Continuing with my series of reviews for Batman and Superman, I present to you the original Superman films that were released between 1978 and 2006.
Let’s dig in!
This is the movie that started it all. Not just for Superman, but for comic book movies in general. I’m honestly not even sure where to begin with this one. There’s so much about it that is just purely awesome. I guess I’ll just go right down the line from beginning to end.
We start off with what is still in my opinion the greatest opening credits to a film ever. John Williams’ Superman theme kicks this off with the names of the cast and crew flashing through in space. Out of everything John Williams has ever done, his score for Superman might actually be my favorite.
Then we’re on Krypton, which is actually the only portion of the movie I feel indifferent about. The dialogue from everyone other than Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and General Zod (Terrance Stamp) is very flat. I realize that it was probably meant to be this way, as they are not of Earth, and they had to seem kind of alien. But when they’re talking about the planet being doomed, it’s just uninteresting. I felt that the look of the planet Krypton was enough to scream “ALIEN PLANET” with everything being white and crystal (which I do think is cool). Nonetheless, this is something that gets more interesting anyways, as we see Jor-El making an awesome and iconic speech, as he prepares to send his son to Earth, while they stay behind with the dying planet.
“The son becomes the father, and the father, the son” has always been one of my favorite movie lines.
Next, we have the portion of the film where we see Kal-El being discovered by his Earth parents, becoming Clark Kent, and growing up in Smallville. These scenes are also very well done, and we get to see a young man learning his powers, and slowly beginning to understand that there is a reason behind it all.
After discovering where he is from and his overall importance he could have on the people of Earth, we cut to him as an adult living in Metropolis. Then the epic continues with its extended and terrific third act, where we get all the real Superman fun.
I say epic, because that is what this movie is. That word often gets thrown around all over the place when we’re describing how awesome a film might be. But I am not using that word lightly here. ‘Superman’ is an epic, completely by definition. There are three sections of this that depict a story within themselves. We open with Krypton, we then watch another smaller movie about Clark growing up and discovering his powers and purpose, and then our final portions show us the rest of the story, with a hero that knows how to use his powers fully, and knows what he has to do to save the world. In the mix of all of that, we still have sub-plots. One pertaining a love story between Lois and Clark/Superman, and another involving Lex Luthor. Both of these, mind you, are only apart of the third section.
But what good is an “Epic” if it’s not executed well? Luckily, I don’t have to answer that here. There are so many things in ‘Superman’ that work almost flawlessly. I’ve already gone over the music. But to say it again will just reinforce my point that this movie wouldn’t even work without this score.
Next up, is the scope of the movie. As I said before, we have three different set pieces, all of which are very different from one another. The look of Krypton, Smallville, and Metropolis are all terrific, and unique. Metropolis feels huge, and over-whelming compared to the small town that Clark grew up in. To showcase this is important, as you have to feel like not only is Clark about to become a bigger person, so will his surroundings. This just reinforces the amazement when you first see Clark become Superman for the first time for the public to see.
Seeing Superman fly must have been the coolest shit to see in 1978. The tagline for the movie was “You will believe a man can fly”. That sounds like a pretty big promise. And so if I went to this movie, and Superman flying looked fake… uh oh! But again, this is something that this movie did perfectly. Does it look a bit dated by today’s standards? Certain shots maybe. However these effects were way ahead of their time, and when watching it today, you still feel like it’s a 70’s movie from the get-go. Then once you see Superman, you feel like you’re transported to a movie at a later time. So with that said, these effects still do hold up immensely.
Now to talk about the greatest attribute to not just this movie, but the others that followed. Christopher Reeve is, and will probably always be the greatest Superman and Clark Kent. Many people will say that Superman’s alter-ego and disguise is pretty ridiculous. And I would normally agree. But Christopher Reeve does the greatest job of differentiating the two personas. They’re completely different characters, and that’s what he and director Richard Donner understood the disguise as. It’s not just him putting on a pair of glasses, claiming he’s someone else. It’s him being the complete opposite of Superman. He’s a wimp, he’s a dork, he has zero confidence in himself, and he’s always putting himself through embarrassing scenarios.
