Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Since 1978, a number of filmmakers have taken up the noble pursuit of chronicling perhaps the most quintessentially American of all superheroes. Superman is an ideal that’s become even more essential in the modern, cynical world, one where the idea of an infallible hero who innately understands the difference between absolute right and absolute wrong seemingly has no place.
As Supes takes the battle to an aging, grizzled Bruce Wayne this weekend in over 4,100 US theaters, the CoS film staff have been looking back at the Batman and Superman film franchises. In Superman’s case, a half-dozen films have offered visions of the hero that run the gauntlet from idealistic classics to strange ’80s exploitation cinema to a grimmer vision of Superman unfolding in our own jaded world.
But we’re not just looking back. We’re looking up to the skies, to a vision of endless possibilities that reflects our own wildest pipedreams for a better tomorrow. We’re looking for Superman, from his worst portrayals to his very best.
06. Superman III (1983)
Let’s get a few things straight: watching Superman III can be a very entertaining experience. Richard Pryor! The Leaning Tower of Pisa! An evil billionaire with a totally nonsensical plan! The undeniable charms of Christopher Reeve! And above all, Evil Superman, responsible for the best GIF in the history of GIFs:
That? That’s an iconic scene. It’s so memorable that despite the fact that it’s in a movie that can be used as a qualifier — as in, “that’s, like, Superman III levels of bad” — it was recently paid tribute to on an episode of CBS’ mostly delightful Supergirl. There’s adorable Melissa Benoist, sitting at a bar. Watch her flick those peanuts into the liquor bottles and make them explode. Watch people run. Watch them freak out. Why? Because evil Supergirl might be funny, but she’s also scary as hell.
And there’s the problem with Superman III: It’s such a mess that it’s nearly impossible to give even the faintest damn about anything that happens. Gone is the thoughtful, complex relationship with Lois Lane. Gone are any traces of a Superman who feels things deeply. Gone are action sequences designed to do anything but get the adrenaline going, and gone is the lovely sense of amazement, so palpable in the earlier films, that this alien is a miraculous creature, a wonder of the many worlds. Remove the non-human’s undeniable humanity, and he becomes terrifying, but Superman III isn’t interested in digging into real stuff. There’s a good idea in there somewhere, but no one involved seemed very interested in trying to make that idea work. It isn’t interested in plot, either, or coherent action sequences. Strip all that away, and what’s left is a mix of paint-by-numbers superhero nonsense and a bizarre reach for broad comedy that’s both out of place and, more importantly, not very funny.
So yes, Richard Pryor’s in this thing, and yes, it’s pretty much impossible for Richard Pryor to not be funny when he sets his mind to it. Legend has it that Pryor mentioned offhand that he’d like to be in a Superman movie on a talk show, without really meaning it, and some studio bigwig took that as his cue. True or not, it makes sense — Superman III feels like nothing so much as a movie pitched as “Superman, but with Richard Pryor, and we’ll figure the rest out later.” They never did, and this tired, uneven, nonsensical turd is what we got. It’s not boring; I’ll give it that. It’s got camp value. It’s got Superman taking shots at the bar in his tights. But what it doesn’t have is a story that matters, and when you’re talking about one of the most vibrant American mythologies, that’s a big, big problem.
Watch it again, if you must. But don’t think too hard. Thought is this movie’s tar-laced Kryptonite.
05. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
There is something embarrassingly, infuriatingly appealing about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Messes don’t get much hotter than Sidney J. Furie’s bargain-basement chapter and franchise-killer. Yet, this Superman stuck out like a sore thumb, to the point where it’s no wonder folks have revisited it time and again for laughs. In the good, knowing kind of way! Come on, Superman was fighting Ducky from Pretty in Pink and an Ivan Drago-looking villain named Nuclear Man. If that’s the not the most 1987-sounding thing in the world, what is?
