Superman postsMonday June 17, 2013
Ranking Every Superman Movie Ever Made
I did it with the Batman movies so I figured I'd do it with the Superman movies, too. To be honest, I planned on doing it before “Man of Steel” opened last Friday but time got away from me, and unlike some folks I can't turn back time.
So here you go: worst to first of every Superman movie ever made.
Everyone looks too old, while the subplots (aerobics and hostile takeovers) remind us of everything we hated about the '80s. The story? Awful. Spurred by an annoying kid, Superman unilaterally, dictatorially, decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons, but because Lex Luthor places a Superman hair and a gold suit in one of the rocket capsules, a villain, Nuclear Man, emerges. The real villains here are the producers, Monahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the Israeli cousins who bought the rights to Superman but slashed his budget in half when other pet projects failed. As a result, big scenes became small, the global became local, and everything looks fake fake fake. Watching, you won’t believe you once believed that a man could fly.
Super wall-building ray
If Kirk Alyn played Superman with wide-eyed bombast, George Reeves takes it down a notch. Or 10. His indifference to the role permeates the character. His Clark Kent is strong and smug, his Superman vaguely disgusted and contempuous. He messes with both the first and second amendments—convincing Lois not to publish a story and (in a hilarious scene) disarming an entire Texas town. The movie's main action consists of a midget in bald wig and furry suit being pursued over nondescript brush and hills by rednecks. It's a dry little movie filmed in a dry little backlot.
We get gags. We get evil Superman. But most of all we get Richard Pryor doing unfunny bits: drunk, “Patton,” white guy. He plays at Superman with a tablecloth as his cape, then skis off a high-rise and walks away, looking, not astonished at surviving a 40-story fall, but simply embarrassed. He should. Think of everything they could’ve done with this movie and look at what they did. Look at what they did to my boy.
“Atom Man vs. Superman” feels cheaper than its predecessor: more stock footage, more shots of Clark Kent ducking behind the same file cabinet, and one episode, about Superman's origins on Krypton, is essentially the entire first episode of the first serial retold. Meanwhile, the titular Atom Man, Lex Luthor's secret identity, looks like they took a jug, cut out eyeholes, sprinkled on glitter, and plunked it on Lyle Talbot’s poor head. You know the scene in “Duck Soup” where Groucho gets his head stuck in a pitcher and Harpo draws a Groucho face on it? Like that. On the plus side, in Chapters 14 and 15, Superman beats Slim Pickens to the punch by riding a nuclear missle out to sea. Yee ... ha?
“This is a job ... FOR SUPERMAN!” Except this is a Superman who doesn't do his job. He strolls into The Daily Planet in the middle of the day, then spends most of the movie clumsily flirting with, revealing his secret identity to, Lois Lane. At the Fortress of Solitude, he actually gives up his superpowers so he can get laid. Meanwhile people are dying and the President of the United States is kneeling before Zod. Too late he remembers what his job is and begs for it back. “FATHERRRRRRRR!” he cries. But father, Marlon Brando, is in litigation with the movie's producers, the Salkinds, who also fired the first movie's great director, Richard Donner, for this movie's crappy director, Richard Lester. Apparently they didn't like a man doing his job.
Super dry look
The plot is typical of the serial genre, which has to stretch things out over 15 episodes. Our villain, the Spider Lady, is after the mysterious reducer ray, “a force more powerful even than the atomic bomb!” Basically it’s a ray gun. First she tries to steal it. Then she hires “a brilliant scientist with a warped mind,” to invent a kryptonite gun. That goes nowhere. Then she kidnaps the original inventor and forces him to create a second reducer ray. He refuses, but complies under torture. But he needs “mono chromite.” It takes a few chapters to get that, at which point he refuses again. So now he’s hypnotized. Etc. etc. Even so, this is our first live-action Superman, and former dancer Kirk Alyn looks like he's having fun in the tights.