I could probably talk about this movie all day. Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor is also another great thing. Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, along with every other supporting character adds just a bit more to this movie than is already needed. Some people have small roles and could be labeled as glorified cameos (Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford). But just their very presence enhances the overall experience to such an amazing level, mostly due to the dialogue being so richly executed.
There are a couple little nitpicks I have with it. As I said before, the beginning scenes on Krypton could have been executed a bit better as far as acting. It’s not bad, it’s just the “Stoic 1950’s Sci-Fi Movie” speaking that could put me to sleep if it was any longer than it already was. The other thing that bothers me a bit is the ending. Spinning the Earth back in time. It’s the only thing in the whole movie that actually does feel a bit dated and cheesy to me. However, its execution is probably the best it would ever be for a scene like that. You actually feel emotion thanks to Reeve’s acting and Williams’ music. It works, but just barely.
‘Superman’ not only kicked off the superhero genre, and gave us a great epic about an iconic character, but it’s something that was made to last, and still holds up to this very day. So many amazing superhero movies have come out since then, and yet, this very first one remains in my Top Five. It’s a near-perfect movie that I will love forever.
Superman II (1980)
This is where you see the Superman series split in two. ‘Superman II’ was being filmed alongside the first movie, and was originally to be released shortly after. It was basically ‘Part 2’ of the first, as opposed to a more stand-alone sequel. Tension and drama erupted on the set, leaving Richard Donner to exit production as the director, when a vast majority of the sequel was already completed. He was replaced by Richard Lester, and we got the theatrical version of ‘Superman II’, which in all honesty, is a miracle achievement.
This should not have been good. But it was pulled off really well. Everything that worked about the first movie is still all here. On top of Christopher Reeve still being a terrific Clark/Superman, Terrance Stamp is the man that really shines in this movie as the villain, General Zod. He’s just purely awesome, and has some of the best lines ever. Sometimes I just like to randomly shout “KNEEL BEFORE ZOD” for no apparent reason.
Unfortunately, I do consider the theatrical cut of this movie to be a major step down from the first one, and it’s mostly all to do with the fact that the new director had to change certain scenes. There are multiple times where you see a weird slapstick tone that’s just so out of place. It’s only a couple of scenes, but it really foreshadows where the series was heading with the third movie, which was also directed by Lester. A part that makes me cringe is when Superman throws a cellophane ‘S’ at his opponents. He also duplicates himself to confuse them of who the real Superman is in this same scene. First off, why are we making up new powers? Second, if you’re going to make up new powers, why not think of something cool? These powers are absolutely dumb.
Another thing lacking a bit is the score. John Williams didn’t return for any of the Superman sequels. Ken Thorne took over, and even though he did a pretty decent job, the orchestration always felt a bit less triumphant to me.
With those things aside, along with a major plot hole concerning how Superman gets his powers back, the rest of ‘Superman II’ is pretty solid. As I said earlier, it’s nearly as good as the first, and that’s mostly because a lot of it was filmed at the same time. My negatives on the movie are all due to the obvious changes that had to be made on set, so that the movie could be released on schedule. The new director just added a few scenes of total nonsense. But in 2006, we received ‘The Richard Donner Cut’ of ‘Superman II’, and it improves on many of the weaker elements I just went over.
Gone is the campiness. Gone are the stupid, poorly executed made-up powers, and here is a welcome back to John Williams’ amazing score. This is the way ‘Superman II’ was originally intended to be seen. It’s also almost an entirely different movie. All of Donner’s original scenes were restored, and much of the plot moves along in a much different sequence. It’s more of a direct continuation of the first movie, and doesn’t feel like it took place long after. Which I guess isn’t really a positive or a negative. It’s just different, and is one reason why I kind of count this as a separate thing.
Zod is even more menacing in this cut, and his villain side kicks are far less cartoonish. Gene Hackman’s scenes feel complete, and the major plot hole with Superman’s powers is fixed. It’s also absolutely awesome to see restored scenes featuring Marlon Brando as Jor-El.