After dwindling returns in the Salkind family’s Super-movies (Superman III and Supergirl were commercial and critical duds), Aleksander and Ilya Salkind sold their franchise rights to, wait for it … Cannon Films. Cannon was a filmic shithouse in the ‘80s, the ultimate in low taste and lower-budget movies. (It’s a small wonder that the studio didn’t remake Superman with Michael Dudikoff or Chuck Norris or someone like that.) To get Reeve back, Cannon gave him a story credit, and Supes got to play pacifist. This is the Superman where not only does our hero put literally every nuclear weapon on Earth into a big fishing net and chuck it into the sun, but he also fights a blonde baddie with radioactive powers and a black rubber S&M suit. The dopey story aside, Superman’s biggest enemy was a lack of capital. Cannon, ever the penny pinchers, initially set the production up as a $34 million adventure, then at some point Quest for Peace became a quest for more money. The budget was cut in half, and Furie and his crew were left to think of every last thing they could to get the production done with tightened belts. Superman IV’s threads are on screen for all to witness. Badly shot miniatures. Piss-poor plating on the effects. And the infamous reused effect shots of Superman flying.
Yet, Quest for Peace flies in the face of any redeemable quality in such a way that it actually is redeemed. The chintz, the laziness, the franchise fatigue, all of it plays to the movie’s appeal today. Perhaps it’s the fact the movie at least has a pulse and is woefully aware of how crappy it is. Arguably, Superman IV almost works better as para-text than as an actual comic book adaptation. The movie’s a fascinating fuck-up.
The production values and dubious decisions continue to fascinate, and, actually, have you even seen the deleted scenes? These are a great summary of how bizarre Superman IV is. So, it’s not in the movie, but there’s this great … no, terrible … no, it’s a great scene where Superman barges out of a nightclub to fight a first-draft version of Nuclear Man in front of a Burger King sign, and a YooHoo one too, and there’s this terrible cartoon/pinball machine music, and it just has to be seen to be believed. No wonder we keep coming back to this Superman.
04. Man of Steel (2013)
Not every superhero movie has to be fun. Some of the best aren’t. But Jesus Christ, is Man of Steel a sour, cynical, and extremely bitter pill to swallow.
For Zack Snyder so loved the world, he gave us Krypton’s only begotten son, who grows up fearing the world around him. He gave us an utterly wasted Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. He gave us the chance to see the great Michael Shannon as a villain in a superhero movie and then totally blew it. And he gave us a film that, like Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, aims to use the global political climate to shape a terrifying cinematic landscape, but whiffs.
Nolan gets a story credit here, along with screenwriter David S. Goyer, but it’s hard to see a significant connection. It’s not the darkness that offends. It’s that it’s impossible to invest in a movie in which the choices of the characters mean so little. Their relationships and beliefs and principles and sacrifices don’t amount to much, as though we’re simply expected to invest in them because of the broader mythology, not any story being told. Things gets bad, and it means almost nothing. Sorry, Snyder and company, but it’s not enough to simply say someone is Lois Lane. It’s not even enough to say, “Here’s Lois, as played by Amy Adams!” If Amy freaking Adams can’t make you care about a character, something is seriously wrong.
But the biggest problem is the titular Man of Steel. Is Henry Cavill a good actor? It’s impossible to tell in Snyder’s film, because Clark is much closer to steel than flesh and blood. He’s largely joyless, charmless, and emotionless, unless you count the brooding as an emotion, which I don’t. That’s not Cavill’s fault. Clark Kent is simply here to suffer for our sins, to be forced out of the closet by disaster, to let his adoptive father die rather than reveal himself. This is a serious film about a serious man who does serious things, seriously — but there’s no sense that Superman is making terrible choices, that he’s torn between the will to do good and the need to protect, between a respect for life and a desire for finality. Superman is a blunt instrument. Fly, punch, smash, brood, repeat.
