Aged 91, Richard Donner has left us. You left us the first Superman film, with poor damned Christopher Reeve and poor damned Margot Kidder and no, nobody outside the comic books has done them better. Say hello to them for us, Mr Donner.
I’ve saved this film as the last film from the last boxset because it’s a unique example in my collection. Back in July, I reviewed the commercial release of this film, as directed by Richard Lester, giving a fairly negative response to a film I’d loved on release, and always held in high regard for the fun entertainment it was. Forty years on, I found a lot of this wrong with it.
But Superman II appeared under unusual circumstances. It was meant to be directed by Richard Donner, who’d been responsible for Superman – The Movie. Indeed, the two films were to be shot together and footage for about 75% of Superman 2 had been completed before there was a falling out between Donner and Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Donner was replaced by Richard Lester, who’d pioneered the two-at-once technique of The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers, who, in order to claim Director status on Superman II, reshot a substantial number of scenes already shot by Donner.
But the two Directors had radically different approaches to superman, with Donner moved by the mythic aspects of the character and his well-established and Lester unable to take the character seriously, betraying, to my eyes, a fear of being thought of as taking comic books seriously. Lester undercut and undermined any serious elements in the film with almost rabid eagerness, along the way mangling the plot so as to remove any plausible explanations.
Fans of the first film, aware of the existence of the Donner scenes, consistently pushed for a Donner Cut, for long enough that when, in the 2000s, a vault of unused footage, long thought destroyed, was discovered, the notion became a physical possibility, and the longstanding enthusiasm demonstrated a commercial interest. So the Donner Cut was assembled, and we got our chance after all.
One crucial scene had never been shot, except as a screen test for Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, It sticks out as an intrusion upon style, continuity and film stock, but if this was the only way to put this scene in the film, no true fan will object. A few more minutes of dear departed Chris Reeve, a few more minutes of lovely Margot, sharing with him the intimacy between their characters that is fundamental to this film, we’ll take it any way we can get it.
and this is oh so much better a version. Essentially the story is the same: the three Kryptonian villains are released from the Phantom Zone by the detonation of the nuclear warhead launched into space by Superman in the first film, come to Earth and take it over until defeated by Superman draning their powers. Meanwhile, Lois’s developing conviction that the bumbling Clark is Superman (much much less annoying than in the comics) exposes his secret, leading to a night of passion (lucky sod), Superman abandoning his powers for happiness but being forced by his responsibility to recover them to save the world.
It’s the same story but the details are so different. Lester’s nonsense is junked, and although Gene Hackman is allowed to ham it up as Lex Luthor nearly as much as before, his is the main comic role in the film and his slimy double-dealing performance becomes a more organic element.
Instead of the reveal of Clark’s identity by his tripping up and putting his hand in the fire unburnt, the test footage shows Lois proving her point more directly by shooting Clark at point blank range.
That completely changes the underlying dynamic. The Lester version depicts a potentially subconscious wish on Clark’s part to share his secret with Lois, whom he loves in both halves of himself, whereas in Donner’s cut the secret is forced out of him unwillingly. I’m ambivalent about the change: I like the idea of Superman wanting to admit his dual identity, yet Donner’s version makes the ease with which the pair fall into the relationship they both want all the more sweet and impressive.
There’s a significant, indeed seismic shift along all this thread. Under Lester, Superman agrees to lose his powers forever after a warning from his mother Lara and undergoes the red rays before hoping into the hammock with Lois. Donner’s cut loses Suusannah York completely (always a shame) but substitutes Brando as Jor-El with a much more comprehensive and cohesive, enabling Reeve to put over the importance of Lois to him (Margot Kidder observes all this in silence, dressed in a Superman t-shirt and white socks, demonstrating that she’s got great legs, but this was not a time period when ladies showed them off). Crucially, in Donner’s cut, Superman has his powers removed after he’s slept with Lois, not before, lending weight to the importance of the emotional relationship and leaning away from the sexual one.
There’s yet more. We still get the slightly embarrassing diner scene with the thuggish truck-driver but this time Donner’s shots and angles focus on Superman’s determination to regain his powers for the protection of the world rather than because he don’t like getting beaten up. And if he can sleep with Lois without having to lose his powers, that removes that cheapjack aspect.
Better yet, when Clark gets back to the Fortress, Donner produces Jor-El one last time, the father anticipating everything, including the need to use the last of his energies to re-spark Kal-El’s powers. Not only is it an effective explanation of just how Superman comes back, it is also a second and last parting between father and son, this time with the son of an age to fully understand that this is the end. You watch things like this and ask yourself why that clown Lester was allowed to not just chuck the whole thing out but put nothing in its place.
