Superman: The Re-Issues (?)
An editorial by Michael Hutchison
with art by Kurt Belcher
Something was suspiciously absent from the last months of 1998 and early 1999.
Aside from an announcement that the President was resigning in disgrace, I mean. (Sorry, couldn't resist!)
No, what I refer to here is some sort of 20th anniversary celebration of Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie, released in December of 1978. Superman was one of the big hits of 1978/1979 and went on to spawn three sequels of varying quality. The (for the time) big budget film made a star of an unknown named Christopher Reeve and also introduced the names Gene Hackman, Valerie Perrine, Margot Kidder and Ned Beatty to a bunch of kiddies who would otherwise have been too young to see their mostly R-rated exploits. Gene Hackman probably owes more of his current stardom to this film than he thinks. While already a star of the early 1970s (from such films as The French Connection), I and a generation of kids going to high school in the 1980s wouldn't know who he was if he hadn't grabbed our attentions playing the villainous Lex Luthor. Oh, and there's also some obese sweaty guy in a Kryptonian muumuu who was terribly overpaid for his few minutes of screen-time just because he looked great in a T-shirt a few decades prior.
Unfortunately, the special effects of the film have faded with two decades of SFX advances, and the movie isn't so special when it's shown on the Superstation on any night that there isn't WWF wrestling. But I'd like to share with you my thoughts and impressions of the four Christopher Reeve Superman films.
Superman (1978) opens with a credit sequence that cost more than the average movie at that time. After zooming through space past whooshing credits, we arrive at the planet Krypton. Krypton is a white, sterile planet. Three renegade Kryptonians in black are sentenced to imprisonment in the Phantom Zone (which appears as a floating polygon mirror) by Jor-El, played by the overrated Marlon Brando who was paid four million dollars due to his "Godfather" fame. (His portrayal of Jor-El is nice, but not four million dollars worth of nice.) Promising the council that neither he nor his wife will leave Krypton, Jor-El rockets his son off to Earth.
Clark is found by the Kents, and he startles them by lifting their truck over his head.
Jumping ahead, we see Clark racing a train home from school. In a scene cut from the final film, a little girl on the train sees him running alongside the train and tells her parents who are played by the Clark Kent (Kirk Alyn) and Lois Lane (Noel Neill) from the old Superman serials! The girl is scolded for lying, and we find out that she's Lois Lane. Frankly, I'm glad this scene was wiped because it's otherwise a mistake. If Lois is a little girl when Clark is 18, she couldn't be a star reporter when Clark arrives in Metropolis a few scenes later!
Shortly after Clark arrives home, his father dies of a heart attack and he leaves to wander north carrying a Kryptonian artifact. Arriving in the Arctic, the artifact builds the Fortress of Solitude for him. A hologram of his father teaches him his heritage and his destiny. Clark adopts the costume of Superman and leaves for Metropolis. When he arrives there (it isn't clear if he went to college before this happens, although that's certainly not enough time for Lois to have matured into a full reporter), he meets Lois Lane and becomes a writer for the Daily Planet.
Superman appears and saves Lois Lane from a helicopter accident. I think this is just about everyone's favorite scene. Grabbing Lois in mid-fall, he assures her, "Don't worry, miss. I've got you." "YOU've got ME?" she shrieks, "Who's got YOU??" Superman departs to stop some robberies and rescue a trapped kitten. Later, he grants Lois an interview and takes her for a moonlit flight.
Now that the origin is established, enter Lex Luthor. No origin given, he's just a bad guy with the money to build an underground lair. (As Chuck Dixon pointed out when we discussed the worst of the Batman films, some villains just don't need a contrived origin.) His plan is to sink the entire West Coast using a nuclear warhead along the San Andreas fault line, leaving hundreds of miles of new beachfront property owned by him. Not a bad plan at all, as plans go. It's realistic enough to work and would leave the guy an obscenely rich land baron. This should be a requirement for all superhero films: make sure your villain has a great motivation.
Luthor steals two nukes and finds a chunk of Kryptonite (I'm still unclear as to how Lex knew it would hurt Superman), then uses a sonic paging system to call Superman. In the most exciting and expensive of scenes that were cut from the final film, Superman approaches the underground lair by walking down a booby-trapped hallway. As he does, he's hit with flamethrowers, machine guns and a blast of extreme cold, but they don't stop him (of course). And I love the words of Mr. Otis as a thick steel door begins to stretch and bend: "Uh, I think he's coming, Mr. Luthor!"
