Perhaps you’ve heard about a little movie that’s opening this week called “Man of Steel.” The small, under-the-radar, kitchen sink drama follows the adventures of one Superman as he struggles with the kind of identity issues familiar to many x-ray sighted, preternaturally strong orphan aliens gifted with the power of flight, and saves humankind from a terrible peril. Our review will be coming later today, and while we’re not going to include “Man of Steel” in our rating of the Superman films right now, come back next week when more of us have seen it and you can argue over its correct placement.
An “event movie” back when that concept was still in its infancy (“Jaws,” widely regarded as the first such, was only three years prior), the first “Superman” film still sits atop the canon in large part due to the fact that, in being essentially an extended origin story, there’s a built-in simplicity to the narrative arc that doesn’t then need to be greatly embellished with bells and whistles that almost always age badly. And so it’s still to this day a satisfying watch, aside from the ever-problematic “turning back time” ending (which was clearly Donner’s go-to ending of choice, see ‘Superman II: The Donner Cut" below), and pacing that to the modern eye can certainly lag at times.
Arguably Reeve was never better than here, his charming goofiness as Clark as he falls in love for the first time, gets his first job, moves to the Big City all providing a perfectly relatable counterpoint to the cape and boots heroics of Superman. And this is Hackman’s best outing as Luthor too, in which the cartoonish aspects of the later films had not yet overwhelmed any sense of him as a real threat to Superman, and with Supes himself really only finding his feet as a superhero, villain and hero are here more evenly matched than they would be any other time, except with Zod.
And the film of course benefits from taking on the origin story, rather than being a "continued adventures of..." (“Man of Steel” as a reboot, will cover some of the same ground), so there is a kind of built-in emotional core to the simple corn-fed goodness in which Clark is raised and how that wars with and then ultimately complements his super-ness. With the emphasis on story (that is, character and narrative and theme) over just plot, boasting Marlon Brando’s crazily expensive cameo as Jor-El and achieving a relative grounded-ness and tonal consistency that none of its sequels would manage, “Superman” was the first, and is still the best (so far) movie version of the Man of Steel we’ve seen.
Choice Quote: Young Clark: "I mean every time I kick the football I can make a touchdown. Every time! I mean, is it showing off if somebody's doing the things he's capable of doing? Is a bird showing off when it flies?"
“Supergirl” is a trashy, dull and generally piss-poor spin off/would-be cash-in that is so lazily thrown together that the phrase “pocket of trans-dimensional space” is all the explanation we ever get for the continued existence of an entire Kryptonian city after the death of the planet. Helen Slater is a pretty but blank bambi in the title role, and though the cast is packed with ringers (Peter Cook, Mia Farrow, Peter O’Toole, Faye Dunaway in a grotesque red wig that makes her look like King Charles II), it’s clear all of them have just turned up for the paycheck. A nonsense plot about Superman’s female cousin traveling to earth to retrieve a gizmo essential to supporting life in her home city (which is apparently made out of chewing gum and cling film -- perhaps part of the problem?) the film skirts around the Superman canon, including using Lucy Lane (Lois’ sister) and Jimmy Olsen (Mark McLure, the only actor to appear in all 5 of the 70s/80s Superman efforts) as supporting characters, without actually landing the Christopher Reeve cameo it was originally supposed to have that might have lent it some legitimacy. Isn’t it always the way that just the week you’re off-planet solving some ill-defined galactic problem or other, the cousin you had no idea you had, and fellow survivor of a race you thought completely obliterated otherwise, comes to visit? It’s really pretty awful, and not wholly part of the Superman movie canon, (though the Salkinds again produced it), so we didn’t include it in our rundown. However if we had, it would probably have stolen the booby prize given to “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” for bottom place.
Choice quote: Jimmy Olsen: “It's all right, Supergirl. We never saw you.” Lucy Lane: “We never even heard of you.”
And finally, we couldn’t not mention the 2006 edition of “Superman II: The Donner Cut.” If anyone is credited with being the definitive Superman director to date, it’s Richard Donner, despite having only 1 1/2 of the films here really to his name. The story goes that Donner shot a lot of footage for “Superman II” concurrently with “Superman,” but then fell out with the producers who wanted more goofiness and hired Richard Lester as director for the sequel instead. Lester for his part, used some Donner footage, and cleaved more or less to the same storyline, but he re-shot a great deal too. Which meant that there was in fact a lot of original footage never seen in the film, and it was that that Donner mined for the DVD Blu-Ray of his director’s cut. The result is a film in which it's claimed that 83% of the footage used is Donner’s, and it makes it a very different movie from the theatrical version. While it would be unfair to try and include it in the main list, as it never got a theatrical release and there’s still nearly a fifth of it that would not have been shot the way Donner had envisaged, and some of what is there is unfinished test footage, having watched both versions we can say that the Donner cut does certainly have fewer tonal inconsistencies than the version we saw in theaters, and that was one of the main issues with that film, that kept it from our top spot.
But it’s not like there would have been no comedy at all in this version, as it should be remembered that Hackman’s refusal to return to film scenes with Lester meant that all the footage we’ve ever seen of Luthor was shot under Donner’s tutelage. And that gets pretty broad (which it can, because Luthor is here more of a sidekick villain to the Phantom Zone trio’s actual threat) -- I mean, a balloon escape? Other notable differences are in the treatment of the Lois and Clark relationship which is more nuanced and more tipped in Lois’ favor here (the fundamental silliness of her “ace reporter” schtick not allowing her to see past a guy’s glasses is at least partly addressed) and a more dramatic and thematically resonant scene of Superman regaining his powers, rendering literal the “father becomes the son” motif, and richer for being able to use the Marlon Brando footage that the producers dumped from the theatrical version to avoid paying Brando his fee. However it’s not all aces, as the ending goes back to the “reversing time” well of the first film, and leaves you with the frustration of having watched a whole (very good) film about stuff that never actually happened. To say nothing of the illogic of having Clark Kent go back and beat up the guy in the truck stop when the original incident would never have happened… Who’s to say what could have been, but it is possible that Donner’s “Superman II” would have topped this list. This version, however, indicates that as much as it may have addressed some of the Lester version’s issues, there would have been some others introduced which to our mind would likely have meant it was always going to play second fiddle.
Choice Quote: Superman: “Father... if you can hear me... I failed... I've failed you, I've failed myself... and all humanity. I've traded my birthright... for a life of submission in a world ruled by your enemies…”
And there we have it. Aside from Singer’s incarnation splitting the list down the middle, we have essentially the law of diminishing returns in action when it comes to the original Superman franchise. Or do you disagree?