It feels much more genuine, and is probably my preferred version overall. But to be clear, this cut of the movie isn’t perfect either. It becomes more obvious when viewing both cuts that not everything Richard Lester did in the theatrical version was bad. There are still things that happen only there, that I actually prefer. The pacing is also a little bit better in the theatrical cut overall. In a perfect world, we would have a cut that is the perfect balance of everything great about both. I think the biggest let down of the Donner Cut is the changed ending. The only reason it doesn’t work for me, is because it’s the same ending as the first movie. But because of the production issues, Donner put his intended ending for the second movie at the end of the first movie. Now that there’s a cut for his “originally intended” second movie, this “world spinning” ending is now used twice.
It is because of this movie having two completely different cuts, that in my mind creates separate continuities in the Superman film series. Two movies that follow on from the original theatrical cut, and one movie that I consider to be more of a sequel to ‘The Richard Donner Cut’.
Theatrical Cut Rating: B
The Richard Donner Cut Rating: B+
Let’s get the annoying ones out of the way though real quick.
Superman III (1983)
This movie is so lame. The villain’s ambition is to steal coffee and profit from it? I don’t know. Richard Pryor is in this. He’s also not very funny in it…and his role is almost bigger than Superman’s.
Alright look, I don’t want to talk about this movie much. It’s really dumb. This is where director Richard Lester went balls to the wall with his slapstick campy humor, and almost none of it works.
Richard Pryor plays a computer hacker named Gus Gorman, who is a good guy being manipulated by a Lex Luthor wannabe, played by Robert Vaughn. He makes him control the weather, cause traffic jams, and…steal coffee beans from Columbia.
It’s hard to say specifically what is wrong with this movie when its real main problem is the concept and story alone. It’s lame. It’s not worth telling. And in the mix of it all, there’s just a bunch of cheesy things going on.
Believe it or not, it’s not ALL bad though. The visual effects are actually at their prime in this installment. I actually enjoy this movie for the action scenes alone. And the section of the movie where Superman splits in two and fights an evil version of himself is honestly awesome. The scenes with Clark visiting Smallville are very pleasant as well.
Christopher Reeve is at his best in this one, especially when we now get to see a side of Superman we never saw before. If there’s any real reason to watch this, it’s because you admire Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. With all the crap aside, he still gives this his all, and really shines.
I’d say that maybe 40% of this movie is pretty good. The rest, ranges from bad to just dull. That’s really all I have to say.
Superman IV (1987)
I’m going to tell you a story about a kid named Dillon. In 1986, Dillon was a victim of being bullied at school. Every day, these bullies would steal Dillon’s lunch money. After about three months, these bullies stopped, as they felt they had enough of Dillon’s lunch money to achieve their goal.
With three months worth of lunch money, this group of bullies went to Hollywood and began production on ‘Superman IV: The Quest for Peace’. The first third of this lunch money went to the casting. The next third went towards the visual effects. And the final third went towards the marketing of this movie. There was a little bit of milk money left over, and they spent that to get John Williams back, but they couldn’t give him enough money to actually orchestrate the music, but just to compose a couple of new themes.
Dillon should have stood up for himself so that this pile of manure was never made.
There’s really a whole history behind this production. Up until the mid-90’s, a production company called The Cannon Group developed low budget movies. Under Golan-Globus in the 80’s, this company would produce and release 30-40 movies a year. The annual norm for most production companies would be about 8-10, especially in that decade. These movies made by Golan-Globus were made dirt cheap, and would make just enough profit for them to make another movie. Eventually they went under due to basic economics.
But somehow, they managed to get the rights to make a Superman movie. Cannon’s reputation aside, this was supposed to be their biggest movie yet, with a heavy budget. During production, their budget for the film was cut in half, maybe even more. Many of the effects were re-used shots that were previously filmed, and the movie itself ended up being only 90 minutes. All of this, because they went broke before they could make the one movie that could save them.
