Retroactive Heat Vision: The Flights of Superman

In preparation for the upcoming box office juggernaut that is Batman v Superman,
let's spin the earth back to take a close look at the Man of Steel.

Over the last four decades, the Man of Steel has certainly been greeted with less critical praise and overall positive audience reception than the Dark Knight, so that battle has already been won. Even a middling effort like Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever looks like Citizen Kane next to the likes of  Superman IV. And since The Movie Sleuth has already taken harsh vitriolic swings at both the Richard Donner cut of Superman II and the slapstick skid mark that is Richard Lester's Superman III, a complete retrospective would be redundant. So we're going to be picky. Let's leap over those tall tales in a single bound and focus on the good, the bad, the misunderstood and the forgotten.

Superman (1978) // directed by Richard Donner
Smell that super armpit sweat!
Set your mental clock back to when comic books hadn't yet graced the silver screen, and were considered by and large to be unfilmmable. It would require a massive special effects budget to make these films without getting laughed out of the theater -- somehow I don't think an action figure on strings fighting the stop motion likes of Reptilicus would cut it. Despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them, Alexander and Ilya Salkind saw their closed window of opportunity, blew it wide open with a grenade launcher, and production on the first Superman film began.

With director Richard Donner at the helm and a script written by none other than Godfather scribe Mario Puzo, the original Superman film still holds its own against most of today's efforts. From the iconic opening credits that cost more than most films up to that point, it's a visionary piece of filmmaking, and its achievements are all the more impressive considering the means with which they had to create the special effects. Nowadays Superman can decimate a city in full 9/11-style fashion, and the only thing a visual effects artist might strain in the process of creating that global scale destruction is their wrist. We have become tacitly bored with the video game quality of most modern blockbusters, because the sense of exhilaration is lost in a sea of pixels. Which is why older films like Superman, and the occasional modern game-changer like Mad Max: Fury Road, are simply more exciting. There's a physicality and an adrenaline rush that we get from seeing real people in peril, with real explosions rattling our teeth.

If you let me in, I promise you'll have
a bigger role in Superman III.
Caught up in the midst of all the special effects wizardry and astonishing production design are a cast of brilliant actors who ground the material, but not into reality. This is not Christopher Nolan's Superman. Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, and especially Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor bring a pulpy and over-the-top feel to every performance. They don't just chew the scenery; they lick it, take it out to dinner, buy it the expensive champagne, bring it home for doggy style shenanigans, and then calmly place it into the wood chipper with Steve Buscemi's foot so the whole audience can get sprayed by the blood, sweat, and tears that went into every frame. There's warmth and humanity instead of a bottom line and a clockwork plot. Even when the film devolves into one of the stupidest deus ex machina endings ever committed to film, we're still invested in the plight of Superman and Lois Lane.

Even though it takes us over an hour and a half to get through the backstory all of us can recite by heart, it's never boring even when it is slow. Make no mistake, though: Once Reeve shows up in that costume, Donner pulls the ripcord and guns it for a finish line that was supposed to span two films. Due to his public discontent with the Salkinds, Donner was fired from the project after completing 75% of Superman II, the last 25% of which was taken over by Richard Lester. Superman II is arguably the best Superman film to date, but there will be more Movie Sleuth goodness coming up on that. If you want to know what happens when a Supes movie is all Lester's doing, watch Superman III, and bring a diaper and a box of tissues.

Everyone sit back, I got this.
Superman IV: The Quest for More Money (1987) // directed by Sidney J. Furie
After Superman III became the movie equivalent of watching a team of producers set their own careers on fire with Ellen Ripley's flame thrower, the rights for the series were purchased by none other than the Go-Go Boys themselves: Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of the Cannon Group were going to make a Superman movie. News of this hit like how we all felt after watching the new Ghostbusters trailer: The knot in the pit of your stomach tightened up, vomit rising to just barely graze the cusp of your throat, because yes, it is every bit as bad as you first thought it would be, and no, it's not just because they're women, so shut up.