A lot of “Superman II” was filmed along with “Superman: The Movie,” but then its producers canned director Richard Donner and brought in Richard Lester; and Lester brought along his own sensibility; and it wasn't good. Donner's version begins with one of the most charming scenes in any Superman movie. In the Daily Planet offices, Lois draws glasses on a photo of Superman, and a light-bulb goes on. Then she spends the next five minutes teasing him. Then she opens a window and falls out. “You won’t let me die, Superman!” she cries. He doesn’t. But he doesn't reveal his identity, either. It’s fun, clever, sexy. It’s better than any scene in Lester’s version. And it wound up on his cutting-room floor. You watch it and want to call Superman. Because we wuz robbed.
Brandon Routh is actually several years older than Christopher Reeve was when he first put on the cape; he just looks younger. But Kate Bosworth? She was 22 when they filmed this. And she has a 5-year-old? From a consummation six years earlier? That’s some awkward math. Kidder and Reeve were adults in a gritty adult world—New York in the 1970s—but these two look like kids and act like kids. Lois assumes her pain is the world’s pain, while he can't get over the fact that she's angry that he left for five years without a word. Even so, the movie brings cohesion to the whole Donner enterprise. Superman travels to Krypton to discover he's its last son, then travels back to Earth to find out he isn’t. He goes searching for Krypton but finds it in his own backyard.
The good changes to the Superman mythos include: 1) wanderlust, bearded Clark; 2) people freaking when Supes first shows up; and 3) Lois Lane figuring out his secret identity before anyone else knows he even exists. The bad includes: 1) the adventures of Jor-El, free-thinking scientist; 2) the codex; 3) the whole Kryptonian natural childbirth movement. And the ending, but not for the reasons others say. I'm just bummed Superman couldn't figure out a smarter way to defeat Zod. “Mind over muscle, Superman?” Lex Luthor said in the first Chris Reeve movie. Here, it's muscle over mind. Again.
Here’s creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz on what happened when Christopher Reeve finally got his screen test:
He hopped off the balcony and said, “Good evening, Miss Lane.” And [cinematographer] Geoffrey Unsworth looked over at me and went [makes impressed face]. Because the tone was just right. He went through the test and we just knew we had him.
The movie was Kryptonian in its advancement. It took another 11 years before we got Tim Burton’s “Batman” and another 11 years after that to get to Bryan Singer’s “X-Men.” Twenty-two years: an entire generation. Back in the mid-1970s, Hollywood, enamored of disaster and devil movies, didn’t think much of superhero movies. But it only lacked the light to show it the way.
SLIDESHOW: A History of Superman Onscreen
SLIDESHOW INTRO: As of June 14, 2013, according to IMDb, there have been 175 various incarnations of the Man of Steel. But these include Uljas Kandolin in “Kiinni on ja pysyy” (1955), Ronald Wong in “97 goo waak jai: Jin mo bat sing” (1997), all of that HISHE stuff, but not, believe it or not, Henry Cavill (above). In “Man of Steel” (2013), his character is simply called Clark Kent/Kal-El, so IMDb's algorithms fail to make the connection. Oh, IMDb. When will you learn? (BTW: What are the IMDb parameters for web-specific inclusion? A certain number of YouTube hits? A certain place in the cultural firmament? Or do you just have to ask?) What follows is a slideshow of 17 of the better-known cinematic incarnations of the Man of Steel, including Cavill, but not Kandolin and Wong. They'll have to wait. Admittedly, though, the dude on the next slide wasn't exactly cinematic ...
1940: At the 1939-40 New York World's Fair (for which, yes, read Doctorow's novel), actor Ray Middleton was hired to play the Man of Tomrrow at a special Superman Day. This was the first time a man had ever played Superman and he doesn't look bad for a first go. My favorite part of the costume is the written-out explanation above the “S” symbol. Image that. A time when you had to explain the name of the man in cape and strong-man undies with an “S” on his chest. Middleton would never play the Man of Steel on screen but he did play a founding father in the screen version of “1776,” as well as various roles on “M*A*S*H,” “Charlie's Angels” and “Too Close for Comfort,” before his death in 1984.
1941: A year later, the Fleischer Studios, which had created Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons in the 1930s, put together 17 Superman shorts that still hold up. The animation is much better than the low-budget, sketchy stuff of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, for example. Plus Lois is tough, and almost every job is a job ... (drop an octave) ... FOR SUPERMAN. As in the radio series, Superman is voiced by Bud Collyer.
