with Superman II, there’s clearly no way to fix it in post-production.

Sadly, Richard Pryor and Christopher Reeve aren’t doing a handshake vs. salute bit. Or are they?

After three years–two in the U.S., where got II later than overseas–Reeve and Lester were back for Superman III. No Puzo script; instead, I and II cowriters David and Leslie Newman fly solo. This time, Reeve’s splitting his time between big business computer age villains and gently romancing childhood crush Annette O’Toole. The main protagonist ends up being “villain” Richard Pryor, a regular Metropolis guy who slapsticks his way into the villains’ cabal.

Christopher Reeve and Annette O'Toole star in SUPERMAN III, directed by Richard Lester for Warner Bros.
Superman III (1983). ★. 2010 review

Despite excellent production values, Superman III is a rather weak outing for the Man of Steel. Even with strong performances–Reeve, O’Toole, Pryor–there’s just nothing to be done with the Newmans’ script. Lester’s direction is all right, if uneven. Robert Paynter’s cinematography is weak–he shot II to match the Donner footage and, free of those constraints, he’s got no good ideas. It could be a lot worse, though. A lot worse. Even with Pryor skiing off a skyscraper.

Could it have been the beginning of beautiful friendship? Annette O’Toole’s Lana Lang meets Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane in SUPERMAN III.

Superman III opened strong in summer 1983 and the bad word of mouth immediately slowed it down. It has some notoriety as the “Superman with Richard Pryor” but it’s a PG Richard Pryor and no one cares about PG Richard Pryor. Much like the Metropolis street battle set piece from II, the nonsensical Superman vs. Clark Kent junkyard battle from III gets quite a bit of sympathy. Warner released Superman III letterboxed on LaserDisc alongside Superman II in the nineties; they’ve kept DVD (and blu-ray) releases in print, including a special edition. However, even though a longer television version of Superman III exists, Warner hasn’t released an extended version.

After Superman III‘s failure, the franchise seemed in dire straits. Christopher Reeve dropped out of the Salkinds’ Supergirl: The Movie, making it less a spin-off and more a “sidequel.” When Supergirl bombed, the Salkinds sold off their Superman movie rights to Cannon Films. And what did Cannon do with those rights?

Reeve and Kidder, back on the rooftop, in SUPERMAN IV.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Released in 1987, with a politically conscious message (Christopher Reeve’s idea) about Superman getting involved with the nuclear arms race. Lex Luthor sees his opportunity to profit from it, which eventually leads to him creating a Superman clone who looks nothing like Superman–The Nuclear Man. Meanwhile, Mariel Hemingway has a crush on Clark Kent, leading to hijinks as the film also brings back Superman and Lois Lane romantic moments. Everyone returns for The Quest for Peace. Reeve, Hackman, Kidder, Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure–and Susannah York even audibly returns (providing voiceover). There’s no technical crossover–new director (Sidney J. Furie), new screenwriters, new special effects crew. But the cast is there.

Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, and Mark Pillow star in SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, directed by Sidney J. Furie for Warner Bros.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2010 review

And, despite their collective presence, the film’s a wreck. The script’s terrible, the special effects are bad, the production values are exceptionally low (thanks, Cannon). There’s some residual charm thanks to Reeve, Kidder, and Hackman (and Cooper and McClure), not to mention actual hints at character development, but it’s a wreck. It’s not even entirely Sidney J. Furie’s fault.

Marc McClure, Jackie Cooper, Reeve, and Kidder do what they can for SUPERMAN IV.

Superman IV bombed. Worse than Superman III. It doesn’t have a reputation as much besides a bad late eighties sequel whose predecessors have a far better pedigree. Not even the presence of Jon Cryer could get audiences into the seats. The film does have its best release–after years of Warner ignoring it (Quest for Peace didn’t get a late nineties letterboxed LaserDisc for example), they finally put it out on DVD and blu-ray. It looks fine. It doesn’t have the legendary (and apparently missing) extra forty-five minutes of footage, which included another “Nuclear Man” villain for Superman to battle. It seems unlikely that footage will ever surface (or if it’d be any help if it did).