The battle in Metropolis de-emphasises the crowd and Lester’s desperate need to include silliness, emphasising more of the aerial fighting between Superman, Zod and co (and any extra footage of Sarah Douglas strutting her stuff in her slit sleeves and leggings is always welcome, for the same shallow reasons) and making the whole thing more impressive.
Lastly, the bullshit notion of Superman getting Lois to forget everything by kissing her is dropped like the cracked pot it is. We lose Lois’s desperate pain at not being able to acknowledge Clark and substitute a kind of downbeat resignation at having to share the man she loves with the wotrld, any one of whom have to come before her. Then, in either a steal from The Movie or, more likely, the proper use of the trick, stolen by Lester, Superman turns back time, revolving Earth backwards, not to save Lois’s life but to undo all the effects of the film, all the death and destruction and Lois’s discovery. The reset is so complete, Zod, Ursa and Non are restored to the Phantom Zone insread of being presumably buried in the ice.
It’s a more mature use of the device, even as it’s a complete reset to zero (Zod and co are available for future instalments, had there been more). Butthen the Donner Cut is a more mature film on every level, because it treats its audience as mature, isn’t scared of what other people might think, and it can take Superman with the right degree of seriousness.
I know I overuse the Earth-2 schtick, but this is the epitome of it. This was the version released there in 1980, and we didn’t get the same Superman III and IV, and Terence Stamp and Sarah Douglas reprised their roles in V – The Revenge of Zod, and I’m really fantasising now but the continued depiction in the series of just how good Lois and Superman were when she knew his identity led DC to bring it into the comics a lot earlier than they did… And maybe Chris and Margot avoided the fates they experienced on Earth-1, which would be the real magic…
With today’s film, the boxset phase of Film 2019 ends. I’ve continued to collect single film DVDs and I have enough for a shortened season of Film 2020 of three months duration. Being of an orderly frame of mind, I’m going to save these for the New Year rather than start next week. To bridge the gap, I have three downloaded films of very different types, and I’ll play through these over the next three weeks. I have never watched any of these: it’s going to be fun.
On the other hand, I can’t summarise it that baldly, so here’s a few words about why it’s crap.
After the failure of Superman III, the Salkinds took a decision on the future of their franchise. They decided that Superman was played out as a movie character, instead of the more logical explanation, which was that fans thought Richard Lester’s approach was moronic. So instead of getting in writers and a director who could restore the character to a measure of the dignity displayed in the first film, they sold the rights to Golan and Globus, the Israeli producers who operated as Cannon Films.
This was not a good move. Yes, Cannon got Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder back, but they did not get New York back. Instead, ‘Metropolis’ was filmed in England, near Milton Keynes, on a shoestring budget. And doesn’t it show. Whether the franchise could have been revived or not, it wouldn’t be this way and Superman films were dead in the water for twenty years.
My viewing this morning is only the second time I have ever seen this film. And there are parts of it I have never seen, since I took a date with me and snogging in the middle row was much more entertaining than the film, trust me it was. And whilst that was not the mostsparkling ever relationship of my life, I could have done with a bit of snogging today.
One day, if I have the time and the energy, I might watch this film again with a view to a point-by-point demolition of it’s… qualities, starting with the rancid credit scene where names loop and swoop across the screen in a manner dangerous to those easily nauseated, and ending with the closing ‘battle’ in which the Laws of Physics are not so much ignored as despatched via warp-space to another dimension entirely, and about how parts of the film display some of the worst aspects of DC Comics of the Seventies whilst others are more akin with the stories of the Forties. Just not today.
I described the film as crap. On more detailed thought I’d like to expand that to three words, these being cheap, moronic and deadly dull (technically, that’s four but I’m choosing to regard deadly dull as a single unit, since it is distinct from merely dull).
Cheap is self-evident from the awful blue-line special effects. There are many, too many ‘flying’ scenes where Superman or his newly-created opponent approach the camera head-on. In films 1 and 2, despite the primitive technology of forty years ago, these were never seamless but were convincing. In IV the bluescreen technology is shoddy at best, with the actors not merely separated from their backgrounds but lit from a completely different, nd queasily unnatural source.
Moronic is self-evident from the film’s theme. I’m sorry to say this about the late and entirely delightful Chruistopher Reeve, who suggested and helped develop the story out of a genuine concern for the proliferatiion of nuclear weapons world-wide (as who wasn’t under President Ronnie Reagan?), but the idea that you can dramatise that in a cartoon-like manner using a superhero is theEncyclopedia Brittanica definition of moronic.
