by D.W. Lundberg

Saturday, May 12, 2012


He is easily the most iconic and recognizable of all superheroes: Why, if the red boots, cape, and blue tights don't give him away, then the red-and-yellow "S" insignia at the center of his chest most certainly will. His name has become synonymous with all things "Truth, Justice and the American Way." And few phrases in pop culture iconography bring a smile to people's faces like "Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!" can. Born Kal-El of Krypton, and later adopting the guise of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, the Man of Steel would not only emerge as Earth's greatest protector – he would turn out to be the archetype for all comic book heroes to follow.

This response no doubt took even Superman's creators by surprise. Hailing from the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster originally envisioned their "superman" (or "Übermensch," as coined by Friedrich Nietzsche) as a bald-headed telepathic villain bent on world domination. Years later, they completely re- jiggered their concept, and in April of 1938, the character as we all know and love him debuted in Action Comics #1, which sold on newsstands for 10¢ an issue (to compare: a mint-condition copy was recently auctioned off at $2.16 million). His popularity only skyrocketed from there, selling millions of comics in multiple languages all over the world. He soon became the star of his own radio show, a string of popular Max Fleischer cartoons, two movie serials, and a weekly television series starring George Reeves. Usurpers to the throne (including Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and the Hulk) could only look on with envy.

Superman's quest for box office superstardom, however, wasn't quite so easy a feat. His first foray into feature-film format - 1951's Superman And The Mole Men, also starring Reeves - performed moderately well but served mainly as an introduction to the TV series. It would be another 23 years, in fact, before anyone would even attempt to make a Superman movie again, when in November of 1974, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind snatched up the rights from DC Comics. In typical bombastic fashion, the Salkinds planned to shoot two mega- budget epics back to back, on a scale never before seen on the screen. They hired author Mario Puzo (The Godfather) to write the script, and cast A- listers Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman in prominent roles. DC's parent company, Warner Bros. Pictures, immediately agreed to distribute both movies internationally, as well as domestically. Clearly, the Salkinds came to play.

What followed became one of the most notoriously troubled productions in all of Hollywood history. Its many twists and turns have been well-documented over the years: How Richard Donner signed on to direct Superman I and II simultaneously, after William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg passed on the project. How Donner took one look at the script - now a massive 400-page tome, as re-written by Robert Benton and David and Leslie Newman - and brought in his own writer, Tom Mankiewicz, to eliminate the high-camp tone they felt was an insult to the character. (Though Mankiewicz revamped the entire screenplay from scratch, he was denied credit by the Writer's Guild of America, so Donner awarded him a "Creative Consultant" nod instead.) How 24-year-old Christopher Reeve was chosen from over 200 unknowns to play the Man of Steel. How the technical crew overcame insurmountable odds to make us "believe a man can fly." How cost overruns and shooting delays had Donner and the Salkinds constantly at each others'
 throats. And how, late into filming, it was decided to halt production on II so that I could be completed in time for its target release date.

None of this seemed to register, though, once Superman: The Movie opened in theaters on December 10, 1978. Audiences loved it - to the tune of $300 million (unadjusted) worldwide. It's a loving, reverential tribute to Siegel and Shuster's beloved creation, made by a team of passionate, hard- working professionals determined to get it right. Donner's mantra throughout the production - "verisimilitude" - meant that cast and crew treated their subject seriously at all times; make Superman an object of fun, and they risked turning him into a farce. (This is not to say that the movie lacks humor. Scenes like this one - in which Clark Kent catches a speeding bullet with his bare hands - or this - in which Superman's affinity for telephone booths gets a mocking reference - play like a love letter to fans, who've weaned themselves on decades of comic book mythology and lore.)

What they did was create an entirely new genre of films - with Superman standing, once again, at the forefront of them all. Famously, Mankiewicz split the screenplay into three distinct parts: part one, with its grandiose, Shakespearean dialogue, detailing the destruction of Krypton and baby Kal- El's escape to Earth; part two, evoking the works of Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth as it follows Clark Kent's formative years in Smallville; and the movie's longest and funniest section, set in Metropolis, which introduces familiar faces and places such as Lois Lane and The Daily Planet. (Mankiewicz and Donner also loaded the movie with quasi-religious undertones, in keeping with Siegel and Shuster's original concept.)