It’s an absolute shame really, because the intention was there. Christopher Reeve was the person who got a fourth film moving, after the disappointment of the third installment. ‘Superman IV’ was meant to put the series back on track. But it was filled with plot holes, visible flying wires, a horrible villain, and painfully horrendous visual effects.
When watching it, you can tell that the effort really was there. Reeve continued to give it his all. Gene Hackman was back as Lex Luthor, and Margot Kidder returned as Lois Lane. They did their best. The story (while dumb) seemed like it was at least more focused than the third movie.
There are even multiple lines of dialogue that are really great. I love Lex’s line of “Nobody wants war, I just want to keep the threat alive”. Him saying this, because he wishes to profit from a continuous cold war.
This really had the potential to be as good as ‘Superman II’, but because the budget was lunch money, this was released basically as an unfinished film. Even if it didn’t match the first two movies, this could have been the ‘Rocky IV’ of the series. You would see that the script is silly, but because the effort was there, and had the special effects been good, it would have been a cult guilty pleasure about Superman ending the Cold War. JUST LIKE ‘ROCKY IV’!
But unfortunately, the production was a mess, and this ended up being one of the worst movies ever made.
I give it a passing grade at least, just because you can tell that the lead characters were doing their best to make it work, despite what they were really working with. It’s sad to watch, but they’re the one component that does work. And I have to say that watching Superman and Nuclear Man fight is entertaining in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way. It’s pathetic, but it’ll give you a chuckle.
Much like how ‘Batman & Robin’ ended up being a horrible mess, that movie is at least fun to watch from a comedic stand-point. From beginning to end. I gave B&R two different ratings. One for being garbage, and another for being entertaining garbage. ‘Superman IV’ is just flat out depressing. It’s tough to watch the whole thing at a different angle. You just can’t. It’s a terrible movie. There’s no way around it. But I gotta give them a bit of credit for trying.
Superman Returns (2006)
Fast-forward almost two decades later, and we get ‘Superman Returns’. Unlike producing a full-on reboot like ‘Batman Begins’, Warner Bros. decided to do a half-reboot, half-sequel to the Superman series that already existed.
This film completely ignores the events of ‘Superman III’ and ‘Superman IV’, and is more of a vague continuation of the first two films. I say “vague” because that’s one of the main issues of the movie. It still feels confused as to what it is. There are a number of callbacks to the first pair of Christopher Reeve movies- but there’s one huge problem. They were from 1978 and 1980. This looks and feels like it’s 2006.
Nonetheless, one must learn to ignore these details and just pretend that it really is what the studio said it was. The movie really is a huge, and quite beautiful homage to the Richard Donner films. This is why I view ‘Superman Returns’ as the true third movie in the series.
Many will say that this movie is boring, too long, and lacks action. I will say that those criticisms are extremely fair, and I tend to agree with them, but only to a certain degree. Yes, it’s long. And yes, it would have been nice to see Superman throw a few punches, instead of just lifting things and flying around. Thankfully, Zack Snyder is giving us plenty of combat in the new movies, so it’s easier for me now to take a look back on ‘Returns’ and enjoy it for what it did give us.
I really do find the story to be intriguing. Assuming that this is more of a follow-up to ‘The Donner Cut’ of ‘Superman II’, it would make sense for why Lois Lane, along with the rest of humanity would believe that the world doesn’t need a savior. After all, everything that Superman did in those two movies were erased with him spinning the world back, leaving everyone but himself to have no real memory about two catastrophic events that only he could have protected the world from.
At least this is how I see it. At the end of the theatrical version of ‘Superman II’, it seems like Superman is here to stay for good. He even tells the President, “Sorry I’ve been away so long. I won’t let you down again”. So why would he leave? And another thing I’d like to point out is the reference in which Lex Luthor might have been in the Fortress of Solitude before. Of course, in both cuts of the second film, he was there. But in ‘Superman Returns’, Lex almost acts as if he only has a very minor recollection of the Fortress. This lends me to believe that Lex is experiencing a sense of déjà vu, as opposed to a real memory.
