MindFood: Rediscovering Superman

Superman Motion Picture Anthology

This week Warner Bros. put out one of its best Blu-ray box sets ever: The Superman Motion Picture Anthology 1978-2006. It’s an eight-disc behemoth that contains all five Superman films starting with Richard Donner’s Superman The Movie and ending with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, as well as a whopping 20+ hours of bonus materials, including commentary tracks, feature-length documentaries, and long forgotten TV specials like The Adventures of Superpup from 1958. Basically, if you’re a fan of the Man of Steel, this is an absolute must-own for you.

Here’s the thing, though: I am not a huge fan of the Man of Steel. That’s not because I’ve got some dying devotion to Batman or anything, I just didn’t grow up watching the original Superman films. Sure, I’d seen Donner’s original, but that was it of his big screen adventures until Singer’s film. So while those who did grew up watching the Last Son of Krypton save the world will no likely experience a nostalgia bomb when they slide up this new Blu-ray set, I experienced no such rush of memories. Instead, I’ve taken to the comprehensive set like it’s some kind of time capsule from a bygone era.

And I’ve got to tell you, Superman gets funky.

Oh, there’s nothing too off about Richard Donner’s Superman from 1978. It’s got the light-hearted tone of the comic book material in perfect proportion to the sort of edge and actual stakes necessary to make it feel like there’s any weight or consequence to the story. For my money, it also contains the highlight of any Superman-related media I’ve ever seen, be it movie, TV show or comic. When Superman sees Lois Lane’s body trapped inside a car crushed by the rubble of the Earthquake that Lex Luthor caused, when he has that momentary explosion of rage and effortlessly rips the car’s door off like he’s opening a can of soda– that three-second moment has more genuine emotion than anything else in the anthology.

Superman II isn’t too far off. It gets a little silly at times as General Zod and his cronies parade around Earth, but it brings things back around eventually. In particular, Clark Kent getting beaten up in the dinner after having given up his powers to be with Lois is filled with a lot of heart. It’s a shame, then, that Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace had to happen.

Superman Chris ReeveSuperman III is a truly bizarre movie. It’s not because it co-stars Richard Pryor or because Lois Lane takes a back seat to Lana Lang and Supes’ Smallville roots. It’s because Richard Lester’s film is tonally all over the place. When people think “comic book” (and by extension comic book movies) and are filled with childish nonsense that only kids could tolerate, it’s because of wacko movies like this. While I’m sure it draws on a lot of ideas long established in the comics, the script appears to just pull relevant plot points out of thin air only to forget about them later. Synthetic forms of kryptonite turn Superman into a sitcom character about to be destroyed by corporate buffoons. And just when Pryor is ziplining around a cave using his yo-yo string and you think things couldn’t get any goofier, a woman is sucked into a computer by tractor beams, encased in motherboards and turned into some Superman-thwarting cyborg.

It may be the silliest villain to ever emerge in a big screen superhero movie– and that’s taking into contention all the nonsense in Batman & Robin. Even Superman IV, which involves Lex Luthor using the power of the sun to turn some lab-created sperm into a Nuclear Man, isn’t that silly. Oh, it’s an even worse movie over all (oy, Jon Cryer), but at least it has a villain throughout the movie and not some funky cyborg created at the last minute because the screenwriters realized that Superman should probably use his powers for more than just blowing out Olympic torches.

Perhaps it’s just because I was born a generation too late (I was still a toddler when Reeve last flew as Superman), but watching these movies for the first time is fascinating because it makes me all the more confused by the dislike of Superman Returns. I’ve held a strong love for that movie since seeing it opening day. I think it’s a lovely, classy take on the character that really nails the elegant, mirror-world of Metropolis. It has some stellar action sequences that hold me captive every time I watch them and I find Brandon Routh to be a perfect Superman for the tone of the movie.

Superman Motion Picture AnthologyIt’s always seemed that few people have agreed with me, though. I even found myself speaking to one of the film’s writers at a festival once and when I mentioned my huge love for Superman Returns he remarked, “At least that makes one of us.” And since that hate never made sense to me, I always chalked it up to the fact that I hadn’t seen Superman II-IV. Clearly there was some movie magic in those entries that was so strange it made Returns seem like a pale imitation.

Having now seen those movies, though, I’m all the more baffled by the dislike for Bryan Singer’s film. It’s beautifully shot, it’s got interesting ideas and, most importantly, it doesn’t involve any of the silly, overtly comic booky material that really mars III and IV (and, to a much lesser degree, part II). I can certainly see why people still think Donner’s film is the definitive Superman film, but I don’t think it in any way invalidates everything Singer’s has to offer.