Some find the earlier passages meandering and dull, that it takes too long to get down to action. But it's a singular representation of the character on screen - the origin story par excellence. From its star-studded cast of character actors (Hackman, Brando, plus Ned Beatty, Trevor Howard,
Glenn Ford, Jackie Cooper, Terence Stamp and Susannah York), to its innovative special effects (I'll take its mix of blue screen and complex wire-work over souped-up CGI any day), to its majestic music score (has there ever been a superhero theme as instantly iconic as John Williams' "Superman March"?), Donner and company proved that Comic Book movies meant serious business.

And they found their ideal hero in Christopher Reeve, whose bumbling, put-upon Clark Kent (modeled after Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby) and towering, superhuman Superman (always sincere, but with tongue firmly in cheek) became the definitive portrayal of the last 30 years. Even the prolific Pauline Kael, who panned the film, singled out Reeve as its sole saving grace. Roger Ebert, likewise, called him "an engaging actor, open and funny in his big love scene with Lois Lane, and then correctly awesome in his showdown with the archvillain Lex Luthor," and later, that Reeve "does a more nuanced acting job than he's usually credited for." That's the sort of magic that can't be replicated in a computer.

Had Donner and the Salkinds been able to settle their differences, the franchise might have turned out very special indeed. But by the time filming resumed on II, Donner opted out, and the Salkinds hired director Richard Lester (Help!, A Hard Day's Night) to finish the sequel instead. (With over 75% of the film already in the can, Lester had several scenes re-written and re-shot in order to retain sole directing credit.) The series then took a sharp left turn toward comedy when Lester returned for Part III. And despite the best efforts of Superman IV, budget problems and haphazard studio support only hurt its chances at the box office.

Still, the series' pedigree lives on, in the fanboy favorites of today (Iron Man, X-Men, even M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable owe their basic story structure to Superman) and in its many incarnations since. Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the character - not a bad legacy for a couple of college kids from Ohio - and with it comes the release of Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel, starring Henry Cavill and produced by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight). It will be the first cinematic Superman in 35 years to break free of the Donner/ Salkind mold. To step out of their shadow, though? Now that would be truly superheroic.


The Original: Superman (Richard Donner, 1978)

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Valerie Perrine, Phyllis Thaxter, Marc McClure, Susannah York, Trevor Howard, Maria Schell, Harry Andrews, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O'Halloran

Plot: A child from the doomed planet Krypton is sent to Earth, where he grows into adulthood and uses his enhanced superpowers to fight for truth, justice and the American way.

How It Set The Tone: There's a moment a little over an hour into Richard Donner's 1978 super-hit when Clark Kent, looking to change into his caped alter ego (to rescue Lois Lane, no less), passes a telephone booth on the street and shoots it a quick look of disdain. It's a joke that gets a knowing laugh from die-hard Superman fans, and keeps the movie from teetering into grating over-seriousness. ("Verisimilitude," Donner called it - making the improbable probable.) This is the granddaddy of all superhero movies - even the fanboy favorites of today continue to copy its origin story structure, its star-studded cast, and its wide-eyed eagerness to please. The movie's real ace up its sleeve, though, is Christopher Reeve, who plays both sides of his Superman/Clark Kent persona with tongue firmly in cheek. (He's able to deliver a line like "I certainly hope this little incident hasn't put you off flying, miss. Statistically speaking, of course, it's still the safest way to travel" with utter sincerity - and completely sells it.)

Room For Improvement: It hasn't dated well, obviously (70's apparel = yuck), and the script's leisurely three-act structure (set on Krypton, in Smallville, and in Metropolis, respectively) is sure to drive modern-day adrenaline junkies absolutely batty. The movie's much-publicized special effects, too, look a bit primitive today
- but I'll take its complex mix of blue-screen and model work over trumped-up, computer-generated mumbo jumbo any day.

