Superman on Film: From Worst to First

By April 5, 2013
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One of the problems with being a huge Superman fan in the year 2013 is that the world has seemingly forgotten about the original superhero, at least temporarily. I have a feeling that the forthcoming Man of Steel film will go a long way in definitively changing peoples’ perceptions of Superman, especially when considering the names attached to it both in front of, and behind the camera.

But, until that film comes out in June, Superman fans are left to tide themselves over with the films of old, and for someone who keeps up with the modern comics (like this week’s excellent Superman issue of Action Comics #19), you might notice a pretty heavy discrepancy between the Superman of the released films, and the Superman as he is in the comics.

Right off the bat, I have to tell you: no released Superman film has been released recently enough (except one, but I’ll get into that) to take into account Superman’s modern characterization. While that’s a little disconcerting for Superman fans who’d like to see the current character represented, that’s far from meaning that there aren’t great moments and stories to be found in the older films. In fact, until 2008, I held one of these films in very high regard as the best superhero film ever made.

I love Superman across all of his iterations, and while I long to see the modern version on film (and likely will this summer), here’s where I feel all the Superman films stand.

8) Superman III (1983)

Welcome to the bottom of the barrel, folks. This isn’t typically listed by most people as the worst Superman film, but for me, it falls in behind its successor because of a couple of specific reasons: first, it opens with a blatantly slapstick comedy scene that would be out of place in any self-respecting superhero film. Second, the antagonist that has the most screen time was created simply to show off the comedic talents of the late Richard Pryor, who was a Superman fan. As a result, he stuck closer to the writing than was originally thought, and playing it straight was the last thing that would’ve been best for the film.

Superman III has some good moments, though. The subplot taking place at Smallville between Clark and old flame Lana Lang really does help give the film a good heart at its center, and the battle between the corrupted Superman and the virtuousness of Clark Kent is always fun to watch. In the end, though, Superman III just didn’t seem to care too much about the fact that it was a Superman film, so I end up not caring very much about it.

7) Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

With Superman IV, there are a lot of concessions you have to make in order to enjoy it. The first is that the entire thing is made on the cheap, so as a result, it comes nowhere near holding a candle to the look of the previous three Reeve films. This isn’t just a cheap film, it’s an embarrassingly cheap film. So much so that while Superman is walking on the “moon,” you can easily see flat black curtains running along the wall where “space” was supposed to be. Not to mention that it makes absolutely stupid use of some characters, and creates useless new ones (like Lenny Luthor. Ugh.).

But, the reason that I tend to prefer The Quest for Peace to its predecessor is because of its tone. Superman IV is a surprisingly well-intentioned film, with a strong anti-nuclear message that had the potential to resonate deeply with an audience still mired in the machinations of the Cold War at the time the film was released.

Superman IV also brought back Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and although there were several instances where he seemed to be “phoning it in,” the scenes Hackman shared with Reeve are still very fun to watch. Their chemistry was unmistakable. Is it a good film? No, I don’t think so. But, once in a while, you can find some gold residue in a pile of dirt now and again.

6) The serials: Superman (1948) and Superman vs. Atom Man (1951)

The original Superman serials from the late 1940’s and early 1950’s were the very first live-action adaptations of the Man of Steel, and though freshman efforts, manage to be relatively impressive today. You see, before television was a predominant form of entertainment in American homes, the rough equivalent of an episodic TV series was the serial. Split into about 15 chapters, the serials would run weekly before feature presentations in movie theaters across the country, with each 15-20 minute segment always ending in a cliffhanger to bring the kids back next week.

Superman adapted to this format very well, because of the episodic nature of his appearances in comics, and the rather bombastic set of scenarios the character was already featured in within the pages of the source material. The very first live-action Superman was a man named Kirk Alyn, a B-movie actor that had been working primarily in Westerns until he won the title role here. Alyn wasn’t actually credited inside the serial itself, he was always simply credited as “Superman” in order to maintain the illusion of the fantasy: Superman WAS real! Look, there he is! A real person!