Firstly, Superman declares war on nuclear weapons, prompted by a letter from a small boy, and chucks every single one into the sun. So Lex Luthor uses a strand of Superman’s hair to extract his DNA to create a Nuclear Man (a cardboard cut-out, crappy uniformed, mulleted piece of beefcake played by Mark Pillow who gets to roar but not speak as all his dialogue is dubbed by Gene Hackman: I hope the poor sod was well-paid).
So the threat to World Peace is symbolised by a long, drag-out punch-up between Suuperman and Nuclear Man that is not even as well-choreographed as your average ITV World of Sport Wrestling Bout in the late Sixties (4.00pm up to the football result), which Superman wins even thoough Nuclear Man is stronger than him.
And deadly dull? The film’s whole 86 minutes demonstrates tht. It’s loose and unstructured. It takes 40 of it’s 86 minutes (including lengthy credits at each end) to even introduce Nuclear Man. It wastes a lot of time on an uninteresting sub-plot whereby a Rupert Murdocch-like tycoon buys the Daily Planet to turn it into a raging tabloid whilst his slim, chic, long-legged daughter lusts after Clark Kent (I have never yet seen a convincing performance by Mariel Hemingway, nor have I ever fancied her in anything).
In short, it’s a mess.
But I was pleasantly surprised by one aspect of the film, which I found genuinely appealing, and that was the relationship between Lois Lane (welcome back Margot Kidder, even if you had to be horribly dressed to prevent you from outshining Ms Hemingway, which didn’t work) and Clerk Kent. True, the film borrows shamelessly from both Superman – a flying scene, this time round the United States – and Superman 2 – revealing his identity and removing it with another amnesia-inducing kiss – but in both this and, more tellingly, elsewhere, the film portrays the pair as genuine friends, caring about each other, and Kidder’s performance is full of a warmth and a relaxed nature about her friend. He’s still a klutz, still annoying in that respect, but Lois understands how genuine Clark is (the irony) and accepts and respects him as that. These are moments of illumination in a film that can’t otherwise be taken as anything but dim.
The only other comment I want to make now is something I picked up on almost from the film’s beginning that I can’t decide if it is a subtle element in Reeve’s as usuaal brilliant performance in distinguishing between Clark and Superman or which is projection by me, but I thought I detected a subtle strain of underlying exasperation, never remotely overt, from Kal-El over the continued absurdity and minor humiliation of everything he has to do be ‘be’ Clark. I know I’d be sick of it by now.
The problem with Box Sets is that, sometimes, in order to get the things you want, you also have to have the things you don’t want, a dilemma exemplified by this mornings film. Though one mustn’t be too harsh about Superman 3, which has one massive saving grace: it is not Superman 4.
Actually, I think Superman 3 exemplifies the reason why this version of the Superman franchise failed so quickly and so substantially, despite having a massively successful film to lead it off and an actor perfect for the role: nervousness. Or, if you prefer, lack of conviction.
The Salkinds brought in Richard Donner to direct the first Superman movie, who did as he had done on The Three Musketeers, simultaneously filming the majority of its sequel. But the Salkinds fell out with Donner over the direction of the films and brought in Richard Lester, who re-filmed a lot of Superman 2 in order to get his Director’s credit, and who was solely responsible for Superman 3.
The two Directors had substantially different viewpoints. Donner was attuned to the myth and the substance of the Superman legend: watch the first film again, and, with the exception of Lex Luthor’s two unfunny accomplices, Donner treats everything with a seriousness absent from Lester)’s treatment, which goes for the silly and the foolish and the comic with the same directness as the old Dozier/Semple Batman TV series.
It’s not to the same degree as Dozier and Semple, who thought that anyone who liked Batman was stupid and worthless, but Lester can’t take Superman seriously, or cannot bear being thought to take Superman seriously. The whole idea has to be undercut with jokes, and silliness, conspicuously signally to Lester’s equals that he isn’t so gauche as to believe in what he’s doing, that he looks down on it.
And as the Salkinds preferred Lester over Donner, we have to assume that, despite the money they pumped into the first film, and the money they got out of it, they too could not be comfortable with people thinking they actually took superheroes seriously.
And you can’t take Superman 3 seriously.
I actually read the tie-in novel first. I don’t usually read tie-in novels at all, but I’d been recommended to the E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial novel because it was written by William Kotzwinkle and was hilarious, and I saw his name on this book. And Kotzwinkle made the novelisation fun, which was more than Lester managed with the film.
