It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's a Double-Feature!
Superman: The Movie and Superman II
A long while back, when this iteration of Asteroid G started up, we posted a look at the classic BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. films (and it's weird to think that films that came out when I was a kid are now "classics") -- Batman & Batman Returns and then Batman Forever & Batman and Robin. The intent was always to go back and do the same kind of coverage for the classic SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. films, but there's just so much to watch and review that the Christopher Reeves films fell through the cracks.
Not now, though. Finally, we're going back and looking at the full run of 1970s/1980s Superman films (and yes, that does mean we'll eventually look at the absolutely terrible 1984 Supergirl), and we kick it off today with a Kryptonian double-feature of Superman: The Movie and Superman II:
Superman: The Movie
Although not the first adaptation of the Superman story (there had been the 1940s radio serial, the 1940s animated film shorts, the 1948 theatrical serial, the 1952 TV series, among others), the 1978 film does elect to retell Superman's origin story, from the early days of Kal-El as a baby, through his time as a teenager in Smallville, and then finally taking his gig at the Daily Planet and becoming not only mild-mannered report Clark Kent but also, of course, Superman. It's the standard story, more or less, and with Marlo Brando taking on the role of super-dad Jor-El. There are some basic changes from what you might expect: Kal-El ages three years as he travels in his pod from Krypton to Earth, and then, after his time in Smallville, he sets up his "Fortress of Solitude" and spends 12 years in stasis as the voice of Jor-El teaches him all about his powers.
Still, what we're really here for is the Superman action that comes in the next two-thirds of the film. This is where the movie really shines as Christopher Reeves takes over the role and makes it his own. We watch as Superman saves Lois (Margot Kidder) as the Daily Planet helicopter plunges off the roof of the building. Then he goes on his superheroing spree, stopping crimes and thwarting bad guys as he makes a name for himself and shows the world he's "Superman". Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), self-styled "greatest criminal mastermind", plots to send a couple of megaton bombs to the San Andreas Fault, cause a massive earthquake, and drop all of California into the ocean. Why? Because Lex bought up all the useless land in Nevada and once California is gone, all that Nevada land will be prime ocean real estate. Honestly, try not to think too hard on it. Thus it's Superman on a race against the clock to save the entire West Coast and thwart Lex's plans.
If you go back and read about the production of the 1978 Superman (styled at the time as "Superman: The Movie"), you'll learn all about the troubled production of this film, and it's sequel, which were shot back-to-back. The rights to the character were bought by the Salkinds back in 1973, and then they struggled for five years to get a team together to make the production work. They had the idea to film the first movie, and it's sequel, at the same time, and eventually they found a director who was available, and interested, in that production plan: Richard Donner. Donner, when he came on, threw out most of what had been done in pre-production (the sets, the footage, the flying tests) along with the script that had originally been written by Mario "The Godfather" Puzo. That script had been 550 pages for two films, which was at least twice as much as the films needed. The script also had a much campier tone than Donner wanted, and Donner envisions something more grandiose and epic.
The resulting film isn't perfect, and we will cover some of the major flaws in a sec (it all has to do with bad science), but the film does get so much right. Not enough can be said about Reeves's star-making turn as Clark/Superman. He does excellent work, playing a nebbish, stuttering dork as Clark and then switching gears immediately to the tall and powerful Superman. He embodied the role perfectly, and had a great cast around him -- Kidder's ballsy Lois, Hackman's scenery-chewing Lex. This all works so well.
As noted, Lex's villain plan isn't exactly a winner. When you stop and think, you have to figure that the U.S. Government would cease all of Lex's lands the second California went into the drink. That seems like a clear violation of, well, every law in existence, and it would be a clear case of insider trading or premeditation or however you want to call it when someone commits an act of terrorism for financial gain. The film glosses over this, but even if Lex had succeeded there was no way he'd be able to actual make any of his supposed profits.
Beyond that, the film just has a bad grasp of science. The obvious issue comes in the climax where Superman flies back through time (around the planet) to reverse the effects of the bomb and actually save everyone (including Lois). In the film it clearly looks like Superman flies so fast he reverses the rotation of the Earth which, somehow, reverses the flow of time. Now, fans will say that he was actually just flying backwards in time, but at the end of the sequence he then clearly stops, flies forwards around the world, and gets the Earth spinning properly again, so this whole sequence is just stupid.
Not that the bad science isn't everywhere else. When Superman catches Lois as she falls off a building he does it by flying straight up to her, arresting her momentum instantly (which should kill her). When Superman takes Lois flying, he doesn't hold on to her tightly but just by a single hand and somehow she's able to fly parallel to him (despite the laws of gravity). And when Lex puts a kryptonite medallion around Superman's neck, he then kicks Supes into a pool which should, due to how water tamps down the effects of radiation, actually make it easier for Superman to escape the medallion (not harder, as in the film). In short, even for a superhero film, it's hard to shut your brain off and just accept things at face value.