Miss Teschmacher rescues Superman from Kryptonite poisoning on the condition that he first stops a diversionary missile heading for her mother's hometown in New Jersey. She takes him at his word, because "everyone knows Superman doesn't lie."
At the climax of the film, Superman chases the missiles but can only stop the one heading for New Jersey. I'll admit, this is a bit of a plot hole; Superman spends a lot of time looking like he's trying to catch up to the missile, but we later see him circling the Earth in seconds. Too late to stop the nuclear explosion, he seals the San Andreas Fault and repairs some damage, but then finds out that Lois has died in the devestation. In what is this film's worst plot device, Superman flies around the globe backwards so fast that he turns time backwards until Lois is alive (I know, it's dramatic but it doesn't make sense!). This solution has far too many time-travel problems on many different levels, but I won't go into them now.
This film is fantastic, in that it has a level of care that is rarely seen in movies since then. The filmmakers obviously worked very hard to treat the character as the icon that he has become while trying to make him human at the same time. Superman is kind, inspiring and concerned about how people see him. He is patriotic and has a strong sense of duty; when the prison warden praises Superman for his efforts, Superman responds, "Don't thank me. We're all in this together."
Merchandising barely entered into the creation of the film. This is 180° different from the current producers at Warner Brothers who told "Superman Lives" writer Kevin Smith that they didn't care about the relationship between Clark and Lois, what was important is how many toys they can sell.
From his origins to his youth to his arrival in Metropolis to his superhero career to meeting the woman of his dreams to his stopping a master madman, Superman is an epic done large. Instead of focusing entirely on one adventure (say, if Luthor's plot gobbled up 50% of the film), this movie works as a biography of Superman and tries to cover all that he is in only two hours. It introduces Superman to a new generation that hadn't seen him on the big screen in their lifetime (not since the 1950s) and does it with an extravagant budget worthy of a film that transcends movies about mortal men.
Note the number of elements which John Byrne later implemented when he rewrote Superman: Krypton is cold and sterile, Luthor is a wealthy scheming manipulator in a suit, and Superman doesn't begin his career until adulthood.
I love the tweaks at the Superman cliches, particularly the modern cut-away phone booth!
I know, I know I just applauded this movie for not wasting time on Luthor's origins or allowing his evil scheme to dominate the film, thus putting the focus on Superman. However, as a writer, I must point out that the film tends to wander up until this third act where Lex Luthor goes out of his way to bring Superman into conflict with him. A good portion of the film just lopes along, looking for a purpose beyond showing scenes from Superman's life and action sequences with random criminals and natural disasters. Had any part of Lex Luthor's early life been shown while Clark Kent was developing, we'd see that these two are headed for conflict. It doesn't have to be the "kid scientist grows up in Smallville and a young Clark blows his hair out" origin, but SOMETHING to give this film some tension and cohesion.
Its realistic location photography seems odd at times when compared to the "comic book universe" style of such films as Batman, The Mask, The Crow and other films made since then. Bear in mind that Superman was very much in uncharted territory at the time, and the intention was to bring Superman into the real world ("You will believe a man can fly!").
Superman II (1980) is, hands-down, the best of the lot precisely because it did what the first one didn't: have an ongoing menace (and a challenging one, at that) throughout the film.
In this film, the Kryptonians are released from the Phantom Zone whereupon they murder three astronauts and then proceed to Earth where they cause widespread chaos. Lois Lane, meanwhile, discovers that Clark Kent is Superman and the two fly off to the Fortress of Solitude for some romancin'. Superman, forced to choose between the roles of Superman and Earthling husband, picks the latter and has his superpowers removed. ("Why" is never explained. It's unclear if this is a Kryptonian bit of egalitarianism or a throwback to the old "Man of Steel, Woman of Tissue" theory.)
Then the two go to bed together, which really warped my fragile little 10-year-old mind. Yeah, I know, I can deal with it now but this was SUPERMAN! However, while they never talked commitment, it would have been really crass for Lois to say, "I think we should see other people" after Clark just had his DNA reworked cell by cell for her.
The Kryptonians destroy Mt. Rushmore and then land at the White House, where the U.S. President is forced to kneel before General Zod and proclaim him the ruler of Earth.
