Saturday, January 19, 2013

Superman Franchise

Back in 1978, my nine-year-old self had witnessed a movie that blew my young mind, taking me to a level of phantasmal stupor that I'd never known existed within my conscience and left me in a state of euphoria that wasn't equaled until a lengthy 24 years later.  Yes, Superman: The Movie was quite a spectacle that transcended all schoolboy subjects back then, being talked about on the news and plastered all over the popular magazines on the racks.  Wherever I went, whether at the grocery store with my mom and seeing the movie advertised on lunch pails and school stationary, to seeing the movie spread all over the magazine covers at the barber shop (except for the Playboys that my dad wouldn't let me touch in the first place).  It was a sensation that I don't think I will ever experience again.

Even though this phenomenon was very apparent throughout the pop culture of the time, my parents still weren't impressed and didn't see the need to plop down a few bucks to take my brother and I to see this magical film.  It wasn't until the mother of my brother's friend, Brian, offered to take my brother and I to see it at the nearest theater that my mom gave her blessing.  On top of that, Brian's mom just dropped us off to see it on our own—without adult supervision!

From the beginning of the film, just after the voiceover from the child reading from the comic book pane and John Williams' score slowly and quietly beginning until it blasted with the all-too-familiar theme music, a lump in my throat rose and stayed in place throughout the whole event.  I'll never forget that day and how we all left the theater after the film ended, talking about how awesome or cool (I forget the lingo we used back in the 70s) the movie was and wanting to go back inside for a second viewing.  We really believed a man could fly...and I still do.

Richard Donner was chosen to direct this film, but he did more than that; he took the story of this well-known superhero and treated it as it should have been—as a well-respected tale of an American icon.  Many biblical parallels have been noticed, making the story even more meaningful than I understood it to be when I first watched it, but above all else it was a superhero movie done perfectly for its time.  Knowing the many facets of all the terrible tales of how the producers treated Richard Donner throughout filming this epic, I won't get into that at all.  I'll just say that this was Donner's masterpiece, without a doubt.

Scripted from a tome of a treatment from Mario Puzo (of "Godfather" fame), the story was made with a sense of realism and not too campy (as Batman's character was made into during the television show and movie made back in the 60s).  No, this was a serious piece made into a larger-than-life epic with many somber tones, mixed with some humorous moments to give it an entertaining feel.  The film, as a whole, included three different themes as it went along; it went from the science fiction setting on Krypton, and then slowing down to the Norman Rockwell-esque feel of small town life in Smallville, finally to the big city life in Metropolis.  As I grew older, I came to appreciate this film more and more as I understood the drama and deep-rooted story of Clark Kent going on his journey to become the Man of Steel, because as a child I was chomping at the bit to see him finally turning into Superman and flying around to do some heroic deeds.

So, without going into too much detail, I'll go over the structure of the story.

The film starts with Jor-El (Marlon Brando) on the planet Krypton, banishing three criminals to the Phantom Zone.  Even though he tries to warn the planet's council that the planet is doomed, his warnings fall on deaf ears.  Although he's forbidden to leave Krypton so as not to cause fear to the people of the planet, he decides to send his only child, Kal-El, to Earth.  Once there, Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford) and his wife, Martha (Phyllis Thaxter), take in the child and name him Clark, knowing his abilities, and raise him as their son.  Finally, the day comes where Clark knows he has to go north and finds out who he really is—Superman.

First off, the casting of the relatively unknown (at the time) Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman was perfect.  Hearing, today, some of the names they had in mind to play the part (Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford, to name a couple) is quite amusing.  To have those well-known actors in the lead would lose the magic and make the film unbelievable.  I won't go too much into what I've heard they went through to try and cast the title role, but I urge you to watch some of the extras on the DVD to hear some of the behind-the-scenes stories to get an idea.  But Reeve gave a great performance, treating the role as serious and passionate as it should have been.  He definitely went through some rigorous training and diet to get the right body type, but he had the height and looks right off the comic book pages to make a Superman fan scream with delight (not that I did that).

Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Clark Kent's biological father, was such a pivotal role for the film and undeniably was the heart of it all.  Along with Glenn Ford's portrayal of Clark's Earth father, they both showed how they made Clark the person he was—Jor El, the knowledge and logic and Jonathan Kent, the heart and caring.  Although both characters are near opposite, they both help guide Clark's transition into Superman.

As the film moves into the Metropolis portion, we meet Jackie Cooper playing Perry White, the chief editor of the Daily Planet, who gives the newspaper office life and not just a boring place to work.  I enjoyed watching the scenes with Cooper, giving the right witticism a fast-talking editor would denote.  We're also introduced to Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) as the love interest for Clark Kent/Superman.  Although I've never felt she was attractive enough for the part, the chemistry between her and Reeve was unquestionable.  Of course, you've got to have Marc McClure there to play Jimmy Olsen, the Daily Planet's photographer.

In an amusing introduction to the main villain of the film, the cops are all on the lookout for Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) as they follow Otis (Ned Beatty), hoping he'd lead them to where Luthor's hiding out.  The interaction between Hackman and Beatty is hilarious, along with the beautiful Valerie Perrine as Miss Teschmacher, the trio is a perfect motley crew of unassuming villains.  They seem harmless until we get to the brunt of the story and we see how evil Lex Luthor really can be.
Even though we're teased at the closing of the Fortress of Solitude scene, we really don't see Superman in action until nearly halfway through the movie.  But the wait is well worth it, because it's a very special moment where the world sees this superhero for the first time as he saves Lois (of all people) from certain death as she falls out of a downed helicopter.  On top of that, he catches the chopper as it falls from its crashed demise on top of the Daily Planet building down towards them, inciting cheers and applause from the onlookers below.  I still get a lump in my throat when I observe that scene.

It might be noted that there's no big creature or alien that Superman fights with in this film, it's merely a battle of wits between he and the diabolical Lex Luthor, as he devises a plan to destroy most of the California coastline in order to up the value of all the worthless desert land he purchased just east of the coastline.

Most the things we know about the character are in the film—his speed as he races a locomotive train, leaping tall buildings with a single bound, invulnerable to anything except Kryptonite, x-ray vision (except he can't see through lead)...most of everything a Superman fanboy will get excited about.

One scene that I never understood why it was excluded from the theatrical print of the film was the "trial by bullets, fire and ice" scene.  Around a year or so after the film's release, when it was televised (I believe it was ABC), there were quite a few scenes included to make sure it would fit the allotted time that I didn't remember seeing when watching it in the theater.  A part that stood out, right after Superman spins himself into a drill and lands down into a corridor before getting to the doorway of Luthor's lair, was where he's being tested by Luthor as he's shot by remote machine guns, roasted by bursts of fire and frozen into a block of ice.  Unquestionably, none of these tests hurt the Man of Steel, but it was such a wonderful display of special effects as the bullets are bouncing off of his body and he just walks through the fire unscathed (the freezing scene could've been cut, it looked a little fake), so I don't understand why they would've cut this out of the original print of the film.  Rest assured, however, because that scene—as well as some others—have been reinstated onto the newest DVD releases, all in pristine clarity.

Of course, with time and all the advancements of special effects over the years—especially CGI and motion-capture effects—the flying scenes are a bit outdated and laughable.  When you see a front view shot of Reeve lying in front of a rear-projected aerial scene or some of the blue screen effects, you'll lose a little bit of the mysticism the movie instills in you.  But the wire-work scenes still work and give the film a sense of practicality, believing Superman is real and can easily defy gravity.

Overall, I still give this film a high honor as being the first true serious superhero film.  With the special effects constraints they must have experienced during that time, Donner and his crew did an excellent job in getting this legendary character onto the silver screen in such an admirable fashion.
And if there's anything I can nitpick about this film is the famous (or infamous) "Can You Read My Mind" scene.  I find myself consciously in a battle on whether I should fast forward this scene or just try to enjoy it for what it is—a scene establishing the love story between the two characters: Lois Lane and Superman.

It wasn't until a couple of decades later that I started hearing about the controversial stories that this was supposed to be made into two films, how the original treatment was supposed to be filming a two-part epic to give them a cohesiveness about them as the first part was to have a cliffhanger to end it and lead it into the sequel, Superman II.

