Batman v Superman is coming. Have you properly calibrated your expectations?
I’m a sucker for superhero-driven blockbusters. I want to see them all, and I want them all to be good. And on paper, at least, it seems like Hollywood’s gift for realizing the fantastical on the big screen, combined with decades of illustrated source material to draw from, should mean that making movies featuring comic book heroes would sit squarely in the industry’s wheelhouse. In many instances this has proven true, and even the most critical among us have our favorites. (This author could watch Batman Begins over and over again.)
But do any of us count a single Superman movie among our favorites? And shouldn’t we, considering the massive popularity of the iconic, first-ever superhero? Why does every Superman movie made fail in some crucial way?
Maybe a few of you reading this have a soft spot for the 1978 Donner-directed feature—I do, too. But it’s mostly nostalgia: I was eight years old when I saw it the first time, and yeah, it really looked like that incredibly charismatic dude in the tights was actually flying. (Mom, did you see that?) But apart from the massive appeal of its lead actor, the movie doesn’t really hold up. I’m going to explain why the movie is ultimately disappointing, and then I’m going to explain as briefly as possible why each of the Superman movies that have followed also disappoint us in ways that were completely avoidable.
Note: There could be spoilers ahead for some of you. But who cares? These movies are old, and mostly they suck.
Also, note: I may herein reveal an ignorance of comic book/graphic novel source material that some of you might find shocking. But, again, who cares? Feature films need to stand on their own merits, folks!
Superman: The Movie (1978)
There is a great deal to like about Donner’s epic. The music is stirring, casting Christopher Reeve was a stroke of genius, ditto Gene Hackman as Luthor. The special effects were up-to-par at least. So what’s the problem? The story. In fact, the story and/or screenplay is usually where the problems lie in all the Superman movies.
Writers for the first two Superman movies include Mario Puzo (yes, he of The Godfather), David and Leslie Newman, Robert Benton (who co-wrote Bonnie & Clyde with David Newman) and an uncredited Tom Mankewicz. Apart from Puzo, the credentials are less than stellar, and none appear to have any background in science fiction or comic books. Still, they must’ve figured, “What’s so hard?” and for the most part they put the pieces into place. The problem lies in the spectre of Krypton that haunts Kal-El in his Fortress. The crystal-computer carries the words (and images) of his long-dead parents to him: Jor-El and Lara forbid their son to interfere with human destiny, and that seems like a good rule, since…
Hey, wait a minute… That’s a really stupid rule, actually. They sent him to Earth where they knew the yellow Sun would imbue him with godlike power, then tell him not to interfere? Okay, fine, let’s say I accept that. What do you call dressing up in tights and running around saving people? Putting out fires, fixing collapsing bridges, foiling bank robbers? And what if it’s human destiny for the world to fall victim to Luthor’s bizarre and cruel real estate scheme involving sinking the entire West Coast? Doesn’t stopping all of that count as interference? Then we get to the end of the movie and somehow all of that was okay, but turning back time just a smidge to save Lois Lane is off-limits?
So, that whole thing bugs me about as much as the arbitrary rules some writers include in their time-travel movies. But ultimately, the worst part about Superman: the Movie is the pace. Apart from the really great helicopter rescue scene, the movie DRAGS. Seriously. It takes for friggin’ ever to get to the good stuff, and even some of the good stuff is slow.
Superman II (1980)
Amazingly Puzo, the Newmans and Mankewicz (still uncredited!) all returned to write the sequel. No one got fired for the “human destiny” screw-up, because the first film made huge bank at the box-office, and probably was responsible for some folks’ investing in VCRs (Google it) and LaserDisc players (ditto). And Superman II—sort-of co-directed by Donner and Richard Lester (director of the famed Beatles romp A Hard Day’s Night)—turned out to be better than the original, in spite of it somehow being more ridiculous. Actually, let me rephrase that: the sequel is more fun than the original, if not technically better. Certainly having three super-powered Kryptonian villains created a terrific challenge for our hero, and Luthor was back to stir up the pot.
But yes, there were problems. The movie is still slow in places, especially the interminable will-they-won’t-they between Clark and Lois at Niagara Falls. (And let’s not forget Luthor’s riveting balloon ride to the North Pole! …zzzzz…). And it still has issues with Kal’s parents giving orders from beyond the grave, in this case telling him he can’t have both Lois and his superpowers, because…well, why, exactly? Not sure. Makes no actual sense. Maybe the writers just thought it would be interesting to see Reeve with a blow-dried 70’s coif getting the snot beat out of him in an Alaskan truck stop. And then there’s the problem of inventing new and unnecessary superpowers for Supe, like the ‘Cellophane S of Justice,’ and the ‘Kryptonian Memory-Erasing Kiss.’
Whatever. Terence Stamp steals the movie with a flawlessly campy Zod. And when they finally fight it out in Metropolis—blowing up cars, throwing buses and Frisbee-tossing manhole covers—it’s quite enjoyable. In fact, it’s the fight scene the first movie was missing.
Superman III (1983)
My thirteen-year-old self was enthralled: Superman Meets Richard Pryor! But this time the Newmans were writing on their own, with no Puzo to encourage gravitas, and no uncredited Mankiewicz to do…whatever he does, or did. The results are scattershot. There’s a few grace notes, like Clark reuniting with Lana Lang in Smallville, and a balletic slapstick opening-credits sequence that I continue to find entertaining—so props for that to director Richard Lester, back again. But it seems like the Newmans’ thinking was: “Say, what do we know even less about than Superman? Computers!” So they penned a screenplay where Richard Pryor is an accidental IT savant (because of course he is) and Supe eventually battles a supercomputer, replete with instant cyborgs, tentacular wiring and a Will to Live.