Probably, I’ve only seen this film once since going to see it in the cinema, and that likely a couple of decades ago. It hasn’t changed but I have, and from finding it tedious and unworthy first time round, I now found it to be utter trash, inept on practically every level, from start to finish.
There’s a near complete change of cast, not in itself a bad thing. The Daily Planet aspect is substantially downgraded and Lois is shipped offstage for most of the film, appearing only at beginning and end (it’s claimed that both Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman took exception to Richard Donner’s treatment, as a result of which Kidder was shunted off, and Hackman refused to appear), though Ilya Salkind has denied this).
Lois’s replacement is her greatest rival in the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman comics, Lana Lang, the girl from Smallville, Clark Kent’s teenage crush. She’s played by Annette O’toole and is consequently sweet, and the best part about this picture. Tellingly, Lana is more interested in Clark than Superman, reversing the roles of Lois, though she brings baggage in the form of six-year old Ricky, who restores that balance.
But Lana, and Clark’s obvious interest in her, is the understory, and the overstory is a disaster. It involves Richard Pryor (doing some low-key mugging and grinning and generally operating at one-quarter power) as Gus Gorman, unemployed layabout who discovers a genius-level talent for computer programming. Pryor may be a guest star but he’s obviously intended to be the lead so, given the man’s genuine presence, it’s pathetic to see him being given such a cheap script as this.
Gus comes to the attention of megalomaniac millionaire Ross Webster (played by Robert Vaughn with the brave resignation of a good actor who’s realised that not even his legendary charm can animate a turkey of a role like this) and his unattractive younger sister and bulldog Vera (I feel sorry for Annie Ross).
Ross also has a ‘psychic nutrionist’ (‘she feeds my ego’, a line used in the book but cut from the film). Lorelei is played by Pamela Stephenson as a pneumatic blonde bimbo, who, naturally enough, is hiding a considerably high IQ (she reads Kant’s Critiqu of Pure Reason and disagrees with him, and if that isn’t one from the cliche drawer, then I can’t recognise a lazy gesture if I fall over it in broad daylight).
To cut a long story short, and avoid having to go into unending detail about the shit writing that burbles through the clumsy plot, Ross instructs Gus to help him corner the world’s coffee market by having him use the US’s weather station to manufacture a typhoon and destroy the coffee crops of Columbia, the only hold-out, only Superman intervenes to stop it. So Ross wants Gus to kill Superman by presenting him with a misshapen rock of artificial kryptonite, except that they can’t get a perfect analysis of kryptonite’s chemical make-up: there is 0.57% on unknown, for which Gus substitutes tar.
Tar K doesn’t kill Superman, it just turns him bad. Here is where the film truly shows its inadequacy. Superman turns bad. He wants to make a pass at Lana on her couch rather than save a truck-driver from falling off a bridge. He straightens up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, fer’ Chris’sakes, and, oh my gods the depravity, he gets drunk in a Metropolis bar and flicks peanuts at the bottles behind the bar, smashing them! Is there no end to the depths this hero has fallen?
(Actually, he does puncture a rogue tanker and create an oil-slick of approximately two hundred yards length that threatens the Metropolis seaboard despite no land being in sight in any direction, and he fucks Pamela Stephenson – and I wonder what she thought about these two being treated as equivalents when she read the script? – so it’s not all impoverished imagination.)
All it takes is Ricky popping up in Metropolis to forlornly bleat at Superman to make a comeback and he does, courtesy of a fight in a junkyard between Superman and Clark Kent which the latter, after taking incredible punishment, wins. The fight is slow and overlong, though the first part of that is due to the limited technology of the time, but it does contain the film’s solitary psychologically penetrating line, when Superman throws Clark into a metal compactor, saying he’s been irritated by Kent and wanting to do this for a long time.
So Superman is back, as signalled by him getting his costume laundered, ready to tackle the four greedheads who, in the meantime, have built a supercomputer in the Grand Canyon. Two points about this ‘climactic battle’ that illustrate the level of stupidity and inconsistency on which this film is built.
Firstly, Gus – who has previously attempted to kill Superman face to face without the least level of qualm – breaks from Ross and Co because he thinks killing Superman is going too far. Second, this supercomputer can recognise danger and independently act against it yet it decides a container Superman is holding behind his back is completely harmless, when it’s an acid that, once heated, gets super-acidic and destroys the supercomputer from within. Where’s Julius Schwartz when you need him? He would never have let Gardner Fox get away with an idea like that, not that Fox was ever so stupid as to even try it?