While Superman III couldn’t quite ruin the Superman franchise, Superman IV did the trick. The Man of Steel disappeared for a while, though the Boy of Steel did show up after a couple years. The Salkinds put together a syndicated “Superboy” TV series, which lasted it four seasons. A year later, “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” launched on ABC. It lasted four seasons as well. Towards the end of “Lois & Clark”’s run, “Superman: The Animated Series” started its three season run. Film success remained illusive, but the all-time ace of action did all right on television.

The nineties also had the failed development of a Superman Lives project, which was supposed to star Nicolas Cage as Superman, directed by Tim Burton. It was a big, splashy failure for Warner Bros., who still hadn’t gotten their own Superman film off the ground. Before, it had taken the Salkinds and Cannon to get it done.

The property didn’t stay dormant–TV had “Smallville,” the adventures of teenage Clark Kent (before Superman and never Superboy), which ran ten seasons starting in 2001. In the middle of the “Smallville” run–after nineteen years away–Superman got his sixth full-length feature adventure.

Clark doesn’t employ the Magic Kiss to get back in Lois’s good graces. Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth in SUPERMAN RETURNS.

In 2006 (after another failed reboot attempt a few years earlier), Superman Returns didn’t just bring the Man of Steel back to the big screen, it did so in “semi-sequel” to the Christopher Reeve series (ignoring III and IV). No one from those films returned except the now deceased Marlon Brando, whose unused footage from the first film was CG’ed to match.

The film, which Warner Bros. co-financed with Legendary Pictures (so they still hadn’t made their own Superman movie), has Superman returning to Earth after an absence (though, sadly, not the one mentioned in Supergirl). He comes back to Lex Luthor ready to terrorize and Lois Lane, who’s now a single mom to a precious child with a mysterious father, not so happy to see him. She’s also got a new boyfriend. Meanwhile, Clark Kent also has to get back into the Metropolis groove.

Superman Returns (2006). ★★½. 2006 review

Bryan Singer, fresh from X-Men success, directs Superman Returns preciously. It’s a big production, with fantastic special effects. It’s a shame the script sort of just keeps going and going and going. And just not at the end, but starting pretty early on, since the filmmakers know they’re playing with audience expectations. Brandon Routh makes does a fine job in the “lead” (Singer doesn’t trust him as Superman, just Clark), with Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth barely adequate as Luthor and Lane, respectively. James Marsden is awesome as Lois’s new fiancé, who–unfortunately for the film–turns out to be more of a hero than Superman.

Kal-El doesn’t shrug.

Saddled with the pre-production costs of the failed reboots in its budget, Superman Returns had a big hill to climb to success. The film, while critically well-received (enough) and commercially viable, wasn’t a runaway success. While audiences were somewhat sympathetic to the film, they didn’t seem to like the idea of it being a sequel to the Reeve movies. And they really didn’t like Superman being a deadbeat dad. Everyone apparently lost interest in a sequel–Warner Bros., Legendary, even Bryan Singer. Returns has been well-represented on DVD and blu-ray (even HD-DVD), though Singer never did go back and reincorporate the footage he had to cut for time. Running two and a half hours, Singer apparently wanted it to go even longer.

When Superman Returns came out, Warner Bros. had just relaunched their Batman franchise; the second film in the “Dark Knight trilogy,” titled The Dark Knight–Singer’s sequel was going to be called The Man of Steel–came out in 2008 and made a billion dollars and got great reviews. A Writers Guild strike slowed and stopped a Justice League film–which would have featured a different Superman (and Batman)–and then Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan supposedly asked Warner to pause everything superhero until he finished his trilogy. Given the billion dollar box office on Dark Knight, Warner acceded to that (supposed) request, with a couple notable box office bombs as exceptions.

Another Lois, another Clark. Henry Cavill and Amy Adams star in MAN OF STEEL.

And when Superman came back again, Nolan was in the producer’s seat. Seven years after Superman Returns, The Man of Steel finally came out. Only it was all new, not in the Returns or Reeve continuity. It was also the first time one of the all-time ace of action’s full-length features leveraged the wealth of DC Comics source material. Man of Steel is an origin story, reintroducing Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and the entire supporting cast with details, scenes, and dialogue out of the comics. Just after Clark Kent becomes Superman (or gets the costume at least), Kryptonian menace Zod tracks him down and wages war on the entire planet. It’s Superman meets tentpole “hard sci-fi.”