Grade: B+

Sequel: Superman II (Richard Lester, 1980)

Returning Cast: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Jackie Cooper, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine, Sarah Douglas, Jack O'Halloran, Marc McClure, Susannah York

New Cast: Clifton James, E.G. Marshall

Plot: As his romance with Lois Lane blossoms, Superman must contend with a trio of murderous Kryptonian criminals, recently escaped to Earth.

How It Compares: Behind-the-scenes shenanigans aside, this is still widely regarded as one of the better sequels ever made, and rightly so: Superman II is flashier, edgier, and it gives fans the action they crave. Couple that with a rich romantic subplot and it's no wonder so many people went crazy for it. Purists, meanwhile, continue to haggle over the movie's conflicting personalities. At the time Richard Donner abandoned the project, roughly 3/4 of the sequel had already been completed; when Richard Lester came on board, he either re-staged or re-wrote entire sequences in order to retain sole directing credit, adding his trademark sight gags and slapstick into the mix. (For a detailed description of who directed what, click here.) The movie's ingenious construction, though, is all Donner's - a fact that seemed to elude many critics upon its initial release.

The Richard Donner Cut: In 2006, Warner Bros. released Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut on Blu-Ray and DVD. Edited from the original camera negative by Michael Thau, and supervised by Donner and Tom Mankiewicz, over half of TRDC features material never before seen on video: Marlon Brando's scenes have all been restored (excised by the Salkinds after Brando demanded a percentage of the grosses), a key moment between Lois, Clark and a gun has been reinstated (via screen tests with Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve), and the movie's original ending, in which Superman reverses Earth's rotation and turns back time, replaces the notorious "amnesia kiss" shot by Lester. (Superman doesn't really turn back time again, mind you - Donner simply had no time to shoot a new ending for II, so that footage gets re-purposed here.) The difference is negligible: Donner's version is decidedly less campy, Lester's is a little more rousing in spots, but the structure is basically the same. Choose wisely.

Grade: B (Lester Cut), B (Richard Donner Cut)

Sequel: Superman III (Richard Lester, 1983)

Returning Cast: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure

New Cast: Richard Pryor, Annette O'Toole, Robert Vaughn, Pamela Stephenson, Annie Ross

Plot: Superman becomes the target of an evil CEO, who manipulates a down-on-his-luck computer programmer to create synthetic Kryptonite.

How It Compares: You've got to hand it to the Salkinds: if not for them, we might never have gotten a big-budget Superman epic in the first place. Two movies later, though, it's clear they had no idea how to handle the character, because how else would you explain The Adventures Of SuperPryor Superman III, in which ham-handed slapstick and lame corporate "satire" prove to be the series' undoing? (This was the first franchise entry, by the way, without any input from Richard Donner.) The plot exists merely as an excuse to let Richard Pryor do his thing, while Christopher Reeve, bless his heart, is forced to play second fiddle in his own movie. Worse, director Richard Lester keeps piling on the absurdities - including a Rube Goldberg-ian opening title sequence, shots of world-weary Metropo-lites slapping each other over minor traffic scrapes, and a piece of imitation Kryptonite that turns Superman into a prankster and a pervert. Thank heaven for the Smallville sequences, with Annette O'Toole co-starring as Lana Lang, Clark Kent's hometown crush. She's the one recognizable human being in the entire movie. (O'Toole was later cast as Martha Kent in TV's Smallville series.)

Grade: C-

Sequel: Supergirl (Jeannot Szwarc, 1984)

Returning Cast: Marc McClure

New Cast: Helen Slater, Faye Dunaway, Peter O’Toole, Peter Cook, Mia Farrow, Hart Bochner

Plot: A second survivor of Krypton rockets to Earth, where she passes herself off as cousin to Clark Kent.