I’m not going to go on any longer. Seen on a rainy Sunday morning in 2019, Superman 3 is a dozen times worse than I remember it. It’s stupid, petty and mundane, because neither writers not director have enough respect for their source material to even think of showing it as respectable in any manner, and certainly not seriously. Only O’Toole as Lana, and Chris Reeve, still putting his all into this dodgy material, are any reason to watch this film ever again. It was a franchise killer from the credits scene onwards (mass slapstick in Metropilis after Lorelei wobbles past in high heels, and completely unfunny at that: Kotzwinkle made it work, though). Only O’Toole as Lana, and Chris Reeve, still putting his all into this dodgy material, are any reason to watch this film evr again.
There was one more, though not produced by the Salkinds. I remember that as being worse that this film. When I get round to watching that, I’m seriouly hoping it hasn’t deteriorated as much as this has…
Superman II came out in 1980 and I saw it back home in Manchester. I liked its breeziness, I liked how it focused on the superheroing to a much greater extent than the original film, without the long introductory sequence that told Kal-El and Clark Kent’s origin, and I liked that it put Superman up against opponents capable of giving him a good fight.
I wasn’t unaware of its faults, such as the plot-holes you could drop the Fortress of Solitude down, and the way it cheated on the ending, but I loved its relaxed nature. It was fun.
Unfortunately, it’s now forty years ago fun, and all the things it set out to do and achieve have been done far better, far more often and far more convincingly in the Marvel films. The effects in Superman II just don’t match up (hell, they don’t even match up to Superman I!) and the inability to generate any pace in the film because of the laborious natue of those effects, not to mention the way everybody struggles visibly with the walls they knock down or the things thrown at them, now leaves it looking very feeble indeed.
And a large part of my loss of pleasure at the film is down to the controversial decision to replace Richard Donner, Director of I with Richard Lester as Director of II.
The two Directors have opposing approaches to their material. Donner was heavy on the mythology of Superman. No matter how far his depiction of Krypton and its destruction varied from the comics’ visual canon, Donner is faithful to the spirit of Jerry Siegel’s original, as is his vision of the paradoxical grandeur of Kansas, the open spaces in which Clark grows, and which gives the film such a grandiose structure that the later loss of confidence and descent into silliness can’t quite spoil.
Lester, on the other hand, was actively looking for silliness from the outset. Yes, he ditches Otis (Ned Beatty) quickly, and makes minimal use of Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine, mostly covered from head to toe) before letting her slip, forgotten, into the first of what is not so much a crack as a cavern, but Lex Luthor is still the bombastic clown of both films, playing both ends against the middle unavailingly.
The three Kryptonian villains are slightly better. Terence Stamp, as General Zod, phones in a generic peformance of unperturbable command, Sara Douglas, as Ursa, camps it up wonderfully in a performance of Batman TV show slinkiness, looking hot in leather slit up and down all limbs (Douglas has spoken of how, to get the right effect, she was constantly sucking her cheeks in), but Jack O’Halloran, as the dumb brute Non is just daft and not half as tough as he ought to be.
But everywhere, if there’s a cheap option that undercuts any dramatic aspect to a scene, Lester heads for it like a bloodhound scenting a man on the run, and insists on cramming it in. It creates an imbalance that, to my eyes in 2019, leaves the film feeling uncomfortably close to the atmosphere of the Batman tv show: Lester can’t take his material seriously enough to layer the humour into it instead of faintly pointing it up. I feel condescended to for my enjoyment of the subject.
Naturally enough, the movie’s biggest plot hole is the most obvious one. Clark subconsciously gives his secret away to Lois, because he loves her and wants to share with her. The genuine love between the two is evident in the scenes that follow this, despite Lester’s desire to load things up with banality (‘I’ll just go and slip into something more comfortable’, forsooth).
But the plot, as conveyed to us by Susannah York as Lara, Kal-El’s mum (they couldn’t afford Marlon Brando twice) means that if Superman wants to shag Lois Lane as much as she wants to shag him, he has to lose the powers: we have all read Larry Niven’s ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex’, right? Though Phil Foglio found a way round that in his Inferior Five mini-series. And he has to lose them permanently, as in permanently permanently.
Unfortunately, whilst Clark Kent is losing his virginity, Zod’s taking over the world. Clark and Lois discover this whilst still under the afterglow of bonking their brains out, calling in at this roadside diner as they travel south in the hire-car they had delivered to them at the cracked and broken Fortress, way in the Arctic Circle, along with Lois’s complete change of outfit. Lester’s way of playing the scene makes it look as if Clark is determined to recover his irrecoverable powers less to deal with this earth-shattering crisis and more because he’s decided that dipping his wick is less meaningful than it not hurting when loudmouth shitbags punch him out.
