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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.