1948-1950: Finally! After 10 years, a live-action version of Superman appeared onscreen. Kirk Alyn has a dancer’s lightness to him and a perpetual gee-whiz expression on his face, as if he too is amazed by the amazing things he can do. He also has an early version of the spitcurl. Yes, at times, particularly employing his x-ray vision, he looks slightly crazed. Plus he’s undone, certainly to modern eyes, by the lack of special effects. But to me Alyn's enthusiasm makes up for these other deficits.
1951-1958: George Reeves was the second actor to play Superman on screen, and he lost both the spitcurl and the enthusiasm. Reeves’ indifference to the role permeates the character. Plus he makes very little distinction between Clark and Superman. Basically he's less deus ex machina than admonishing father, but he does provide one of my favorite moments in the Superman oeuvre: When the defender of truth, justice and the American way tells a Texas mob, “Obviously none of you can be trusted with guns. So I’m going to take them away from you.” Then he does just that. Play the scene, from “Superman and the Mole Men,” for your favorite NRA member.
1966-69: In the intro to Filmations' “The New Adventures of Superman,” Superman fights for “Truth, justice and freedom” (so no “American way”), but make no miskae: by now he's as muscle-bound as his adopted country. He also seems to forget he's adopted. At one point in the first episode, “The Force Phantom,” he says, “It looks like we have visitors from space. OK, I’ll be a one-man welcome committee!” Psst. Dude. YOU'RE a visitor from space. A few villains from the comics show up, including Lex Luthor and Brainiac, but mostly Supes battles aliens from space, aliens underwater, and various giant monsters. The voice was once again provided by Bud Collyer.
1966: That's Bob Holliday on the Broadway stage in “It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman!” which ran for 129 performances in 1966. But despite the success of a campy Batman that year, a campy Superman didn't really take off. Jack Cassidy, father of David and Shaun, starred as the villainouse Max Mencken, a fellow reporter who wants to bed Lois and unmask Superman.
1973-74: My main memory of “Superfriends” is the work Superman went through to stop a train in the first episode. In the comic books, which I was reading regularly at this point (I was 10), there was a scene in which a subway is about to run over a commuter and Superman stops it. “One foot!” an admiring observor declares. “Did you see that? He stopped the train with one foot!” That was my Superman. This guy who has to struggle to stop a train? What's the point? As was true of many superserious early 1970s cartoons, each episode revolved around an issue of the day: the energy crisis, pollution, etc. “Marvin,” Batman says, “don't forget not everyone has super-strength. But everyone has a brain.” Yes, Batman. Yes, they do.
1975: Poor David Wilson. You know that Seinfeld bit where Jerry talks up the lousy Superman outfit he wore for Halloween? How it hangs off his body in unflattering ways? It looks like Wilson's wearing it for the Feb. 1975 TV adaptation of “It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It' Superman!” Even Kirk Alyn 30 years earlier was better outfitted. But no matter. We were about to get the greatest Superman ever ...
1978-87: Look at that. You couldn't draw a better Superman. One imagines the disaster if one of the producer’s original choices—Robert Redford or James Caan—had gotten the role. Instead Superman came to us, as he should, fresh-faced and innocent. Christopher Reeve is shockingly handsome, with a jawline straight out of the comic books, and yet he’s actor enough to make us believe in the worst secret-identity subterfuge ever. He’s also actor enough to say lines like “I’m here to fight for truth, justice and the American way,” make them work, and, at the same time, through this boy-scout persona, flirt with Lois Lane.
1988: The Ruby-Spears Superman Saturday morning cartoons, which died a quick death, take their cue from the “Superman” movies so much they even make Superman look a little like Christopher Reeve, who had become the standard.
1993: For some reason, Dean Cain's Superman lost the spitcurl in “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.” It's Clark who's now the hottie, so it's Clark whose hair dangles like a man of action. Odder still: Clark shows up in Metropolis without having conceived of the notion of Superman, let alone the maskless costume, yet Clark is already wearing glasses. Why? He's wearing his disguise even though he doesn't have anything to be disguised from.