I'm sure you've heard all the anecdotes regarding the feud between Richard Donner and the producers, how they fired him and replaced him with Richard Lester to finish the sequel, so I won't get into that.  But if you do watch Superman II carefully, you can tell which scenes were filmed by Donner and which ones were filmed by Lester.  For one thing, Donner's scenes are more serious, much like the tone from the first film.  Lester's scenes are clearly campy and directed to get laughs here and there.  Furthermore, it's on record that Gene Hackman did not return for filming when Richard Donner was released, so all the scenes clearly containing his likeness is obviously Donner's portion.  Marlon Brando was also supposed to be included in the theatrical cut of the sequel during a key emotional scene between himself and Christopher Reeve.  But to avoid paying Brando the money he was contractually promised, the producers had his performance cut from the film in order to void that extra pay.

Enough of all that behind-the-scenes drama...let's talk about 1980's Superman II (released overseas in 1980, but in the states in 1981).

I can't stress enough how excited I was when I first saw the trailer for this film, hearing that Superman will be back and battling beings from his home planet and who have the same powers he does.  Seeing that they were the criminals from the beginning of the first film, who were dispatched by Jor-El to the Phantom Zone, I went out of my mind wondering how they escaped and travelled to Earth.  Well, 1981 came around and I found out.

At the beginning of the film, there's a montage, recapping what happened on Krypton, when the criminals—General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O'Halloran)—were sentenced to the Phantom Zone.  From there, the movie goes into how Superman hurtles an elevator into space to let the nuclear bomb—which was attached to it—detonate.  The shock blast from the explosion reaches the floating Phantom Zone, shattering it and releasing the three Kryptonian criminals.  They make their way to Earth and the chaos begins.

A lot of the sequences involving the criminals causing destruction is great, like the scene on the moon and when they finally begin their path of ruin from the small town of country bumpkins to the White House.  Terence Stamp gives a great performance as the head baddie, General Zod, demanding everyone kneel before him and strictly articulating a true evildoer.  Sarah Douglas as his female counterpart, Ursa, is equally as intimidating as Zod, but with a definite hatred of all men.  Jack O'Halloran as Non is a little cheesy with his grunts and growls, but after seeing the "Donner Cut" of the film, those sounds were added in post in this one (more on that later).

To add to the villains in this flick, Gene Hackman returns as Lex Luthor, escaping from jail to get to the truth about Superman and use that against him as he joins forces with the Kryptonian criminals.  As I mentioned before, all his scenes were filmed during the first film, so it's not like he returned to form.  But it lightened the scenes a bit when playing opposite the super-baddies.

With all this going on, Superman—as Clark Kent—is traipsing around with Lois on some bogus honeymoon story they're working on in Niagara Falls.  She finds out his identity and he takes her to the Fortress of Solitude to let her know everything and to convert himself to human, losing all his powers, in order to be with her.  Unfortunately, when they get back to Metropolis, he finds out the criminals are on Earth and he tries to go back to get his powers back.  I found these scenes pretty powerful (obviously scenes filmed by Donner) and showed how much Superman cared for Lois by giving up being Superman for her.  But at the same time, you can see the hesitation Lois displays, showing us maybe she doesn't want the human Clark, but the "super" man he was.

Now, after watching this film as the "Donner Cut" that was released a few years ago, it was very interesting.  Firstly, the recap at the beginning was a little overlong, just going a little too much on the summarizing of the first film.  But what I liked about it was how it all ended with the missile that was diverted first was what exploded and caused the criminals to escape.  Secondly, the scene of Lois noticing the resemblance of Clark to the newspaper photo of Superman and how she drew a fedora and glasses over it was so cool.  Also, the follow-up scene of Lois jumping out the high-rise window to prove that Clark will turn into Superman was awesome.  They had to edit in a double and add a voiceover, but it was still remarkable.  Most of the film was about the same, albeit with no campy grunts and whimpers from Non, some different angles during some scenes, and not much else changing.  The biggest setback, although I thought it was a noble effort, was adding the screen tests of Lois finally proving Clark was Superman.  If you can get past how skinny Christopher Reeve was (obviously before his training regimen), you'll appreciate the scene for what it was.  And what it was was a much better way of proving Clark was the Man of Steel (although if he can catch a bullet, wouldn't he be able to see that no bullet shot out of the gun?).