Henry Cavill stars in MAN OF STEEL, directed by Zach Snyder for Warner Bros.
Man of Steel (2013). ★★★½. 2013 review

Man of Steel is a success. New Superman Henry Cavill is great, Amy Adams is great as Lois Lane, Michael Shannon is phenomenal as Zod. The supporting cast isn’t showy, but they do fine work. Director Zach Snyder ably handles the special effects action and the character relationships. Shannon and Cavill play wonderfully together, for example, and Cavill and Adams have immediate chemistry. And Hans Zimmer–not borrowing at all on the John Williams music, which Returns did for half its runtime then stopped–turns in an excellent score.

“Any more at home like you?”

But Man of Steel didn’t get the box office returns Warner (and Legendary, presumably) were expecting. Warner Bros. had already lost the lead in the superhero movie game and the film didn’t help them catch up. It was too serious, too dark; audiences apparently didn’t like it being so different from the Christopher Reeve movies (the opposite of their complaints following Returns) and critics felt about the same. Once again, the future of the franchise was seemingly in jeopardy after a single outing.

So Warner (and Snyder) made some changes. Behind the camera, they got rid of Legendary as co-financiers, meaning the subsequent sequel would be Warner’s first outing as sole Superman proprietor, and Christopher Nolan decided he had zero interest in producing further entries.

Major metropolitan newspeople. Amy Adams, Henry Cavill, and Laurence Fishburne in BATMAN V SUPERMAN.

Three years after Man of Steel–and almost a full year after post-production had completed–Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice came out. Before the Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage failure, there had been rumors of a Batman/Superman team-up movie (or at least a script someone liked). Finally, the two DC superheroes met on the big screen, simultaneously infusing the unsteady Superman franchise with the popular Batman brand and relaunching that brand, which was in need of an all-new big screen Batman.

And Superman doesn’t just have to fight Batman. He also has a Lex Luthor stirring up trouble–tech billionaire Luthor doesn’t like Superman’s super-heroics much. Neither does Batman. Lois Lane still likes him though. Who knows what could’ve happened if Snyder hadn’t shoehorned Wonder Woman into the action too.

Henry Cavill and Amy Adams star in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, directed by Zack Snyder for Warner Bros.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). ★★. 2016 review

In addition to having a clumsy, awkward jumble of a title, Dawn of Justice is clumsy, awkward jumble of a film as well. Cavill and Adams do pretty well, new Batman Ben Affleck is fine, new Lex Luthor Jesse Eisenberg does all right, but the script’s a combination of bad pacing and dumb ideas. It’s a really long, mostly unpleasant movie–with an atrocious “third act.” The character sensitivity Snyder brought to the previous film is entirely missing, though last time he had a script from David S. Goyer and not an ineptly pretentious one from Chris Terio. It’s a major misfire.

Everybody loves Superman.

While a big box office success, Dawn of Justice got mostly terrible reviews and indifferent (or worse) audience reaction. Unlike previous critical “Super-flops,” Warner Bros. seems more than confident in keeping the franchise going. At least to some degree. There might not be more Man of Steel sequels, but Cavill (and Adams so far) will pop up in future Warner Bros. superhero movies. Actually, Superman has very little to do in Dawn of Justice, most of the hubbub and attention goes to Affleck’s brooding Batman.

It makes Superman’s second-billing in that terrible title even more appropriate. Kind of an inverted Larry Talbot situation.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), the ultimate edition. ★½. 2016 review

Warner released an even longer version of Dawn of Justice, which gives Cavill and Adams a lot more to do–the first half of the movie focuses on Lois and Clark reporting instead of just guest-starring in a Batman movie with some Lex Luthor political corrupting antics thrown in. Unfortunately, that better Superman movie still has all the clunkiness of the final hour fight sequence. It’s actually a worse film overall, just with better parts. The failed potential stings even more.

So the future of the Superman franchise is unsure. It’s always unsure. But the movies are occasionally outstanding, often all right, and rarely truly godawful. The all-time ace of action is worth the risk.