1996-2000: In 1986, John Byrne rebooted the Superman franchise in DC Comics. Ten years later, Warner Bros. Animation produced a cartoon version of the reboot, with Tim Daly as the Man of Steel and Dana Dulaney as Lois Lane. Superman's powers have been clipped a bit (he can't toss around planets like medicine balls), his Clark Kent is no meek, mild-mannered man, and Lex Luthor is a billionaire industrialist rather than an evil scientist. Oh, and Jimmy Olsen rides a skateboard. Kowabunga, dude.
1999: Superman's No. 1 fan Jerry Seinfeld appeared in several ads in which he palled around with Supes as if the Man of Steel were a gentler, and gentiler, version of Larry David. They weren't bad.
2001-2011: In 1989, a meteor shower struck Smallville, USA, bringing with it Kryptonite, a rocket ship, and a small baby. That baby grew into Tom Welling in one of the more imaginative reboots of the Superman franchise. Here, Supes develops his powers gradually, in adolescence. Here, he learns of his true origins gradually. Everything is gradual. We're interested in the becoming, not the become. The theme song was called “Somebody Save Me,” but it always felt like the cry was issuing from Clark himself, who needed saving from all of that adolescent angst.
2006: You have to admire the attempt. We live in a throwaway culture but in 2006 director Bryan Singer became involved in the greatest recycling project in movie history: a continuation of the Christopher Reeve/Superman movies that jettisons the awful ’83 Richard Pryor vehicle and the ’87 Golan and Globus abomination, and adds intrigue and depth to where we left off in 1981. It didn't quite work, the Jesus metaphor was overdone, and Brandon Routh looked too young to play Superman; but he wasn't bad. Plans for a sequel were scuttled when the movie did only so-so at the box office.
2010: These days there are so many one-offs in the comic books, and direct-to-video Warner Bros. cartoons, that it's tough to keep up with them all. The above image is from “Superman/Batman: Apocalypse,” which involves the rebooted introduction of Kara, Superman's cousin, AKA Supergirl. Here's a line from the Wiki explanation of the plot: “Superman encounters Darkseid, who sets the brainwashed Kara on him. Kara pummels Superman while Darkseid watches, until Batman confronts Darkseid and informs him that he has activated the Hell Spores, all of which will destroy Apokolips.” Makes one long for the simplicity of Mr. Mxyzptlk.
2013: He's got no spitcurl, he's British, but Henry Cavill makes a helluva Superman in David S. Goyer's and Zack Snyder's reboot, “Man of Steel,” which opened this weekend. Reactions about the movie have been mixed, from both non-fans and fanboys alike, but Cavill is mostly getting praise. He exudes a lonely decency as Clark and a steely determination as Superman. My review.
EXIT MUSIC (FOR A SLIDESHOW): Up up and away.
Superman Screenshot of the Day
I'll be going tomorrow morning. I know. Thank God, right? A few folks have complained about how deep up Superman's ass I've been during the last few months. A few more think because I've invested this much time on the subject I have a stake in whether “Man of Steel” works. I don't. I want it to be good, of course, but I invested the time for the historical interest more than anything. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, well, why did they get Zack Snyder to direct? That's my thought.
June 14th. Tomorrow for the Man of Tomorrow.
SLIDESHOW: Lex Luthor, The Badness and the Baldness
SLIDESHOW: For the greatest villain of the Superman universe, Lex Luthor had the worst reason for turning evil: hair. But who else can Superman turn to for a good battle? Brainiac? Bizarro? Mr. Mxyzptlk? The Japateurs? Superman has always had a supervillain problem and the default winner was Luthor.
1950: We first saw him onscreen in “Atom Man vs. Superman” (1950), played by veteran actor Lyle Talbot, who had recently finished a stint as Commissioner Gordon in 1949's “Batman and Robin.” His Luthor is even-keeled, never raises his voice. But for much of the movie he appears ...
... like this. That's the titular Atom Man on the right, which, to producers at the beginning of the atomic age, must have sounded cooler than “Lex Luthor.” He just doesn't look cooler.