Sigh. Oh well. Pryor got to have a few scenes in which to shine, at least, before the whole thing degenerated into the most absurd pseudo-psychological battle between good (Clark Kent) and evil (Superman tainted by second-rate kryptonite produced in a lab). Did you know that Superman could split himself in two, then kick his own ass? I didn’t. Or maybe that was all in his head, somehow? Sigh.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Did you know that nuclear weapons are bad? Seems like Superman figured it out, and decided to interfere with human destiny yet again, by destroying the entire world’s stockpile of nukes. Christopher Reeve himself shared the story credit for this installment with screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. It’s horrendous, and preachy, and doesn’t even benefit from the return of Gene Hackman as Luthor, nor from Jon Cryer as Luthor’s douchetastic nephew. Nothing can save this one, not even a fight with a nuclear-powered blonde Superman clone guy on the Moon.
And the actors and audience alike are robbed of any remaining dignity by the scene in which Superman has to keep switching back and forth between himself and Clark for a double date with Lois and Lacy (Mariel Hemingway). It’s not funny. It’s tedious, and painful, and makes us wonder if the women, to not notice that they are the same guy, must be deeply mentally challenged in some way. Hoo-boy.
Everyone loses this round. And the Superman franchise enters a nearly two-decades-long hibernation.
Superman Returns (2006)
I’m not really sure what happened with this one. While it certainly demonstrates better craftsmanship than Superman IV, I think it might actually be the worse movie. IV actually attempted a teachable moment re. nukes, and likewise attempted originality. Superman Returns is pretty much pointless, and completely derivative. It even starts with the original John Williams theme from the Donner movies. It can’t decide if it’s a reboot or a sequel. Brandon Routh appears to have been cast for his resemblance to Reeve, and no other good gorram reason. Even Luthor’s evil scheme is cribbed from the original: it’s the same damned real estate scheme, with a kryptonite-crystal twist. We’re even treated to another of Luthor’s visits to the Fortress of Solitude, and some stale crystal-bound footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El, dredged up from the Warner Brothers vault. And Bryan Singer, just like Donner before him, treats us to a movie that is at least 45 minutes too long, and feels like even more.
And so much of this makes no sense at all. When Kal returns from checking out Krypton’s remains, why does he arrive in a crystal pod, like he did when he was an infant? Did he forget how to manage re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere? And why did it take five years? If anything it should have taken twice as long as the first trip, since he has to go there and back. But since we know he can turn back time, why not just arrive on the day he left?
And worst of all, who the hell decided it would be okay for Superman to get stabbed with a kryptonite shiv, then hoist—out into space, no less—a major land formation composed entirely of the same stuff we all know to be power-cancelling poison, with the obviously-deadly shiv still stuck in his side? And then survive?
Honestly, the blond nuclear Kal-clone in IV made more sense.
Man of Steel (2013)
Okay, I actually did enjoy this one quite a bit. Maybe more than some of you reading this did. I loved the reckless abandon of the Krypton scenes, and entirely believed that Superman’s home planet would definitely have awesome dragons to ride around on. Henry Cavill was very well cast in the role. Michael Shannon’s a favorite of mine, and I relished his performance as Zod. I enjoyed the Jor-El stuff, with Russell Crowe as a phantom guarding Kal’s inheritance—much more interesting than in the original. The Codex as a plot device wasn’t so interesting, but it didn’t bug me either.
Problems? Oh, yes. You betcha. Amy Adams is no Lois Lane, for starters. (Kate Bosworth actually did a better job.) And were we really supposed to believe Supe is so torn up about having to kill Zod after they wreaked massive destruction upon Metropolis? Did he really think he killed no one while he was throwing buildings around town?
But the worst part is that the movie fell into a similar trap as the original. This time, instead of his birth parents telling him not to interfere with human destiny, we have Jonathan Kent telling Clark never to be caught using his powers ever. At all. Because doing so would put Clark in danger…how, exactly? Folks, I admit it: I am no great fan of Kevin Costner to begin with, and as Jonathan Kent he was seriously grating on my nerves. When he sacrificed himself to the tornado so that Clark wouldn’t expose himself to scrutiny or whatever, I thought to myself, “Good.” I also thought to myself, “Not saving your dad from certain death is stupid.” This entire plot line was overwrought, and never rang true.
Final note: I mentioned to a family member that I’d be writing a piece about how there has never been a good Superman movie. She, not a fan of the genre, said, “Because it’s a comic book. Or a TV show.” I think she might actually be right. There’s something about Superman that is, frankly, a tad one-dimensional. He’s so gosh-darn good, ya know? There’s no real internal conflict, and attempting to shoehorn such a conflict into the milieu to try to wring out two hours of material has not yet worked once. Maybe, ultimately, the best Superman stories are episodic? In a comic book, or on an episode of Smallville or Lois & Clark (or the original TV series), we simply enjoy Superman facing each new challenge. No need for conflict, apart from some pining for Lois. Maybe that’s the kind of live-action format where Superman really lives?
Anyway, not getting my hopes up for Dawn of Justice. I’ve been burned too many times. I’ll see it, but with low expectations. I’m pretty sure that’s why I enjoyed MoS as much as I did: I assumed it would suck.
Adam Sullivan is a marketing professional and a recovering actor. Find him on Twitter @adamsull. Be nice. He’s sensitive.