Zack Snyder is not without skill. This thing looks every bit as expensive as it is. And a great cast, however misused, will always be better than a mediocre one. There are worse Superman movies, but none will make you unhappier than this one, because Man of Steel bodes extremely ill for the future of the DC Cinematic Universe. Strip Superman of joy, if you must, but for the love of god, give us something else in return.
Joy isn’t such a bad thing. The current DC universe on television — the “Berlanti-verse,” comprised of Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl — doesn’t always get it right. It can be pretty grim, too, and Arrow in particular sometimes seems almost relentlessly dark. But like the first two Superman movies, like Raimi’s Spiderman or Singer’s X-Men or the best of the Marvel movies, those shows know how to blend despair with the things that make life worth living. Supergirl loves to fly. The Green Arrow loves his friends and family. We care because they care. As a friend put it, when telling me why he’ll be skipping Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, “I can’t wait for their movie of The Flash where Barry Allen hates to run.”
03. Superman Returns (2006)
Bryan Singer was madly in love with Dick Donner’s vision of the cape. And that was what ultimately felled him with Superman Returns.
A little backstory. Superman Returns took years to get to the big screen after the studio closed shop after the commercially catastrophic Superman IV: Made Cannon Cheap. However, a property never truly dies, especially not one like Supes, and so it was mega-producer Jon Peters to the rescue. Warner blew through millions in false starts, and the notorious Tim Burton/Nic Cage Superman Lives almost hit screens in 1997. In 2004, Warner was ready to start shooting Superman: Flyby, with McG helming a J.J. Abrams screenplay. McG eventually walked.
Enter a young, excitable Bryan Singer in the early 2000s.
Singer, after a string of hits with his X-Men films for Fox, had arrived in Hollywood as a major player. He identified with the isolation and angst of Xavier’s youngsters, pitching the Marvel comic as sci-fi action with outsiders. Any director that could make you believe a man could have knives between knuckles could certainly handle an alien with tights and curly bangs. He dropped both X-Men 3 and a Logan’s Run remake to create his lugubrious vision of a Christ-like Superman returning to Earth after a five-year absence. Singer’s vision was to follow not long after the events of 1980’s Superman II. Richard Donner apparently loved the take, and Warner gave Singer a boatload of play money. Superman Returns was old Hollywood, not just in its soundstage creation but in how it rapturously bathed in the world Donner created. It was 1978’s original made for more than twice the price in 2006. There were costly CG recreations of Marlon Brando’s Kal-El, rehashed versions of John Williams’ old themes, homage-driven sets like the Fortress of Solitude and Daily Planet, and Singer’s Superman, then-newcomer Brandon Routh, resembled a young Christopher Reeve. Everything felt the same, just sleeker.
Superman Returns was critically admired at the time for its vintage, but at $200 million domestic the film basically broke even (thanks to years of pre-production costs working against it), and over time audiences turned sour to Singer’s reverent take. This Superman didn’t have many lines. This Superman fought yet another bad Luthor land scheme. And weirdly enough, this Superman didn’t even throw a punch. Exhaustingly precise, yet leaden in its plot and pace, Superman Returns illustrated the perils of adapting Superman again. It turns out his weakness was no longer Kryptonite in 2006. It was redundance.
02. Superman II (1980)
What is it with the Superman movies and their storied production histories? Superman II was no easier than any of them. Initially, Donner was directing Superman: The Movie and Superman II back-to-back. It was one of the most ambitious ventures Warner Bros. ever embarked on, and at some point production had to shut down, a release date had to be met, and voila, Superman: the Movie was perhaps one of the finest Christmas presents ever in 1978. But in March 1979, the Salkinds replaced Donner with Richard Lester of A Hard Day’s Night. To this day, no one, not even people involved in the production, knows why. But the Man of Steel had to keep flying, and he met a June 1981 release with a gonzo $55 million budget. In spite of reshoots, loss of original cast and crew (Gene Hackman and John Williams among others), and the struggle to piece everything together, the movie came out quite nicely. Even heroically. Superman II’s a roaring, soaring adventure that flies to comical highs.