How It Compares: This is technically a spin-off, not a sequel, but since both Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) and a poster of Christopher Reeve/Superman appear briefly, I include it here. Director Jeannot Szwarc (Somewhere In Time) tries for the same epic scope as the Salkinds' earlier efforts, but the material is still just as campy, and it's not very fun. Faye Dunaway goes way over the top as a power-hungry priestess bent on human suffering, which sort of balances out, since Supergirl herself is such a blank slate. As Kara Zor-El, Helen Slater sure looks fetching in her super-skirt and knee- high red boots, but she spends so much of the movie looking dumbfounded, I don't really buy it when she turns all heroic at the end. This is a blatant cash grab, a naked attempt to turn an already waning franchise into a blockbuster Girl Empowerment picture. Trivia bit: Supergirl composer Jerry Goldsmith was originally hired to score Richard Donner's Superman but couldn't commit due to scheduling conflicts.

Grade: C-

Sequel: Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (Sidney J. Furie, 1987)

Returning Cast: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure

New Cast: Jon Cryer, Mariel Hemingway,
Mark Pillow

Plot: Superman makes a bid to rid the Earth of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor is able to harvest nuclear power to create Nuclear Man, a dark mirror of his arch-nemesis.

How It Compares: Christopher Reeve helped concoct the story for his fourth go-round as the Man of Steel, which aims for topicality but winds up looking dorky instead. Of course, it doesn't help that TQFP bears obvious signs of post-production tinkering: initial script drafts were slightly more ambitious, and the Z-grade special effects make the Kirk Alyn serials of the '40s look positively glorious by comparison. It's embarrassing, and I hope the folks at Cannon Films - who slashed the budget by more than $20 million - feel ashamed to this day. Somehow the cast is able to play it straight (minus, say, Jon Cryer as Lex Luthor's Flock of Seagull-haired nephew Lenny), and there's a subplot with The Daily Planet under threat of corporate takeover that belongs in a different movie. IV's single best sequence is a slapstick-y double date between Superman/Clark Kent and sexpots Margot Kidder and Mariel Hemingway, which at least shows some semblance of cleverness. That's hardly high praise for a project with grander aspirations than this.

Grade: D-

Sequel: Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006)

Returning Cast: Marlon Brando (cameo)

New Cast: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Eva Marie Saint, Kal Penn

Plot: Superman returns to Earth after a mysterious five-year absence, to find that the world has moved on without him.

How It Compares: After several failed attempts to bring Big Blue back to the big screen – Tim Burton's proposed reboot, J.J. Abrams' reboot, even an ill-fated Batman Vs. Superman project – Warner Bros. finally succeeded in the summer of 2006, with X-Men director Bryan Singer at the helm. Singer's plan: forget that parts III and IV ever existed (smart), and pay homage to Richard Donner's efforts instead (less smart). The movie is reverent to a fault: John Williams' majestic title tune is back, as is Marlon Brando, via CG-enhanced footage from 1978. But the characters feel neutered - stripped of their personality and life, as if too much of that might upset the fan base. The action is terrific, and newcomer Brandon Routh is likable (if a bit baby-faced) as Superman/Clark Kent. The plot, however, feels severely undercooked (Gee, do you think Lex Luthor might actually resort to using Kryptonite? Could Lois Lane's asthmatic little tyke turn out to be super-powered?). And at 154 minutes, it's odd how so much of the film's central love triangle goes unresolved. You can't help feel that Superman Returns is a big, booming blockbuster epic in which nothing much happens at all.

Grade: B-

More To Come?: Zack Snyder's rebooted Man Of Steel opens on June 14, 2013 - roughly 75 years after Action Comics #1 first appeared on newsstands. Produced by Christopher Nolan and starring Henry Cavill, Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Michael Sheen and Laurence Fishburne, it will be the first big-screen Superman since 1978 to start the mythology over from scratch. Plus, no red tights!


Part One of a superheroic series of Franchise Face-Offs. Up next: The Dark Knight returns. Also click on the following for previous entries: Sherlock Holmes, Rush Hour, Men In Black, Paranormal Activity, Lethal Weapon, 48HRS., Harry Potter, Transformers, Leprechaun (you heard me), The Matrix, Halloween, and our introductory segment, starring Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan. Please comment!

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