So Clark walks back (walks back in a short jacket and bare hands where it takes fully-wrapped-up Lex a snowmobile to arrive) and retrieves his powers offscreen in a manner we’re left to infer from the fact the green crystal was lying on the floor and didn’t crack up.
Where the film does rise above itself is in the first part of its ending. Clark’s Superman again, the Kryptonians have fallen down ice-chutes and been forgotten like Eve Teschmacher, and Lois has got to learn to live with the knowledge that she can’t even let on to Clark Kent how she feels about him, let alone ever sleep with him or even kiss him. And she loves him, oh how she loves him. Kidder portrays it in every quaver and attempted calmness of that delicious husky voice, in the haunted eyes that look everywhere but at Clark, in the words that the scripters, for once in the film, have chosen well. And Clark/Superman is for once helpless to prevent this private but altogether real tragedy, the pain he has brought to this one person who means more to him than anyone else, that he can’t let mean more to him than anyone else, this one person that he cannot save.
So toss in some fucking mumbo-jumbo about kissing Lois and she’s forgotten everything, including loving Superman and the audience is so fucking dumb they won’t spot that we’ve just shat on them.
I dunno. I used to like this movie. Now, all I can see is where the ridiculous Superman III is coming from, and why the franchise failed after IV, which I’m not looking forward to watching for a second time in case this time it starts to resemble Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice….
We begin Phase 2 of Film 2019 here: for the remainder of this series I’ll be watching and commenting on films I have in box sets of differing numbers. Some of these box sets are of films that tell a complete story between them, trilogies if you want to call them that without giving away the least clue, oh no, gollum. These will be watched over consecutive weekends. Others, like the film that starts this sequence, are part of compilations, and these I will dip into serendipitously, at random. Let us begin.
For me, Superman, the Mario Puzo scripted, Richard Donner diected, Alexander and Ilya Suskind produced, Christopher Reeve starring film, is a glory and a nostalgic dream. It’s not perfect, it’s not impervious to criticism, but it represents something that goes deep inside me and for that it will always soar above its flaws.
Superman was released forty years ago this year, on January 1, 1979. It had been promoted for months, and the tag-line was You will believe a man can fly. And we did. I saw it within a week of it arriving in Nottingham, on the ABC1 screen, a big, old-fashioned cinema that foresook the intimacy of today’s multiscreens for the gigantic spaces of old and was thus the best ever venue for a film like this. I took my best friend, the woman I was in love with and from whom I was concealing my feelings (I thought) because she was in love with someone else. We both loved it. And despite the occasional green screen mismatch, of colours, usually, we believed.
Superman was the big daddy of them all, the first big budget effort at putting a superhero on screen and taking him seriously. You look at it forty years on and see the roots of what is present in the Marvel Extended Cinema Universe films. You see the relatively primitive special effects, you see the naivete of many elements in the film, you see where the courage of convictions wears thin and the film just has to resort to silliness because, after all, we’re grown-ups, aren’t we? And you watch the film take a time over things that would have audiences poring over their smartphones long before the scene is over. And if you are me, you say a great big flaming So What?
Because this was the great big validation. This was all of us who loved comics and who kept that love, or even the very merest mention of interest, concealed from everyone we worked with. This was Superman, first of them all, and this was Superman being taken seriously, in a way that let us openly celebrate what we otherwise hid, without being exposed. Before I got to see the film, I was hearing Barristers in their Robing Room discussing the film delightedly.
Speaking of slowness: the film opts for a very long introduction/origin. We begin on Krypton (after that glorious John Williams theme has played out to its full) with Jor-El conducting the trial of General Zod and Co. This is very much a teaser for Superman 2 which Donner, in the manner that he’d taken with The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers, was filming simultaneously. But it also establishes Krypton for us, or a film Krypton, of a massive and frozen aspect, an ice and snow planet with elegant crystal technology (a controversial departure from the comics Krypton, a planet of glorious, abounding life and wonders). And it establishes Jor-El for us, in Marlon Brando’s massively expensive, impassively composed performance, as the classic story plays out and baby Kal-El is placed in a star-shaped rocket to be sent to Earth where, as we are told twice round, his Kryptonian metabolism will make him super-powerful.
Then we cut to Smallville, Kansas, childless middle-aged couple Jonathan and Martha Kent, who adopt the baby that crashes in a falling satellite, raise him, teach him honesty, humility and a sense of purpose that will be built upon doing good. It’s old-fashioned, it’s hokey, but it’s unashamedly presented as natural, and it captures an essential part of the superhero DNA that’s so badly overlooked in these cynical times when everything is insistent on exploring the dark heart of the myth, that these brightly lit fantasies of superiority are about being good and doing good, because that’s what is important.