Whereas contemporary action, comic, or sci-fi sequels value pushing boundaries or a perception as “darker,” Superman II wanted logical, organic next steps in telling Superman’s legend. Lester, along with a comprehensive script from David and Leslie Newman, explored the psychology of Clark in meaningful ways while amplifying the hero’s exploits with big set pieces. One minute, Superman’s saving Lois from a terrorist attack in Paris at the Eiffel Tower. The next, Clark and Lois are canoodling at Niagra Falls in an actually romantic love story. Then suddenly Superman II reintroduces the nefarious General Zod (Terence Stamp, a prog rocker menace), who was briefly explored in the first film and is fleshed out into a terrifically arrogant baddie. Lester’s cornier tendencies, like roller-skating funnies or diner dust-ups, can’t shake the amusement and sense of joy the film brings in telling a tall tale for modern crowds.
While Superman: The Movie forever holds the torch for best in film, Superman II gets to boast the brightest and most amiable portrait of the superhero to date. Reeve got to tap into character developments only suggested in the first film. Whereas his work in the first film is very much a performance of reaching greatness, here he actually is great. Reeve, lean and smiling with his amazing hairdo, showed a Superman overcoming his struggles and truly committed to being the very best he can be.
Even after all the doubts, and all the worry about his role as a lover and a hero, Clark and Superman found harmony and bettered each other come the end of Superman II. As an iteration of the comic, here’s a proud and powerful Superman, standing tall with immeasurable greatness.
And remember: Superman. Doesn’t. Kneel.
01. Superman: The Movie (1978)
When it was released in 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie was a bit of a dicey proposition. With Donner filming two movies at once in an untested franchise, with an unknown actor in the lead, and with studio executives wetting their pants at inflated budgets and lengthened schedules, it’s a miracle the first Superman movie saw the light of day at all. Thank Zod it did, as Superman: The Movie offers the most accurate and refreshingly wholesome portrayal of a superhero in blockbuster cinema.
Charting the character’s origin on Krypton (complete with Marlon Brando, phoned in in the best way as Jor-El) all the way to his quest to stop villainous Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) from hatching his latest convoluted scheme, there’s a campy earnestness to Superman: The Movie that you’d be hard-pressed to find in modern, grittier iterations of the character. Seeing Superman fly through the air, with an awestruck Margot Kidder in tow, is one of the most iconic images in all of superhero-dom, igniting imaginations in a way that is extremely difficult to replicate in today’s era of whiz-bang CGI maelstroms. Superman spends most of the movie with a big, dumb grin on his face, which is maybe one of the reasons we have one ourselves every time he’s onscreen.
Looking back on it now, Superman: The Movie has far less action than you’d expect of a modern superhero epic, and yet it all works. While Superman is faster than a speeding bullet and can leap tall buildings with a single bound, he’s mostly called upon to show off more of his passive powers, such as his much-vaunted flying skills (which were the major point in the film’s marketing) and super strength. While modern films like Man of Steel jam in supernatural beasties for Kal-El to defeat, Donner’s first film is content to simply show off how good a guy Superman is. Rather than beating a bad guy to a pulp, he’ll just shrug as they ineffectually swing at him with a pipe. Piss him off too much, and he’ll pick them up by the scruff of the neck and haul them off to jail, trusting that the prison system will take care of him. It’s extremely telling that the first major superhero film refuses to subscribe to the action-film beats virtually every comic book movie is obligated to hit at present.
In a film culture that sometimes has trouble discerning whether superheroes should be joyful or grim, Superman: The Movie stands out as possibly the most earnest, direct, and straightforward comic book movie in history. With the help of an ambitious director, groundbreaking visual effects that are only slightly dated today, and a triumphant score from John Williams, the Man of Steel has never felt more vibrant.