Clark and Lois drive to a truckstop somewhere north (the Fortress of Solitude has a Hertz rent-a-car in the back, apparently, as well as a highway leading to civilization) where Clark is humiliated by a bullying trucker. As he's licking his wounds, he sees the announcement that General Zod is the new world leader. The President appeals for Superman to save them, and Clark decides to return to the Fortress. Lois decides that the man she loves can just go fend for himself in the frozen wastes while she takes the car to Metropolis.
Lex Luthor, who escaped from jail and found the Fortress of Solitude earlier in the film, offers the "son of Jor-El" to the Kryptonians in exchange for a small piece of land (Australia). They attack the Daily Planet until Superman, revived by the Kryptonian green cylinder, arrives to stop them. What follows is an epic battle between three bloodthirsty villains and Superman which rampages through skyscrapers, into Coke signs, plunging into the sewers below and in, around and through a Marlboro truck as many times as it took to meet the massive payoff the tobacco company slipped the producers of the movie (note that Lois smokes, too).
It all winds up with a showdown at the Fortress of Solitude. Superman finally removes the Phantom Zone villains' powers and throws them into the depths of the Fortress (to their deaths?). He then takes Lois home and removes her memory of their relationship.
As I said, it's definitely the best film in terms of the threat of the foe, the overall plot (which has only a few small contrivances), the themes that run through the film and the fun of seeing Clark and Lois finally getting serious (years before it happened in either the comics or on "Lois and Clark").
I do wish that the final film had included one of the "cut" scenes at the end, in which the arctic police arrive to haul off Lex Luthor. If you look quick, you can see that they're also imprisoning the Phantom Zoners! In other words, without the revelation that they didn't fall to their death, Superman comes off as a murderer! (For those of you wondering, the cut scenes for the first two movies were restored to the films when they premiered on ABC Television, but have not been seen since except on the failed Laserdisc format, which barely counts. There are hand-taped copies of variable quality available on eBay.com and other sources on the Internet. Basically, the same places you'd find the unreleased Fantastic Four and JLA movies. ) At the end of this scene, the arctic police drive off in snowcrawlers, while Superman uses his heat vision to destroy the Fortress!
The "status quo" ending is rather unpleasant. Superman pledges to "never let it happen again," and while it's nice that he's vigilant, it seems super-sad that the one time Superman tries to find a little happiness for himself it brings so much misery. For crying out loud, he's not exactly committing the acts of Oedipus, here! He shouldn't be condemned to loneliness. Additionally, I don't think he should have the power to remove Lois' memories at his own whim; what if those were some of her happiest moments, too? Shouldn't she have some say in this?
And while we're on powers, the "new" powers such as the villains' fingerbeams, Superman's optical illusions and Superman's chest S which becomes a plastic trap are something of a surprise. I'd assume he's using his superspeed to pull off the multiple image illusion except that the other three are immaterial; were he running at superspeed, they'd all have equal substance. But I'm hardly expecting science in a movie where he's likely to get our planet rotating a different direction just by going around it fast!
How are the Kryptonians talking in space? How are the astronauts hearing the Kryptonians in space? I was ten years old when I saw this and I already knew there's no oxygen on the moon and sound doesn't travel in space. It seemed awfully stupid of the filmmakers to think that we have THAT much suspension of disbelief!
Unfortunately, the corniness and campiness of some scenes ruin an otherwise dark movie. For instance, a bunch of ordinary people wouldn't watch Superman get killed and then, grabbing a stick, advance on something powerful enough to kill Superman, yelling, "Let's get 'em!" We like to think of the "mob mentality" as going against logic, but mobs don't form unless the odds of winning outweigh the odds of getting hurt. (You never see five neo-Nazis trying to organize a lynching in the heart of Harlem!)
Superman III (1983) was a BIG disappointment. There is little to say about it. Richard Pryor plays a computer geek who winds up working for an evil millionaire who has it in for Superman. They try to synthesize Kryptonite but with an unknown element in the Kryptonite, their version is faulty. It doesn't kill him, it just turns him evil.
Superman finally splits into his two halves, the evil Superman and the good Clark. The two have a rousing fight in a junkyard and then Superman recovers.
Finally, Superman tracks the millionaire to a hideout in the Grand Canyon and fights a sentient supercomputer.
