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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
No matter how you cut it, Superman is a pop-culture icon. Even people who hate comic books seem to like Superman. How can you not? He is the quintessential hero. A lot of that has to do with how he has been portrayed in the media over the years. There seems to be a new Superman for each generation – something I am perfectly fine with – and there always seems to be a friendly debate between older and younger generations on who is the “real” Superman.
For a lot of people from my childhood era, I am sure the answer to that would be Christopher Reeve. Do not get me wrong, I have liked every interpretation of Superman to varying degrees, but Reeve is the gold standard. I suppose a lot of that has to do with the fact that he took the character in a direction that was never quite done before or after. If you look at his Superman films, the good and the bad, he was always the element that held them together.
The first in the series, Superman: The Movie, is a masterpiece on its own. Oh, it has its flaws (such as Superman going back in time and fixing everything making no sense whatsoever), but everything else just works so well that you do not care. The structure is marvelous as well. It is like three mini-movies comprising “the hero’s journey” of Supes. It works so well that Christopher Nolan and company took that exact same narrative structure when making Batman Begins. Superman: The Movie was also the first movie to really take the superhero subject matter seriously. There are some corny parts to be found (Otis, anyone?), but the movie does not treat Superman as a joke (which it easily could have done during this time).
Then, two years later, Superman II was released. Superman II is an interesting case. Originally conceived to film simultaneously with the first movie, director Richard Donner was fired before this second part was finished. The result was a hiring of Richard Lester and a lot of reshooting (due to Director Guild stipulations for director credit). The final product was actually better than the first movie (likely due to the movie not having to deal with a detailed origin). We find Superman’s conflict with his responsibilities as a superhero clash with his personal desires (a theme later picked up in other superhero sequels such as Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight). Again, it is Reeve that sells this.
For better or worse, the film also brought the line “Kneel before Zod” into pop-culture.
The only real problem I have with this second installment is that it resorts to a “reset button” in the end. I get why they did it, but I almost feel the film would have been stronger had they nearly left it as is. Then again, it was a different time, so the Superman status-quo had to be maintained.
In 2006, Warner Bros. released Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut which restored much of the footage Richard Donner filmed before being fired from the movie into a slight new version. The result is…not that good. The internet fawns over it, but, to be honest, there are large chunks of story missing due to the fact that Donner wanted zero Lester footage in his cut. This version suffers for it. There are some cool things and alternate takes, but it is more of an interesting experiment than achievement in film. Personally, I think a mix of both the Lester and Donner cut would combine into a great film. You can read more about the troubled production of Superman II here.
After Superman II is when this series started to run into trouble. In 1983, we got Superman III. Here is the thing, Superman III is not a bad film, but it has hardly a good one either. You have some really great stuff with Clark Kent going back to Smallville and some really interesting character work when Superman turns “evil”. This is all good and purely Christopher Reeve doing what he does best (this guy was a way better actor than people give him credit for). Then you have everything else. Superman III stars Richard Pryor as one of the antagonists. That should tell you everything you need to know. His scenes are overly campy (and, unfortunately, not very funny). I do kind of like this movie, and I will defend it, but it is a real mixed bag.
Then we have Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Like Batman & Robin, this killed the franchise dead. Unlike Batman & Robin, this film was doomed from the beginning. The Superman film rights were sold off to Canon Films, and then penny-pinched everything. The sad part is that you can tell. The film just looks cheap. The big thing is that the budget was cut and stolen from the film right before production could begin.
And the story does cannot rise above it. There is a nugget of a good idea in there with Superman wanting to stop nuclear weapons, but it is handled in such a stupid, nonsensical way. The rest of the movie then just regurgitates scenes from past Superman films. This is a movie that was so bad that Christopher Reeve was known to disown it and Margot Kidder awkwardly bashed it while trying to promote it on David Letterman (Author’s Note: Sorry, I cannot fine the YouTube link which is a shame, because it is hilarious).
Some Superman fans will defend it due to it being “more like the comics” than the third entry, but at least the third entry was watchable. Superman IV is just bad, and not even entertainingly bad. Maybe – just maybe – if the film was given the budget it was originally going to get, it would might have be an entertaining, yet flawed film. But it wasn’t.
Because of the critical and financial failure of the fourth movie, the series was dormant for a good twenty years. Numerous attempts were made to revive the series in the 1990s, but none were successful. It was not until 2006 with Bryan Singer released Superman Returns that Supes graced cinemas again. I am not going to dwell on Returns as I do not really count it as a sequel to this series of films. Don’t worry, though, I’ll have a post about Superman Returns later this week.
It is a shame this quartet of films went into the crapper so suddenly. By the fourth entry, the series became an almost self-parody of what it once was. But even though the series ended terribly, people today still connect Superman with Christopher Reeve. He is that iconic in the role. Even DC Comics was using his likeness for their representation of Superman as of 2011.
Even in the less-than-stellar movies, Reeve was still on top of his game. He knew this character better than anyone and what Superman represented. That earnestness was exactly what the series (particularly that first movie) needed in order to be as successful as it was. While I am sure Henry Cavill will make the role his own, hopefully, he will look back on what Reeve did when approaching what Superman is and bring that same earnestness to his portrayal of the Man of Steel.