The serials also introduced us to the entire supporting cast of the Daily Planet, most notably actress Noel Neill as Lois Lane. Neill would go on to reprise the role of Lois in the sequel to this serial, as well as the final five seasons of the George Reeves TV series The Adventures of Superman. The second serial also saw the first time that Superman’s arch nemesis, Luthor (he hadn’t been named “Lex” yet) made his appearance in live-action portrayed by actor Lyle Talbot (who also had been the first actor to play Commissioner Gordon in 1949’s Batman and Robin serial).

In the end, this is a respectable effort to bring Superman to theaters, and a financially successful one at that. They can be frustrating though, seeing Superman tangle with some goofy antagonists (the villainous “Spider Lady” and her Reducer Ray) and the fact that every time he takes off to fly, he turns into a cartoon. Still, though, Kirk Alyn brings an infectious and impressive energy to the role, getting physical while making all of his feats look very easy. That definitely adds to the fun factor of watching these today.

5) Superman Returns (2006)

For the most recent entry in the Superman film series, you’d think that modern capabilities and character advancements would’ve placed it higher. Unfortunately, I just don’t think it deserves it. Let me make it clear, though: I’m not as much of a fervent detractor of this film as so many other people seem to be. Superman Returns was visually impressive and posited an interesting story, but it should’ve been made 20 years earlier. As an active comics fan when this film came out, I was a little perplexed at the creative decision to use a bygone interpretation of Superman that bore very little resemblance to his comic book counterpart of the time.

As a result, people like me are putting too much energy into trying to convince people that Superman is largely not who they saw in this film. There’s a greater degree of pathos, some more hard-lined limits on his power, and an overtly different sense of who he is considering his place in the cosmos. While there are definitely some meritorious elements to Superman Returns in the technical area as well as in the performances (I liked Brandon Routh, and who couldn’t like Kevin Spacey?), overall I think that it’s done more harm to the overall character in recent years than good.

It’s tough for me to criticize it, though, because when the film was about to be released, I was a hardcore cheerleader for it. It was released on June 28th, 2006 and I graduated high school just three short weeks earlier. The last half of my senior year saw me yelling the gospel of Superman at anyone that would listen, and I was overjoyed at the fact that finally, within my lifetime, a Superman film was hitting theaters. In hindsight, I think the fans of the Man of Steel deserved better.

4) Superman and the Mole Men (1951)

The first appearance of actor George Reeves in the role that would come to define him, Superman and the Mole Men was the first feature-length theatrically exhibited motion picture featuring Superman, and served almost like a pilot for what would become the acclaimed TV series The Adventures of Superman.

Mole Men tells the story of Clark Kent and Lois Lane visiting an old mining town for a story in the Daily Planet about the world’s deepest oil well. What they don’t realize is that this oil well has cracked into the home of a group of subterranean beings, threatening their lives as well as the lives of the townspeople. On its own, Mole Men isn’t particularly remarkable. It runs at just 58 minutes, the prosthetic effects on the mole men themselves look pretty goofy, and it tries to punch out some cheap scares. The charm here, as it would be on the show, is entirely with Mr. George Reeves.

As I mentioned in my previous piece going over the five best DC Comics-based TV shows, Reeves brings such a reassuring certainty to the character that it’s impossible not to get behind him. The attitude of Reeves’ Superman to physical conflict is actually pretty similar to the character’s attitude in the current New 52 comics, but there’s a wonderful subtlety that he applies to both Clark and Superman that is uncharacteristic of the type of film the actor’s playing in here.

Reeves as Superman was, and will always be truly special, and if you’ve missed even one of his performances, then you should go back and fill yourself in.

3) Superman II (1980)

The theatrically released sequel to the original Richard Donner film was, for about 25 years, the most action-packed Superman we’d ever seen in live action. Expanding on the story of the first film and throwing in a few super-powered Kryptonians for good measure, Superman II had a great subplot about Clark admitting his love for Lois Lane, and goes into painful detail about what he is willing to sacrifice to be with her.

This is made even more interesting by the fact that the movie did a great thing by pulling back and showing us something of how the world would react when met with a powerful extraterrestrial force bent on world domination. Unfortunately, though, Superman II was mired in controversy from the beginning of production to the end, when the producers fired director Richard Donner and replaced him with Richard Lester (Help!, The Three Musketeers). Although Donner had completed 80% of his work on the sequel while simultaneously shooting the first film, the producers wanted Donner’s name off of it entirely.