All of this is seen through the life of Clark Kent aged 18, and played so far by Jeff East (with dialogue redubbed by Christopher Reeve), and but for an unrealistic scene where the Special Effects aren’t up to convincingly showing you Clark running faster than a speeding locomotive (it had to be) it’s superb. The Kansas setting is evoked wonderfully in its sheer massiveness, a spaciousness that subconsciously echoes the grandeur of Clark’s powers.
Then, after Jonathan dies of a heart attack, Jeff East goes away for twelve years, to the Arctic, his Fortress of Solitude, and further holographic education from Jor-El, and, forty five minutes in, yes, a whole forty-five minutes, we get a brief glimpse of the Superman costume, and then it’s a cut to Metropolis, to the Daily Planet, and finally Christopher Reeve comes onscreen, not as the hero, but as Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter.
Christopher Reeve, poor damned Christopher Reeve. He is the movie. A more or less complete unknown, at first rejected for the part for being too young and too skinny, Reeve is Superman, and he is Clark Kent, and he is two completely different people and he brings total authority, complete conviction and massive authenticity to both. As Superman, you believe a man can fly not because the Special Effects show it but because Christopher Reeve shows it: he’s brilliantly adept at working with the machinery that supports him, and when we watch him in flight, we believe we are seeing this, because Reeve treats it as the most natural thing on Earth.
And as Clark, he is funny, clumsy, klutzy and sincerely outdated to the exact point before his performance could turn into parody. His posture changes, his apprehension of an unkind world increases, his voice is higher-pitched and light without sounding unnatural. To demonstrate my point, there is a scene in Lois Lane’s apartment that condenses Reeve’s performance into about sixty seconds: Reeve has just left Lois as Superman and returned as Clark Kent for their ‘date’. She is still in a haze of distraction. As Clark, he looks at the room into which she has just disappeared, to fix her hair. He takes off his glasses, straightens up, his voice drops in register. With no make-up or effects, he has turned from one man into the other. Then doubt affects him, he restores his glasses, shrinks and dissolves into Clark. All in one scene, no cuts.
Margot Kidder, poor damned Margot Kidder, plays Lois Lane. There’s an early and nasty attempt to undermine her by portraying her as obsessed with violence and sex and unable to spell properly, and she ends the film as the classic victim, dependent upon the hero to rescue (please bear in mind that this version of Superman is based on the pre-1986 John Byrne reboot), but she’s perfect in the role, mixing the character’s underlying independence and forthrightness with the effect of being thunderstruck in love (and lust). Kidder was a lovely woman then, with a wonderfully throaty way of speaking. Like Reeve, she was an unknown, but the pair have chemistry that leaps off the screen at you, and the film was so right to cast unknowns in these two vital roles, since that enables us to see them as Clark/Superman and Lois, instead of actors.
These two carry the film. There are, as I said, flaws. Gene Hackman plays an ebullient, imperious, self-congratulatory Lex Luthor (the original Luthor, the openly criminal scietist). He gets the two best lines in the film, one of them the justly celebrated “Everyone has their faults. Mine’s in California”.
The other’s a bit self-referential, “Why does the world’s greatest criminal surround himself with nincompoops?” which, having already seen Ned Beatty’s face-stuffing Otis, is surely being said before the audience can ask the same question. His other assistant is Valerie Perrine as Miss (Eva) Teschmacher, and we all know why Luthor keeps her around: Miss Teschmacher is a cartoon sexpot (if she were a real cartoon, she’d be a Hentai).
The ending to the film was also very controversial. Luthor’s nuclear missile hits the San Andreas Fault, causing massive earthquakes, collapses and a lot of work by Superman in saving people. So much so that by the time he realises Lois is in a car being swallowed up by the Earth, it’s too late, she has been crushed to death.
Comes the moment. Superman struggles with his loss, his grief. He looks into the sky, screams, “Noooooooooooooo!” and takes off faster than at any time in the film. He flies into space. He is challenged by the image of Joe-El, reminding him that it is forbidden to change the course of human history (isn’t he already doing that, the way all of us do, just by being here day after day?), he recalls the words of Jonathan Kent, that he is here for a purpose and that is to use his powers to help people. Two fathers, two philosophies, two cultures. Kal-El chooses Earth. He spins round the planet so fast and persistently that it begins to turn backwards. Footage rolls backwards. Cracks in the earth close up, dams heal themselves, boulders roll uphill. Superman lands by Lois’s car and she’s alive. They’re about to kiss when Jimmy Olsen turns up.