Despite some impressive model work and stunts, Christopher Reeve still looking like he was born to play the role, Margot Kidder on the brink of going nuts, and Gene Hackman reminding us how a great actor manages to survive a cinematic abortion like this with dignity, Superman IV is a black hole singularity of suck. Its ineptitudes compound into a gravity well that pulls the other films into the abyss after it, bringing them all down by mere association. There are people who refuse to purchase the box set of Superman films simply because this one is inside. It's that bad. And I know that I've covered this before in my list of the Worst Comic Book Movies, but this is one of those singular abominations that was so ill-conceived from start to finish, entire books could be written about it that would barely scratch the surface of this heinous misfire. 

I'm a versatile actor.
Arriving nine years after the first film convinced us that a man could fly, these effects are so awful they pull you out of the movie faster than a speeding bullet. Not only are the effects lazy and repetitive, complete with visible strings "flying" the actors, but so is the writing. The shoddy effects can be excused by the fact that Cannon slashed the budget for Superman IV by more than half, but there is no acceptable explanation for a script this bad. If the final budget for The Quest for Peace was $17 million, apparently a good script costs $18 million. The ham-fisted story of how Superman plans to rid the world of all nuclear weapons is stupefyingly illogical to the point of hilarity. Considering mutual annihilation by nukes was the only thing keeping two world superpowers from engaging in warfare with conventional weapons for roughly forty years, if you're an individual with even the slightest understanding of sociopolitical history, this is not the movie for you.

While it's beating you over the face with its Hallmark message of nuclear disarmament somehow equating to world peace, enter Mark Pillow as Lex Luthor's genetic experiment designed to destroy Superman. If Fabio could mate with William Katt's mullet from Carrie, and the baby grew up to be a steroid addicted meth head with a default expression that looks like someone replaced all the oxygen in the room with beer farts, you'd have Nuclear Man. If you were expecting an epic battle on par with the finale of Superman II, your optimism is admirable, but I got some bad news for you. Superman IV wasn't just the nail in the coffin of the franchise, but it very nearly killed the comic book movie genre as a whole. Willem Dafoe tells us "the only thing people like seeing more than a hero succeeding is to see a hero fail, die trying." Superman IV is proof that he was dead wrong.

Superman Returns (2006) // directed by Bryan Singer
I won a glorified lookalike contest!
Filmed in 1986, the last line spoken in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was delivered by Gene Hackman. As Superman leaves him back in prison, Lex Luthor snidely tells him, "See you in twenty." How oddly prophetic that line would turn out to be, because it was exactly twenty years later when Superman Returns hit theaters to mixed fanfare. It really was mixed, I promise. This movie got some good reviews. In fact, it made back its $200 million budget, but to hear fanboys spew their vitriol about it, you'd think that this was a betrayal on the level of something like Highlander 2: The Quickening. While it is a movie riddled with flaws, I felt compelled to revisit it recently after brushing up on the Reeve films, and what I discovered about it was surprising.

Bryan Singer almost nailed it. He really did. The tone of this movie is almost dead-on balls accurate. People who think that Lex Luthor's scheme in this movie is beyond all rational belief must have rose colored glasses on when they remember the prior entries. All of Luthor's schemes are irrational and stupid. Every single one of them. That's always been the joke: The "greatest criminal mind of the modern era" is actually one of the stupidest men walking the planet. He just happens to have a lot of money, which he only got because he inherited it. He's a lot like Donald Trump only with better hair. But even Donald Trump wouldn't be caught dead with Parker Posey as his sidekick. Add Kal Penn to the mix as one of the world's most unthreatening henchmen, and we're not off to the best of starts.

I bet you forgot I was in this.
It's obvious that Singer has an enormous amount of love for the first two films of the series. The ethereal tribute to the original credits and John Williams' majestic theme are a perfect homage. The cinematography, the sense of humor, all of it rings true to the style pioneered by Richard Donner. So what is it about Superman Returns that leaves so many with a sour taste in their mouth? The biggest problem is the casting. Kevin Spacey is actually a terrific Lex Luthor, but even with a great villain, you still need a good straight man to ground the madness. Brandon Routh clearly was chosen for Superman because he's a dead ringer for Reeve. There is no mistaking it when you see him in the costume that he looks like Superman, but that's really about as far as the comparison goes. His performance is competent, but when compared to Reeve -- and especially to Dean Cain -- he comes off as very stiff, as if the weight of assuming the cape and S were almost too much of a brick wall for his emotions to break through. Unfortunately, his blandness is evenly matched by an equally miscast Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane.