Since Superman already took the Lois Lane thing to consummation, Lana Lang is brought in as the love interest in a yawner of a subplot.
PROS: Hmmm you know, I can't think of one.
CONS:Dumb plot. Computer sound effects that were swiped form the Atari 2600 Pac-Man and graphics that look about the same. A forgettable villain. And a lame love interest.
One gets the feeling that Richard Pryor was supposed to carry the film. He doesn't. His nervous, scaredy-cat act is trotted out for the umpteenth time in his career and it falls flat. Has he EVER played anything else? Has he ever done any, you know, what's that called "acting," that's it. Basically, Richard Pryor is only as good as the schtick that's written for him, and this one doesn't exactly have much in the way of humor.
The directing is flat and lifeless, with Christopher Reeve going through the motions. I get the feeling that everyone knew this one was a stinker way in advance.
This movie just idn't no good.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) is the movie I'd like to like. Unlike the previous film, it has a message and a theme and a villain and a majestic direction. It takes the question we've all wondered, "With all of his powers, why doesn't Superman try to change the world for the better?" and puts that subject front and center. Thus, Christopher Reeve came up with this idea: Superman rids the world of all nuclear weapons.
It's a great idea for a plot. This film could have sent a strong message about learning to make peace and share this planet, while at the same time driving home to peaceniks the message that getting rid of armaments doesn't solve much. It could have focused on the dangers of such rapid disarmament in a Cold War atmosphere, when suddenly the superpowers are brought down to equal footing with the smaller nations. It could have addressed the issue that any nation that hides even one nuke from Superman is suddenly in control of the planet. It could have delved into the politics played by nations in the U.N.
Too bad the plot that resulted is a mish-mash of bad superheroics and a villain with a silly name.
It starts out well, with Superman being deeply moved by a young boy who asks Superman to do something about nuclear war. Superman flies to the United Nations building and gives a moving speech in which he talks about this obligation to help us solve our problems. "I've decided to rid the Earth of all nuclear weapons," he proclaims. The U.N. gives a resounding cheer, and they all turn over their missiles to Superman which just shows the fairy tale thinking that went into this script, unfortunately.
Had the film, from the speech at the U.N. and onward, focused on the disarmament issue and the resulting chaos, this movie might have been great. Just GETTING the missiles from the nations could have been such an ordeal that it would have dominated the second act of the movie. But no, the filmmakers don't want to bring us down with "details", so we get to see every country in the world cheerily hand over all the multi-million dollar warheads that they've sunk their military budgets into so that Superman can fly off with them.
At this point, we're back to petty villainy as Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman again, this time delving deep into his acting skills to convey to the audience that he'd rather be making a different movie) uses this opportunity to create NuclearMan. Yes, that's his name.
Actually, an entire segment of this movie was cut. There were supposed to be two versions of NuclearMan, the first being quite obviously similar to Bizarro. The decision to remove this segment of the film (as well as a different ending, which I'll get to) was made so late that the publicity materials (and the credits, I think) still listed the main villain as NuclearMan II.
Anyway, Lex Luthor gets a bit of Superman's DNA. How? Simple, there's a large boulder suspended by a strand of Superman's hair in a museum. How do they get this hair? By cutting it with a scissors. Does that make sense?
When Superman hurls all of the missiles into the Sun, one of them secretly contains the device which creates NuclearMan. From there onward, the movie's just a long, protracted fight between Superman and NuclearMan that rampages around the globe and to the moon. When a section of the Great Wall of China is destroyed, Superman uses a new superpower, rebuild-a-brick-wall-vision, to restore it.
Finally, NuclearMan and Luthor are defeated and Superman flies off, wiser than before.
Huh? What does the whole confrontation with a guy named "NuclearMan" have to do with disarmament and world peace? Not much. I prefer the original ending (the one in the comic book adaptation) in which Superman is seen with the boy from the beginning, who this time is wearing a space suit. As they fly through orbit, Superman points out that you can't see any borders on Earth and when everyone sees it that way, there will be peace.
PROS: As I say, the really good part of this movie is the premise. I'm also a Mariel Hemingway fan, and she's in this movie.
CONS: Lots of cons, but I should also mention that there's a subplot to this movie in which the Daily Planet is sold to a tabloid company. It isn't really necessary and it doesn't add anything of substance to the movie.