We also have an interesting look on how Superman really feels being apart of this world. At the end of the day, he is an alien. Put this in perspective. He finds out there’s a slim chance that his home world still exists, so he travels there, only to find out that he truly is the last of his kind. He comes back to Earth (his second home) to find out that now this world has moved on without him. The love of his life has even moved on, and he realizes there’s absolutely no way he can ever be with her. Superman feels more alone than ever in this movie, and I feel like that is a very unique story to tell.
Is it a good superhero movie? Not so much. But it is a very good movie when you’re not looking at it from that perspective. It’s a very different superhero movie than what we’re used to. The film kind of ends with Superman making the discovery that Lois’s child is actually his own. That to me, brings this movie (as well as the other two Donner movies) full circle. He discovers he’s not the last of his kind, and that he has someone to pass things onto, the same way Jor-El passed everything he had left down to him. Superman even repeats his father’s (“Son becomes the Father, and the Father becomes the Son”) message at the end, which I thought was a really nice touch. Alongside this, the world sees that they do need a savior, and Superman becomes more accepting of Earth being his true home, and understanding his purpose once again.
Many things in this movie actually work very well. I don’t love the casting, but I think everyone involved did the best job they could do. There were big shoes to fill, especially being that this was a continuation of the Donner universe, and not a total reboot. The actors weren’t left with that much room to make things their own, but to kind of mimic what the previous actors did. It’s very obvious that Brandon Routh was cast because of his striking resemblance to Christopher Reeve. He does a decent job for the most part, but couldn’t totally capture what Reeve could as far a establishing a distinct differentiation between Clark Kent and Superman. I can tell that the film makers knew this, and tried to have the least amount of Clark Kent scenes as possible because they probably weren’t confident in that area. Kevin Spacey does a great job as Lex, but at times feels confused on whether or not to embrace his own portrayal or to be a bit like Gene Hackman.
The music is a huge stand-out. John Ottman did a fantastic job of not only incorporating John Williams themes, but making them sound as they once did, and bringing some newer themes to the table.
Bryan Singer, who is known for his X-men films, did a pretty decent job at directing. Much of this film looks and feels beautiful. There definitely could have been more action, but when there is action, it’s incredible. I think the only real negative thing I can say about this movie is that it aimed too hard to pay homage to the original film, and spent less time being its own thing. It was nice to see something honoring such an important film for the genre, but it lacked creative expansion. Even by the end of the movie, you’re left truly wondering where it could possibly go from there. Naturally, this is a huge reason why it was rebooted with ‘Man of Steel’.
‘Superman Returns’ is a movie that probably just should have been a full reboot. It was simply made at a bad time. Thankfully, ‘Man of Steel’ was a reboot, and we’re now moving forward to a shared universe for DC. But I always wonder how far DC would be in their universe game had 2005/2006 been the years they successfully rebooted both Batman and Superman. We probably could have had a Justice League movie come out even before ‘The Avengers’.
But this is what we got. And honestly, looking back…I’m glad we got this movie. Is it amazing and worth watching over and over? Not particularly. But it’s WAY better than Superman III and IV, and it’s kind of cool that they went back and fixed a good series that became broken.
Thanks to this movie, as well as ‘Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut’, this series was split into two different timelines. I like to view it like this:
Superman I, II, III, & IV — Series 1
Superman I, II (Take ), & Returns — Series 2
Series 1 is kind of like the original Batman films that start out good and fall apart by the end. Series 2 is kind of like the Nolan Batman movies that actually make a pretty decent trilogy. Though I’d never rank it the same as far as quality, as it’s a little jumbled, incoherent, and kind of unintentional. And if continuity is of no concern for you at all, then watch these in whatever way you please. There’s really no clear-cut, official way of looking at them.
But back on the subject of ‘Superman Returns’. In a nutshell, it’s just an okay movie. But I would say that if you’re a fan of the original Superman movie, this one is worth the watch, and it’s a far better alternative to the third and fourth movies.
And that’s that. I apologize for this post being so long. I was determined to fit all of these into one.
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