It is a fun alternate film to watch and to visualize how great of a sequel it would've been if Donner had been allowed to continue with the project.

But as for the original theatrical sequel, it's great, even though it contains two different styles of directorial film making.  But, oddly enough, I think that's what makes Superman II work—the serious tones peppered with a few campy moments to give the film a little levity.  After seeing the "Donner Cut" of the film, I'm sure it would've been the companion piece to his 1978 masterpiece, but we'll never know.  But we know what type of movie we would've gotten if Richard Lester directed this film completely, and that's what takes us to the next film in the franchise.

Now with Richard Lester being given the full reigns for the next sequel, 1983's Superman III, we get to see what he brings to the table in making a mockery of such a loved American superhero.  Because hearing that he wasn't familiar with the character in the first place as he's British, I can see why this film turned out the way it did.

Basically, the story revolves around Gus (Richard Pryor) at first, as he's an unemployed black man trying to get work but getting shot down at an unemployment office.  Getting a data entry job at a big computer firm, he ends up being some sort of computer whiz and is able to change his paycheck to get himself a lot more money.  He's found out by the head honcho, Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), but uses Gus to make him money.  When Superman inadvertently thwarts this, Webster wants Gus to use computer technology to get rid of the super hero.  All this is soooo outdated and ridiculous, even back in 1983 when I saw this in the theater it seemed ludicrous.  The only saving grace is when none of the abovementioned characters are not on the screen, but when the story focuses on Clark Kent going back to Smallville to attend his high school reunion or when the bogus Kryptonite causes him to turn evil.  Other than that, this movie is very difficult to sit through.

I think the problem with this whole film is the absurdity of how the writers or director or the producers perceive the logistics of how computers work.  And even if you can get by that, knowing the background of Superman will cause you to call bullshit when you see how he's losing against this super computer and everything associated with it.

You know, I did think this film started off well, with the opening credit scene, because I did enjoy that.  Rather than staring at boring credits flying through space, we get to see a little physical comedy sketch play out with a few gags like men falling and bumping into things when they see a beautiful lady walking down the street or a blind man losing his guide dog and thinking he recovered it but actually is pushing a street line painting machine as he marks lines crazily all over the place...things like that.  And it all ends with Superman saving some schlub from drowning in his car after he crashes into a fire hydrant.  But after that...quite a downhill train wreck.

One thing to note is that there is an absence of Lois Lane from this film.  She makes a quick intro at the beginning as she announces she's going to Bermuda or somewhere like that, but that's about it.  Seems that Margot Kidder really expressed her distaste for the way Richard Donner was treated after the first film and the producers saw to it that her role in this one be reduced considerably.  She should be glad not to be associated with this one.

If you thought that movie was bad, you ain't seen nothing yet as we get into the next sequel that had to make a deal with Christopher Reeve to make sure he returned to the title role.  Since the last film, the rights were sold off to the Canon Group and they were supposed to return Superman to his greatest, but they missed the mark entirely.  Yes, 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was a terrible movie, almost unwatchable.

I can't help but feel sorry for Reeve as this was his exiting Superman role.  After watching this, I knew there was no way we'd ever see him in the blue & reds again.  I'll give it to him, however, for giving some story input (as was the deal promised to him for returning into the role) about ridding the world of nuclear weapons and was pretty cool to see how he took them from all the countries and collected them in some gigantic net in space (who made that net???).

I'm surprised as hell that Gene Hackman agreed to return as Lex Luthor as this was clearly a hackneyed script that was as ridiculous as it turned out.  He must've made out like a bandit because I don't know if I'd take the risk of being involved with a stinker like this flick.  Adding insult to injury, Hackman's paired up with Jon Cryer as his nephew, Lenny, getting on everyone's nerves as he sounds like a cross between Pauly Shore and Cousin Balky.  Ugh!  It's terrible!