I think the biggest problem of movies three and four is that Warner Brothers obviously saw them as more of a franchise, pushing out the movies because the previous ones were moneymakers. The winding subplots, blasé treatment of Superman, pointless action set pieces and incomprehensible plots point to this. All "Batman" movie fans know the signs.
What to do on the 20th anniversary?
The absent mention of Superman's 20th anniversary is particularly curious when you consider that the movie's star, Christopher Reeve, has risen to prominence again. A virtual unknown soap opera actor on a lesser-known soap opera, Christopher Reeve was nonetheless the perfect man to play Superman. As Superman, he was inspirational; as Clark Kent, he was embarrassingly clumsy but irresistably charming.
Another nice thing about Reeve is that he's a good guy who did what few actors, outside of old cowboy stars like Clayton Moore, ever do: kept his name clean. No kid ever had to read about how "Superman" was hauled naked and hurling profanity from an orgy at an actor's home in Malibu after nearly dying from a mix of barbituates and cocaine. Nor has he really portrayed any reprehensible characters in other films, which would also shock the kids who saw him as Superman.
What is most amazing about his casting is that it's probably the last time Hollywood has made a movie with an unknown as the star (aside from Aileen Quinn in Annie, although I really don't think that counts). Ever since, the burgeoning blockbuster industry has demanded that an A-list actor fill every major role in any big-budget picture, which is why we're plagued with such well-acted films as Batman and Robin. But that's a rant for another day. Back to Reeve.
Unfortunately, Christopher Reeve was suited to play the shy Clark Kent and the stoic Superman, but his stiff acting and monotone range didn't really lend themselves to many other roles (unfortunately, no one was filming a biography of Al Gore). He did have a few non-Superman successes, most especially Somewhere in Time. And I'm fond of the ensemble comedy Noises Off. But for the most part, his career has been on a long, downward slide since he retired the cape.
As morbid as it seems, Christopher Reeve owes his currently high level of esteem to the debilitating spinal injury he received in his 1995 horse riding accident. (I know it's impolitic to say so. But let's be realistic: Christopher Reeve would not have received a one-minute ovation at the 1996 Oscars for his washed-up role in John Carpenter's unnecessary Village of the Damned remake. Hell, they probably wouldn't have let him IN to the Oscars!)
Christopher Reeve has been busy these last few years. He's directed a few films and also got in front of the camera again in a remake of Hitchcock's Rear Window. He published his autobiography (again, not a book that would have sold half as well before the accident). And he's turned his attention to activism. At first, he didn't apply himself properly. He petitioned the government to increase research spending to find a way to allow him to walk again, which was a wonderfully knee-jerk bit of selfishness. In addition to fostering the socialist view that a cure for anything is only "more government spending" away, the use of his celebrity to campaign for an issue which only interested him once it was to his benefit was not particularly becoming. However, this didn't last long, as he learned to accept and cope with his circumstances. Shortly thereafter, he began working with other disabled people across the country, giving inspirational talks and lectures.
Most inspiring of all, Christopher Reeve has thrown himself into his physical therapy the same way that he tackled "beefing up" for the role of Superman. (For those of you who don't know, he worked out so much that there were noticeable muscle differences between one scene and the next, so much that some scenes had to be re-shot!). Doctors initially gave him a poor prognosis for ever walking again, but now they say that his recovery has been remarkable and Reeve's chances for walking are improving all the time.
Given that at least three of the four Superman films had removed completed, special effect-filled footage just to cut down on time, it's obvious that a "special edition" restoring that footage is in order. Given that the special effects were mediocre even for that time and now look significantly dated, perhaps some George Lucas-type could go back and enhance some of the footage (within reason; we don't need a new Sy Snootles dance number). Once this was done, the movies could either go straight to video/DVD or perhaps might even be shown in theaters again. If the studio pledged a percentage of the profits to aid spinal injury victims like Christopher Reeve, even more people would go to the movies as a gesture of support. Let's not forget that ANY multimedia attention to DC Characters will help the sale of comic books, too.
Until the day someone at Warner Brothers wises up and tries this, I encourage you to go give the Superman movies another whirl. Any respectable video store should carry them. Or just turn on the Superstation and wait five minutes.
All characters are DC Comics
This column is © 1999 by Michael Hutchison.