1966: Jackson Beck, the voice of Bluto in the classic “Popeye” cartoons, and narrator of Woody Allen's “Take the Money and Run,” became the second actor to take on Lex, in Fimation's “The New Adventures of Superman” in 1966.
1978: Ah, what a joy! Gene Hackman took the role because Brando was involved, but Hackman got all the good lines. “It's amazing that brain can generate enough power to keep those legs moving.” “Otis, it isn't that I don't trust you …. I don't trust you, Otis.” “That's krytponite, Superman. Little souvenir from the old hometown?” At the same time, Hackman refused to do what Brando had done in “Apocalypse Now”: shave his head.
But he does show off his pate at the end. When he's serving notice. To you. That these walls ...
1988: In 1986, John Byrne rebooted Lex as a CEO and the Lex Luthor of Ruby-Spears' Superman (above) was the first screen adaptation to follow this conceit. Voiced by Michael Bell, who was also the voice of the Parkay margarine tub in commercials, this Lex has a fondess for milkshakes.
1993: John Shea's Lex Luthor, in “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” was also a CEO, who battled Superman for control of Metropolis (eh) and the affection of Teri Hatcher's Lois Lane (smart).
1996: The first episode of “Lois & Clark” ended with a tete-a-tete between Superman and Luthor outside Luthor's office and “Superman: The Last Son of Krypton” does the same. Luthor here is voiced by Clancy Brown, a good actor doomed to be forever known as Capt. Hadley, the sadistic prison guard of “Shawshank Redemption.”
2001: “Smallville”'s Lex, Michael Rosenbaum, loses his hair in the kryptonian meteor shower that pummels Smallville but becomes friends with Clark Kent, who saves his life in the first episode. This is a Lex with Daddy issues before he has Super issues.
2006: “Superman Returns” was less reboot than grand recycling effort. But Kevin Spacey is more terrifying, and less funny, than Hackman's Lex ever was. He reveled in the badness and the baldness. Interesting stat: Between them, Hackman and Spacey have four Academy Awards. That's: Luthor 4, Superman 0.
1950 Henchman: I know what you're thinking: “Why is the most brilliantly diabolitical leader of our time surrounding himself with total nincompoops?” Although Luthor's first henchman, Carl (Rusty Westcoatt), was at least efficient.
1966 Henchman: The second, Blinky, showed up in Filmations' Saturday morning cartoon. His strongest trait was cackling.
1978 Henchman: Most people go their entire lives without having the kind of chemistry with another person that Gene Hackman had with Ned Beatty in “Superman: The Movie.” What more could anyone ask?
1987 Henchman: Unfortunately, by 1987 Beatty's Otis is gone, replaced by Lex's nephew, Lenny (Jon Cryer, hot off playing Ducky in “Pretty in Pink”). Everyone looks horrified here. They should.
1988 Henchwoman: Here's Lex's henchwoman in the Ruby-Spears cartoon. Consider her a dumber, sweeter, less booby version of...
1978 Henchwoman: Miss TessMACHAAAAAAH! I'm surprised they didn't rate the movie “R” for Valerie Perrine alone. Do we ever find out what happens to Miss Teschmacher? In “Superman II,” she's in the Arctic with Lex, heading south, and ... that's it. Eve, we hardly knew ye.
2015: A hue and cry went up when Jesse Eisenberg was cast as the latest incarnation, but: 1) he's a good actor, who 2) plays smart well. He is a bit young for Lex but then so are most of our digital-age CEOs. He's Luthor as Zuckerberg. But is he smart enough to outwit the dumbing down that Zack Snyder brings to any project? We'll soon find out. FIN
Who Wants to Play Superman? Anyone? Bueller?
“The whole idea embarrassed me.”
--Clayton “Bud” Collyer, on playing Superman on the radio in 1940.
“Well, babe, this is it: the bottom of the barrel.”
-- George Reeves, toasting Phyllis Coates, after the two have been cast as Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane in the TV show “Adventures of Superman” in 1951.
“Sometimes ... when you're not even really sure that you want [the part], that's when you get it.”
-- Christopher Reeve, on trying out for, and getting, the role of Superman/Clark Kent in “Superman: The Movie.”