Reliving the Past: The ‘Superman’ Franchise
I’ve always been a Batman fan. Those that know me know this all too well. Even with my bias leaning towards the Caped Crusader, I can’t understate the importance of Superman in past, present, and future pop culture. Superman will always stand as more than just a superhero – he is an American symbol. With a strong moral compass and, yes, super human abilities, he is the hero we should idolize.
In film, Superman has had a very interesting run. Starting back in 1951, the first film, Superman and the Mole Man, debuted (which I’ve decided to skip). However, filmmakers didn’t touch Superman again until 1978. When they did, though, they created one of the biggest superhero franchises (especially given the time) to date. The Christopher Reeve era lasted for four films.
Since 1987, there has been only one live-action feature, which has been curious to say the least. However, D.C. and company are unveiling their newest Superman reboot Man of Steel this weekend. To gear up for the film, I’ve compiled a cumulative review of the Superman franchise, spanning from 1978 to present.
Richard Donner’s Superman released in 1978, four years after Ilya and Alexander Salkind bought the rights. Generally considered the best (critically speaking) Superman film to date, the success can be attributed to the tone and perfect casting.
Stepping back from the film and looking at Superman as a whole, it differs a lot from the aforementioned Batman. Superman is still relentless, but he comes across a lot different than Batman. Plenty of fans see this as a good thing because it’d be pointless to have identical characters (especially since they are owned by the same entity).
Superman (the film) perfectly conveys Superman (especially of that time) because the film is a lot more campy. I prefer the word cheesy, but it’s been 35+ years. Of course it’s going to seem cheesy – that’s part of the appeal.
As for plot, Superman serves as a quick origin story (and I mean quick) and introduces one of the biggest villains, Lex Luther (Gene Hackman). His biggest goal is to take down California by causing an earthquake on the San Andrea Fault. The Krypton-born Superman (going by Clark Kent and played by Christopher Reeve) must use his powers to save the world.
In the end, Superman can be seen as the beginning to both the character and Reeve’s talents. Personally, the film is harder to appreciate today because of the campiness, but I have to imagine its impact at the time. For that alone, I do appreciate it.
Next in line was the now-infamous (we’ll get there) Superman II. Following two years later (1980), part of the sequel was filmed alongside Superman. However, when Donner was taken off the project, new director Richard Lester was forced to reshoot many scenes in order to receive full credit. Somewhere out there is another cut of this movie with the original content. It was estimated that 75% of Superman II was Donner’s before reshoots. Today, the version we find has approximately 25% of Donner’s original material.
Still, the film maintained the tone (read: cheesiness) of the original while introducing another famous villain. This time it was General Zod (Terence Stamp). The insane (and ruthless) leader of Kryptonian criminals lands on Earth and makes it his mission to destroy Superman to gain complete control of Earth. Of course, Superman will have none of this.
This is where I’ll interject on one of the things that makes Superman so hard to fully appreciate. As an audience, we are used to seeing heroes that are up against the odds. However, in Superman’s case, he has extreme power. He can turn back time (in Superman) and erase memories (in Superman II). His powers are almost limitless. Yes, this makes him the ultimate badass. However, it also makes it tough to believe he won’t succeed. In other words, the drama lacks considerably.
Superman II is a great sequel (especially given the circumstances) for anyone that loves Superman and the original film. People with reservations (insert me into this camp) after the first movie won’t have them resolved, though. The visual effects look just like you’d expect given the time period. And the over-the-top cheese is ever present.
Superman II was able to overcome some behind-the-scenes production problems. However, the lingering effects can be seen in Superman III. The issues finally caught up with them as the franchise started to wane considerably. The 1983 film, again directed by Lester, was without Lex Luther and cut down considerably on the famous Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). More problematic, though, was the film’s lack of plot direction that couldn’t save the picture.
Taking over villain duties was Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn). The millionaire wants to control the oil supply and sees Superman as his main target. That’s really all there is to it…one simple line.
It’s part of the myriad of issues (both on and off the screen) that plagued Superman III. Comedian Richard Pryor was cast in the film, and the character (and humor) comes across as cheap and, at some times, undermining. The film ultimately slows the Superman franchise momentum.
The damage had been done and it, unfortunately, hadn’t all surfaced yet. Superman III had its notable problems, but Superman IV: The Quest for Peace still stands as the worst of the worst. What once was a beloved series had turned sour. Even with the reemergence of Lex Luther, Sidney J. Furie’s film crossed over from bad to horrible.
Plotwise, the franchise bottomed out on potential conflicts. Luther (reprised by Gene Hackman) escapes prison. However, his way of thwarting Superman is to create an evil clone (called Nuclear Man). The ridiculousness of it all gets worse than ever before. This is saying a lot given my not-so-hidden issues with the realness of it all.
I guess this is where I should elaborate of the importance of believability. It’s not necessarily about creating something believable in the sense that it could (and will) happen. Do I expect to look outside and see a man flying? Hell no. Do I expect to see a movie where it is somehow plausible (and engrained in the plot)? Hell yes. Superman IV is the worst at this, and it marks the sad conclusion to Reeve’s incarnation of the iconic Superman.
Since Superman Returns served as a one-movie reboot (that ultimately didn’t go anywhere), I won’t spend nearly as much time on it. Overall, the movie is just fine. It’s updated in effects (which it needed) and is a fun little homage to the original franchise. The biggest travesty is the film didn’t morph into the franchise it probably deserved.
Bryan Singer’s film starred Brandon Routh as Superman, Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luther. Although it’s a little bloated in runtime, it solves a lot of the issues I had with the previous films. Sure, it still has some of the corniness, but it doesn’t seem nearly as concerned with it. It also increased the believability.
Where does Man of Steel go from here? Zack Snyder’s film has no connection to the previous Superman films. However, it is inevitably going to be compared to these “classic” films. Although we’ll ultimately find out when it releases tomorrow, Christopher Nolan’s hand in the film makes it look a lot darker.
But, is that where we want Superman going? They tried it in Superman III and it didn’t really work out that well.
We will see!