Anyway, Luthor wants revenge on Supes, creates a being called Nuclear Man to fight him...there's battles in outer space that looks like terrible blue screen you'd get done in Vegas...somehow Mariel Hemingway's character is able to breath in's just so awful, it's really unwatchable.

It's been said that there is an uncut version of this film with more scenes and two Nuclear Men...but I don't think anything, cut or uncut, could save this movie.

Since the 90s, I've heard that they wanted to bring Superman back to the big screen.  I thought that was awesome because special effects had come a long way since 1987, with CGI and better filming techniques.  Finally, in the mid to late 90s, it was said that Tim Burton was going to helm the film and base the story on the death and return of Superman, based on the infamous storyline in the comics.  Then came the news that Nicholas Cage was to star as the title character.

(pin drops to the floor)

Yes, the fans became unhinged, collectively screaming at Warner Bros. to not let this happen.  How could Nicholas Cage even think he was able to fill the red boots that Christopher Reeve wore?  What made him think he had the boyish, yet manly, good looks to pull off the character so beloved by the world?

I don't know...but thank goodness it didn't happen.

After going round-robin for a few more years, finally it was announced that Superman would be back in the hands of Bryan Singer.  On top of that, it was announced that this would be a sequel, not a reboot.  But here's the kicker: the sequel would ignore parts three and four and take place after part two.  Seems the writers took the liberties that the writers took when making Halloween H20 a few years prior.  And in 2006, Superman Returns was released.

Now, this movie worked for me on some levels of the story, but went south on some other parts.  First off, I liked their decision to take place after part two, but starting off with just a screen text explanation of what happened in the last five years could've been better served if they filmed it rather than explained it.  Nevertheless, I liked the idea that Superman had hope that maybe he could search for more answers when he heard a scientist discovered a planet that could be Krypton and leaving Earth to find it.  I also like how Lois Lane moved on and even wrote a Pullitzer Prize-winning story about how the world didn't need the Man of Steel.

What I didn't like, above all else, was that Lois—SPOILER ALERT—gave birth to Superman's son.  That, to me, was just a plot point we could've done without, something that made making a sequel impossible.  They wrote themselves into a hole they couldn't get out of when they included that character into the mix.

Brandon Routh as the title character was great in the dual role of Clark Kent and Superman.  The suit was updated and looked good and the sets were fabulous, especially the updated Fortress of Solitude.  Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane got on my nerves a little, as she was kind of bitchy and unlikable at first.  I agreed with having a love triangle, having James Marsden as Richard White, giving Superman that sadness on what he missed out on while he was away from earth.

Even though he was essentially copying Gene Hackman's mannerisms, Kevin Spacey added a bit more wickedness to the character of Lex Luthor.  He wasn't just a toying villain opposite Superman, but you really believed he wanted the Man of Steel dead.

Overall, the story was good, but let's face it—it was basically a retread of the frst movie: Luthor devised a scheme to get his own land that people would have to pay him for while millions of people would die in the process, Superman saves people, he goes up against Luthor and gets duped by Kryptonite, comes back and wins the day.

The special effects were great, particularly the plunging jet hurtling to Earth as Superman keeps it from crashing and saving the lives of thousands in the stadium it was about to fall into.  It was a great scene, but sort of prematurely showed its hand too early in the film.

By and large, the film is a decent and enjoyable follow-up to Superman II that could've been more, but was a hell of a lot better than parts three and four.

So there you have it, the Superman franchise the way I see it.  I find myself hard-pressed to watch the whole franchise without skipping the two awful sequels, but I'm a completest and I must do so.  But I highly recommend that parts one and two be watched back to back and Returns right after.

Hopefully the character will get a great presentation on the screen again when Man of Steel is released next summer, but we'll always have these previous movies to fall on if we're disappointed by Zack Snyder's achievement.

My final "bit" on the Superman Franchise?

In honor of the great Christopher Reeve, grab a tub of popcorn, sit back for a few hours and re-watch the first two films followed by Bryan Singer's try at a sequel.  We all need heroes in this world, so enjoy a true American one.

Thanks for reading!

You can reach me on Twitter: @CinemaBits.

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