But then this was a 1970s film and some exceptions should be made. These flaws out of the way, the film is fun (albeit at times a little silly), and enjoyable as simple blockbuster fare. It's not the best version of Superman I've ever seen (the animated DCAU series is still the tops for me), but Reeves makes this film watchable, and that goes a long way towards selling this film and turning it into a real winner.
The same, however, cannot be said for the direct sequel, Superman II. As with the previous film, this movie, too, had a troubled production, and most of that was the fault of the Salkinds. On the previous movie they constantly fought with Donner, blaming him for being "over budget" and "past due on schedule" -- Donner, for his part, says he was never given a budget or a schedule -- so when it came time to finish work on the sequel (the movie was 75 percent done when production was stopped to work fully on the first film and get it out the door), the Salkinds fired Donner and replaced him with a director they trusted: Richard Lester.
Now, by his own admission, Lester never felt like he could make the kind of film Donner was trying to make. Donner went in for something grandiose and epic while Lester never felt comfortable with that style, choosing smaller and "sillier" filming. To get his director's credit on the film, and to ensure the film was his own, Lester went back and re-filmed a reported 40 percent of the footage Donner had already shot, changing the tone and style of the film and making it much more of a "Lester Production".
This is clearly evident in the final film which, well, sucks. Picking up on threads purposefully left hanging by the previous film, three Kryptonian super-villains -- General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O'Halloran) -- end up released from their imprisonment in a flying space crystal just as it passes near Earth (and just as Superman throws a nuke into space, whereupon the explosion destroys the space-prison). Freed to be terrorists on a new planet, one where they have super powers, the Kryptonians set about taking over Earth and making it their new empire.
At the same time these super-villains arrive, Clark had just accidentally revealed to Lois that he was, in fact, Superman. When she says she loves him, and he loves her too, he decides that the only thing he can do is give up his powers and live as a mortal (for... reasons?). The two head to the Fortress of Solitude, Kal-El uses Kryptonian tech to remove his powers, and they head home only to immediately see that Superman needs to come back. So it's a quick jaunt back to the Fortress, the decision is reversed, and Superman goes to fight the Kryptonians and, hopefully, save the day once more.
I don't know how much of the original script and story that Donner worked off of made it into the final film (there is a "Richard Donner Cut", and we'll watch that in the future, so a proper comparison can be made), but I have to assume a fair bit of stuff was changed because this film feels incredible uneven. The whole plot of Clark and Lois just careens back and forth, from "I love you" to "I'll stay with you" to "I can't stay with you" and then "Oh, and forget about me with a kiss". That last part, where Superman kisses Lois and makes her forget everything that happened in the film, was added in by director Lester and, frankly, is one of the worst decisions made in Superman lore. A "roofy kiss"? Really?
Not that many of the decisions made about the Kryptonians are great. Did you know they can not only breath in space, but also talk and be heard in the vacuum? Did you realize they have the power to levitate objects with their minds? How about that they can go invisible and also make illusions of themselves. It's not just Zod and his people that do this as Superman gets into the act, too. It feels like the crew working on this film didn't care what powers Superman had, or didn't have, in the comics, they just wanted to do whatever. The power creep is astounding, especially when it applies to Superman as well.
On it's face, I don't necessarily hate the idea of giving the evil Kryptonians different powers from Superman. It's not like any of the "scientific explanations" for their powers the movie provides really makes sense, so if they want to have all kinds if "Kryptonian Space Magic" in the film, I guess that's fine. But when Superman can do it too, and even more things, it makes for a superhero that has no flaws and is too powerful for his own good (that is a complaint often laid against Superman, but its especial egregious in this film).
The evil Kryptonians do need all the help they can get, mind you, as their scenes are wretchedly boring. When Lester said he didn't know how to film "epic" he wasn't kidding; his actions scenes are a chore to get through. There's a certain, slapstick quality to the fight scenes he films; worse, though, there's just no sense of scale, or danger, of wonder to anything these Kryptonians do. Superman facing off against his own kind should be a powerhouse fight for the ages. Here, though, it's like a sad little school-yard slap fight. It just doesn't work.
But, then, really nothing works in this film. Lex Luthor shows up, and then disappears for huge stretches of the film (like due to the fact that once Donner was fired, Hackman refused to come back for the re-shoots). Superman and Lois's entire plot line is rushed. The Kryptonians barely get any development. Start to finish this is a film that feels stripped apart, cobbled together, and made to barely function in such a way that, yes, it counts as a movie, but as a proper sequel to Superman, it's not even in the same league.
Sadly, it's only going to get worse as we have Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace to get through next time. That's going to be a real joy...