I don’t care. I loved it, then and now, the eucatastrophe. Of course it’s a cheat. It was called as such then, the action of a big baby, stamping his widdle foot and screaming, and I don’t care. Above all else, this is a peculiarly comic book film in a way none of the modern breed are. It plays by comic book rules, not cinema rules. It has a sense of wonder unpunctured by too much realism. The DC Cinema Universe may one day run to 100 films, and I still won’t have watched Man of Steel, but this will still be greater than all of them, because we do believe a man can fly, and we can go fly with him and feel that first thrill over and over again. It can even tell us that Superman fights for Truth, Justice and the American Way and not have us laugh with embarrassment.
One final comment. My DVD has the amended credit sequence. When I saw this in Nottingham in January 1979, there was no line crediting Superman as the creation of Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster. Truth and Justice did, eventually, triumph over the American Way.
As a long-time DC fan, who has been known to read Superman from time to time, I’d been looking forward to the new film, Man of Steel for several months.
I have good memories of seeing the first Christopher Reeve film in the kind of old-fashioned big screen cinema that was perfect for the scale of the film, and which just doesn’t exist any longer. I have good memories of Superman II, a poor opinion of Superman III and I can console myself with the fact that I was on a date when I went to see Superman IV – The Quest for Peace and can at least look back on several long periods of snogging instead of following the film.
Superman Returns was better than that one, but we are still drawing a veil over it.
Following the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and the increasing darkening of DC’s comics that has beaten any residual interest in superheroes out of me, I admit to misgivings about what direction Man of Steel would take. It’s a cliche to say this, and like all cliches it might not represent the whole of the story but it gets close enough to the core of things to stick, but Superman is Light where Batman is Dark. Superman works in the open, in the daylight, he appears in primary colours, he is dedicated to Truth and Justice (we’ll forget the outmoded part of that line, thank you). Superman saves, Superman is Good. He’s the Big Blue Boy Scout and just as he is unreal and impossible, so he can be purer of heart than the rest of us. Batman is his opposite, in every aspect.
Don’t forget, this year, Superman will have been around for 75 years. And no cultural icon, no matter how low the culture, gets to stick around for that length of time whilst being only one thing to everyone all the time. But some things, some parts of the concept have to remain inviolate, no matter what else responds to the changing world, or how else do we know who we are speaking of?
That Man of Steel would try to drag Superman as far over into Batman’s psychological territory as possible was a given. That a large part of the audience would not just applaud this but would regard it as the only thing that makes Kal-El interesting to them, was only to be expected. So I wasn’t exactly expecting my kind of Superman film to begin with.
The early reviews were fairly equivocal, focussing mainly on the apparant absence of any chemistry between Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane. I don’t let reviews influence me – the Guardian ordered, commanded and screamed at me to hate the Tintin film The Secret of the Unicorn seven or eight times over, but I still enjoyed it immensely – not unless they come from someone with an unimpeachable record of being on my wavelength, so I wasn’t bothered even when my Team Leader at work warned us all off it because his lodger had gone to see it first night, and said it was absolute crap.
But I still read some comics sites, even if I don’t read the comics, and so I learned of Mark Waid’s blog on his visit to the cinema. Now Waid, if you don’t know him, is a lifelong Superman fan who’s also written the character (his version of Superman’s origins, Birthright, was the authorised version in the pre-New 52 universe, and some of the material in Man of Steel is based on his work). He’s also one of the most consistently entertaining, thoughtful and fresh comics writers of the past two decades, so his is a voice I’m prepared to listen to.
And when he explained how the film broke his heart, how it portrayed a Superman that he couldn’t believe in, that wasn’t Superman in any incarnation that he could recognise, I realised that my own thoughts of Superman, of who and what he was, and what he could do and be in order for me to be able to recognise him as Superman meshed in this respect. I won’t relate what Waid was talking about, for the benefit of those who do intend to watch the film, and who are entitled to allow the story to present itself, but it is as much a breach of what i can accept as the character as if Jeeves were to extricate Master Wooster from another of those unsought entanglements, not by the ingenuity of his superior brain but by having the girl kidnapped and sold into white slavery.
Here’s a link to Waid’s piece, and here’s a link to a very interesting piece by Greg Hatcher on the process of identifying what is ‘your’ Superman, your core image of what the character cannot abandon or forego or ignore and still be the Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow, the Big Blue Boy Scout.
The Man of Steel of Man of Steel goes beyond what I, like Mark Waid, and many others, can concieve of in Superman. So I won’t be going to see the film after all, and I won’t be blogging what I think of it. Although I seem to have done that, after all.