So already suffering under the weight of two miscast leads and a mixed bag of a supporting cast, Superman Returns has a difficult time hitting the ground running. Singer puts us in the perfect mood to recreate the experience of seeing Superman on the big screen and then holds the gun to his own head by insisting that the original formula was perfect. Well, it wasn't. The first Superman certainly holds up today, but it's far from being a great timeless entertainment. To hold it sacred as the model upon which this film could build its foundation was a fundamental problem in itself. It's ironic that the biggest strength of the project -- the love the filmmaker had for the legacy -- could also wind up being one of its biggest weaknesses. Still, with that being said, Superman Returns no longer carries the stigma it once did, and when experienced with fresh eyes, holds a lot of fun in store. The airplane sequence is still one hell of a stunner. When it rocks, it rocks hard.

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1994-1997) // developed by Deborah Joy Levine
This is called super foreplay.
Even with the advent of a cultural phenomenon like Smallville, and the more recent Man of Steel, I still find it hard to believe that memories of Lois and Clark seem to have gone up in smoke right along with Dean Cain's career. Say what you will about the direction that the show took after its first season, and many could make arguments that I would wholeheartedly agree with. The show did get silly and hammy and a little too sappy with the romance, but when the pilot episode was directed by none other than Robert Butler, who also directed the pilot of the Adam West Batman series... perhaps that was inevitable. 

Yet after twenty years, this still sticks with me as the absolute best incarnation of Superman that we have seen, and the most faithful to the comics. Yes, I said that. Better than Christopher Reeve, better than Henry Cavill, better than George Reeves, and we won't even talk about Brandon Routh. Dean Cain is the best Superman we have ever had for a very simple reason: He is the best Clark Kent. It is true that he had a four year television run to develop his character, as opposed to the length of a feature film, which gives him an advantage. But just consider the pilot episode and stack it up next to Reeve. While Reeve's performance fits the hyperbolic tone that Donner was going for, his Clark Kent is incredibly bumbling and silly to the point of slapstick. Cain's version of Clark Kent feels like a real man with normal troubles who just happens to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. He likes sports, loves his work, has loving parents, and he actually brings the air of good natured hospitality you'd expect from a man raised on a farm in America's bread basket.

My hair is too afraid to fall out.
Match that performance with Teri Hatcher, who is hands-down the best Lois Lane of all-time -- seriously, no one else even comes close to approaching her level of spunk and tenacity -- and you've got the makings of what should have been a legendary series. For the entire first season, Lois and Clark lives up to that promise. Every episode snaps, crackles and pops with the energy of a live wire. But a superhero story is only as good as its villain. With the inspired casting choice of John Shea, we have a Lex Luthor to rival even the likes of Gene Hackman. Every time Shea is on screen, you can't take your eyes off him. It's a performance of superb nuance, his dark eyes always hinting at the rabid malevolence bubbling just beneath the surface of a polished facade.

When Zack Snyder gave us Man of Steel, I was really hoping for the emphasis of the film to be on the Man, not the Steel. While still delivering a good entertainment, he felt short where he should have pushed farther. When Deborah Joy Levine was commissioned to create a romantic comedy built on the Superman mythos, it could have been a disaster. Just look at Superman III and the painfully unfunny love triangle subplot in Superman IV. Instead, Levine and Robert Butler created a Superman for the ages that really does focus on the Man, and that is why this version of Superman endures for me. The Superman of the comics and films is truly a godlike figure, intelligent beyond any mere human, almost perfect, and therefore we have a hard time identifying with him. Dean Cain's performance, fueled by terrific writing, shows us a good person with humane ideals struggling to find his place in a world he fears won't accept his true self, and that is something we can all identify with.

Let us know what you think of our retrospectives on Batman and Superman in the comments, and be sure to keep your eyes peeled for another Movie Battle as well as more Batman v Superman coverage coming up!

- Blake O. Kleiner

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