To that end, Richard Lester had to have just over 50% of the film contain his material in order to receive the sole directing credit. As a result, the theatrical release lost all of what was shot with Marlon Brando for the sequel film, some of the action was toned down, Superman’s identity gets revealed by, literally, a pink polyester bear carpet, and some more camp was injected into the film’s overall tone. Regardless of this, it was a critical and commercial success, and would go on to spawn some crappier sequels.

2) Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006)

Thankfully, the dawn of the internet also saw the dawn of the age of geek, and in a massive email campaign, a group of fans actually convinced Warner Bros. to release as much of Richard Donner’s original vision for the film as could be salvaged. The result is a movie that, even though technically incomplete, is far more in sync both tonally and creatively with the original Donner/Christopher Reeve film. The beginning of this film coincides directly with the climax of the last one, and the transition is relatively seamless.

That’s without even saying that, hopefully at least until the release of Man of Steel, the Donner Cut of Superman II stands as the only live-action Superman film where the big guy actually throws a solid punch. And it’s glorious. A lot of the editing feels tighter and faster as well, and the camp injected by Richard Lester is largely absent from this version of the film.

That said, there are some sore spots. Some of the scenes that Donner didn’t have time to shoot have been reconstructed using a couple of screen tests featuring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, and there are even a couple of moments at the end where you can see the frame was simply flipped horizontally to show a different perspective, causing Superman’s S-shield to look backwards.

Still, even with its sloppiness in places, the Donner Cut of Superman II is the truly worthy sequel to the original 1978 film. It’s darker, it’s a bit more coherent, and it feels like it’s embracing the fact that it’s a Superman film a bit more than what movie audiences got back in 1980.

1) Superman (1978)

Which brings me to number one. Was there ever any doubt what it would be? Superman is the absolute best film featuring the character so far because it was groundbreaking, because it humanized the world’s greatest hero far more than any adaptation before or since, and because it gave the world the gift of Christopher Reeve’s timeless, definitive, and unforgettable dual performance as Superman and Clark Kent.

Reeve added such depth and subtlety to the roles that it’s very difficult, even today, for many people to imagine anyone but the actor in the iconic role of Krypton’s Last Son. For scenes as Clark Kent, Reeve said he stole a bit from Cary Grant in slumping his shoulders, clumsily bumping into doors and walls, using his tenor voice, and speaking in nervous spurts. By contrast, Superman exuded confidence. He seemed like he grew a foot by standing with his back straight, spoke deeply, naturally, and eloquently, and had a deftness to his posture that was the polar opposite of Clark Kent.

One of my absolutely favorite scenes in the entire film is when Superman returns Lois to her apartment, exchanges words, and flies off her balcony. A half a second later, a rapid knocking is heard at her door, and waiting there is Clark, bumbling through the door. As Lois turns to grab her coat, a miraculous transformation occurs: the glasses come off, Reeve grows to his true height of 6’4”, and playfully smiles before reverting back to Clark in the blink of an eye.

That. Is. Acting. John Williams, the film’s composer, expressed that he doubted other films that will come along will get it “quite as right” as Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve.

The special effects and production design were the best of their kind when the film was released, the ensemble cast was practically perfect for the type of film this was trying to be, and it has defined what we know today as the genre of superhero film. The impact and effect of Richard Donner’s Superman is incalculable, and definitely shouldn’t be understated. There are some parts that I have a hard time getting behind, particularly Gene Hackman’s rather comedic take on Lex Luthor, but it’s easy to see the actor having so much fun that it’s difficult not to get behind him to a degree.

Until the release of The Dark Knight in 2008, I regarded Superman as the best superhero film ever made, and still regard it within the top two. It was a transformative film that forever changed everyone’s thoughts of what a movie based on funny books can look like, and every single superheroic blockbuster we enjoy each year owes a serious debt to the innovator.

Superman on film has been kind of all over the place, and it’ll be very interesting to see where Man of Steel falls in comparison to other modern superhero films, and the other Superman films. I’m really looking forward to what we’ll be seeing on June 14th, but in the meantime, it couldn’t hurt to watch Mole Men or Quest for Peace one more time. If for no other reason, just to see how far we’ve come.

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.